Reflections on the GRN National Conference

Belonging to Christ is fundamental to our Christian identity, shaping how we should consider our relationship with God and our new disposition toward the world. Christ is making a people for himself, composed not simply of those who belong to him non-discreetly, but those whom he joins to himself for renewed life both in the legal sense in justification and the transformative sense in sanctification. In all things, we are Christ’s, which is why he is the church’s one foundation – the theme of this year’s annual GRN conference. The purpose of this post is, not so much to detail every argument made in the conference lectures but to try to draw connections from those proceedings to issues facing us in the PCA today.

Although the conference never focused for any overly extended period on side B gay Christianity, Revoice theology, or the overtures that recently circulated through our presbyteries, hoping to state new clarity about a minister’s relationship to Christian identity and indwelling sin, those issues are certainly a context for this conference’s lectures. The GRN began because of a concern to promote a robust doctrine of sanctification within the PCA when some were failing to include God’s work of sanctification to free us from the power of our sin alongside their proclamation of God’s act of forgiving the penalty of our sin. Although taking a somewhat different form as the debates and issues within the PCA have morphed in recent years, the GRN maintains essentially that same concern to see that we give proper emphasis – we should note that proper emphasis does not diminish God’s justifying act, introduce our works into the foundation of our relationship with God, nor promote some version of perfectionism – to our understanding of Christian holiness. After all, one premise of Revoice theology is that we potentially have immutable characteristics that incline us toward particular sins, which not even God can remove from us in his renewing work. This post’s look at the various lectures then, especially considering that those lectures are preserved to hear and watch again, seeks to draw more specific connections between the conference addresses and these issues facing the PCA.

Jonathan Master opened the conference by addressing the new birth, reminding us of its biblical foundations but also giving a new exhortation to preach about the new birth. In the discussions about Revoice theology and its claim that homosexual desires are not only non-sinful as long as not acted upon but also are an immutable part of someone’s constitution, our progressive sanctification is understandably emphasized as we hope to see God increasingly mortify our old man, perhaps leaving the doctrine of regeneration somewhat overlooked. As Master skillfully reminded us of the new birth’s contours, its relevance for the issues at hand became all the clearer. In regeneration, God remakes us so that we belong to Christ. Although there is always lingering sin, God’s work of renewing us into the likeness of Christ – to be a bit circular – renews us. There is a different principle of life within us than when we were dead in our trespasses and sin. Those who argue that some inclinations toward sin are immutable seem to drift toward a rather pietistic view of holiness, built around our effort for certain practices, minimizing rather than truly forefronting the Reformed doctrine of the new birth.

Jonny Gibson then focused on the New Testament qualifications for pastors and elders from 1 Timothy 3, highlighting how the overseers are meant to be exemplary models of the Christian life for the Christian community. The standards for leadership are indeed strident, but purposefully so, to provide believers with shepherds who live a life worth imitating. Gibson’s critical point was about the interaction between life and doctrine, namely that, although poor doctrine often shapes a poor Christian life, an ill-formed character just as easily fosters anemic doctrine. Bluntly stated, those who love their inclinations toward certain sins and think those sinful inclinations add something positive to God’s kingdom are gravely mistaken. Such individuals do not exemplify a love for Christ’s character nor reflect him as those who belong to him–a belonging which ought to produce no contentedness with even mere aspects of our old man.

Mel Duncan’s lecture reflected upon the work of Samuel Miller, one of Old Princeton’s earliest luminaries, concerning ruling elders. As valuable as this historical study is in itself to remind us of some of our fundamental principles as a two-office denomination, recent years have demonstrated our need to reassert ruling elders’ non-negotiable importance in the church’s life. Presbyteries and assemblies too easily let ourselves become minister’s clubs, sidelining our ruling elders who hold crucial ecclesiastical authority. Whereas teaching elders can easily become swept into the dance of nuancing positions with academic precision, at times qualifying something so extensively as to change the premises entirely (arguably a feature of Revoice doctrine), ruling elders frequently provide a necessary balancing effect to keep our discussions grounded in how they affect congregation life and Christian living. Last year’s general assembly had the highest turnout of ruling elders in the PCA’s history and also included some of the most encouraging voting trends. This lecture on the role of the ruling elder, therefore, far surpasses merely historical interest, shining a light on one of our most important Presbyterian principles that warrant our renewed focus.

