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This Day in Presbyterian History:

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.

Through the Scriptures: Psalms 115 – 118

Through the Standards: Warning and encouragement regarding repentance

WCF 15:4
“As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.”

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This Day in Presbyterian History: 

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.

Through the Scriptures: Psalms 10 – 111

Through the Standards:  Ingredients of repentance in the catechisms

WLC 76 “What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, he so grieves for and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavouring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience.”

WSC 87  “What is repentance unto life?
A.  Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his  sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”

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This Day in Presbyterian History: 

A Christian Apologist of the Twentieth Century

What more can be written about Francis Schaeffer that has not already been said?  Born in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1912 . . . Born again in 1930 . . . College graduate from Hampton – Sydney, Virginia . . . Seminary student in two historic seminaries, Westminster and Faith Seminary . . . Pastor to three conservative Presbyterian churches for ten years before he went to Europe to begin L’Abri Fellowship, reaching intellectuals for Christ . . . An advocate of both the gospel and cultural mandate to the masses.  In short,  Francis Schaeffer had an effective ministry in the seventy-two years in which he lived in the twentieth century.

On a personal note, this contributor was barely an adolescent when he came to my chaplain father’s Army installation in Dachau, Germany for a series of evangelistic meeting in the late forties.  Night after night, the gospel was presented to lonely American soldiers in post-war Germany.  And the meetings were held right down the road from the infamous concentration camp building of Dachau where sinful depravity was the order of the day barely five years previous to these meetings. They were present in all their stark reality in that this was before the whole site had been memorialized by the West German government.   But beyond the meetings to the adults,   day by day, this youngster, and a whole host of others, learned Psalm 19 by Edith Schaeffer, which I remember today!  (Edith Schaeffer writes about all this  visit in her book, The Tapestry.)  In short, the Schaeffer’s were hungry for the power of the gospel unto salvation to be demonstrated  for all who believe.

It was in 1978 that cancer was discovered in Francis Schaeffer’s body.  Despite this disease, even by his own admission, more was done in his ministry in the last five years of his life than before. He rewrote his book legacy and ministered to large crowds everywhere. He spoke to the combined General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church in America and Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod in 1982, which had just merged together into one church. [click here to read “A Day of Sober Rejoicing”]

As the days grew difficult, Edith Schaeffer tells how ten days before he died, she brought him home from Mayo Clinic. She spoke about her conviction that he would want to go to the house he had asked her to buy in Rochester, Minnesota to pass from his body and be with the Lord. The medical staff agreed with that decision. Edith Schaeffer surrounded his bed with the things he loved, including music played into his room. All the favorites from Beethoven, Bach, and Shubert were played. On the morning of May 15, 1984, he was taken home to glory with Handel’s Messiah in the background.

Words to Live By: Francis Schaeffer was a sinner saved by grace, as all believers are. We by no means believe that he was without difficulties in his life towards those nearest and dearest to him, as well as the Christian family as a whole. But despite these foibles, he will be remembered as the spiritual father of many a Christian today, while his work continues on in many lands today to reach the intellectuals of the twenty-first century with the same precious gospel. As God enables us, let us each be faithful, in word and in deed, in proclaiming the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ alone.

Through the Scriptures: Psalms 103 – 105

Through the Standards:  The Nature of repentance

WCF 15:1
“Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minster of the Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ.”

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This Day in Presbyterian History: 

A Prayer From the Catechism

With little or no Presbyterian history to find on this May 14 day, we go to the words of Shorter Catechism No. 31.   It tells us that Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he does persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

On the one hand, this is rich theology.  It defines for us the biblical doctrine of vocation.    It follows catechisms which tells us that we are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ by the effectual application of the Spirit of God who works faith in us and unites us to Christ.  It precedes catechisms which define the benefits of vocation as being justification, adoption, and sanctification.

But on the other hand, this is devotional.  This is an evangelistic prayer.  It can formulate the requests which we make every time we or someone else shares the gospel of eternal life with the lost.  We can make each one of the verbal phrases in this catechism a prayer petition for our unsaved loved ones, or our neighbors outside of Christ.

