An RTRGB Looks at Life and the PCA General Assembly 2016
by Joseph Franks
For the past 30 years I have been on a spiritual journey. One could say I have experienced four reformations.
My first reformation was in 1986 as I was rescued out of the darkness and brought into the light. It was on a Wednesday night in the mountains of North Carolina where the Holy Spirit broke my hard heart and caused me to desire Christ and his Gospel. While I certainly knew the content of the Gospel well before that evening, I consider that October night the time when I was born again. The effectual working of the Holy Spirit was alive and well.
My second reformation was in 1998. At that point I was serving on the staff of a very large independent Baptist church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Progressively, during my time there that I learned to value both the plurality of leadership and the sovereignty of God in granting grace to his beloved. It was in 1998 that I finally made the switch. I moved from North Carolina to Florida, and in the process transitioned from a more Episcopalian and Arminian practice to one that was Presbyterian and Reformed.
My third reformation happened somewhere around 2001-2003. I am not sure if it was age, distance, or a better understanding of the Scripture, but around the age of 30 I began to shed the bondage of my independent-fundamentalist tutelage. I was schooled in these circles from the sixth grade through college. I was further refined by fundamentalists in my early church years. It took some time, but through God’s grace and Spirit I finally began to be able to discern the difference between God’s rules found in Scripture and man’s rules added to Scripture. From that point on, I continued to desire holiness, but I also learned how to enjoy many formerly forbidden aspects of culture — gifts, privileges, rights, and practices allowed by God but contrary to the teachings of my more legalistic fathers and friends.
Then came my fourth reformation, and I suppose I am in the midst of it at this present time. In this current season of reformation, revival and change, God is teaching me two things:
First, I am learning how to better understand and appreciate Law and Grace. Never before has the good law of God seemed so high and unreachable. Clearer than ever I see the futility of thinking I can merit the pleasure of God. More than ever, I see the unilateral, undeserved, free grace of Christ bestowed upon me. I am really starting to see how dirty I am and how much I am loved. How refreshing to realize I can never be closer to Jesus. Additionally, I can never be farther from Jesus. When he looks at me, he sees Jesus Christ and his righteousness. By grace alone, I am OK through and through. And oh, how this makes me desire to honor him by walking in holiness. I guess I would characterize myself as a “Really Totally Reformed Grace Boy” who desires to better learn how to more consistently enjoy and glorify my Father in heaven. (And yes … I did mean to switch those last two words from the Westminster Catechism.)
Second, I am learning how to better discern and appreciate the difference between the sometimes good and useful “Tradition of the Elders” and the always beneficial and required “Law of God.” Scripture alone governs the conscience of the believer. Therefore, while there are many good reasons why individuals and corporate bodies choose to bind themselves with extra-bilbical rules and fences, these traditions must not be confused with the laws of God and the righteous license granted by him. Consequently, in my private and corporate worship, I am always bound by Scripture. Additionally, due to my vows, I am presently bound to honor the PCA constitutional restraints. However, I am really free from all other traditions of elders. In my life today, I am enjoying more freedom and less fear. Just as I was freed from the legalistic bondage of my independent-fundament friends, I am currently being freed from the legalistic bondage of my white, upper-middle-class, traditional, southern presbyterian brothers. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not against them. I do not dislike them. I love worshiping with them and look a lot like them. However, I have liberty, and I do not have to be just like them.
So, there is my personal journey. Four reformations have been experienced and enjoyed:
- From being lost to being found
- From being an Arminian-Episcopalianism to being a Reformed-Presbyterianism
- From being a Fundamentalist to being an Evangelical
- From being Totally Reformed to being a Really Totally Reformed Grace Boy
Now, that being said, I wish to explain why I find myself encouraged and not troubled by this year’s PCA General Assembly.
