Becoming Reformed: A Crisis of Conscience

Following nearly two years (1975-76) of ministry in Peterborough, England, my wife and I (along with our son, Scott, who had been born in Peterborough) packed our belongings and returned to the U.S. We immediately began paperwork to enter Canada.

Canadian-flagFinally, the necessary documents arrived and we began the trek to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in March of 1978 – now a family of four as Lois had given birth to our daughter, Rebecca, during those months of waiting. We would have one more child, Elisabeth, during the Dartmouth years.

With no contacts, save for, Don & Janice Robins, New Brunswick Bible Institute (NBBI) classmates who were planting a church just outside Dartmouth with the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada (FEBCC), we arrived in Dartmouth to plant a congregation from scratch. It was both an exciting and terrifying prospect.

Don Robins introduced me to Clair & Betty Hofstetter who were planting a congregation with the FEBCC – in Dartmouth of all places! Their work was located in a newly-developing part of the city called Forest Hills. My target area was the older, central core of the city.

Shortly after settling in Dartmouth, Clair Hofstetter introduced me to two of the leaders in the FEBCC. They listened as I shared my vision to plant an independent church in Dartmouth. When they invited me to consider planting with the FEBCC, I declined because I was committed to establishing independent, fundamental, dispensationalist Church. The FEBCC, while having many pastors with dispensationalist leanings, took an open position on eschatology. I was not ready for that much openness.

Despite my reticence to be closely identified with the FEBCC, Clair and I became good friends. In God’s providence, within four years I would become pastor of the church he planted – Forest Hills Fellowship Baptist Church. But that is a story for a future post.

Open-Bible-Baptist-ChurchOver the next two years, God blessed the work that ultimately became Open Bible Baptist Church. I did not plant this church alone. Along with my wife, the Mission placed a single woman, Alice Sand, and a couple, Rob & Donna Heijermans to work along with us. It was a great team, and we were blessed to see people coming to faith in Christ, being baptized, and growing in spiritual maturity.

The Mission with whom we served was (and still is) decidedly independent, fundamental and dispensational. As members of WEF, we were required to annually sign the doctrinal statement, declaring that we held these beliefs without mental reservation. It was a signature that I had freely and gladly given since joining the Mission in 1972. And as expected, the church we planted subscribed to the same tightly-defined doctrinal statement.

TulipsHowever, concurrent with planting this congregation, I was continuing to read reformed literature – particularly as it related to the doctrine of salvation. I was wrestling with the implications of five doctrines known by the acronym, T.U.L.I.P

Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

Because the reformed authors I was reading generally embraced Covenant Theology and were amillennial or postmillennial, I was constantly challenged regarding my dispensational, premillenialism. And while I still retained a commitment to dispensational premillennialism (including a pretribulational rapture – a core doctrinal conviction of the Mission); I was beginning to have questions.

The-Church-and-the-Tribulation-Robert-GundrySomewhere along the way, not particularly related to my exploration of T.U.L.I.P., I read The Church and the Tribulation by Robert H. Gundry. His posttribulational apologetic rattled my confidence in a pretribulational rapture. I still believed, but the questions were growing.

Someone, I don’t recall who right now, gave me John A. Sproule’s In Defense of Pretribulationism, a detailed review and rebuttal of Gundry’s book. I read this 64-page In-Defense-of-Pretribulationism-John-Sproulebooklet several times, making copious notes. Rather than solidifying my commitment to a pretribulational rapture, it further eroded my confidence in the position.

The annual signing of the Mission’s doctrinal statement loomed, and while I could still sign it, I could not sign it without reservations. My growing commitment to a reformed soteriology, coupled with an eroding confidence in an airtight case for a pretribulational rapture, was leading to a crisis of conscience.

 

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Becoming Reformed: The Banner of Truth Connection

It was sometime in the late months of 1973, while I was seeking prayer and financial support for the church planting ministry I anticipated with Worldwide European Fellowship (now Biblical Ministries Worldwide) in England and eventually Nova Scotia, Canada, that a pastor who I highly respected asked: “Your mission doesn’t expect some kind of major revival in England before the end of the age, does it?” I replied, “No, but we do need to keep preaching the gospel and planting churches even though things will continue to get worse by the day.”

I was neither surprised nor bothered by the question, since both he and I were convinced dispensational premillennialists expecting only a worsening of world conditions, certainly not a worldwide revival. The branch of Christianity in which I was raised and trained for ministry held a generally pessimistic view of the future. As Christians we needed to hunker down, stand for the truth, and wait for the Rapture.