Let’s look at the teaching first.  The Spirit first applies the effectual calling upon our minds by convincing us of our sin and misery.  This work of God’s Word, and especially His law, as well as His  Spirit convinces the heart of the unsaved as to his deserved guilt, the dreadful wrath of God, and endless miseries of hell, if we reject his gospel.    Then a second application of the mind by the Word and Spirit is  enlightening in the knowledge of Christ.  We know with conviction that Christ is the only answer to our sin and misery, that He has undertaken to save us and will be faithful to perform it.   We in short discover Christ in the gospel.  Our spiritual eyes are opened to His person and work on our behalf.

Second, the Spirit applies the effectual call upon our wills, by renewing them.  This is a secret, spiritual. and mysterious work, as Christ compares it to the wind which we hear but don’t know where it comes from or goes to in John 3.

But the full result of all this convicting work upon the mind and will of the sinner will be to persuade and enable him to embrace Jesus Christ as He is freely offered in the gospel.

Christian, recognize that this is your spiritual history.  You might not have been aware that all this was happening inside of you.  But while others might have been externally called by the Word of God, you were called externally by that same Word and internally persuaded to become a believer.  None but the elect of God are thus called and chosen by the Word and the Spirit.

But this is more than mere doctrine, as important as that is.  It is also devotional.  The next time you present the gospel to someone else, or you hear it presented in a public meeting, like a church service, turn these expressions into prayer requests.  Holy Spirit, convince the lost of their sin and misery.  Enlighten their minds in the knowledge of Christ.  Renew their wills.  Persuade and enable them to embrace Jesus Christ this day as He is freely offered in the gospel.

Words to Live By:   For the purposes of both doctrine and devotion, it is important to memorize this answer.  If you do, and this contributor did so a long time ago, it is a comforting assurance in days of doubt which the old serpent enemy casts towards us, as well as an effective evangelistic tool to use anywhere and everywhere.   Your assignment is, memorize Shorter Catechism 31.

Through the Scriptures: Psalms 100 – 102

Through the Standards: Proof texts of saving faith

Ephesians 2:8
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (NAS)

Romans 10:17
“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” (NAS)

Romans 1:16 “For  I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes . . .” (NAS)

Acts 16:31
“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved, you and your household.” (NAS)

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This Day in Presbyterian History:   

Ninth Oldest Educational Institution in the Nation

The history and tradition page on the college’s web site is very thorough about the various changes which have come in the time the educational school has been in existence.  Our readers know it as Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia.  The latter part of its name was added in 1870 when General Robert E. Lee, late of the Confederacy, died as its president in that year.  Before that from 1813 and 1796, it was simply known as Washington College and Washington Academy.  The father of our country had come in a time of financial struggle to give a grant of 20,000 shares of James River Canal stock.  And so in honor  of him, they gave his name to the school.  Before that still, it was named on May 13, 1776,  as Liberty Hall Academy in that same location. Ruins from that school are still to be found on a hill looking over the area.  Originally, it was called from 1749, Augusta Academy, so named after the county in which it found itself in Virginia.

Yet missing from this whole description of the founding and re-naming of the educational institution is that the Presbyterians of Virginia had begun this school.  As early as 1771, the Hanover Presbytery expressed its intention to begin a seminary of learning within the boundary of the Presbytery. Its early leaders, supporters, and faculty were all Presbyterians from the Shenandoah Valley.  And its purpose was to give a religious and moral education to the students who would come to study under its oversight.  It is true that they did not desire to make Presbyterians of all who came there, but the denominational basis of the school was clearly known by all who were to attend.  Its board members were all Presbyterian ministers and members of the Presbyterian churches in the valley.  Its first president was the celebrated Presbyterian minister William Graham, who studied under John Witherspoon at the College of New Jersey.

It was said that Liberty Hall Academy owed its foundation, first, to the pious zeal of  Presbyterian clergy, second, to the contributions of the Presbyterian people of the valley, third, to the energy and talents of Presbyterian minister and leader, Rev. William Graham, and last, to the attention by the Presbyterian trustees and gratuitous aid of members of the Presbyterian churches of said valley.  Yet it is all this which is missing on the present history and traditions page of the University on-line.

Words to Live By:  A Christian man and woman this writer knows has taken remarkable  incidents out of their lives when God has been powerfully present and accounted for in those lives, and remembered them by marked stones in a dish.  It is a reminder that we are too apt to forget what God has accomplished in the past.  That is why a key word in Scripture is the word “remember.”  Let us remember God’s dealings in our lives, and in the lives of our institutions.

Through the Scriptures: Psalms 97 – 99

Through the Standards:  The degrees of faith

WCF 14:3
“This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.”

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