A Challenge from ARP Moderator Jeff Kingswood to Synod

The ARP Moderator challenges his church to be a confessional church

Brothers, the way to reform in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is not through programs or politics.  The way to reformation is principled confessional Presbyterianism in action.  The meat and potatoes of the faith.  The truth of God’s Word. Horatius Bonar continues: “Let us honour the truth as God has done, as His apostles did, as our Reformers did.

On Tuesday June 11, the 2013 General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) convened and installed its new moderator, TE Jeff Kingswood of Grace Presbyterian Church in Woodstock, Ontario, Canada. TE Kingswood is the former editor of Pioneer Christian Monthly, a former board member of Ligonier Ministries in Canada, and currently serves as the Chairman of the Board for Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Moderator Kingswood chose as the emphasis for this year, “Confessing Christ: What a Confessional Church Looks Like.”

Derek Thomas preached at the opening worship service.

After communion, outgoing moderator Ruling Elder Steve Suits turned the gavel over to Moderator Kingswood, and Dr. John DeWitt gave the prayer for installation. Moderator Kingswood then challenged the Synod to think about what it means to be a confessional church. He presented the challenge with passion and conviction. The challenge is provided here.

Moderator’s Challenge to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Synod, June 2013

About twelve years ago I was privileged to spend some time in Great Britain and during several days in Wales was delighted to visit a few sites associated with the history of the Welsh revivals.  One afternoon as I stood looking at the grave marker of Evan Roberts at Moriah Chapel, in Swansea, a local lady clutching some grocery bags walked by.  Seeing my interest she smiled sadly and said to me, “We need it again.  Oh, we need it again.”  She hurried on by and I didn’t have chance to speak more with her but what the ‘it’ was, to which she was referring, must have been revival.  No one could argue with that fact.

Later in the week, preaching in a Welsh Presbyterian congregation, I noticed that portions of the liturgy could be traced to the days of the revival but now were simply distinctives of historical import and curiosity.  Having tasted of the wonderful work of the Spirit of God in revival the church in Wales seemed like a child hungering for dessert while neglecting the meat and potatoes.  I know that one short experience doesn’t tell the whole story but historically the pattern often holds true.

It struck me then, as I was beginning the work at Grace in Woodstock where I continue to minister but which was then a fledgling congregation newly received into the ARP, that like a child we needed to be taught anew the blessings of meat and potatoes.  We needed to emphasize the basics of biblical preaching and prayer, of church discipline, and biblically regulated worship.  In a world that is program mad and always eager for the next new thing that can seem a bland diet.

Iain Murray writes, in The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) (Banner of Truth Trust, 2013, p. 380), that many attempts by evangelicals to reform the church “had all failed to come to grips with the New Testament teaching on the nature of the church.  They had put expediency before principle . . . “We are forgetting the doctrine of the remnant.  We are trusting to expediency and expedients and not saying that, if we are faithful, the Holy Spirit has promised to honour us and our testimony however small our numbers and however despised by the ‘wise and prudent’.”

This surely was the sin of Israel, perhaps most powerfully illustrated in the days of Jeremiah when an alliance with Egypt, rather than dependence upon the God whom they professed, was seen to be the solution to their imminent national demise at the hands of the Chaldeans.

As humans we are so quick to trust in chariots and horses, as the Psalmist says (Ps. 20.7).  Whether that is some politician with messianic claims, a celebrity who claims our cause, a program that has successfully revitalized other churches, or a slogan campaign to capture people’s imaginations.

But what Psalm 20 goes on to say, in verses 7-9, is – Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright. O Lord, save the king! May he answer us when we call.

Is this our confession?  Do we trust in the name of the Lord our God?  Do we believe that He will answer when we call?

As a confessional church we profess to believe in the use of God appointed means.  We believe that our God in His Word has appointed means of grace, prayer, sacraments, and propositional truth proclaimed.  God has given us means of government and discipline, and a regulative principle of worship.  And it is in the use of these means that God normally works.  These are the meat and potatoes of the life of the Church of Jesus Christ.

And even in those exceptional times of revival it is these means that the Spirit uses.

Brothers and sisters, we have a tremendous heritage as Presbyterian Christians.  As we look at our Confession, our Form of Government and Book of Discipline, our Directory of Public Worship, and the description of the work of the church contained within them which we profess, we will find answers for most of the questions the contemporary church, and the world around it, are asking.

