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Mr. Williams is editor of the British Reformed Journal.

On Saturday 22nd July 2000, at Cefn Lea, a thousand feet above sea level amongst the beautiful hill country of Mid-Wales, we gathered for the sixth BRF Conference. We came, not only from all over the British Isles, but from as far afield as the USA, the Netherlands, and even from far-off New Zealand. All ages were represented, but specially it was heartening to see the happy phalanx of interested young people there, many over from the PR churches in the USA. Old friends met joyfully, and new friends were made, as we settled in for a week of Bible teaching interspersed by leisure activities.

Our concern was to be instructed on the matters of the Kingdom of God. For seven days we focused on this theme, right from the excellent introduction given by our chairman, Brian Harris, at the welcoming meeting on the first Saturday night. The main speakers during the ensuing week were PRC Professors Herman Hanko and David Engelsma. In addition, Prof. Euros Jones of the University of Wales delivered a well-appreciated and apposite address concerning a famous Welshman, one Griffith Jones, and his work for God’s kingdom.

On the Sunday afternoon, after morning worship conducted by Prof. Hanko, Sunday school and catechism classes were conducted. The classes were divided according to age (although some were slightly confused about which class they belonged to!). Angus Stewart’s class held an excellent discussion of the meaning of Psalm 145. Mr. Lammert Lubbers’ class (ages 17+) studied Acts 1. Ryan Hanko’s class (ages 12-17) reviewed the morning sermon. Mrs. L. Lubbers led the youngest group.

The afternoon also provided time to fellowship, discuss, and sing. Prof. Engelsma led the evening worship on Romans 8:35-39: “More Than Conquerors.”

On the Sunday evening, after the worship service, Mr. Jonathan Moore, currently submitting his doctoral thesis to Cambridge University, gave us a fascinating overview of his research. It concerns the historical origins and development of the so-called “well-meant offer of the Gospel.” We learned that he had traced it back from the Scottish marrow-men (Thomas Boston and the Erskines) to Bishop John Jewel of Puritan times, involving also Bishop John Davenant.

In the UK, as in the USA, a new form of “Calvinism” is arising, which promotes very strongly the idea that the kingdom of God is either separate from the church, or in some way an extension of the church. As such, it claims that Christians have a duty to “reconstruct” society by Christianizing it, thus establishing God’s kingdom. This “Christian Reconstructionism,” entwined with an extreme form of postmillennial eschatology, teaches that the kingdom of God thus developed will last thousands, if not millions of years. This present material world is therefore necessarily their primary focus, the return of Christ dropping to a low-profile status, being remotized far into the future. “Reconstructionism” claims confessional support from Belgic Confession Art. 36 and Westminster 23, III. They see churches as being “boot-camps” to train “soldiers” for this work of the “kingdom,” and as a result, secular disciplines especially, such as Economics, Politics, Business Studies, Law, and Philosophy, figurehigh on their agenda. Politico-material concerns come therefore to dominate the Christian life.

The BRF has been subject to certain inroads from the direction of these “Reconstructionist” ideas, such that a certain amount of disconcerting destabilization has developed amongst us. Centered as these ideas are in the theme of the “Kingdom of God,” it was appropriate that we subjected the topic to serious analysis.

On the Monday, Prof. Engelsma addressed the Conference on the theme: “The Nature of the Kingdom.” In taking his text fromColossians 1:1-13, he focused on verse 13 as a key verse for determining the nature of the “kingdom of His dear Son,” which kingdom, he proved from I Thessalonians 2:12 andEphesians 5:5, is one and the same with the kingdom of God. And Colossians 1:13determines that the kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom, distinctly not earthly or politico-material. It was not, therefore, the kind of entity posited by the premillennialists on one hand, or the Reconstructionist postmillennialists on the other. This the professor further established by a plethora of biblical evidence.

The Monday afternoon excursion to Powys Castle was rescheduled to the Friday, so we all remained at Cefn Lea. The “Brits” challenged the “Americans” to a football match. All sides enjoyed the ensuing fun, and meanwhile Prof. Engelsma amazingly defeated the young and athletic Angus Stewart in a tennis match!

