Mere Presbyterianism, Part 2
A Positive Way Forward for the PCA
In my previous post, I argue that the Presbyterian Church in America is ripe for confessional renewal; that we must get back to the basics of Confessional Presbyterianism. We have become unmoored from principal Reformed convictions, and we are drifting. Everyone is noticing it. The Revoice Conference, hosted by a PCA church and endorsed by more than a few PCA ministers, is further evidence of our dire need for reform. If the PCA wants to avoid the same path to liberalism that the mainline denominations have traveled down to their own spiritual demise, our churches must renew a commitment to Mere Presbyterianism.
While it is certainly beyond the scope of this article to cover all the important matters related to confessional renewal, I’ve introduced five areas below that are essential to recapturing a Mere Presbyterianism and ensuring a bright and healthy future for the PCA.
The Gospel is the astonishing announcement of God’s love and forgiveness for rebel sinners through faith in Jesus Christ. This message of salvation for the lost must be clear and central in the worship and ministry of the PCA. The Gospel is essential to Mere Presbyterianism.
The Gospel was the pulse beat of the Apostles’ ministry in the early church. They never glossed over the doctrines of “first importance” (I Cor. 15:3). They boldly proclaimed them. Salvation from sin, death, and hell through Christ’s atoning blood was never an afterthought in the apostles’ evangelism and discipleship. Indeed, their preaching was shaped and informed by the word of the cross (I Cor. 1:18). Paul wrote: “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:22-24; c.f. 2:1-2). Elsewhere Paul described his own preaching as a veritable portrait of Christ crucified (Gal. 3:1).
Regrettably, even in theologically conservative denominations like the PCA, the gospel of grace is often blurry in the preaching, teaching, and worship of the church. If the gospel isn’t neglected altogether, it’s described as that which we are or that which we do, rather than what Christ has done.
The gospel is the heralding of Christ’s good works, not ours. We are never the gospel. Our good works are never the gospel. Christ is the gospel, and with the apostles we bear witness to him. To be sure, there are many implications of the Gospel for the church and the world. Nevertheless, we must never confuse the fruit of the gospel with the Gospel itself.
The Gospel, therefore, must be unmistakably central in every PCA church. It is absolutely essential to future denominational unity and health. We are one in Christ. Our unity is in him. When we turn our primary gaze away from the Gospel, and chiefly onto our own pet gospel issues, we end up preaching a kind of moralism that fosters division within our ranks. We end up preaching a “gospel” that is constituted of what everyone should be doing (e.g. social justice, political action, mercy ministry) rather than what Christ has already done.
The word of the Gospel alone is the power of God unto salvation, and it must always be the bedrock of our preaching, worship, ministry, and fellowship (c.f. I Cor. 1:18ff). Re-familiarizing ourselves with the Westminster Confession of Faith and catechisms would help to cultivate a gospel-driven ministry, rather than an issues-driven ministry, in our churches and presbyteries. May we, like Paul, declare “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (I Cor. 9:16b).
Lord’s Day worship is Christian discipleship. It’s the workshop of the Holy Spirit. Our Good Shepherd feeds, nourishes, comforts, encourages, corrects, and disciplines his sheep through the means of grace. A distinctive that sets Reformed worship apart from the worship of other Christian traditions is the Regulative Principle of Worship. The Regulative Principle teaches that worship is regulated by Scripture alone (c.f. Gen. 4:3-8; Ex. 20:2-6; Lev. 10:1-3; Acts 2:42; Heb. 12:28-29). The Confession states:
The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (WCF XXI.1).
Rather than being stringent, suffocating, and needlessly restrictive, the Regulative Principle liberates the church from both worldly impositions and manmade innovations. In truth, when left to ourselves, we often invent golden calves to our own spiritual ruin (c.f. Ex. 32; Lev. 10). When we worship on God’s terms, however, doing only that which is prescribed in his Word, God is glorified and we are spiritually nourished. This is Reformed worship 101— a clear example of Mere Presbyterianism.
Luke reports in Acts 2:42 that the early church were devoted to “the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The means of grace constituted public worship from beginning to end, and this is normative for the church today. PCA liturgies, therefore, should reflect a clear and incontrovertible commitment to the reading and preaching of Scripture, the faithful administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, inclusive psalmody, and substantial prayer. Moreover, the tone of our services should be joyfully reverent, informed by Reformed convictions related to mankind’s sin, God’s holiness, and the mediatorial work of Christ (c.f. Isaiah 6; Heb. 12:28-29; I Tim. 2:5).
