February 2015

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Here was a case of a child raised without regard to religion. His parents were decent enough by the world’s standards, but they were not Christians. Nonetheless, God called him.

Ichabod Smith Spencer was born on February 23, 1798, in Suffield, Connecticut. His father’s death, when he was just seventeen, had a profound effect upon him, eventually prompting him to leave home a year later. Shifting around on his own, he took common labor jobs and came to reside in Granville, New York about 1816. In God’s providence, a revival was underway in that town, and Ichabod Spencer made a profession of faith as he joined the Congregational church there. His gifts soon drew attention and he was urged to pursue the ministry. By late 1826 he was licensed to preach and two years later he was ordained. Then in 1832, he accepted a call to serve the Presbyterian church in Brooklyn, New York, where he remained until his death in 1854.

In Sprague’s Annals of the American Pulpit, the Rev. Gardiner Spring wrote of Rev. Spencer’s preaching:

“It is characteristic of the best ministers that they are best at home, and most distinguished in their own pulpits. There was no ‘flourish of trumpets’ with Dr. Spencer, when he went abroad. He was not demonstrative in his nature, nor eager for the praise of men. He was emulous, but it was mainly to magnify the truths of God, and do good to the souls of men. No man was less desirous than he to ‘create a sensation’ and set the world aghast by his preaching. Yet was he exclusively devoted to his work. His heart, his thoughts, his studies and attainments, his time, his interests, his influence and his life, were given to the ministry. Few ministers of the Everlasting Gospel, if any, were more industrious; and few had less occasion to lamen misspent and wasted hours. The result was that he became one of the best and most effective preachers of the age.

“Few habitually spake like him in discourses of such instructiveness, such attractive persuasion, such withering rebuke of wickedness, or such happy effects upon the minds of men. He spake ‘the things which became sound doctrine,’ and declared ‘the whole counsel of God.’ He was cautious and wise, but he was urgent and in earnest. He was often tender to weeping, yet was he a most fearless preacher. There was a large commingling of the ‘Son of Consolation’ with the ‘Son of Thunder’ in his character. I have heard him say that he did not know what it was to be ensnared or embarrassed in preaching God’s truth, and that the thought of being afraid to utter it, because it was unpopular, never once entered his mind. There was something of nature in this, and more of grace; he was fearless of men, because he feared God. There was great variety in his preaching; he was not confined to a few thread-bare topics; his mind and heart took a wide range, and brought out of his treasure ‘things both new and old.’ Nor was he given to crude and imperfect preparations for the pulpit : a volume of sermons might be selected from his manuscripts, which would be a beautiful model for the youthful ministry, and a great comfort to the Church of God. His Sabbath Evening Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, as well as portions of his Lectures on the Epistle to the Romans, will not easily be forgotten by those who heard them.”

Words to Live By:
Concerning Gardiner Spring’s observation, that “It is characteristic of the best ministers that they are best at home, and most distinguished in their own pulpits.”—why do you think that might be so? Perhaps it is because at home they are most comfortable? No, I would rather think that it is because at home, a pastor has the greatest, most sincere concern for his hearers. They are his own congregation whom he loves and sacrifices himself for daily. Yet another reason to pray for your pastor.

For Further Study:
I do not know if Rev. Spencer’s lectures on the Catechism or on the Book of Romans were ever published, but two volumes of his sermons were. The first of those two volumes is currently in print. Another his works apparently has the greater fame–A Pastor’s Sketches: Conversations with Anxious Souls Concerning the Way of Salvation. A new edition of this latter title is pending. For more information, click here. [we have no financial incentive or connection with the publisher]

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by Rev Leonard T. Van Horn

Q. 7. — What are the decrees of God?

A. — The decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained what­soever comes to pass.

Scripture References: Eph. 1:4,11. Rom. 9:23. Acts 4:27,28. Ps. 33:11


1. What is the nature of God’s decrees?

God’s decrees are unchangeable; they cannot be changed, therefore they are certain to be fulfilled. His decrees are eternal, being settled by God in eternity.

