Fifty years!

We rejoice with our friends and fellow believers on the other side of the world, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Australia, as they commemorate fifty years since their churches were organized. Fifty years of contending for the faith; fifty years of preaching sovereign, irresistible, particular grace; fifty years of maintaining, by God’s grace, the theology of the Reformation, especially that of John Calvin, as embodied in the Westminster standards.

How many readers remember the fifty-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformed Churches? The “old fashioned Field Day” at Douglas Walker Park in Byron Center, MI, attended by over half the denomination? You will catch a glimpse of the excitement in this first paragraph of the editorial from the usually reserved Prof. Homer C. Hoeksema:

What was undoubtedly the climax of this year of celebration of our Fiftieth Anniversary as Protestant Reformed Churches took place in Grand Rapids on August 5, 6, and 7 in connection with our annual Young People’s Convention. We celebrated. Oh, how we celebrated! (Standard Bearer, vol. 51, issue 20)

What was the thrill? The unity in the denomination—unity in the truth. Being surrounded by those of like faith with whom one could gladly discuss the Reformed faith. Giving united, heartfelt thanksgiving to God for His covenant faithfulness (the theme of the celebration). In the words of Prof. Hoeksema, “in a very concrete fashion we experienced with a thrill of spiritual delight the firm bond of unity which joins our people and churches.” Prof. Hoeksema also described the value of the celebration:

And now, in a way, it is “back to normal.” And yet we do not return the same. We return with renewed confidence and zeal and with renewed dedication, as well as with strengthened conviction that the cause of our Protestant Reformed Churches is the cause of the Lord our God.

Many more readers, I trust, will remember the thrill of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the denomination— the stirring speeches recording God’s faithfulness, the enthusiastic discussions of the work God was giving the PRC to do, and the singing—ah, the moving praises. When there is unity in the denomination, anniversaries encourage and strengthen, to be sure.

That reminds us why it is good, and of rich spiritual value, that a faithful Reformed or Presbyterian church pauses to commemorate a milestone as the EPC does this month. The theme of their celebration is “Fifty years under cover of God’s wings.” They do have much for which they will be giving thanks.

Thanks for the Providential Origins

The origins of the EPC clearly indicate the providential hand of God leading saints together to form a new church. The history of the EPC bears some resemblance to the Secession of 1834 in the Netherlands. In the 1950s members in various churches in Tasmania, dissatisfied with the spiritual condition of their respective congregations, began to come together in private meetings. These folks could see that the Bible was not being honored, and that fundamental Christian truths were not being maintained. But their backgrounds were far more diverse than that of the Secession members. The people in Tasmania were members of such diverse groups and churches as Baptist, Congregational, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and even the Salvation Army and the Brethren. Many of these sincere believers called their respective churches to return to the basic Christian truths, but with little or no success. Some were driven out of their churches.

These likeminded believers became acquainted and began to enjoy informal fellowship together. They began forming evangelical fellowships.

The history of the EPC1describes the theological frame of mind of most in these fellowships.

Those who enjoyed this fellowship were Arminian inclined, believing in man’s ability and freewill…. They believed that man was not so bad; he only needed a bit of help from the Lord to find happiness in life, and to get to heaven…. Whether we were actually saved or not, ultimately depended upon man (5).

Although not Baptist in background, they were inclined to be Baptistic in their view of the church—for them the church consisted of truly born again believers—with no appreciation for God’s covenant relationship with His people. In reality, they had no roots, and were tossed about by the varying winds of Finney-like “evangelists”—who passed through, leaving spiritual disaster in their wake.

Thanks for a Confession

But in the late 1950s, God brought into their hands the Westminster Confession of Faith. In addition, God providentially directed publishing ventures in England and America that produced books that gave instruction in the Reformed faith. Among the more helpful books were A.W. Pink’sSovereignty of God, B.B. Warfield’s The Plan of Salvation, and M. Luther’s The Bondage of the Will.

The Confession and the literature transformed the group. Leaving behind their Arminianism, they became zealous for the doctrines of grace. They were persuaded of the truth of God’s sovereignty. “Many changed from an Arminian man-centered faith, to a reformed God-centered faith” (8).

Thanks for a Reformed Church

In 1960, a conference was called in Launceston with the intent of forming a church. These people began worshiping together. Initially, the majority wanted to organize a Reformed Baptist church. But through much study and discussion, the majority rejected the Baptist’s position. In the providence of God, the groups come under the influence of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia (PCEA). This contact introduced them to the doctrine of the covenant, and set them firmly on the road of Presbyterianism. As is always the case, not all agreed with these stands, and these would leave.

The time came for organization. While they felt the closest to the PCEA, they could not become a part of that denomination. The group looked to the Free Church of Scotland founded in 1843 as their model. They adopted the standards of the Free Church— in doctrine, worship, and church government. With the help of a Presbytery of the PCEA, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia was formed in 1961 with three ministers and three congregations (in Launceston, Penguin, and Winnaleah).