Calvin asserts that pure and sincere religion is “confidence in God coupled with serious fear— fear which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law” (Inst. I.xi.iii). Consequently, if our worship is regulated by Scripture, there should not be much disparity in public worship services from one PCA church to another. We should never attend a PCA worship service and wonder, “Now, where am I again?” Our services should never be confused with Charismatic, Anglo-catholic, or shallow non-denominational worship. We are Reformed Presbyterians and our worship should reflect our theological and confessional convictions.
Whether a church employs guitars and a praise team or an organ and a choir is not the issue here. The question is whether our worship is regulated by Scripture and our Confession or by something else. If our congregations, presbyteries, and general assemblies abandon Reformed worship with all of it’s distinguishing elements, it will inevitably foster deep division in the PCA.
Mere Presbyterianism demands a genuine and serious adherence to our Confessional Standards. Yes, the Bible alone is our divine rule of faith and practice. However, what we, as ordained PCA leaders, avow to believe (and teach) about the Bible is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith and catechisms. This means that our Confessional documents should not be collecting dust on our shelves. They should not be forgotten after seminary and the trials of ordination. No, our Confessional Standards are meant to be primary tools of discipleship in our congregations and a main source of guidance in our church courts.
History has proven that it’s not easy to maintain confessional integrity. Over time the waves of cultural pressure beat against the church and erode her commitment to sound orthodoxy. Reformed Confessionalism is hard because it is countercultural. Creeds and confessions “go directly against the grain of an antihistorical, antiauthoritarian age. [They] strike hard at the cherished notion of human autonomy and of the notion that I am exceptional, that the normal rules do not apply to me in the way they do to others.”
Confessional integrity — an honest and sincere commitment to uphold, defend, and teach the system of doctrine as set forth in the Westminster Standards— must continue to be cultivated within our presbyteries. Elders who find themselves out of accord with the Standards on doctrines such as creation, the historical Adam, anthropology, marriage and sexuality, atonement, justification, sanctification, worship, and church censures should demonstrate integrity by making their views known to their presbyteries and seeking a different denomination in which to minister. For the peace of the church, teaching and ruling elders who have changed their views must ask themselves, “Is it time to move on?” Confessional integrity is key to Mere Presbyterianism and a healthy future for the PCA.
The pursuit of godliness is a key distinctive of Confessional Presbyterianism. One cannot read the writings of our Reformed and Puritan forbearers and miss the intense focus placed upon personal, family, and corporate piety. Our Confession teaches that Christ has not only saved us from hell but to a life of spiritual growth and sanctification (c.f. WCF XIII; Titus 2:11-14). Holiness is the way of discipleship (c.f. I Tim. 4:8). Peter writes, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (I Pet. 1:14-16).
Personal piety is expressed, in part, through Bible reading and closet prayer (Ps. 119:105; Mt. 6:6). Indeed, those who walk with God make it a priority to carve out consistent personal time with the Lord (c.f. Mk 1:35; Ps. 63). Family piety is exercised through regular times of worship in the home. The head of the household leads the family in a frequent, if not daily, time of singing, Bible reading, catechesis, and prayer. This invaluable time of family worship fosters gratitude, growth, and godliness in the home (c.f. Deut. 6:7-9; Eph. 6:1-4). Corporate worship occurs primarily on the Lord’s Day. Sabbath observance is critical to godly piety and growth in Christ. On the Sabbath we assemble in the presence of God to receive his grace and respond with joyful praise and grateful obedience. The Westminster Confession stresses the central importance of these three main forms of piety when it states:
God is to be worshipped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself; so more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or willfully to be neglected, or forsaken, when God, by His Word or providence, calls thereunto (WCF XXI.6).
We have always learned that heterodoxy (unorthodox doctrine) leads to heteropraxy (unorthodox living). But we must also recognize that heteropraxy (unorthodox living) also can, and often does, produce heterodoxy (unorthodox doctrine). For example, some will embrace a version of antinomianism to accommodate their carnal and duplicitous lifestyle.
Paul underscores this point when he writes to his disciple Timothy, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away (I Tim. 1:5-6; c.f. 4:16). Again he exhorts Timothy to “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith” (I Tim. 1:18b-19). We must renew our commitment to Christ-centered piety and the disciplines of grace. Our doctrine and confessional commitments depend on it.
One of the first questions we should ask men who are coming for ordination is, “Are you abiding in Christ through the means of grace— personally, with your family, and in Lord’s Day worship?” We should ask, “How are you cultivating and pursing biblical piety in your life?” Seasoned ministers should be asking each other the same thing. Godly piety is essential to a long and faithful ministry. Sincere piety is indispensable to sustain Mere Presbyterianism. Piety is vital not only for the spiritual health of our ministers and congregations, but for the future of our beloved denomination.