Often a problem of one sort or another comes before us at Session, or Presbytery, or Synod, and we quickly establish a committee to study and bring back a report.  Often we resort to politics in the constitution of the committee.  And then we expect the problem to be dealt with.  Surely what we ought to do is ask, “What do we already say that we believe about this?”  We are a Confessional Church!

My challenge to you today and in this year to come is to ask: What does a Confessional Church look like?  I think, I hope, that we could all articulate what that means in theory.  But what does it look like in practice?

What does that mean at the most fundamental level with regard to our understanding of the Word of God?  We find that spelled out in our Confession. Spelled out quite precisely as a matter of fact, and we see there in chapter one of the Confession what we believe concerning that Word and how that Word is our ultimate standard for faith and practice.  And that chapter undergirds the rest of the Confession and its Catechisms.  It is not ambiguous.  And we have subscribed to that.  We profess to believe it and accept that the Word of God is the standard by which we, and our ministry, will be measured.

Horatius Bonar, in his preface to the Catechisms of the Scottish Reformation, (1866) has written:

Now, disguise it as we may, truth is dogma.  Let men sneer at catechisms and creeds, as bondage and shackles, let them call them skeletons, or bones, or something more offensive still, these formularies are meant to be compilations of truth.  In so far as they can be shewn to contain error, let them be amended or flung aside, but in so far as they embody truth, let them be accepted and honoured as most helpful to the Christian life; not simply sustaining it, but also giving it stability and force; preventing its being weakened or injured by change, caprice, love of novelty, or individual self-will.

What does that mean for us as the ARP?

What does that mean for our worship?  That too has been dealt with and in recent years, because we are a Confessional Church, rather than simply having congregations ignore our Directory of Public Worship, we have worked through the courts of the Church to rewrite, rework, and adopt a uniform standard to which we all subscribe.  The parameters are wide, wider than some would like, narrower than others prefer, but we have worked that out as a denomination through appropriate channels and we have through our Presbyteries and Synods, adopted a standard, not a suggestion.

In like manner we have, as a Synod, worked to rewrite our Form of Government, and after countless man hours, hundreds of recommendations, and rewrite after rewrite, presented a Form of Government to the Synod where it will be adopted, modified, or rejected but once that process is over it will be our binding Form of Government.  The time and energy we’ve put into that show that we consider it to be important.  How many times have we done something as individuals, a session, or presbytery, only to have to reconsider it later because . . . we didn’t follow the Form of Government?  It is there to protect and guide the church in process and in justice so that our actions will be found to be faithful to the Word of God as summarised in our Confession.

We often point to the Erskines and the free offer of the gospel as our spiritual fore-bearers.  But do we understand what they stood for?  Yes, the free offer of the gospel, it sounds so appropriately evangelical, whatever that word has come to mean in our day.  But you see the Erskine’s were fighting a confessional battle.

Over the years in Scotland, the reformed understanding of how someone becomes a Christian had deviated from how the Confession of the Church summed up the biblical teaching on this subject.  The Marrow men, in accord with the Confession, said grace always precedes faith and repentance.  Repentance is not a condition of the gospel offer nor a condition of salvation, strictly speaking.  Repentance is never a cause of grace or a condition of grace but always a consequence of grace.  The Neonomians within the Church of Scotland had abandoned their Confession by teaching that someone’s penitence would merit God’s grace and forgiveness.  The Marrow men rightly pronounced this to be bondage and legalism.  And they called the church, not to some new program or political compromise, but they called the church to embrace the biblical truth that they had publicly professed in their subscription to the Confession of Faith!

Brothers, the way to reform in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is not through programs or politics.  The way to reformation is principled confessional Presbyterianism in action.  The meat and potatoes of the faith.  The truth of God’s Word.

Horatius Bonar continues: “Let us honour the truth as God has done, as His apostles did, as our Reformers did.  Let us fearlessly wield it; let us give it fair play and full swing everywhere.  It is ‘quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword.’  It is a fire, melting the iron; it is a hammer, breaking the rock in pieces.  Truth is not the feeble thing which men often think they can afford to disparage.  Truth is power; let it be treated and trusted as such” [Bonar, Catechisms of the Scottish Reformation, 1866].

Scott Cook is a student at Reformed Seminary in Charlotte, N.C.