March 8 : Gilbert Tennent [1703-1765]

This Day in Presbyterian History:  

The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry

On March 8, 1740, the Rev. Gilbert Tennent preached a message on “The Danger of a unconverted Ministry” at Nottingham, Pennsylvania.  In it, the Presbyterian leader of what became known as the New Side Presbyterians, railed against those ministers who, in his estimation, were without Christ and without God.  This, according to Tennent, was their condition because they refused to countenance the evangelistic preaching of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and other graduates of the Log College to the colonies during the first Great Awakening.  Tennent spared no words further, in denouncing those in the pew who were content to sit under their ministry.  Listen to his words:

“We are informed that our dear Redeemer was moved with compassion (when He saw the people.)  And what was the cause of this compassionate commotion in the heart of Christ?  It was because he saw much people as sheep having no Shepherd.  Why had the people then no teachers?  Oh yes!  They had heaps of Pharisee-teachers, that came out, no doubt after they had been at the feet of Gamaliel.  But not withstanding the great crowds of these orthodox, letter-learned and regular Pharisees, our Lord laments the unhappy case of that great number of people, who, in the days of his flesh, had no better guides.

“Is a blind man fit to be a guide in a very dangerous way?  Is a dead man fit to bring others to life?  Is a leper fit to be a good physician?  Isn’t an unconverted minister like a man who would teach others to swim, before he had learned it himself, and so is drowned in the act, and dies like a fool?”

There was no doubt in anyone’s ears that his application was to the Presbyterians ministers of his day who rejected the evangelistic preaching of himself and others.  He urged their members to reject their preaching and go to other churches where the message of life was heard clearly.

Charles Hodge later would say that this was the harshest sermon preached from any pulpit during its day.  It, and other cases, were to cause the first big schism in American Presbyterianism, known as the New Side Old Side Split.  It would last from 1741 to 1758. Eventually Gilbert Tennent realized that his words were intemperate and confessed all of that to the united church.  In fact, he was one of the forces which led to the reunion of both sides in 1758.  The Presbyterian Church was one once again.

Words to Live By:  Jesus said in John 7:24 “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” (NIV)  There is a place of right judgments, but beware of judging by what seems to be the case.  It might not be, and much harm can be done by words.

Through the Scriptures: Deuteronomy 26 – 28

Through the Standards: The Only Redeemer of God’s Elect according to the Catechisms 

WLC 36 — “Who is the Mediator of the covenant of grace?
A. The only Mediator of the covenant of grace is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, on one substance and equal with the Father, in the fulness of time became man, and so was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, for ever.”

WSC 21 “Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect?
A. The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man and so was, and continues to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, for ever.”

Remembering Our Fathers and Brothers :
The following PCA pastors passed into glory on this day in—
1993 – Robert Richard Davis (South Florida Presbytery, PCA). Born in 1933, he graduated from Union Theological Seminary in 1961 and was ordained in the Methodist Church. Eventually he transferred first into the PCUSA and then was pastor of the Hazelwood Presbyterian Church in the years leading up to the formation of the PCA. From 1972-1987, he was pastor of the Old Cutler Presbyterian Church, Miami, FL and he led that church into the PCA in 1980. Rev. Davis is also noted as the author of a particularly helpful first-person account, My Journey Into Alzheimer’s Disease :

Robert Davis was a pastor of one of Miami’s largest churches, an outstanding preacher, a dynamic man, with a growing ministry.
But subtle changes began to take place within his brilliant mind—bizarre symptoms and behaviors patterns—and his phenomenal memory began to fade. After months of testing, the doctor broke the news—Alzheimer’s, permanent and irreversible. “I wish I could tell you it’s cancer,” his doctor said.
This book offers unusual inspiration, written by a man who remains a ministering servant to the end—using his last lucid thoughts to share with us his walk of faith into Alzheimer’s Disease.

1994 – Egon A. Middelmann (Missouri Presbytery, PCA). Born 16 March 1942, Rev. Middelmann was ordained a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod and served as pastor of the Grace & Peace church in St. Louis. He was also largely responsible for the founding of the Old Orchard Presbyterian Church in Webster Groves, MO. The Rev. Ron Lutjens, pastor of the latter church, wrote this memorial upon the death of Rev. Middelmann:

“. . . Much of our life as a congregation still reflects the influence of Egon’s teaching and Grace & Peace’s example of living out the gospel in a 20th century setting: reaching out to marginalized people with the comfort and acceptance of Jesus Christ, weekly communion, the extension of Lord’s Day worship into regular church meals, the primacy of individual pastoral care in the life of the church, an appreciation of both the traditional and the contemporary in public worship, an acceptance of diversity of lifestyle among the membership, an enjoyment of the arts as a celebration of life, and most of all, an emphasis on living openly and honestly before one another.out of a conviction that because of the tremendous freedom Christ won for us at the cross, we do not have to pretend to be better people than we really are. It was under the preaching and teaching of Egon that many who came through Grace & Peace learned that even while we must be proclaiming Christ as the absolute answer to those around us caught up in a destructive moral and philosophical relativism, still, the holiness of God demands that the church learn to criticize itself even as it criticizes the world, since nothing but God’s Word is infallible. How reassuring for many of us was Egon’s insistence that the justification of sinners won for us at Calvary takes the fear and anxiety out of this self-criticism that the gospel calls us to.”

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  1. Vaughn Edward Hathaway Jr’s avatar

    How many of us have prayed concerning our children that they would grow up never knowing a time that they did not believe that Jesus Christ was their Lord and Saviour? When I was finally ordained to the gospel ministry, one of my great-aunts told me that I had as a toddler claimed that I was going to be a preacher when I grew up. I do not remember making any such claim. Then, when I was but nine years old, I made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) that I grew up in. I was, after all, a covenant child. Both of my parents had made credible professions of faith. However, reflection on my life reveals that I had a severely flawed concept of soteriology based on personal works. Therefore, some ten plus years after that first profession of faith, I had what would be considered a conversion experience through the influencing ministry of an independent baptistic church in Fussa-Machi, Tokyo-ken, Japan. I made another profession of faith. When was I converted? In 1948? In 1960? or in 1937?

    Modern conservative Presbyterians require that any person who joins the church be able to make a credible profession of faith in Jeisus Christ. Do were consider the date and time of that profession to be the date and time of their conversion? It was good that Tennet backed off from his views. An unconverted ministry is certainly a possibility; but it can be so even within the context of an emphasis upon experimentalism.

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