The PCA has always been serious about missions. We’ve established a strong reputation for evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. In recent years, however, there has been a growing confusion in our churches about the true nature of our mission. Many are wondering — “What is the mission of the Church?”
Is our mission to go into all the world and eradicate poverty or extinguish injustice or put an end to sex trafficking or eliminate racism? I’ve heard popular leaders refer to these various endeavors as the mission of the twenty-first century church. However, with all of these and other symptoms of our broken and sin-cursed world plaguing humanity in Jesus’s day as well, he nevertheless exhorted the church to make disciples through the faithful proclamation of the Gospel. The church’s mission was (and is) a spiritual one.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Mt. 28:18-20).
Notice that sandwiched between two comforting promises (i.e. Christ’s sovereign authority and abiding presence) is an unambiguous command to go into all the world and to make disciples. The divinely ordained tools for missions are clearly revealed as the means of preaching, sacraments, and prayer. And isn’t this precisely what we see the Apostles doing all throughout the book of Acts? They stayed on mission. They did that which our Lord commanded them (and us) to do until his glorious return. In the PCA we need to “recover clarity in our message, focus in our mission, and commitment to the specific strategies laid out by our Lord.”
A straightforward reading of the New Testament shows that the apostles (and subsequent pastors like Timothy and Titus) weren’t laboring to rid their first-century culture of injustice or poverty. They weren’t working to transform the contours of their extremely complex society. Their goal was never to solve complicated political issues or to bring “shalom” to their communities (whatever that means!?). The apostles weren’t even focused on personally carrying out mercy ministry tasks within the church. Why? So that they could fulfill their primary calling to proclaim Christ and Him crucified from all of Scripture (c.f. Acts 6:1-7; I Cor. 1:18-2:5). The Apostles, in obedience to the Great Commission, preached the Word, planted churches, and appointed qualified elders to shepherd them (e.g. Acts 14:19-23). It they didn’t carry out this mission, who would? The PCA must never lose sight of our Lord’s strategy and aim for missions.
Does this mean that the church is unconcerned with the plight of unbelieving neighbors or the brokenness of our culture? Of course not! But here is where an important distinction (without division) must be made between the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. The Great Commission is the church’s clear mandate to proclaim the Gospel, baptize, make disciples, and to establish (and strengthen) biblical churches. The Great Commandment mandates that every individual Christian loves and serves God and neighbor. Therefore, believers obey the Great Commandment when they faithfully fulfill their vocation, love their spouse and family, and be a good church member, citizen, and neighbor. Mike Horton helpfully explains:
Christians are called to do many things and to work diligently in many vocations, not only as church members but as parents, children, neighbors, co-workers, citizens, and volunteers. However, everything that the church is called to do as a visible institution — not only its ministry of preaching but its public service of prayers, singing, sacraments, fellowship, government, and discipline — is to be a means of delivering the gospel to the whole creation. Even those raised in the church must be evangelized every Lord’s Day, inserted again and again into the dying and rising of our living Head. The same message that created faith in the beginning sustains it throughout our pilgrimage. It is the gift that keeps on giving, and it is intended to be given away by us to others outside of the covenant community.
Therefore, when the Church gathered carries out her mission to make mature disciples through the means of grace, the church scattered will then be more faithful to love God and neighbor through their individual callings. However, if the church gathered loses sight of her mission to make disciples through the faithful administration of the means of grace, then we, as the church scattered, will eventually lose our biblical distinctiveness in the world.
The five points delineated above — Gospel Proclamation, Reformed Worship, Confessional Integrity, Sincere Piety, and Biblical Mission— do not constitute an overly narrow version of the Reformed and Confessional Faith. In other words, these points are no TR manifesto. Instead, they form some of the main building blocks of Mere Presbyterianism, and are designed to foster Christ-centered unity, not division. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that we renew these emphases in our congregations, session rooms, and presbyteries.
The future of the PCA depends on it.
Sean Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America(Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyerian & Reformed Publishing), 2015.
Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative(Grand Rapids: Crossway, 2012), 48.
Mike Horton, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 16.
Again, clearly the apostles were not laboring to rid their first century Greco-Roman culture of injustice and sin. That was not, and is not, the mission of the gathered church. No, they were busy making and maturing followers of Jesus who would be faithful witnesses in the world through their various callings. A church that loses her Great Commission focus will eventually lose her bold gospel witness. For further reading see Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission(Grand Rapids: Crossway, 2011).
Horton, The Gospel Commission, 88-89.
This does not mean that the church, as an institution, should never speak to (and condemn) social ills such as abortion, racism, and other forms of injustice. We must do this, especially as these issues emerge in the texts that we are preaching.
The Gospel Reformation Network’s seven pairs of distinctives give further definition to the concept of Mere Presbyterianism.