David Strain provided a theologically powerful but also pastorally moving exploration of God’s work of sanctifying believers increasingly into Christ’s likeness. The focus on God as the source of our sanctification reminds us that our renewal is not restricted to what human ability could attain but is open to whatever God can achieve by working for and in us. Further, reflecting on 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24 throughout this lecture, sanctification’s scope as being “completely” worked so that we are “blameless” at the day of Christ Jesus means that we should expect God’s sanctifying work to penetrate to our deepest selves, including desires and orientations that may have seemed foundational to our former identities. The exact point, however, is that God’s work of new birth and sanctification is all about authoring a new identity for us, one grounded in belonging to Christ. That completion will not happen in this life, but we trust that God will surely do it and that we will see significant progress in that identity as a new man in Christ Jesus. Our debates about whether God can change a person’s sexual orientation and accompanying desires reveal that some have a pessimistic and defeatist view of God’s renewing work far more focused on the practice of specific deeds, in oddly pietistic fashion, rather than on God’s gracious renovation of our character.

Jon Payne exhorted us with the need to pastor with holy courage and gospel confidence, urging us not to give ground to recent revisionist and progressive trends that are making inroads into the PCA, such as side B gay Christianity and “woke” theology. The application of this admonition is already direct, so requires no teasing out to see the connections. The stance that Payne pressed us to maintain, however, is as encouraging as it is arresting. Debates like those we are having over cultural matters easily provoke us to double down on our cultural preferences, resulting in another version of the deficient transformationalism driving the progressive agendas. Payne’s exhortation unto holy courage and gospel confidence, however, reminds us that the effects of belonging to Jesus, namely being a new creation, are matters of first importance. Christ’s resurrection produces a change in his elect, making a lack of renewal a denial of that first principle of the gospel: Christ risen from the grave triumphant over death and its effects. Further, we are not culture warriors simply on the other side of the aisle from those who are arguing for positions we find outside the bounds of our confession. Rather, we are called to trust that the gospel and Christ’s means of grace are enough to achieve God’s saving purposes without needing to accommodate the culture.

Harry Reeder reflected upon his forty years of PCA ministry, sharing stories that shaped him in his pastoral character and convictions that guide his practice. He emphasized the need to steward all that God gives us, including our upbringing and whatever it contributes to who we are as well as to commit to proclaiming what God has given us in his Word as the constitution for faithful doctrine and life as his church. The payoff for our moment as the PCA is to recover a sense of value for the denomination we have historically been, including our witness to traditional Christian values alongside winsome confessionalism.

Ian Hamilton shared insights about the history of the Church of Scotland, drawing connections to the approach with which evangelicals within it acted concerning more recent controversies that arguably allowed it to drift to where it is today. The main upshot from Hamilton’s observations as a firsthand participant in some of those debates is that too often evangelicals long for cultural prominence, so tolerate too much until it is too late, leaving the church without prominence or relevance. In our day, the PCA seems to be at a moment wherein many want to hold to culturally palatable stances concerning some of society’s most contested problems, especially issues around LGBTQ+ topics. The Church of Scotland’s acceptance of these practices – and we might add other progressive denominations like the PCUSA – has roots in decisions from previous generations where confessionalists remained too passive and accepting regarding problems developing in the church. Confessionalists in the PCA should learn from that history, to see that cultural accommodation and passive compromise are not the routes to societal significance or faithful mission, but the path to irrelevance.

Richard Phillips lectured about the importance of public worship to be led by the church’s ordained officers. Far from a tangent to the issues afflicting the PCA, ordinary means of grace ministry lies at the heart of our debates. The version of transformationalism espoused by some sets aside the importance of Word and sacrament ministry in favor of attaining a cultural prominence as the church’s goal. The proper mission of the church is reasserted when office-bearers emphatically direct our means of grace ministry because it shows how God commissions men for this special kingdom task. The culture is not the task of the Kingdom of Christ because God has not instituted ecclesiastical officers devoted to its care. A flimsiness of leadership in worship blurs the church’s commissioned mission with other ordinary vocations, suggesting that our true purpose is to affect something “out there” rather than to be faithful as God’s gathered people.

From start to finish, the lectures from the GRN National Conference 2022 describe the shape of belonging to Jesus at the individual and corporate levels. The gospel and Christ’s work for and in us is not defined by who we are and the bounds of how far God might be able to change us but by who Christ is and the extent of the power of his resurrection life that he grants to his people by faith.