As noted in my last post, through the kindness of Pastor David Bugden I was introduced to the the Westminster Fellowship. When I attended my first meeting, at Westminster Chapel in London, I discovered the church had a book room, stocked with reformed literature, much of it published by the Banner of Truth Trust. That book room would play a significant role in my theological development as each month I loaded up on as many books as I could carry back on the train to Peterborough.

PuritanHopeSo, what does a book room at Westminster Chapel have to do with my pessimistic view of the future, you ask? It was in this book room that I discovered The Puritan Hope: A Study in Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy, a fascinating book by Ian Murray published by the Banner of Truth Trust.

As one reviewer wrote:

Murray’s thoughtful book challenges evangelicals to re-examine their thinking about the return of Christ. He carefully develops the basis for the sense of conviction and purpose that motivated Carey, Wilberforce and many others to do great works for Christ. Arguing that the “fullness of the Gentiles” must precede the conversion of Israel as prophesied in Romans 11, and that both of these events have not yet occurred, and that they portend far greater influence and triumph for the Church on the Earth, Murray lovingly challenges those who are of a “sit at home and wait for the rapture” mentality. He explains how and why the Puritans came to their eschatological beliefs; how these were perverted, primarily in modern times, by men like Edward Irving and J.N. Darby; why we’ve stopped thinking critically about these theories; and how we must recapture the confident expectation of Christ’s triumphant end-time revival of Gentiles, then all Israel, before his return in glory. Excellent and thought-provoking.

For the first time, I was exposed to proponents of a post-millennial view.

“Postmillennialism” comes from a term that means, literally, “after the thousand years”. Thus, it is essentially a way of interpreting Revelation 20, which six times mentions a period of a thousand years, during which Satan is bound and believers reign with Christ. Postmillennialists believe that Christ will return after a future golden age of prosperity on the earth, during which time the gospel will have been fruitful in all the world, bringing peace and security to all. Postmillennialists look to the many prophecies in the Old Testament which speak of a coming time of great blessing and prosperity (e.g. Psalm 22:25-31; Psalm 72; Isaiah 2:1-5), and see those passages as demanding a future period of gospel success that will be vastly greater and fundamentally different from what Church history has displayed so far, of the Kingdom spreading in the midst of much affliction and persecution. In the Postmillennial interpretation, Revelation 20 is a passage which describes this future period of blessing that the Old Testament prophets look ahead to.

While some Postmillennialists believe that the future golden age of the earth will be literally and precisely one thousand years in duration, many of them see the “thousand years” as a more poetic way of speaking, and only believe that there will be a lengthy time of peace and well-being on the earth in the future, but not necessarily exactly one thousand years.

[Taken from Monergism.com]

Several things came together for me in this discovery. First, though I was not then, (and am not now) a postmillennialist, I realized that many godly men and women did hold this view – a view routinely discounted among my Christian friends and colleagues. Secondly, I discovered that these Puritans were energized by their postmillennial convictions. Passion for world mission and evangelistic preaching were not the attributes of the Calvinism I had heard about growing up. Refusing to succumb to pessimism, these Calvinistic postmillennialists pushed forward, confidently believing in the power of the gospel to change everything. This may seem insignificant, but it contributed to my openness to consider theological positions I had been taught to reject out of hand.

ForgottenSpurgeonOn one of those monthly visits to the book room, I came across another Ian Murray title, The Forgotten Spurgeon. I grew up hearing about Spurgeon, the great evangelistic Baptist pastor, so I wondered what Murray meant by “forgotten”. I soon discovered the “forgotten” part of Spurgeon was his fervent Calvinism. Who would have believed that the man who led thousands to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, baptizing over 14,000 in his London ministry, was a 5-point Calvinist?

A third Banner title which was formative in my thinking was a little book entitled, Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic, by Walter Chantry, a reformed Baptist pastor in today's-gospel--walter-j-chantryCarlisle, Pennsylvania. Chantry challenged my evangelistic methodology by exploring how Jesus dealt with the inquiries of the rich young man who asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life. At that time, I would have simply led the young man in reciting a sinner’s prayer. Jesus, however, challenged this inquirer with who God is, along with the crucial need for repentance from sin and the necessity of acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It was a far most robust evangelism than my “making a decision for Christ.”

As noted in my last post, when we left England in 1976, I was not reformed, not yet a full-fledged 5-point Calvinist, but the three books mentioned above, interaction with reformed men at the Westminster Fellowship, and the discovery that many godly men and women did not embrace a dispensationalist hermeneutic all contributed to my rethinking my theological convictions.

By the Spring of 1978, we were located in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Still serving with the same church planting mission, now renamed WEFMinistries (the mission was opening new fields beyond Europe), my goal was to plant an independent, fundamental Bible preaching church that embraced a dispensationalist hermeneutic. It was an exciting time as I was finally in the province where I had wanted to plant a church since graduating from the New Brunswick Bible Institute in 1970.