2. Are there more than one decree?

No, there is only one single decree. However, this decree includes many particulars and therefore we speak of it in the plural.

3. When one uses the word “decree” is it not usually synonymous with an arbitrariness?

When man uses the word such may be true but not when God uses it. God’s decrees should not be classed in this way since they were framed by Him according to the counsel of his will. You must look behind the decree and see there the love of an infinite, personal God, whose all comprehensive plan is also all wise.

4. What is the purpose of God’s decrees?

The purpose is His own glory first and through this, the good of the elect.

5. Who are the special objects of God’s decrees and what is His decree toward them?

Angels and men are the special objects and His decree toward them is predestination.

6. What is meant by predestination?

Predestination is the plan or purpose of God respecting His moral creatures. It is divided into election and reprobation.

7. What is the definition of election and reprobation?

Election is God’s eternal purpose to save some of the human race in and by Jesus Christ. Reprobation is God’s eternal purpose to pass some men by with the operation of His special grace and to punish them for their sin.

8. If reprobation be true, how can God be just?

God would be just in condemning all to eternal punishment since all have sinned. He is in charge; He is the potter and our attitude should be one of thankfulness if we are of the elect by His grace. Man has no claim on God and God does not owe man eternal salvation or anything else.


Very few today doubt that men are living in an age fraught with the feelings of frustration, failure, inadequacy, anxiety, fear and guilt. In an effort to hide such feelings men are pursuing a variety of temporary goals. For som®, it is business success; some crave social life; some feel that drinking will solve the problem; and for some it is just the pride of life. But whatever the earthly goal, there is always a “tomorrow”, when men wake up again to the knowledge that no method is lasting. No method provides enduring peace. To all men comes the challenge, “Look to the Throne of God!”

The study of this Catechism Question should enable any sinner saved by grace to see something of the nature of God on His throne, and should enable any man to recognize that his life is in the Hands of the Almighty, Sovereign God. So many times men forget. They for­get that God who framed His decrees according to the counsel of His will, is our Heavenly Father who is personal and has infinite love for us, and that He can and does take care of the comparatively minor ills and problems of men.

In this troubled world of today there is a need that the God of eternal purpose, that God who has the world in His hands, be pro­claimed by those who are His children by faith through Jesus Christ. But the difficulty today is that so many who proclaim Him as their Saviour, want to usurp so much of His efficacy. They desire the comfort and sustenance of the Sovereign God but want to exalt man and his powers and abilities even to the point of suggesting that man can work independently of God. Or, they seem to insert into the decree of God that He chooses certain men because He foresees certain capabilities of re­pentance and belief in them. Or even worse, they want to choose what to believe regarding predestination, often leaving out part of the teach­ing of the Word of God.

It is ever good for Christians to remember that He elected some men simply for reasons of His own and not because there was any de­serving thing in them. Further, it is good for Christians to remember that they dare not meddle with the Word of God. True, there is much that finite minds can not understand. True, there is much against which our sinful minds rebel. But the Word stands in the midst of His eternal purpose. It is only as the Written Word is accepted as it is, as the Scriptures are proclaimed in all fulness, that the challenge can be issued to the world; “Look to the Throne of God!’’ for there sits the infinite, holy, sovereign God, the One who elects and keeps eternally.

Published By:

Dedicated to instruction in the Westminster Standards for use as a bulletin insert or other methods of distribution in Presbyterian churches.
Vol. 1 No. 7 (July, 1861)
Rev. Leonard T. Van Horn, Editor.


wilsonJamesPatriot_02The son of Rev. Dr. Matthew* and Elizabeth Wilson, James Patriot Wilson was born at Lewes, Sussex County, Delaware, February 21, 1769. His father was eminent as a physician and clergyman, and his mother was deemed a model in all her domestic and social relations. He was graduated with high honor at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, Pa., in August of 1788. So distinguished was he in the various branches, included in his collegiate course, that at the time of his graduation it was the expressed opinion of the Faculty that he was competent to instruct his classmates. He was at the same time offered a place in the University as Assistant Professor of Mathematics, but as his health was somewhat impaired and the air of his native place was more congenial with his constitution, he became an assistant in the Academy at Lewes, taking measures to regain his health, and occupying his leisure with reading history. Having devoted himself for sometime to the study of the law he was admitted to the bar in Sussex County, Delaware, in 1790.