After the lighthearted recreation, everyone settled in for Prof Hanko’s discourse in the evening. His theme was: “The Coming of the Kingdom in History.” Building up his text (Matt. 11:1-19) he noted the fascinating dual nature of the old creation inGenesis 1, that there God created the heavens (spiritual) and the earth (material). These two realms are separated such that it is impossible to cross from one to the other except by divine operation or permission. The kingdom of God is located in heaven, and it breaks through to earth like an alien invasion. This invasion unfolds in three phases, first the typological-spiritual Old Testament dispensation, then the anti-typical and maturer New Testament era, and finally, the full revelation at the return of Christ. At that final juncture the two creations, spiritual and material, would be gathered up in Christ in one. (Cf. I Cor. 15Eph. 1:10.)

On the Tuesday, we explored the country. One group, with Mr. Tony Horne, climbed to the summit of Cader Idris, 2928 feet above sea level. From this vantage point they were able to look down on the valley wherein lies the little village of Llanfihangel. From there, some 200 years ago, the young Mary Jones set out barefoot to cross the mountains and walk to Bala, some 20 miles to the northeast. She was on her way to buy a Welsh Bible, for which she had worked and saved since she was a little child. She had learned to read, and she loved the Bible stories she heard in the local Calvinistic Methodist chapel. As there was only one Bible in her village, she was determined to get one for herself and her illiterate parents.

While Tony led the “mountaineers,” two mini-bus loads and some automobiles took the rest of us along the rest of young Mary’s long trek, through the mountain passes to Bala, and there we stopped where she stopped 200 years previously at the Calvinistic Methodist Chapel in Bala, where she hoped to buy a Bible from the minister, Rev. Thomas Charles. Alas! He had only one Bible left, which was already reserved for someone else. And it seemed unlikely that any more Welsh Bibles would be printed. At this, young Mary broke down and cried, and moved by her story and her tears, Thomas Charles decided to give her the one Bible he still had, and disappoint the other customer, who, I believe, was a rich man. We saw the monument to Thomas Charles outside the chapel in Bala, and on the plinth we saw a sculpted frieze commemorating the event. So moved was Thomas Charles by the little girl’s tears, he thereupon helped to organize the British and Foreign Bible Society, to print, not only Welsh Bibles, but Bibles in all world languages.

Back at Cefn Lea in the evening, we heard Prof. Engelsma expatiate on “The Kingdom of God and the Church.” Taking his texts from John 18:1-14 and John 18:33-38he laid down “his fundamental thesis” that the “kingdom of God in this present age is the church.” From many scriptural proofs he demonstrated that, regarding the kingdom of God, it is:

a)the realm of the rule of God by grace by Jesus Christ

b)the realm within which Christ’s reign holds sway

c)where the citizenry of this kingdom are a united commonwealth

d)where the blessings of salvation are provided.

As regards the church, he noted that it was:

a)the universal body of Christ consisting of all elect from all nations/peoples

b)manifested in local congregations, this being the New Testament “mature-level” formation of the church.

He criticized “Reconstructionists,” who distinguish between kingdom and church, and make the latter either just a boot camp for training troops to serve in the kingdom, or otherwise regard the kingdom as an extension of the church. He said that all such deviations required that the saints in this world should concentrate on worldly politics and prosperity, in opposition to the general teaching of Scripture. He noted that the Reformed confessions (Westminster 25, II; Heidelberg Q. 123 & 128) and the writings of the reformers (e.g., Calvin: Commentary on Amos 9:13) agreed with him in identifying the kingdom with the church, as against the Reconstructionists. Citing a long list of Scripture texts (e.g., the Beatitudes; Col. 1:13;Rom. 14:17, etc.), he elucidated the spiritual nature of the kingdom. Again, to the church is given the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:19), hardly congruous if the church is not the kingdom. And so, brought before Pilate, the Lord asserts the spiritual nature of His kingdom, that it “is not of this world” (John 18:36), and therefore his “servants” will not fight.

On Wednesday morning, Prof. Hanko lectured on “Kingdom, Gospel and Law.” Beginning from Psalm 19, he explained that every creature of God is subject to God’s law in some way that is appropriate to that creature vis a vis its purpose in creation. God’s law is expressed at its highest manifestation with respect to man, who was created in God’s image. In confronting the law, man is confronting the very “profile,” as it were, of God’s nature. Fundamental to this law is the requirement to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind, and one’s neighbor as oneself. (Cf. Deut. 6:4Lev. 19:18Matt. 22:37-40.) Thus the keeping of God’s law cannot be a matter of mere outward observance, which would be sham. Only Christ thus completely fulfilled the law, and did so on behalf of all His elect people.