Banner-of-Truth-books (250x204)While I’ve only noted three Banner of Truth titles, I was being influenced by other Banner titles – commentaries, histories, and collections of sermons. As I read and reflected on these works, Bible in hand, my thinking was challenged in ways  that would significantly alter my future ministry.

Next time: A Crisis of Conscience

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Becoming Reformed: David Bugden & the Westminster Fellowship

I can still see the council representing 13 churches who had gathered for my ordination council on Saturday afternoon April 7, 1973. The prevailing theology of the council was pre-tribulational, dispensationalist, and I was in my element. As the questioning drew to a close, a council member posed the following question:

“David, you will be going to England to work alongside another church-planting missionary. In England you will meet Pastors who are amillennialists. How will you handle that?”

My reply was confident and unhesitating:

“If they invited me to preach in their church, I would probably go, as long as they didn’t prohibit me from preaching what I believe to be true. However, I would never invite them to preach in my church because an amillennialist has to spiritualize Scripture to get their position, and we all know that spiritualizing Scripture is one step away from liberalism.”

Immediately around the room I heard,

“Amen.” “That’s right, brother.” “Never let go of that.”

I knew at that moment, I had passed the council.

The next day an ordination service was held and I was “set apart to the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” April 7th & 8th, 1973 are wonderful days in my memory. I am grateful for the godly men who sat on that examining council, seeking God’s will regarding the validity of my call to vocational pastoral ministry. I thank God that they believed he had called me into a lifetime of gospel ministry.

Fast forward to the Spring of 1975.

Warboys baptist_churchMy wife and I had arrived in England to work under an experienced church-planter for the next two years before heading off the Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to plant a church under the same mission. Shortly after arriving, I was told about a good preacher serving in the Baptist Church located in the village of Warboys, not far from Peterborough where we were living and working.

Pastor David BugdenBecause our church-plant services were in the afternoon, we were free to attend the morning worship in Warboys where David Bugden was pastor. We found David & Pamela Bugden to be warm and hospitable, as they opened their home to this young, American couple whose pre-tribulational, dispensational theology was quite removed from their reformed, amillennialist covenant theology. Somewhere along the way, Pastor Bugden asked me if I would like to attend the Westminster Fellowship chaired by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. This monthly meeting of approximately 200 pastors from across the country brought me face-to-face with a variety of pastors who embraced reformed theology – most of whom were likely amillennialists.

Those monthly meetings drew me into the reformed world in a way that would have taken years back in North America, because I had no personal acquaintance with anyone who was reformed. At the time, I would have said I was a Calvinist, but by that I only meant I believed if someone was truly born-again, they could not lose their salvation. I was a “once saved, always saved” evangelical Christian. I would soon discover that robust Calvinism runs a bit deeper than that – quite a bit deeper.

Westminster Chapel - LondonThe pastors’ gatherings at Westminster Chapel in London were a highlight for me. The invigorating discussion – the morning session normally explored a theological question and the afternoon session discussed some practical matter of doing ministry – and the fellowship with other pastors opened my eyes to a much wider body of Christians than I had been exposed to.

And so, thanks to the kindness of Pastor David Bugden, I was introduced to some “one-step-away-from-liberalism” pastors, and to my chagrin, I encountered godly men who loved Christ and his Word. They were faithful servants of the Lord, and I was ashamed of how I had thought of them back in the safety of my dispensationalist ghetto. Their reformed convictions ran far beyond the clichéd “once saved, always saved” Calvinism under which I had been raised and trained.

five-points-calvinismI cannot say that my soteriology (doctrine of salvation) was fully reformed when I left England in December of 1976, but I was clearly on the way to embracing what is commonly called 5-point Calvinism.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and the men of the Westminster Fellowship, opened a new world for me. They enabled me to see that thoroughly reformed men with a very different hermeneutic from the dispensationalist one under which I had been nurtured clearly loved Christ, his church, the Word, and longed for the salvation of sinners. They were utterly unlike the caricatured “one-step-away-from-liberals” I had been warned about.

I was still a pre-tribulational, dispensationalist, but with a fresh appreciation for how other equally committed believers read Scripture. I was hungry to understand the reformed nature of salvation – the so-called five points. The door was now open – the theological journey was underway as we made our way back to the U.S., and eventually, in the Spring of 1978,  into eastern Canada.

I am grateful for Pastor David Bugden who kindly overlooked the brash fundamentalism of a young American church planter, believing I would benefit from the experience of the Westminster Fellowship.

Next time: The Banner of Truth connection.

