May 2014

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The Life of a Man Who Walked with God

Our title came from the pen of C.H. Spurgeon who recommended the reading of Andrew Bonar’s Memoir of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. This author was given the Memoir to read in the beginning of his college years in preparation for the gospel ministry. I have returned to it frequently in some fifty years of ministry. It is that beneficial.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne (sometimes spelled McCheyne) lived between May 21, 1813 and March 25, 1843. If you count those years, you immediately realize that he lived on this earth for only thirty years. And only seven of those years were spent in pastoral ministry. Yet the shortness of his life and ministry were abundantly fruitful in many respects, not the least of which was evangelistic at home and abroad. Countless Scottish people acknowledged him as their spiritual father in the faith.

He was born on May 21, 1813 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the youngest child of Adam M’Cheyne. He studied at the University of Edinburgh in 1827, distinguishing himself in all of his classes. His lifestyle was however given over to the pursuits of pleasure rather than the pursuit of holiness. The death of his older brother, David M’Cheyne, brought him to a sense of personal spiritual need.  David had often prayed for his conversion. Robert resolved to “seek a Brother who cannot die.” Reading the Bible and various books were  eventually used of the Lord to bring that spiritual change in his soul. His diary records evidences of a spiritual change.

Licensed to preach the Word by the Presbytery of Annan in 1835, after a brief stint as an assistant pastor, he was ordained  on November 24, 1836 and called by a new congregation in Dundee, Scotland. Soon crowds were attending the preached Word.  However, the labors of the pastoral ministry brought physical problems, which required him to desist for a season during the winter at Edinburgh.

Later, to a fellow laborer in the Lord’s work, he wrote, “Use your health while you have it, my dear friend and brother. Do not cast away peculiar opportunities that may never come again. You know not when your last Sabbath with your people may come. Speak for eternity.”

Pastor M’Cheyne always felt that his time on earth would be short. Whether this was revealed to him by God’s Spirit in some way, or it was simply a recognition of his own bodily weakness, this author doesn’t know. But he always had a sense of his own mortality. And indeed, after a church-sanctioned trip with Andrew Bonar and other ministers to Palestine, to determine opportunities for the conversion of Jews in 1839, he returned to Scotland. It was but four years later in 1843, that he was seized with typhus fever and went to be with the Lord on March 25, 1843.

Words to Live By: It was his closest friend Andrew Bonar who wrote his Memoirs in 1844. In less than three years, seventeen editions were sold. Banner of Truth first reprinted it in 1960. Moody Press also came out with an edition of it. If you, dear reader, have never opened its pages, buy and read the book. If it has been some time since you have perused its pages, read it again, and feast upon the Spirit’s work in the life and ministry of this young man. It will repay your time and effort.

So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” – (Ps. 90:12, KJV)

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Does Doctrine Divide While Mission Unites?

This was the sentiment when the schism of 1837 between the Old School and New School Presbyterians was healed in the days following May 20, 1869.  Doctrine had divided the Presbyterian church but it was not insignificant doctrines. It is what made the Presbyterian Church what it was, namely, a biblical, Reformed church according to its subordinate standards, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. The Old School, led by Princeton Theological Seminary men, held to it, while the New School Presbyterians, led by men like Albert Barnes and Charles Finney, wanted to weaken it. (We will see all of the issues in an upcoming devotional on the schism on June 5)  But for this day, we look at the first day of the General Assembly in 1869 when there was talk of and actions of reunion. Why did this change take place?

The pivotal reason was that a terrible Civil War had taken place in the land which consumed their attention and placed concerns for doctrine to shift to secondary place. Ministers and churches of both Old School and New School Presbyterians were now united in political issues as it had to do with the support of the Federal government. Slavery concerns were now a dead issue in that the war was supposed to bring freedom for blacks. Reconstruction was now the matter on the front burner, and both Old School and New School pretty much agreed on that.

It can also be said that the New School had become more conservative in their theology. They had departed from the Plan of Union with the Congregationalist churches. The New England theology which denied of certain fundamental doctrines was, for the most part, no longer an issue in their ranks. In other words, if there was any problem with the Confessional Standards, it wasn’t an open one.  Many of the men and churches who had fought the earlier issues had passed to their heavenly reward, so they were not in the church any longer. Other men were filling their pulpits and positions.

