Why Presbyterian Denominations Fall, Number 2

During the Winter Theological Institute at Reformed Theological Seminary in January of 1975, I was conversing one evening with one of the professors of RTS and the editor of The Presbyterian Journal, Dr. G. Aiken Taylor. I had worked under Dr. Taylor the previous summer in helping to start a new church in Asheville, NC. In that conversation, Dr. Taylor made a statement that I will never forget. It started with his comment: “Presbyterians have a problem.” The professor responded, “Yes, we have a problem with evangelism.” Then, Dr. Taylor replied, “Yes, yes. . . but they have another problem. Presbyterians have a problem with the Holy Spirit.” Dr. Taylor was certainly correct in that statement. The problem Presbyterians seem to have with the Holy Spirit is not theological in nature—but practical. It is not enough to merely agree with the learned tomes of such men as John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, and George Smeaton—all of whom have written large volumes on the Holy Spirit—or even to assent to the sound statements found in the standard systematic theology books of such authors as Charles Hodge, Herman Bavinck, Robert L. Dabney, Louis Berkhof, and many others. Something more is needed and demanded than just orthodoxy. There must also be orthopraxy. Doctrine and life must be wedded together. Truth and godliness must go hand-in-hand. Neither are possible without the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of a believer. Thus far, I imagine everyone is in agreement.  

Why is a wrong view of the Holy Spirit a problem for Presbyterians, then? (And, please understand what I am saying is true of other denominations, but I am a Presbyterian so this is important to me). Here is an example. I looked at the strategic plan of a large Presbyterian church in a large US city pastored by an internationally known pastor a few years ago. That pastor was the key person in the writing of that strategic plan. I think it was about 40 pages long. There were very few references to Scripture and not one word about the Holy Spirit. That is the problem! How can you have a strategic plan for your congregation that is not bathed in the Word of God and completely leaves out the Holy Spirit? Did Christ send the Holy Spirit for no purpose? Presbyterians, and indeed much of the modern church, operate as though the Holy Spirit is irrelevant. There are certainly numerous examples of charismania, supposed visions and dreams, the tongues movement, supposed healings, and other such things that identify many parts of the visible church. There are people who claim, “The Holy Spirit told me that you are supposed to do such and such…”  That is the opposite error of what this article is covering. The problem that we are identifying is that too many Presbyterian pastors and churches operate as though it is a business and the Holy Spirit is unnecessary. Is that how the New Testament church operated? Let us look at some Scripture verses.

   When the seven were chosen in Acts, one of the requirements was that they had to choose “men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit, and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). Stephen was an early martyr for the faith and the Jews who became enraged with him “were unable to cope with the wisdom and Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10). Peter and John heard about the revival in Samaria under the ministry of Philip and went there and “prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:15). When Peter preached at Caesarea, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message” (Acts 10:44). When the church at Antioch was involved in  ministering the Word, “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2). When the Council at Jerusalem met to determine the matter of whether the Gentile converts would need to be circumcised, the Apostles and elders wrote to the church at Antioch, “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials” (Acts 15:28). When the apostle John was completing The Revelation to John, he wrote: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come’” (Revelation 22:17). I could give many, many more examples of the New Testament emphasis on the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that He would send the Holy Spirit to “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you”(John 14:26); “He will testify about Me” (John 15:26); “He will disclose to you what is to come” (John 16:14); “He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13); and, He will “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). The whole matter of the completion of God’s revelation in the Bible was through the work of the Holy Spirit. He guided the prophets of old and all the writers of the New Testament. That work is now complete and perfect. We can fully trust the Scripture as the infallible and inerrant Word of God. We do not need any further revelations from God. We do need the Spirit of God to guide us into a knowledge of the Scripture. We need the Spirit to apply the preaching and teaching of the Word of God to the hearts of sinners so that they will be convicted of their sins and the perfect righteousness of Christ and the coming judgment of all people. Without the Holy Spirit, none of that is possible. 