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Becoming Reformed: My Introduction

Banner-of-Truth-TrustMy introduction to reformed soteriology began in 1975, when my wife and I were serving with a church-planting mission in Peterborough England. A colleague in Germany, serving with the same mission, asked me to order some books for him from Banner of Truth Trust in Edinburgh, Scotland – these were the days before online shopping.

A couple of weeks after placing the order, I received a package from Banner of Truth with their latest catalog and the current issue of their magazine. I can still see the picture of theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949), an American Calvinist considered by many to be the father of Reformed Biblical Theology, on the front cover of the magazine. But what stands out most in my memory is an excerpt from a commentary on the Psalms written by William S. Plumer (1802-1880), an American Presbyterian pastor and theologian.

Psalms-W-S-PlumerI was captivated by Plumer’s insight and ability in applying timeless biblical truth to everyday matters of Christian living. I ordered a copy of the commentary which I continue to consult to this day. In future posts hope to write more on what I find inviting about Puritan commentators.

Studies in the Book of Psalms: Being a Critical and Expository Commentary with Doctrinal and Practical Remarks was first published in 1867 and reprinted by Banner of Truth Trust in 1975. It does not appear to be available from Banner now, but you can get a free digitized copy here.

I so enjoyed reading that sample issue of the monthly Banner of Truth magazine that I subscribed to it. And so I found myself entering a theological conversation far removed from the Scofieldian Dispensationalist world of fundamentalist Baptists in which I was raised. Today, 39 years later, I am still a Baptist, but now with a distinctly reformed view of soteriology – the doctrine of salvation.

I am thankful for that request to place that order of books with the Banner of Truth Trust, because in God’s providence, it opened a world of theological truth I had not really encountered even though I had graduated from Bible School, been ordained to gospel ministry, and was nearly five years into vocational ministry.

Founded in London (1957), the Banner of Truth Trust was a clear leader in reintroducing the reformed theology of Puritans to 20th century Christians. We owe a great debt to the vision and tenacity of men like Ian Murray and Jack Cullum who believed that much good could result in bringing the riches of Puritan theology back into the conversation. You can read about the beginnings of the respected Christian publisher here.

If you are hungry for something beyond the ubiquitous guide-to-losing-weight-through-healthy-eating, better-marriage-through-exciting-sex, biblical-principles-for-growing-wealth, five-minutes-with-God, approach to Christian living, you may find reading the Puritans a refreshing change.

The Banner of Truth Trust is a great place to stop by on your journey to a deeper, more robust theology.

More about the journey coming …..

 

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Highly gifted and in demand: But are you a pastor?

When asked what counsel he would leave with today’s Christian preachers, Haddon W. Robinson said:

Preach the Bible. If you don’t preach the Bible, you have nothing to preach. But don’t just preach the Bible. Preach the Bible to people. Understand your audience. Who are they? Pastors have a great advantage when they interact with their congregation. You know their hurts, problems, and questions. I think it is vitally important that the people in your congregation know that you love them. You want God’s best for them. When you do that, you capture something in your preaching that is vital and solid. [“Life-changing preaching: An Interview with Haddon W. Robinson”, Ministry, July, 2014]

I have been thinking about Robinson’s counsel after reading a couple of engaging posts by a well-known American evangelical pastor and consultant. This pastor is a highly gifted and skilled communicator and leader. But does he measure up in terms of Haddon Robinson’s counsel?

In addition to his responsibilities as Lead Pastor of a growing congregation, the above-mentioned evangelical pastor holds an executive position with a major publisher, is a contributing editor for a leading Christian publication, is a columnist for another magazine, overseas a major publishing project, and serves as a visiting professor at two leading seminaries. Further, he has authored many books and articles and is in demand as a consultant throughout the evangelical world.

In what way is this pastor really a pastor? What meaningful interaction does he have with the congregation he leads? What does he really know about his people – their burdens, hurts, questions, and fears? Is he a good pastor?

I do not mean to be overly critical of this man. He is passionate for the cause of Christ and he works hard. And there are many like him. My question relates to the pastoral call – to the solemn responsibility as an overseer of God’s people gathered in a local church. It concerns the increasing ways in which today’s pastors involve themselves in a growing array of activities not directly related to shepherding the congregations where they serve. My burden is that those of us who are called to be pastors need to be just that – pastors. It is a full-time responsibility.

We do well to reflect again on how the Scriptures define and describe pastoral ministry.

Acts 6:2–4 (ESV)
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

Acts 20:28 (ESV)
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

1 Timothy 4:13–16 (ESV)
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

1 Peter 5:1–3 (ESV)
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

However highly gifted and in demand you may be, if you have accepted the call to shepherd a congregation, give that solemn charge your full attention and energy. Be a true pastor.

 

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