Why Presbyterian Denominations Fail: 1

It has often been stated that Christianity thrives best in poverty, rather than riches. While there might be some truth to that statement, it is superficial in my opinion. There are many poor countries of the world where the gospel has been preached, but not well received. The truth seems to be that Christianity only thrives when the church focuses on prayer, revival, and evangelism. Without those emphases, members, churches, and denominations become like the Laodicean church and say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing” (Revelation 3:17). Certainly, material wealth has a great influence in promoting that self-satisfied spirit that is a death knell for the cause of Christ, but there are many wonderful Christians who are wealthy and who have used their gifts for God. I have known many wealthy Christians who were very earnest in praying for revival.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus gave the first beatitude as: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Those who meet the qualifications for this blessing of ‘the kingdom of heaven’ are not simply or only poor in material things. They are evangelically poor, as Thomas Watson noted in The Beatitudes:

“Poor in spirit’ then signifies those who are brought to the sense of their sins, and seeing no goodness in themselves, despair in themselves and sue wholly to the mercy of God in Christ. Poverty of spirit is a kind of self-annihilation. Such an expression I find in Calvin. The poor in spirit (says he) are they who see nothing in themselves, but fly to mercy for sanctuary. Such an one was the publican: ‘God me merciful to me a sinner’ (Luke 18:13). Of this temper was St. Paul: ‘That I may be found in Christ, not having mine own righteousness’ (Philippians 3:9). They are the poor which are invited as guests to wisdom’s banquet (Proverbs 7:3, 4).[1]   

The account of the healing of the man born blind in John 9 further confirms this point. After he was healed, the man born blind was put out of the synagogue by the Pharisees who accused Jesus of being a sinner. Jesus then found the man and said to him, “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (John 9:39). The Pharisees, who were harsh towards others but overly defensive about themselves, overheard Jesus’ words and asked Him: “We are not blind too, are we?” (John 9:40). Just a little while earlier, they had assured the man born blind concerning Jesus that: “we know that this man is a sinner” (John 9:24). Now, they suddenly are so sensitive of their status that they want some assurance from this One they profess to know is a sinner that they themselves are not blind and still in their sins. Their question was not sincere because they asserted they were not blind before seeking confirmation from Jesus. Yet, Jesus did not give them such assurance. He responded: “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:41). W. G. T. Shedd was correct in analyzing the problem of the Pharisees as a conceit of sin in his sermon on John 9:41, “The Sense of Sin Leads to Holiness, and the Conceit of Holiness Leads to Sin”:  

The disposition of the Pharisee—the disposition to say, “We see”—is an insuperable obstacle to every good and gracious affection in the heart. Christianity is eminently a religion for the poor in spirit; for those who have no self-flattering confidence. Conceit, therefore, in all its modes and degrees, utterly prevents the rise and progress of holiness within the soul. But more than this, the conceit of holiness exerts a positively corrupting influence upon the heart. Its effect is not merely negative. It not only prevents a man from becoming meek and lowly, but it puffs him up with pride, and fills him with sin.[2]

It is, therefore, the conceit of holiness or one’s own goodness which is the chief corrupting principle about which Jesus warned His disciples when He said, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). That leaven is the corrupting doctrines which promote a spirit of self-sufficiency and self-satisfaction. Their teaching enslaved sinners, but did not set them free from their sins. Their teaching made their disciples twice the children of hell as themselves because it contained no message of sin or the necessity of repentance. That, I am afraid, is what modern Christianity has become. Two years ago, I tried to visit the church in Newburyport, Massachusetts where George Whitefield is buried. The doors of the church were locked fast as a response to Covid-19, but a sign on the front door read, “The Great Awakening Meets the Great Awokening.” The church has thrown away the Word of God and has invited the world’s message, particularly social justice (Cultural Marxism), in the front door and has given over her pulpits to those who preach that false message. There can be no sense of sin where ministers preach such soul-damning messages. There is only the conceit of holiness which reveals that such people remain blinded by their sins.