There is a phrase that is common among Presbyterian and reformed pastors which is this: “We believe in the ordinary means of grace.” I think that phrase had its nexus from the words of The Westminster Confession of Faith chapter ‘Of Saving Faith’: “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of our souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the ministry of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.” The ministry of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer are the primary means of grace, but there is nothing ordinary about those means. As long as a person understands that saving faith is impossible apart from the work of the Spirit, that phrase is acceptable. Yet, it should be understood that the Confession never says that the means of grace are ‘ordinary’. They are not ordinary—except to unbelievers, in whom they accomplish nothing. Yet, the means of grace are extraordinary to everyone who is enabled to believe in Christ. What the Confession says is that sinners are ordinarily saved through those means. The work of the Spirit is ordinarily through the ministry of the Word, the sacraments or prayer. Ordinarily is an adverb and defines the way the Spirit of God has wrought saving faith in a sinner’s heart. An adverb expresses “some relation of manner or quality, place, time, degree, number, cause, opposition, affirmation, or denial.” On the other hand, ordinary is an adjective and, in the phrase above, defines the quality of ‘the means of grace.’ I realize that those people who use that phrase generally do not intend to state that the means of grace are ordinary, but that is what the plain sense of their words mean, nonetheless. Grace is never ordinary and the means of grace are not ordinary either if they are effectual—they are always extraordinary when they result in saving faith through the ministry of the Word. Ezekiel 36:25, 26 says: “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” There is nothing ordinary about such a work of grace. It is extraordinary. I fear that too many Presbyterian pastors and elders and church members believe that nothing more is needed except to faithfully preach the Word. The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that something more is needed. The Holy Spirit is needed. Three thousand people were converted on the day of Pentecost because the Holy Spirit was poured out. The failure to seek the blessing of the Holy Spirit and to pray for an outpouring of the Spirit is a great danger to Presbyterians and to the whole modern church.   

Here is what happens when we trust that the means of grace will themselves convert sinners to Christ. Ezekiel 37 describes the vision given by the Lord to the prophet. Ezekiel was first told to prophesy to the dry bones and he did so. What happened? Ezekiel 37:7, 8 tells us—“So, I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them.” Preaching the Word of God can only accomplish so much. It can frighten sinners and make even such a wicked man as Herod Antipas tremble at the preaching of John the Baptist and do many things and hear him gladly. Yet, all of those things and more are not conversion to Christ. Herod, despite his fear of John, had him beheaded at the request of Salome. All that Herod did in response to John’s preaching was nothing more than the rattling of bone against bone, devoid of the saving operation of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the prophet was told to do something else in Ezekiel 37:9, 10—“Then He said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life.’”’ So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.” In both Hebrew and Greek, the same word that is translated as breath or wind is also the word for spirit. The command of the Lord was for Ezekiel to beseech the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on these dry bones. No sinner is ever converted and no revival ever takes place without the work of the Holy Spirit. The rattling of dry bones is ordinary. The dry bones coming to life is extraordinary. As Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:8—“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Thus, we should say something like this: “We believe it takes the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit for the means of grace to be effectual in the salvation of any person.”   

In his sermon on Isaiah 32:13-19, “The Happy Effects of the Outpouring of the Spirit”, America’s greatest ever preacher, Samuel Davies, stated the following:

When the Spirit is withdrawn, it has been found a truth, that nations and particular persons have degenerated; vice and luxury have gained ground, and religion has declined, and died away; and that, too, in the midst of the most proper means to promote reformation, and to strengthen the things that remain. Then the most solemn preaching, and the most alarming providences have no effect; but men continue blind and stupid under the clearest instructions, and loudest warnings; and grow harder and harder, instead of being refined in the furnace of affliction. But on the other hand, when the Spirit is poured out from on high, then the cause of religion and virtue is promoted, almost without means; them sinners are awakened by a word; religion catches and circulates from heart to heart, and bears down all opposition before it.[1]

The reformed faith is a very cerebral system of theology. Therein is the danger for those who affirm that they believe in the sovereignty of God in all things. There is the danger of reformed pastors, elders, and church members to think that they can argue people into the kingdom of God or that they can present the truth so convincingly that people will naturally agree with their positions. Yet, that is not the case. Such people might have their minds informed while their hearts remain unconverted. Without an outpouring of the Spirit, true religion will decline, as Davies stated. That is why a lack of interest in revivals and evangelism or a lack of prayer for the Spirit of God to be poured out always leads to the decline and fall of Presbyterian denominations. The purity of the church cannot be maintained by adherence to correct doctrine alone. It takes continual effusions of the Spirit to quicken and revive us. That is ‘the problem with the Spirit’ to which Dr. G. Aiken Taylor was referring, in my opinion. Therefore, the first focus of every Vanguard Presbytery congregation must be to pray for God’s Spirit to be poured out on us, on our words, on our congregations, on our denomination, on our nation, and on our world. Until that happens, everything else will be just the noise of dry bones clanging together.    

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

www.vanguardpresbytery.com Please send any contributions for this ministry to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin. FL 32540. We thank all those who have given so generously to Vanguard Presbytery.

[1] Samuel Davies, Sermons of the Rev. Samuel Davies (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 216. 

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