With the opening of this Assembly, the presbyters voted to send the reunion plans down to the Presbyteries. In the intervening months, 113 Old School presbyteries approved it, with 126 out of 129 Old School presbyteries approving the reunion plans as well.  Only fifty–two ministers of the Old School Presbyterians protested, led again by Princeton Seminary men, like Charles Hodge.

At the next General Assembly in Pittsburgh in 1870, after the required number of presbyteries had passed it, there was a symbolic march of delegates from each assembly to a certain street in that city, where joining forces, arm in arm, they marched in tandem to Third Presbyterian Church for a mass meeting. A broadening church had begun in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Mission and how to serve the masses via ecumenical means, became the watchword for the church. It would be only a question of time when Reformed conservatives would begin to not recognize the church of their spiritual fathers.

Words to Live By: Many of us are in everyday life led into dozens of compromise situations which are necessary to simply get along with others. But when that compromise involves fundamental doctrines which weaken our Christian faith, then there is a call to stand up and be counted and hold firm to the faith once delivered unto the saints. Are you boldly standing for the historic Christian faith?

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There was No Ecclesiology 101 on How to Begin a Denomination

There wasn’t a manual on denomination beginnings. No teaching elder had ever taken seminary courses on it. No one on the steering committee had any experience in the process.  It was entirely new to everyone, and yet it was something which had to be done.

Much like the northern Presbyterian church, the seeds of apostasy had entered the Presbyterian Church in the United States in the nineteen thirties of the twentieth century. It was very small then, most often in the sense of shame of some of the language in the Confessional Standards. But then there came a decided effort to capture the Southern Presbyterian Church for the liberal agenda, led as usual by the seminaries of the church. Members would return from, for example, a war, and find that they no longer recognized the church of their fathers. Principles and practices began to be printed in the denominational agencies which were contrary to the essentials of the Presbyterian faith. And, like the Northern Presbyterian church experience, various conservative individuals and churches began to organize committees outside the church which would accomplish the work of the church.  So we read of the Southern Presbyterian Journal, Concerned Presbyterians, The Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, and Presbyterian Churchmen United. These organizations, and the joint meetings they held, galvanized the conservatives of the Southern Presbyterian Church. Eventually all of these joined forces and established a Steering Committee for a Continuing Presbyterian Church. Separation from unbelief would be demanded of them.

It was on May 19, 1973 in Atlanta Georgia in the sanctuary of Westminster Presbyterian Church that 450 ruling elders from 261 churches representing 70,800 members joined together in a convocation of presbyters or Sessions. They listened to stirring messages. They viewed slide presentations which shared the kinds of churches and ministries which would be a part of any continuing church. They reaffirmed their committment to the Scriptures, the Reformed faith, and the Great Commission. And when the pivotal time came for a vote as to whether to proceed ahead and actually begin a new denomination separate from the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the convocation voted 349 – 16.  Yet at the same time, they let it be clearly understood that there was love and respect toward any of their number, or within the church as a whole, who did not believe they should withdraw at this time. It would be seven more months that such a new denomination became a reality, but this was one of the important beginnings of what became known eventually as the Presbyterian Church in America. And this beginning came primarily from the ruling elders of the church.

Words to Live By: Pray much for your ruling elder in the congregation of which you are a part. They are men just like you who sit in the pews.  They have their fears and foibles just like you. Yet God has called them to be overseers of the flock, to pastor the flock of God whom the Son has redeemed with His own blood. Therefore, submit to them in the Lord, support them in the work, and be an encouragement to them in their work of shepherding the people of God. They are a vital part of the church.

For Further Study:
Three of the addresses presented at the Convocation of Sessions are available on the PCA Historical Center’s web site:

Law and Procedure, or, How and Why in 1973,” by RE W. Jack Williamson.

No Compromise Men and Church,” by Rev. William E. Hill, Jr. 

How Is the Gold Become Dim!,” by Rev. Morton H. Smith.

 

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A Foundation Stone Laid—The Formation of the Free Church of Scotland

A third Reformation or a sinful schism? The power of the people in the pews or a decision by a wealthy member to choose an under shepherd for the church pulpit? The nation’s House of Lords in control or Presbyterian government? Evangelical party or moderate party? These were the questions which swirled around the Church of Scotland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the land of Knox.

