Displaying the Hope of the Gospel in Jesus

June 22, 2016
This week we have asked leaders from Reformed denominations five questions. Each day this week we will feature one of these denominations. Earlier this week Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in America were featured. Today the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is our focus. Return to iAt through the week to read more from leaders in the church.
  1. What do you see as the largest challenge for the Reformed community in the coming decade?

It might be tempting to think, especially in the current political climate in which we live, that the greatest challenge before the church is that of militant secularism or possibly even Islamic extremism. While these challenges are great, history has reiterated the point that persecution is often a refining crucible for the church. There is no doubt that many of the freedoms and privileges Christians have enjoyed in the US are under attack, and that we need to pray and work toward the end that God would protect our freedoms to worship, evangelize, and even raise our families according to the Bible. More and more Christians with conservative views are being singled out as the new ‘racists’ whose views of biblical sexuality are being radically opposed by a stridently secular culture.

While these challenges are humbling and daunting to confront, I would like to suggest that the largest challenge before the Reformed community is the seductive influence of postmodern ideas within the church. We live in an intellectual climate in which truth is no longer inherited; rather, it is invented. As what it means to be an evangelical is more and more broadly defined, the Reformed community will have to determine how much of its theological identity is it willing to sacrifice on the altar of numerical growth and cultural acceptability. In light of this, evangelism is going to become a necessary hallmark of what it means to be a vital, flourishing church. We would do well to remember that the effect of sacrificing our theological identity for the sake of evangelism is this decade will be that of watching a generation arise who ‘knows not the Reformed faith.’ Thus, the challenge before us is to wisely discern how to evangelize the lost into the church’s front door without walking our reformed identity out the back door.

  1. How do you see ecumenism balancing with denominationalism in the coming decade? Do both have a place in an ideal world?

More and more the day is passing when churches will be defined simply by ethnic and cultural identity. Social media has made the world very small; we can travel broadly without even leaving our homes. That said, nothing replaces genuine fellowship, and local churches need siblings and warm fellowship, and building these bridges in healthy ways will provide much needed fellowship and encouragement in a day and age in which Christians might easily feel socially ostracized and isolated. Yet even apart from these pressures, pursuing ecumenicity is a biblical imperative. In other words, the Bible commands us to pursue peace and harmony with others who are in the body of Christ. Our Form of Government readily acknowledges this. I am writing this while attending our General Assembly, at which I have listened to numerous addresses from delegates from other Reformed denominations, each addressing the importance of maintaining fraternal relationships with one another. These relationships are obviously harder to foster the greater the distance is between other churches and ourselves.

While this distance is especially felt in local churches, it is also something that can be happily addressed. Too often pastors and churches can treat one another with suspicion, criticism, or even like competition. But is that necessary? Good friendships and sweet fellowship can be enjoyed, even with those who are not in our own denominations. Our church has striven to reach out to other churches for fellowship and even finds ways to serve our community together, and the Lord has blessed my family personally, as well as our church through these relationships. It has also helped our church build a positive reputation in our area. We need to embrace the reality that even though we may not always agree with our neighbors, we still need one another. As the Proverb says, “better is a neighbor nearby than a brother far away” (Proverbs 27:10).

  1. If you could set one goal for your denomination to attain in the next decade, what would it be?

If I could set one goal for our denomination it would be that of doing more evangelism. Yet in saying that, it needs to be pointed out that the OPC actually has a rich history of fervent evangelism, expressed in different ways over the decades. The denomination was born out of a concern that the gospel was no longer being preached by certain missionaries. In earlier decades, pastors in the OPC went door to door doing evangelism—and this became the foundation of many of our churches. Even now, various evangelism outposts exist from the Boardwalk Chapel in New Jersey, to the ongoing evangelistic work in Key West, to the fervent efforts being expressed in numerous local churches. The point is that our denomination has had a strong commitment to the work of evangelism, though at times we have been distracted, and in some instances, become regrettably introverted.

