Covenant Promise and Covenant Community in Christ
For our third installment of this series looking at the distinctives (or what should be distinctive) about the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church we’ll be in our next to last article on the nature of the preaching of the gospel of grace. The reason why we are spending more time on this is that if there is a weakness in the contemporary reformed and Presbyterian world it is in our proclamation of the word. Too much of what is done on the Lord’s Day morning and evening is powerless and meek. It contains truth, biblical exegesis, and good structure but it lacks life. That’s not to say reformed preaching needs to be boisterous and loud. We can confuse passion with lively exhortation. In his writing on the subject John Mitchell Mason (an ARP minister and theologian who served two ARP congregations in New York City in the early 1800s) warns about the ease by which men can draw a crowd by mere emotional manipulation. He says:
It is lamentable that so large a proportion of conversions, which are the fruit of tumultuous meetings, and the theme of newspaper praise, prove to be of [fanaticism]. Dark views, gross ignorance, and even flat contradictions in the simplest truths of Christianity, are no obstacle. Thousands go from sin to God, from nature to grace, from condemnation to pardon, from despondency to rapture, and when asked about the process by which this marvelous transition was accomplished, have little or nothing to say, but they have felt so!
What we read above is not foreign to our understanding in the 21st century. We see many big churches around us who are built on a foundation of experience. You know the image. Warehouse-style building with expensive lighting rigs, well-oiled musical performances, with a pastor who looks the part. Everything is coached, organized, and delivered with aplomb. Yet, there is actually something we can learn from it. It’s the way the speakers connect with their audiences. Good, direct Christian preaching comes from knowing who you are talking to. There is a comprehension of their needs, struggles, and application which reaches into the real world. I know it sounds crazy for me to be actually saying something nice about our non-denom friends, but there is a reason, however we might disagree with the means, why they are connecting in a way that the Reformed churches are not. The cool thing about it is that we need not either reinvent the wheel or give in to the fanaticism which John Mason cautions about above. Our tradition already has a doctrine of preaching that provides an answer.
If you come into my study, after you get shocked by the deer head overseeing my daily work, you’ll see two portraits. One is of Thomas Cartwright, the OG English Presbyterian, and above him, a founder of the Associate church, Alexander Moncrieff. Moncrieff is my mentor in many ways when it comes to the ethos of what makes the ARP, the ARP. His sermons exhibit the kind of application that should be part and parcel of how the good news of Jesus Christ is parceled out in our churches. Unfortunately, most of his works are not accessible online (though to be sure we must be graciously supportive of the providential blessing of having not just his, but lots of quality, faithful reformed works available on the internet). However, there is one which provides the exact kind of example we need to understand the importance of engaged, focused, and clear preaching which should be a hallmark of ours.
The sermons are bundled together under the title Christ’s Call to the Rising Generation and as you might surmise from the title it is geared towards the youth of his church. His concern is not new, nor is it unique to Moncrieff’s world. Every minister struggles with how to reach young people as they transition from childhood to the adult world. So many churches lose that next generation of leadership during the college years. In order to try and deal with that Moncrieff proposes a few applications. First he wants the youth to understand the covenantal relationship they have with Jesus and the local congregation they are a part of. Too many Presbyterian bodies today fall into a Baptistic way of thinking when it comes to how they integrate boys and girls as they become men and women. Moncrieff says:
That as the rising generation have the greatest need of Christ, and of the grace of Christ, so as to whatever discouragements they may meet with in coming to Christ, yet you should know that you have abundant encouragement from Himself, who has said, suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
Moncrieff reminds them first of their specifically being bidden to be His and that foundation is, and should be sufficient, to understand that there is no time where they are not His and become His. As Presbyterians we don’t believe in any teaching which would posit an age of accountability. Our culture may not recognize them as adults until they are twenty-six, but we know them to be so as soon as they can speak, and even before by virtue of the covenant promise made to them in baptism. Preaching in ARP churches must not assume anything. All, but especially children, need called to close in Christ. There needs to be an ownership of faith in the certainties of the gospel exhibited in the life of children as they embrace the promises of hope found alone in the Savior of sinners. Our pulpit ministry must reflect that need.
Moncrieff’s words testify next that part of the problem the church has with teenage youth especially is that we expect so little of them. As I have noted before if we can expect fourteen year-olds (and younger) to learn Algebra they can easily comprehend Justification. We need to challenge them to become mature in Christ. Moncrieff again:
And seeing God giveth Himself to you through Christ, it is your great business, in the strength of grace, to accept of God in Christ to be your chief end. To aim at His glory in all you do. (1 Cor. 10:31). And to accept of Him your chief happiness, the rest of your souls and the delight of your heart. (Ps. 116:7). To take His will and law for your rule, and to accept of Him in Christ for your portion and up-making all. (Lam. 3:24).
In closing, ARP preaching must take seriously the responsibilities of the energy required to bring sinners to repentance and faith (which we’ll touch on more next week). That starts with seeing the importance of the gospel call (as we talked about last week), especially to the rising group of young people, who will one day be the ones tasked with shepherding and discipling their children and grandchildren. The continuity of the covenant begins and ends with Jesus Christ and His eternal electing grace. If we are to see the blessing of the generations to come we must keep the great commission central, within our own four walls, as much as outside them.
Here’s a word:
Blessings in Christ,
Rev. Benjamin Glaser
Pastor, Bethany ARP Church