Already divisions within the national church were producing separations of ministers and members.  In 1733, in what is known as the First Succession, a group led by the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine and others had separated from the Church of Scotland. It was followed by the Second Secession led by reformer Thomas Gillespie in 1761 into what was called the Relief Church. Both breakaways will have future posts in This Day in Presbyterian History.

One common issue in all these successions was an ancient tradition known as “patronage,” in which a wealthy individual in a church district had the authority to choose and install a pastor himself, despite what the people of that parish thought of the pastor. In 1834, the General Assembly would pass what was known as the Veto Act, which allowed for a majority of male heads of families to reject a patron’s sole choice of pastor. It was followed in 1842 by the General Assembly producing a Claim of Right, which stated that Jesus was the head of the church, not the government of Scotland. The latter responded by rejecting that action of the General Assembly. The background was set for a disruption in the Church of Scotland.

On May 18, 1843, 121 ministers and 73 elders walked out of the General Assembly at the Church of St. Andrews on George Street, Edinburgh, to form the Free Church of Scotland. Rev. Thomas Chalmers was elected to be the first Moderator of the new denomination. Eventually 475 ministers representing one-third of her clergy was joined be one-third of her members in separation from  the Church of Scotland.

FreeChurchOfScotland_Signing_the_Deed_of_Demission_1843The First Free Church Assembly—Signing the Deed of Demission.

Since the Church of Scotland was financially supported by the government, the ministers and members who left were without salaries, pulpits, manses, and the people, their church buildings. It was very much a “let goods and kindred’s go” type of separation. To solve the immediate problem of finances, Moderator Chalmers instituted a plan for a penny a week from every member to help the new church and its ministers. From this modest beginning, other monies were raised from Scotland and churches overseas to support the need of its clergy and the buildings necessary for ministry.

Fast forward 85 years, after the Church of Scotland had dropped its link to the state and even the issue of patronage was resolved, the two churches re-united in 1929. Not every pastor and people rejoined however, as there continues to be a Free Church of Scotland in the nation.

Words to Live By: Fast forward another century in your mind, dear reader, to 2013, when the General Assembly voted to allow homosexual clergy within its ministerial ranks. It is obvious by this action that another Protestant Reformation is needed again.  Let  us pray to that end.

Image source: Frontispiece portrait for Annals of the Disruption, by Rev. Thomas Brown. Edinburgh: MacNiven & Wallace, 1884.

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John Witherspoon Brings Politics into the Pulpit

In our last historical devotional, we saw how the Confession of Faith cautioned synods and council from making pronouncements on political matters. In this devotional, we see a Presbyterian minister enter the pulpit of a Presbyterian congregation in Princeton, New Jersey on May 17, 1776 to bring politics into the pulpit. That Presbyterian minister was John Witherspoon, the president of the College of New Jersey.

The timing is interesting.  Battles up north around Boston have already been fought.   In about three weeks, John Witherspoon will affix his signature to the Declaration of Independence.  As he enters the pulpit of the Presbyterian Church, he is going to speak on “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men. A SERMON preached at Princeton, on the 17th of May, 1776 BEING the General Fast appointed by the CONGRESS through the UNITED COLONIES. To which is added, An Address to the Natives of Scotland residing in America.”  And you thought your pastor had long sermon titles!

Witherspoon in taking politics in the pulpit in essence is going to preach on God’s providence, how that God guides and governs and directs and controls all things, from the greatest to the least. He further uses the appointment of a fast from Congress to proclaim this message at this time. Let me quote one paragraph from it.

     “You are all witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit.  At this season, however, it is not only lawful, but necessary; and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.  So far as we have hitherto proceeded, I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies, has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction, that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently, in a great measure, the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue. There is not a single instance in history, in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire.  If, therefore, we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”

With words like this, no wonder that a speaker in England’s Parliament declared that “Cousin American has run away with a Presbyterian parson.”  And that Presbyterian parson was none other than John Witherspoon. He closed his sermon with the following words, “God grant, that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable, and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may, in the issue, tend to the support and establishment of both.”

Words to Live By:  We as American citizens have no right to pray for any kind of temporal prosperity without the necessity as Christian Americans to pray for spiritual revival in our blessed land.   The two ends must go together.

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