Rev. Burley is pastor of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Winnaleah, Tasmania, Australia.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (E.P.C.) has been in existence since July 29, 1961 (though it was first constituted under the name “Reformed Evangelical Church”).

In order to gain an appreciation of the work of the E.P.C. it will be necessary to look at the background and formation of the church. We will, therefore, consider this subject under three headings.

Backgroung And Formation

In the early 1950s there were groups of earnest sincere Christians throughout Tasmania. These people were then attached to different denominations: Baptist, Church of Christ, Methodist, Presbyterian, to name a few. They were grieved by the departure of these denominations from the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Some of the truths no longer taught included the complete inspiration of the Scripture, the need for the new birth, separation from ungodliness, and the need of holiness. These people were also frustrated in their attempts to address the problems that faced them in their churches and by the lack of willingness on the part of their ministers to hear their protests against the rising tide of modernism, humanism, and liberal theology that was sweeping through their churches.

The result of all this was that some were forced out and others left of their own accord. Thus a loose fellowship network came into being, and eventually drew these Bible-believing Christians together. These believers and the loose fellowship organizations were Arminian, mostly Baptist, and independent in character. As they fought a common enemy they gradually became aware of the existence of one another. The result was that there was an exchange of speakers, missions were held in the different centers, and many people made decisions at the evangelistic meetings, some in tents, some in the open air. The speakers were full of zeal and were determined to serve their Lord with all their hearts. They sacrificed much to take their message to all men.

It was not long before they were faced with bitter disappointment. Many of those who had made “decisions” at their meetings fell away and did not go on to manifest the fruits of true faith. This caused them to ask the question, what is wrong? Is there something wrong with our message? They came to the conclusion that there must be more to the Gospel than they knew. Some of them started to read Charles Finney, who placed much emphasis on repentance. Soon there was a very heavy emphasis on repentance. They now had fewer converts, for they were making it harder for people to make a decision, since they were preaching more “works.”

In the late 1950s, in their search for the answers to their problems, they came across some “Reformed” publications such as Jonathan Edwards Religious Affections, George Whitefield’s sermons, and the Westminster Confession of Faith. One of Spurgeon’s sermons entitled “Salvation Altogether of Grace” was greatly used at this time. Early Banner of Truth Trust publications began to appear and books published by the Sovereign Grace Publishers were circulated. All of a sudden there was an amazing work of God’s grace, a revival of truth. The doctrines of human depravity and of God’s sovereign grace were at the very center of this work of God. Their preaching which had been man-centered now became God-centered, and God-honoring.

On the 29th of July, 1961, a number of these fellowships were constituted the Reformed Evangelical Church, by the ordination of three of their already serving pastors. Elders were also called by the people and set apart by ordination. The following is the original “Declaration of Intention.”

On the 29th of July, 1961, the Pastors and Elders from our Reformed congregations met to finalize arrangements for the constituting of the Reformed Evangelical Church, and for the ordination of a Presbytery in Tasmania. 

The Standards and Formulations of the Church shall be, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechism, the form of Presbyterial Church Government, and the Directory of Public Worship as originally accepted by the Church of Scotland, which includes the original Calvinistic principle of things not commanded in Scripture, (either expressly, or by good and necessary consequence deduced from its statements) are forbidden in worship. 

As history has ever proved that unity in the Church is best maintained in the unity of the Spirit and truth, and not necessarily in adopting the name of a visible organization of any older established denomination, and believing that this unity in our ranks can be best maintained thus, we agreed to this position, which we believe to be the true Scriptural one. 

We have prayerfully considered, and do deeply appreciate the advice and assistance of mature Reformed brethren in the faith concerning the principle of the ecumenicity of the Church, and believe the way we have chosen is not inconsistent with this principle. 

The ordination of our first members of Presbytery will be conducted by a Presbytery from the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia (Free Church). 

It is our earnest desire to co-operate in the promulgation of the Reformed Faith in our land to the fullest possible extent with all who are militant for the Reformed Faith. 

Praying that our generation shall see a Reformation that enthrones God, that establishes righteousness, unmasks false religion, and strips sinners of vain confidence.