Though he had acquired a reputation as a lawyer unsurpassed perhaps in his native State, yet he ere long relinquished his profession and entered the ministry. He was licensed to preach the gospel in 1804 by the Presbytery of Lewes, and in the same year was ordained and installed as pastor over the united congregations of Lewes, Cool Spring, and Indian River—the same which had for many years enjoyed the ministry of his father.

In May, 1806, he was called, at the instance of the late Dr. Benjamin Rush (his early and constant friend) to the pastoral charge of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He accepted the call, by the advice of Lewes Presbytery, and removed to Philadelphia the same year. In May, 1828, he retired to his farm, near Hartsville, Bucks County, Pa., about twenty miles from the city, on account of the infirm state of his health, preaching nevertheless to his congregation as often as his health permitted. His resignation of his pastoral charge was not accepted till the spring of 1830. In the course of that season he visited the city and preached for the last time to his people. He died at his farm in the utmost peace, December 9, 1830, and was buried on the 13th in a spot selected by himself in the grave-yard of Neshaminy Church. His remains lie near the tomb of the celebrated William Tennant, the founder of “ Log College.” The degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred upon him by the University of Pennsylvania, in 1807.

In June, 1792, he was married to Elizabeth, daughter of John and Hannah Woods, of Lewes, Delaware, with whom he lived but little more than three years, as she died in December, 1795. She had two children, but neither of them survived her.

In May, 1798, he was married to Mary, daughter of David and Mary M. Hall, and sister of the late Governor Hall, of Delaware. They had nine children, only two of whom survived him, one of whom is the Rev. Dr James P. Wilson, of Newark, N. J. Mrs. Wilson died January 5, 1839.

Dr. Wilson was in person above the middle height, and had a countenance rather grave than animated, and expressive at once of strong benevolent feelings and high intelligence. In the ordinary intercourse of society his manners were exceedingly bland. He was affable and communicative, and generally talked so sensibly, or so learnedly, or so profoundly, that he was listened to with earnest attention.

As an author he published Lectures upon some of the Parables and Historical Passages of the New Testament, in 1810; An Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of the Hebrew Language, 1812; Ridgely’s Body of Divinity, with Notes, 1814 ; A Series of Articles on the Primitive Government of the Christian Churches, also on Liturgical Considerations ; besides many Tracts and Essays.—See Annals of American Pulpit, William B. Sprague, vol. iv.. page 353, published by Carter & Brother, New York.

[* A Memoir of Rev. Dr. Matthew Wilson is published in The Presbyterian Historical Almanac for 1863, page 48.]

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A Presbyterian Remnant Remains True to the Gospel

The story line was surprising and sorrowful at the same time. Written just last year, it told the story of the dying Presbyterian Church of New Zealand which had decided to attract new members with an approach  of “drinking  to the Gospel,” as they called it. Many churches of this main line Presbyterian Church down under were adding outreaches entitled “wine  and theology” and “beer and barbecue” to their schedules. It wasn’t always this way in this Presbyterian church.

The beginning of the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand began on February 20, 1840 when the Rev. John Macfarlane of the Church of Scotland arrived in Port Nicholson, Wellington. The Scottish minister became the church planter of the first Scots church four years later in the area.  Even when the disruption occurred in during this same time period, it took a little time for that to reach the new country. Eventually it did however, and ministers from the Free Church of Scotland arrived to minister to the Scottish people residing in the land. In fact, whole groups of families from the Free Presbyterian church began to arrive in country, along with their pastors. A Presbyterian Church true to the gospel was being established in  New Zealand.