I’m firmly convinced that we actually have many effective tools for responding to the challenges of postmodernism within our disposal. The OPC is the denomination of Cornelius Van Til, who left us not only a rich apologetic method, but also the memory of himself standing out on street corners sharing the gospel and teaching students to do the same. We also have a robust doctrine of the church. Many postmoderns, despite all their apparent indifference, strongly sense their need for community and the need to be part of a meaningful, coherent story. There is no greater story in history than that of Christ’s church! By displaying the hope of Christ in the gospel and the love of Christ in the church, we have much to give to this broken world. The question is: will we cultivate and nourish a culture of evangelism, or allow our churches to become overly introverted Reformed ghettos?

  1. What does it mean to be Reformed? Is this different than being “Reformational?” What is more important?

This an important question, and may strike at the heart of what divides us from at least some of our sister churches. It could be suggested that the language of being “reformed” is both a theological as well as an historical term. It is theological in the sense of being rooted in and expressing a system of doctrine taught in Scripture and summarized in the Reformed creeds and confessions. The 5 Solas of the Reformation are certainly a starting point for what it means to be Reformed, but they do not encapsulate all that it means to be reformed. Reformed theology begins and ends with the glory of God, and has at its foundation a robust view of Scripture.

One of the great pastoral concerns of the Reformation was freedom of conscience. No one could bind human’s conscience but God, and thus Scripture defined the boundaries of conscience. The 16th century Reformers sought to liberate the church from the abuses and excesses of the Roman Catholic Church that were being imposed upon the laity by the self-exalted church hierarchy. The word of humankind was being exalted to the level of the word of God. Today, the same problem exists; only it runs from the bottom up. The consumerism of modern America and the generational narcissism (the idea that history basically begins with us, and that what came before us really does not matter) is the sublime engine behind much of the rapid change taking place in the church. Thus, the idea of being “Reformational” too easily becomes a regrettable distortion of the idea of the church “always reforming.” It might be suggested that the church needs to go ‘back to the future,’ recovering things that have been lost or sacrificed along the way; lest our theological identity become indistinguishable from that of Evangelicalism. The Reformed faith is still grand, as Machen said, and we need to stop pretending to be embarrassed or hindered by it.

  1. How should the church balance the tension of living in the already and the not yet?

History tells a sometimes uncomfortable story of the path God’s people must take from the City of Destruction to the City of God, to quote Pilgrim’s Progress (Machen’s favorite book). It is noteworthy that at points in history, when the church has enjoyed great seasons of numerical strength and cultural acceptance, she has viewed herself like Israel going in to conquer and settle the land. This mindset was certainly enjoyed by many of our countries forefathers who saw departing Europe and colonizing the states as a sort of new Exodus with a glorious inheritance before them. However, at other times in church history, when the church has endured persecution and martyrdom, she pleads with the Psalmist that God might rescue and vindicate her from her enemies. During these times of trial, the church fixes her hope in heaven, not on the things and places of this world.

While not wanting to press this distinction too far, the contemporary church needs to learn to keep her eyes on Christ—constantly. For there, in heaven with him, is our true hope and joy. There, as Paul says in Colossians 3, is where we find our life. Our life is hidden with Christ in God. The more we fix our eyes upon him, the less we will allow this world in which we live to define our story, and the more the gospel will instead. There is little doubt that the church is about to face remarkable struggles in this country. Temptations to compromise and conform to the world will be legion. How shall we go forward? Here again our hearts are refreshed as we return to the fount of Scripture and remember that there is truly nothing new under the sun; only changing seasons. God still speaks to us in his word, and it is to his voice we must listen. The letters to churches in Revelation, speaking to persecuted churches, still speak to us. He calls us to return to our first love, and resist being seduced by the world. Christ is still King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He reigns, and because he does, we can entrust ourselves to the resurrected Lord of history, finding fellowship both in his suffering and in his triumphant glory. As Hebrews 13:14 reminds, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”

About the Author
  • Eric Watkins is Pastor of Covenant OPC in St. Augustine, FL, and holds a PhD from the Theological University in Kampen, the Netherlands.

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