First, some are troubled by a decision of Covenant Seminary to change a category title from Systematic Theology to Missional Theology. Friends, according to the seminary, the content has not changed. They are still passionately interested in producing graduates firmly rooted in the Bible and our Reformed constitutional documents. According to our academic brothers, only the concluding emphasis seems to have been highlighted. Covenant Seminary wishes to emphasize systemic theology and doctrine that leads to worshipful application, or as Alistair Begg states, “Where the learning is for living.” Scripture tells us how dangerous it is to be puffed up with knowledge; we have all seen individuals who are doctrinal cup-de-sacs. How wise and prudent it is to hear and do that which Jesus commands. Let us not be overly suspicious regarding a name change. To me it is like someone crying “foul” or “liberal” when a local church changes “Sunday School” to “Christian Education” or when a denomination changes “Christian Education and Publications” to “Christian Discipleship Ministries.” Let’s not fret. Let’s relax and pray. From my own perspective, I and my friends could use some increased emphasis on putting into practice that which we have put in our heads.
Second, some are troubled by the freedom for PCA brothers to hold and teach differences of views in relation to the Sabbath. This has always been a part of our PCA heritage. Additionally, this predates us; such liberty has always been a part of our Reformed heritage. Contrary to the statements of some, there really is a significant difference in the views of the Westminster Divines and those in the older, continental, reformed community. (Read my thesis, “Seventeenth Century Westminster Sabbatarianism: A Deviation from the Reformed Consensus” found at Westminster Theological Seminary.) Friends, not all the Westminster Divines believed that which was finally voted on and approved by majority consent. On almost all their doctrinal statements, there were minority views and verbal scruples. Therefore, why be troubled when diligent men, who love God’s Word, and value all ten of his moral commandments, rest and holiday differently, and then honestly share their scruples or contrary views based on their biblically-based rational. We stand on the backs of fathers who allowed such doctrinal differences. We need not be tighter than they.
Third, some are troubled by the corporate acknowledgement and confession of our denomination and Reformed fathers’ racial sins — whether they be sins of commission or omission. As part of a covenant community, with great delight we rejoice in the blessings of our presbyterian heritage. Then, with great delight we praise God for the strengths of our current denomination. He has done great things. He is doing great things. However, with great diligence it is good to repent over the transgressions of some of our churches and church fathers, and with great diligence it is good to seek to improve those areas in our current denomination which are lacking. Friends, it is an honorable endeavor to proactively seek a multi-ethnic denomination filled with multi-ethnic churches, multi-ethnic ministers, and multi-ethnic marriages. This is what the Father intends. This is what the Father seeks. This is what the Father has, and it is currently being enjoyed in the Church Victorious.
Finally, some are troubled by a study committee which was formed to focus on “Women in Ministry.” Personally, I do like the sentiment expressed by one, “Who would not want to study the Bible and further declare all it allows in the modern context of church ministry?” True, the Bible has not changed. Yes, God’s viewpoint has not morphed in any way. However, under his providential care the world and the church have greatly changed throughout the centuries. The question for today is one of doctrinal application or missional theology: “What are all the ways women can minister appropriately in our modern context?” What a tremendous question! What a great resource a paper written by some of my fathers and heroes can be! Brothers and sisters, I can’t wait to see what my more-traditional friends on the study committee present for my and my church’s edification. Additionally, consider the purpose of continual studying and presenting findings to the church. If no more study is needed on practical matters, then why do we as ministers labor so hard to put forth our sermons? Should we merely read the Bible, read the Confession, read the Catechism, and call it a day? No, all of us understand the need to apply the counsel of God to our current life situations. This is a great opportunity for learned men and women to help us interpret and apply the timeless instruction of our God. Lord willing, this is not a step towards unwarranted license, but it might be a step away from legalistic bondage.
All that being said, it was an encouraging week. It was thrilling to see many like-minded ministers. I was incredibly encouraged by the seminars and sermons. I heard good reports from our denominational schools and ministries. I came back more excited to be a Christian. I came back more excited to be a Reformed Christian. And this year, I even came back more excited to be a Reformed PCA Christian. It should be a good year to serve in a church that values Missional Theology, Sabbath Charity, Multi-ethnic Diversity, and Women Doing Ministry alongside their male ordained friends.