Fast forward to the mid-sixties. The Presbyterian Church had grown strong and numerous. Twenty four Presbyteries dotted the land, with 446 parishes, 806 church buildings, ninety thousand plus members, over 70,000 Sunday school pupils, and 20,000 Bible class students. But numbers can be deceiving as well, so it was in this decade that the church was falling into apostasy.  Individual churches began to “come out and be separate,” until 2000, a fully fledged denomination started called Grace Presbyterian Church of New Zealand was organized.

According to its web page, it describes itself as “Presbyterian in government, Reformed in theology, and Evangelical in spirit.”  It states fully that it is a “national Presbyterian Church that holds strongly to the Bible as its rule of faith and life,” with a passion for God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and a passion for people.”  That means, the web site says, “that we seek to bring glory to God and be aware of where  he is leading through His Word and Holy Spirit.”  Further, it translates out as being “dedicated to proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who are lost, both here in New Zealand and elsewhere.” In addition, they as a church are “fully committed to the Reformed faith as the most consistent presentation and outworking of Biblical Christianity.” They take their stand for life in the womb and for marriage between a man and a woman.

Words to Live By:
If you are like this author, you must acknowledge that you had no idea that a faithful Presbyterian remnant for the gospel was existing in this South Pacific nation. At the same time, you are thankful for even small beginnings which seeks to be faithful to the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Why not pray today, and if you are a pastor, pray from the pulpit and/or Sunday School desk for Grace Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, that they will remain faithful to the Scriptures, the Reformed Faith, and the Great Commission?

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 A Union based on Compromise of Doctrine

The early twentieth century in the northern Presbyterian church was increasingly one of a battle over the Bible. Charles Briggs, of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, had just been indicted for heresy and found guilty by both his presbytery and the General Assembly. In the midst of this trial and subsequent indictment, there was a proposal to revise the Westminster Standards by 15 presbyteries of the denomination. The result was the addition of two chapters to the Confession on the Holy Spirit and the Love of God and Missions, composed of chapters 34 and 35. Further, some language was changed in chapter 16 relating to the works of unregenerate men. Instead of these works being considered sinful and unable to please God, they were described as “praiseworthy.” Last, a declarative statement was added to better understand Chapter 3 of the Confession as it related to God’s eternal decree.

» Dr. Charles Augustus Briggs, pictured at about age 43. »

Let there be no doubt with respect to these changes. That result was that the Standards of the Westminster Assembly were watered down as to their solid Calvinism originally taught in them. Particular redemption was replaced by general redemption. Total depravity was replaced by a partial depravity. Arminianism was introduced into the subordinate standards of the church. J. Gresham Machen called the changes to be “highly objectionable,” “a calamity,” and “a very serious lowering of the flag.”

Whether such a momentous change was due to potential union talk or not, it is interesting that soon after this change, joint discussions arose with the possibility of union with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Northern assembly of the Presbyterian church. Remember, around 1810, a division occurred over Calvinism and the Westminster Standards in the Presbyterian Church, which division brought about the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Now this Arminianism denomination was being invited to reunite with the Northern Presbyterian Church, without any change on their part with regards to their Arminian beliefs. The plans for that union were adopted on February 19, 1904. After some further refinements to the plans, the last General Assembly of the old Cumberland Presbyterian Church met in May of 1906 [pictured below].

Over 1100 Cumberland Presbyterian teaching elders joined the ranks of the Presbyterian Church, bringing their number up to 9,031 men. Over 90,000 members came into the fold of the Presbyterian church. The union wasn’t complete however, in that, some 50,000 stayed out of the union, and continued on as the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. But what was found in the union meant in reality that the Presbyterian church was no longer uncompromisedly Reformed in doctrine and life. That was to have a profound effect on the next 30 years of existence and testimony.

Words to Live By: Beware of a tendency to lower your Biblical testimony, and that of your church or denomination, to suit the ever-changing sentiments of the world around you.  Your standard is always the Word of God, never the word of man.

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