Thanks for the Doctrines of Sovereign, Particular Grace

However, God was not finished shaping the EPC. He did not intend that another Presbyterian church exist in Australia, separated from the rest mainly by being a bit more conservative. Rather, God intended that the EPC exist to sound forth the clear message of sovereign, particular grace, the particular love of God for the elect alone, and the unconditional covenant.

Some Dutch ministers introduced them to the churches and theology of the Netherlands. However, the group as a whole did not take to the notion of a grace for all that did not save (Abraham Kuyper). Nor were they attracted to the Liberated theology of a conditional covenant with all baptized children. God providentially kept them from major battles on these issues before they were ready. On the covenant, they would later come to see that their precious confession, the Westminster, would not allow such a conditional covenant. It affirms that God’s covenant is with the elect.

Early in their history, they were brought into a major controversy with the PCEA, with whom they had formed a seminary to train ministers. Professors from the PCEA were promoting the “well-meant offer” set forth in Murray and Stonehouse’s The Free Offer of the Gospel. They were also teaching common grace.

The EPC took a strong stand against both of these errors. While insisting that the gospel is to be preached to all men, and all who hear are to be called to repentance and faith, they rejected the preaching of a God who loved all and wanted to save all, and a Savior who died for all. They rejected likewise a non-saving grace common to all men.

Their stand for the truth cost the EPC. The seminary was dismantled. For quite some time they struggled to train their men through ministers of their churches. An entire congregation left. Another endured a grievous schism.

But those who remained were united. And the sound from the pulpit was a clear message of sovereign grace. They were zealous to spread the truth and to defend it. God granted increase. They grew, eventually forming two presbyteries—one in Tasmania, and a second on the Australian mainland. Tiny in the eyes of the world, but a wonder of grace.

And still the Lord would test the EPC. In the 1980s one of the original ministers began blowing a new trumpet, one with an uncertain sound. He preached that while God did not love all men, Jesus, according to His human nature, did. Jesus kept the law, and thus loved His neighbor, also His reprobate neighbor.

Once again, the tiny denomination was convulsed by controversy. Once again, the issue was whether the love of God ( Jesus) was universal in some sense, or particular, and only for the elect. A bitter two-year battle ensued, and schism. The EPC was decimated. She lost ministers, members, property, and in the fallout, a school. But she was united again in her conviction of sovereign particular grace.

Thanks for the Schools

Along the way, the EPC, in spite of her (small) size has had two schools, though only one exists currently. The Launceston EPC members established the Presbyterian Covenant School in 1981 and it continued for about 12 years. The congregation of Winnaleah established Herrick Presbyterian Covenant School in 1991, and it continues yet today.

Under cover of God’s wings

So the EPC will come together (came together, by the time you read this—April 22-24) to thank God, to recall His faithful care, and to seek His blessing for the future. A tiny denomination, destitute of strength in themselves. But this has ever been the case, in all times and in all circumstances. The church 
on earth is always but a “little flock.” And yet, the Lord Himself promised, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Small though she is, the EPC has a powerful word, the preaching of the saving cross, which preaching is the power of God unto salvation. They can be confident as they look to the future, confident that Christ sits upon the throne, sending forth the white horse of the gospel, conquering and to conquer.

So long as the EPC, by God’s grace, continues to preach that truth, and so long as she is faithful to God’s covenant, instructing her children in the same truths, she can be confident that God will use her and bless her efforts to proclaim the gospel.

Our Joy and Thanks

We thank God for the EPC. What a privilege it is for us to know them. Recently I read Calvin’s first lecture on Ezekiel, where Calvin explained a particular blessing that God can give to faithful preachers. His exposition helps to explain much of the PRC’s appreciation for the EPC. Calvin described the difficult labors of Jeremiah, faithfully preaching the Word of God to an apostatizing church centered in Jerusalem. Year after year, his message fell on deaf ears. Then God called Ezekiel to preach to the captives in Babylon. He preached the same message. With all the opposition Jeremiah faced from false prophets, now he had this tremendous encouragement—far away, the Spirit of God was speaking the same message through Ezekiel that he (Jeremiah) had been speaking for thirty-five years.

An analogy can be made to our situation. The message of the PRC, the unconditional covenant, the rejection of common grace and the well-meant gospel offer in favor of sovereign, particular, efficacious grace—it pretty much falls on deaf ears. It is rejected by nearly the entire Reformed and Presbyterian church world. “You are the only ones who believe that,” we are informed.

Then we hear of a denomination on the other side of the world that is faithful to the doctrines of grace; rejects the well-meant gospel offer and common grace on the basis of their confessions; and affirms the unconditional covenant with the elect alone, as set forth in their confessions.

And we are mightily encouraged. We thank God for bringing us together. We pray God’s continued blessing upon the EPC, and upon our relationship.