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Rev. Kleyn is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan.

New Reformed Denomination

From a May 17 press release (Christian Observer, June 2005), we learn that a new Reformed denomination has been organized.

An organizing committee of pastors and elders today announced formation of The Evangelical Reformed Presbyterian Church (ERPC). The new denomination is being established in response to conservative Presbyterians’ increasing concern over the acceptance of the teaching of justification by faith plus works, and water baptism as an instrument of salvation, in denominations such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

“Clearly, these teachings are un-Biblical. Scripture calls them ‘another gospel,'” said Dr. Clinton S. Foraker, pastor of Calvert Reformed Presbyterian Church in Calvert, Maryland and a member of the ERPC Organizing Committee. “These doctrines go by various names including Federal Vision Theology, the New Perspective on Paul, and Shepherdism. Collectively they represent the most serious and insidious attack on Protestant orthodoxy in the 500 years since the Reformation. The problems go far beyond justification and baptism, but those are the main issues. Sadly, too few people in the churches are really aware of what has been happening. “The Bible does not leave these matters open to question,” Foraker continued. “The Council of Jerusalem in Acts chapter fifteen, and the Apostle Paul in the first chapter of Galatians, both condemn these kinds of teachings in no uncertain terms. The problem is that many ministers in the existing denominations say they fully agree with the Scriptures and the confessional standards of their churches. But what they are actually preaching is contrary to the Bible and the confessional standards, and they are being allowed to do it. The existing denominations are trying to preserve unity at the expense of the thing that matters most: the Gospel, how the Bible says that people are saved. In contrast, the ERPC will be unequivocally committed to the authentic Protestant Gospel of justification by faith alone.”

Dr. Jeffery A. Sheely, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Hanover, Pennsylvania and moderator of the ERPC Organizing Committee, said, “Many of us have attempted, over many years, to address this spiritual crisis from within our denominations. Some men have been fighting this battle since the 1970s. But these efforts have been blocked by those in positions of leadership who are, sadly, either committed to these false doctrines or are willing to tolerate them.

“Because these elements hold sway in the OPC, our congregation voted unanimously to separate from that denomination last year,” Sheely continued. “The present situation is very similar to what happened in the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) three generations ago. In 1936, conservatives left the PCUSA to form the OPC. One of the founders of the OPC, Dr. J. Gresham Machen, said that when the liberalizing elements hold sway in a denomination, and the Gospel is at stake, conservatives have no choice but to separate and begin again. That is what we are doing. History is being repeated.”

“There is a groundswell of interest in forming a new denomination that will be true to the Gospel,” Sheely observed. “People from around the country have contacted us to say that they are interested in affiliating with the ERPC. A number of ministers have said they would like to bring their congregations out of the existing denominations because of the compromise of the Gospel. But they don’t feel they can do it without having a new denomination to join. We’ve also heard from groups of church members who have left existing congregations because they just couldn’t live with the compromise anymore. Many of these people are interested in forming new congregations. We hope that many people in existing congregations and new ones alike will see the ERPC as their new denominational home.”

The article, by Paul M. Elliott, also lists a web address for further information—www.erpchurch.org. From the web site, one learns that the churches are drawing up Articles of Affiliation and a Form of Government for the new denomination.

This development is of interest to the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). Certainly it highlights the departure of Reformed denominations from fundamental teachings of the Reformation. There is either a tolerance or an endorsement of “faith and works” as the ground for justification. Ministers and officebearers have appealed these decisions to broader assemblies in the OPC and PCA and have not been heard. Thus, there are appears to be a legitimate reformational work in the forming of this new denomination.

Because of this interest, I contacted Paul Elliott, also a member of the organizing committee of the ERPC, with some questions.

RK: Justification for the formation of a new denomination must be that there is a genuine reformation taking place. What reformational work are you doing in forming this new denomination, and what do you see as the main errors against which you are now taking a stand as a denomination?

PE: The reformational work is reflected in our Articles of Affiliation, which form chapter one of our Form of Government (see our web site). The focus is principally on these areas: 1.) Doctrinal integrity—restoring the authority of Scripture, grammatical-historical hermeneutics, and an unequivocal approach to secondary doctrinal standards; 2.) Getting the Gospel straight—restoring the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from human works of any sort; 3.) Proclaiming the Gospel freely—restoring a proper focus on evangelism; 4.) Biblical presbyterian government—restoring, as our FOG states it, “a simplicity of presbyterian church government, in which Christ shall have the preeminence in all things, and in which those who hold office in the church shall not act as lords over those entrusted to their care, but as examples to the flock of God, clothed with humility.”

RK: To what specific denominational decisions and positions are you reacting in the formation of this denomination?

PE: This is not a reaction to one particular decision but the biblical response to the collective downward trend during the past thirty years. There are many parallels to the crisis in the PCUSA that came to a head in the 1920s and 30s. It begins with the OPC’s and Westminster Seminary’s refusal to take a clear stand on the issues of salvation doctrine in the Norman Shepherd controversy. This has allowed his teachings to spread in the OPC, PCUSA, and beyond in the years since. This has been (and continues to be) facilitated by what the OPC now refers to as “a hermeneutic of trust,” which says that what is really important is not the words of Scripture, but the ability to all come together—conservative and neo-liberal—under highly elastic definitions of the words of the confessional standards. That hermeneutic is also operative in the PCA.

RK: From where has your denomination drawn its membership, and how many congregations and interested groups do you have?