It is not my purpose to speak about the church in general, but Presbyterians in particular. I have been a Presbyterian for 51 years. I have studied and written about matters concerning Presbyterian church history. As I have witnessed, regrettably, the falling away of Presbyterian denominations that 40 years ago seemed to be holding to the Word of God, it has filled my heart with great mourning. So, I am starting a series of articles on why Presbyterian denominations keep failing and falling. What is true of Presbyterians is surely true of many other denominations as well. Here is the first principle: Presbyterian denominations fail when they quit praying for revival and abandon evangelism. Over the past 40 years, there has not been a single Presbyterian denomination in the US that has emphasized prayer for revival and evangelism—not one. Some of them have emphasized reformed doctrine. None of them made evangelism their core principle. None of them wrote about the need for revival or called for convocations to pray for revival. A member of one church I once pastored told me that he supported reformed evangelism—which sadly was not personal evangelism at all. It was lifestyle evangelism, supposedly. The more I quizzed him about it, it seemed to me that it was just trying to get people interested in talking about reformed theology. Certainly, that seems to be what modern reformed denominations have done. I suspect that is why so many people rebel against Vanguard’s emphasis on the office of the evangelist as a continuing function of the eldership. It is not my purpose in this email to list the reasons why we believe (contrary to some of the statements of John Calvin—even though he was inconsistent on this point—and the writings of John Owen). Even great men can be wrong about some things. Yet, the overall position of the reformed churches has been mostly in favor of the office of the evangelist as a continuing function of the eldership. With that view, such men as George Whitefield (though not a Presbyterian), Jonathan Edwards, the New Light Presbyterians, Samuel Davies, the Southern Presbyterians (especially James Henley Thornwell), Asahel Nettleton (a Congregationalist), Daniel Baker, and many more, agreed.

Presbyterian Churches in their better moments and under their best ministers have certainly supported prayer for revival, evangelism, and evangelists. The church is a missionary organization by her very nature and when she ceases to evangelize and pray for revival she retreats from the calling the Lord has placed on her. Most of us have read about the revival at Northampton, MA under Jonathan Edwards. Yet, a similar type of awakening happened under the ministry of Gilbert Tennent about 5 years earlier after he experienced a period of unusual sickness. During his sickness, Tennent prayed that if the Lord spared his life he would give himself to plucking every brand from the fire that he was able to do so. A revival then broke out in his congregation at New Brunswick, New Jersey. Are there not numerous other witnesses among the great Presbyterian ministers of the past? We think of such men as Samuel Blair (who taught Davies), William Robinson, Thornwell, Baker, all the way down to Bill Hill and Ben Wilkinson in the twentieth century. I know the latter believed in the necessity of prayer for revival, evangelism, and evangelists because of my conversations with him many years ago.

Along the way, Presbyterianism in this country (and I suspect elsewhere as well), decided that there were better ways to build up the church than by personal evangelism, prayer for revival, and even preaching evangelism. And what has been the result of these new ways? All we have to do is look at the church today to realize that the new ways have failed our Lord. The church only thrives where the soil is continually being tilled for the message of the gospel to be planted. When the church becomes proud of her great wealth, that self-satisfied spirit sows the seeds of her own destruction. What we are trying to do in Vanguard Presbyterian Church is make prayer for revival and evangelism a part of our core principles. We are not better than others in that respect. We are poor in many ways. But prayer for revival and evangelism are flags that we plant in the ground and we will continue to call our churches to humble prayer for the God of all grace to visit us with His presence and to show us His glory. This is where it must always start and we must never forget it. Of course, there are some who criticize us because we are small. They say that if we were large and successful they would be more willing to listen to us. Is that not evidence that the self-satisfied spirit has destroyed the modern church. God has usually used small people to accomplish his work. The modern church has already followed the large churches right of the cliff. Vanguard is not boasting that we are rich, and have become wealthy, and heave need of nothing. Not at all. We are poor and blind and naked and wretched and miserable. So, if others want to accuse of such, then we certainly agree with them. Yet, we still contend that we need to pray for revival and to evangelize! And our critics need to do the same.

NEWS: At a called meeting of Vanguard Presbytery last week, the court voted to change our name to Vanguard Presbyterian Church. We are preparing for the day when we will have more than one presbytery and to make it clear that we are a denomination. Vanguard is the name by which we are known to the world. There are still steps we have to take to our articles of incorporation and to our checking account. In the meantime and for the foreseeable future, you should continue to make your contributions to Vanguard Presbytery.

Presbytery will also be implementing a plan to produce a number of short videos and video interviews about important subjects that will be available to all churches and mission churches in our denomination. They can be posted on your websites, Facebook pages, or advertised on Facebook in your targeted areas. We also will be running such Facebook ads in areas where we have people who want to start Vanguard mission churches. Using social media is only one way in which we hope to reach people for the gospel.

Our next Presbytery meeting will be held at Chapel Woods Presbyterian Church in Snellville, GA on October 21, 2022. Originally, the meeting was going to be hosted by Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL, but the cost of airfare to Destin is prohibitive at this time.

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL

www.vanguardpresbytery.com Please send donations for Vanguard Presbytery to:

PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.

[1] Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), 42).

[2] W. G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 232.

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