The Biennial General Meeting of the BRF took place through Wednesday afternoon. It was a protracted and harrowing event with deep undercurrents of internal dissent. A motion to dissolve the BRF was tendered, on the grounds that it was a para-church organization which had outlived its usefulness. With a church established at Ballymena now, and the recent sort-out in the Free Kirk, we should look to such to carry the torch on from here. The motion failed. However, we nearly foundered on the matter of a new Constitution, which, on eventually passing with the required majority, means a future big change in the BRF and the British Reformed Journal. This new Constitution, however, produces severe internal problems. The future for the BRF looks precarious just now.However, we emerged eventually with a new Constitution, five officers elected to a new “General Council,” and a tremulous hope that we could work together for God’s glory in the future.

On Wednesday evening, Prof. Euros Jones, of the University of Wales, delivered a sterling lecture entitled: “Griffith Jones and the Welsh Christian Schools.” Interspersed by some wittiness, profound doses of wisdom, (and some excellent examples of real Welsh spoken by a native Welshman), Prof. Jones delighted the audience in his account of the life of this man who, according to many authorities, was the “greatest of all Welshmen.” A Churchman of the Anglican tradition, Griffith Jones (1683-1761) worked within the parish system of the Established Church of England in Wales. He was ordained in 1709. His ministerial career extended over 53 years, during which time his herculean labors reaped astounding results. Rarely does one man achieve so much in a lifetime. Griffith Jones was a powerful and orthodox preacher. Large numbers were converted under his ministry, and with ecclesiastical approval he began to address himself to the plight of the whole of Wales, sunk in a prison of gospel ignorance and illiteracy. Extending his preaching ministry across large tracts of Wales, he also inaugurated in each community a school for teaching literacy using the Bible and the church Catechism as the main medium of instruction. At the height of his labors between 1737 and 1761 there were some 3,225 Christian schools set up in 1,600 different locations, with some 200,000 scholars of all ages, or nearly half of the then native Welsh population. The ensuing reformation produced family worship with godly living emerging at all hands. Central in all this were the Christian schools and the Catechism classes. Prof. Jones encapsulated Griffith Jones’ work with this quotation from the man himself: “without catechizing, preaching is in a manner lost and thrown away.”

Appropriately, after this stimulating lecture a presentation of Catechism certificates was made to ten young people from Covenant Protestant Reformed Church at Ballymena. Preparatory to communicant membership at Covenant, they had studied and learned all the Westminster Shorter Catechism. They were: David Crossett and his sister Cherith; Neil Hanko, and his sisters Rosanna and Jessica; Joel Clarke and his sister Rebecca; and Ruth McAuley and her brothers Aaron and Mark. Each certificate carried the signature of Elder Jonathan McAuley, and indicated that they had “answered to all 107 questions” of the Westminster Shorter Catechism “with accuracy, understanding, and Christian conviction.” Some of them learned quite a few of the Scripture proofs as well, and Jessica Hanko actually learned all of them!

Thursday was mainly for leisure activities. Some journeyed by car southwards to the border town of Hay-on-Wye to explore its larger-than-life plethora of 40 secondhand bookstores. Every narrow street boasts several of them, bulging with old volumes that include everything from antiquarian works to recent publications. Just to name two: in Richard Booth’s shop alone, over 400,000 books line shelves in this “largest secondhand bookshop” in the whole of Europe. In the Old Cinema, some 200,000 more can be found. Amongst it all, one finds Theology. A fascinating place.

But the majority of our conferees set out aboard the mini-buses and by automobiles for Aberystwyth, the university town on the shores of Cardigan Bay. After a delightful drive through the Mid-Wales mountains they arrived at the town’s railroad station, where most of them boarded a little old-fashioned steam-powered train, on the two-foot gauge. With snorting chuffs the old train took them up the picturesque Vale of Rheidol, where, from the carriage windows high above the valley below, they could admire its quaint scenery.