PE: A number of existing congregations and newly-forming ones in the U.S. and Canada have expressed interest in affiliation. Some are present or former OPC and PCA churches. Others are churches that are Reformed but currently unaffiliated. Still others are groups of people who have left OPC and PCA churches because of doctrinal problems either at the denominational or local church level, who are beginning to form new congregations that are looking for a sound denominational home.

We had asked that all of these people not affiliate with us until the ERPC Organizing Committee completed our Constitution, so that they could make a fully informed decision. On June 25th the O.C. completed and adopted constitutional documents, Doctrinal Standards, a Form of Government, a Directory for Worship, and a Book of Discipline. We will be publishing them on the web and in book form during July. So now a number of congregations and newly-forming groups, literally from coast to coast, will be considering affiliation and putting it to a vote. We expect to receive the first churches in the next three months.

RK: Do you view any other denominations as faithful to the biblical and Reformational teachings on Justification?

PE: There is a tremendous lack of clarity on these issues. Precious few denominations have made clear statements, couched not only in terms of affirmations agreeing with what Scripture says and their secondary standards affirm but also in terms of denials, calling heresy by its right name, and naming names. Biblically, the churches have a responsibility to do both. Affirmations without denials are incomplete and open to equivocation. We thank the Lord for the few that are doing so, and pray that more will.

RK: With whom do you intend to pursue ecclesiastical relationships?

PE: At this early stage we have not made any decisions in this regard, but we do intend to form such relationships both with denominations and other agencies such as mission boards that remain unequivocally true to the Scriptures and the Gospel.

Beyond this, I also asked some questions about the covenant and its relation to the present justification debate. This, of course, is a special area of interest to the PRC, because the present heresies on justification are closely tied to an unbiblical view of the covenant. The erroneous view is that the covenant is conditional, a pact or agreement between God and the sinner, in which the sinner is under obligation to exercise faith, and that act of faith becomes the condition on which he is accepted by God into the covenant community. This incorrect view of the covenant has been used by many to support this new perspective on justification. Faith, it is said, is man’s work, and God will accept a man as righteous based on the worthiness and obedience of his faith. Some go so far as to call their unbiblical view on justification “The Federal Vision”—”federal” meaning “covenantal.”

These were the questions I asked Mr. Elliott,

RK: Are you aware of the Protestant Reformed Churches’ teaching and material on justification (e.g., Engelsma’s publication, The Unconditional Covenant in Contemporary Debate)?

PE: I am aware of it but have not had the opportunity to study it.

RK: What would be your position as a denomination on the covenant? Would you view it as conditional or unconditional?

PE: I would not want to comment specifically because we have not published a defined position as a denomination. There is a desire among members of our Organizing Committee to have an ERPC General Synod, once established, prepare position papers on this and other key issues. But we certainly understand the Covenant of Grace to be eternal,

Ephesians 1

unilateral on God’s part (only He passed between the pieces in

Genesis 15

and with the elect through Christ the Mediator

Isaiah 42; Hebrews 8:6, 9:15, 12:24; I Timothy 2:5;

and that fulfillment of the covenant rests completely on Christ, and not on man’s “covenant faithfulness.”

A further question I asked was,

One of the labels for the new doctrine on justification is the “Federal Vision.” What relation do you see between the doctrine of the covenant and the erroneous views on justification being promoted and allowed in the PCA and OPC?

In response to this Mr. Elliott sent me two rather lengthy excerpts from a book he has written that is being published by The Trinity Foundation titled, Christianity and Neo-Liberalism: The Spiritual Crisis in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Beyond. From these sections it became very clear that the men involved in the formation of the ERPC are aware of problems with the conditional covenant view and do see its connection to the new perspective on justification.

Also of interest to the PRC is the connection between the conditional view of the covenant and the well meant (or free) offer of the gospel in which it is taught that God graciously offers Christ to all who hear the gospel and that He sincerely desires that each of them be saved. The conditional covenant view is simply a bringing into the covenant sphere this incorrect view of the preaching of the gospel. I asked Mr. Elliott this question,

RK: What relation, if any, do you see between the current errors on justification and the “free offer of the gospel” endorsed by the OPC earlier in its history? Are you open to reconsidering this teaching, or have you adopted the doctrinal positions of the OPC up till this point?

PE: The ERPC Form of Government includes the following statement: “We are united in our conviction that the Gospel is to be freely offered to all men. The free offer of the Gospel does not entail universal salvation, nor is it contrary to the doctrine of man’s total inability to save himself, nor is it contrary to the doctrine of God’s complete sovereignty in salvation. The free offer of the Gospel is God’s means of calling His people to repentance, and the rejection of the Gospel offer is also the condemnation of the lost.” And we believe that statement is fully compatible with a biblical view of justification by faith alone.

From this it appears that the ERPC has adopted a position on the free offer and that they do not, at this stage, see the connection of the free offer to the conditional covenant view and the new perspective on justification.

What these men and churches have done in making this break with the departing denominations takes much faith, courage, and conviction. Already, it appears from different discussion forums on the Internet, they are being slandered and persecuted for their willingness to uphold the truth. It will be of great interest to us to watch this fledgling denomination develop. Perhaps the PRC can be of help to them, at least in the area of instructional literature. If nothing else, this development does alert us to the increasing departure in Reformed churches from the Reformation gospel. May God use it to alert brothers and sisters in Christ to the heresies being promoted and tolerated, and to bring them out of that way of apostasy.