Returning refreshed to Cefn Lea, we awaited Prof. Engelsma’s final lecture, entitled: “The Kingdom and Civil Government.” Romans 13:1-14 provided the platform for his thesis, which he adumbrated in the following three propositions, viz.:

Prop. I The kingdom of God is not an earthly political entity.

Prop. II God does not call the state to enforce Christianity via the sword.

Prop. III God calls the state to serve the church by keeping order in the nation.

This lecture touched at the very nub of the problems that have caused division amongst the BRF. Prof. Engelsma isolated the two extremes of position possible in this debate thus:

1)Ought the state to promote the true gospel using the sword if necessary?

2)Is the work of the state only to provide social stability and peace for all?

In a long but fascinating exposition he showed that the Scriptures will not support the idea of 1) above, but he proved from Romans 13that the task of the civil magistrate is to maintain a peaceful society on the basis of natural law, which law is adumbrated in Romans 2:13-14. The state cannot, as per the Reconstructionists, impose the Decalogue, because that is fundamentally a spiritual law, requiring death as the penalty for any breach. That the Reformed confessions have, however, indicated a proclivity for the use of the sword (cf. Belgic Confession Art. 36 and Westminster Confession 23, III) was to be acknowledged. But most worldwide Presbyterian denominations have modified Westminster 23, III, and the Protestant Reformed Churches have, in harmony with this, added a rider to Belgic Confession Art. 36, to obviate its dangerous requirements.

The professor was able to show abundantly from Scripture that the church has no business with the sword, its weapons being spiritual not carnal (cf. II Cor. 10:4). Also, he pointed out that the civil power in the time when Paul wrote Romans 13 was the pagan Roman Empire, and that Romans 13 actually denominates such a power as the “minister of God.” Such facts hardly harmonize with the idea of “establishment” of the church as a necessary requirement. And the history of “establishment” is a history of disaster in most, if not all instances. Such is admitted by none other than Scots theological giant William Cunningham, who said, in his magisterial tome “Historical Theology,” that “establishment has done more evil than good.” This lecture was specially useful in that it illustrated from Scripture the true limits of civil government, viz., to preserve order in society. To enforce the Decalogue is outside the competence and authority of the magistrate.

Thursday then drew to a close, for most of us. But Prof. Hanko had given us some “homework” when he gave his second address on the Wednesday morning, to be done before his final lecture on Friday morning. It was, therefore, during the wee small hours just after midnight that, replete with Bibles and torches, the young folk climbed the hill alongside the Conference center and, sitting under a gloriously clear starlit sky to do the “homework,” they read the Sermon on the Mount by torchlight. After that, they gazed at the heavens, named as many constellations as they could, and sang Psalter numbers from memory. It was a thrilling and memorable way to draw towards the close of a memorable Conference. Jessica Hanko recorded it as one of the “highlights.”

On the Friday, Prof. Hanko delivered the final address of the Conference. His topic was “The Life of the Kingdom.” He based his exegesis on Colossians 3:1-25, a chapter which has a lot to say concerning the difficulties and duties involved in being a citizen of God’s kingdom in this evil world. He drew out from this and a plethora of other texts the fact that Christians are “strangers and pilgrims” in this world (I Pet. 1:1;I Pet. 2:11Heb. 11:13), where we have to endure suffering for the glory of Christ and count such as a privilege (Matt. 5:10-12Phil. 1:29). We are to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33). Thus our life was to be regulated by the principles of the kingdom, which itself meant centering our lives in the church, since therein is the kingdom to be found. From the text in Colossians 3 it was evident that this meant we are to set our affection on things above, in heaven, not on the things of earth. Our goals are to be spiritual, not carnal and physical.

On the Friday afternoon, a large group visited Powys Castle and found it and the gardens to be enchanting. In the evening, the two professors rounded off the Conference by answering questions that had been deposited by the various members of the audience during the week. Significantly, they emphasized that Christians may certainly become involved in civil government, or lobby such institutions to persuade them to preserve social order. The Scriptures allow this, but they do not allow enforcement of Christianity by the sword.

Despite setbacks, troubles, and turbulence, this Conference proved a time of spiritual enlightenment and blessing. It was with a tinge of sadness that farewells were said on the Saturday morning.