This historic statement reveals much about the foundation and purpose for which the church was originally constituted as a separate denomination. It displays the roots which were being put down in the soil of the Reformed inheritance which came through the Scottish line.

Development And Confirmation Of Distinctives

This newly formed denomination had three ordained ministers and three men who were acting as student pastors, so the important matter of training these men had to be dealt with.

Though separate denominations, the E.P.C. and the P.C.E.A. agreed on the joint setting up of a Theological College which they called the John Knox College. It was while these three students were at the college that the matter of the Free Offer of the Gospel arose. It was soon discovered that there were serious doctrinal differences between the officers of the E.P.C. and of the P.C.E.A. The E.P.C. officers, with their Arminian background, were deeply disturbed and offended by the P.C.E.A.’s concept for the basis of “the offer,” which is an unfulfilled desire in the heart of God for the salvation of all men, and a universal non-saving love in God for the reprobate. The manner in which “the offer” was preached was to them a compromise of the doctrines of grace and of the Reformed faith.

The E.P.C. folk had come, through many tears and much study, to the doctrines of grace and of the sovereignty of God, and they were not persuaded by the arguments of the ministers of the P.C.E.A.

Later in the controversy the P.C.E.A. men made reference to the “Marrow men” and held them up as an example as to how the Gospel should be preached to sinners. The language recommended was that “Christ is dead for YOU,” “Christ is YOUR’S to come to,” “the deed is made out in your name—YOU only have to take possession,” “Christ hath taken upon him the sins of all men,” “the Father hath made a deed of gift unto all mankind….”

All these expressions were indeed offensive to the E.P.C. folk. They certainly believed that the Gospel must be preached to all men, but the offer was to be in the sense of a publicizing or a setting forth of Christ as the only way to heaven, and of our desperate need of Him, and of the command given in God’s Word that we are all bound to repent and believe on the Son of God. It was a lifting up of Christ for all to see, a setting forth of His sufficiency, and telling the hearers that unless they fled to Him from the wrath to come they would surely perish. To the E.P.C. folk the death and the atonement of Christ were for the elect alone.

So in this way the battle lines were drawn, and this distinctive of the E.P.C. as a church was established. Through much study the E.P.C. people came to see that they were not alone in their stand. They found there were many who had gone before, who had held to their position such as Knox, Rutherford, Gillespie, Dickson, Durham, and men that followed them such as Professor Dunlop, Robert Wodrow, Thomas Blackwell, J. Willison, J. Brown of Wamphray William Guthrie.

In the years that followed, the E.P.C. discovered that there were other denominations which had rejected the doctrine of the “marrow” and “common grace,” and that they were not entirely alone in the world in their stand on this issue. They were greatly encouraged by this discovery.

There are a number of other areas which the E.P.C. would class as their distinctives. One is the matter of the Covenant and its implication in Christian education. On the one hand, we do not hold to presumptive regeneration; and, on the other, we do not treat our children as a mission field. The E.P.C. believe that covenant children are Christian in the sense that they are members of the visible church, and have all the outward privileges of the people of God. They are to be taught their responsibilities as those who are guilty of both original and actual sin.

There is also the matter of the Lordship of Christ, with its application to a Christian view of politics and the civil magistrate. The rulers of our land are in fact answerable to the Lord. They derive their authority from Him alone, and therefore are responsible to rule in the civil sphere according to His Holy Law.

Further, the matter of biblically regulated worship has been confirmed over the years. This principle requires a warrant from Scripture for every element of worship.

These distinctives have made it extremely difficult for the E.P.C. to forge a sister-church relationship with any other denomination. On the one hand we agree with Scottish Presbyterians in the matters of worship, church government, and the civil magistrate; but there is a great difficulty when it comes to the “marrow” theology; on the other hand the E.P.C. has an affinity with the P.R.C. of America in the doctrine of particular grace, yet again there are the very real differences in matters of worship and government.

The E.P.C. sees that, by God’s grace, it must maintain those truths which God in His goodness has revealed to her as a church. There must be no watering down of these doctrines in order to form any alliance with another denomination which would of necessity remove the blessing of God from the E.P.C. as a denomination.

The E.P.C. In Its Work And Witness Today

In the Reformed world, the E.P.C. are theologically a very conservative and confessional church. They desire to safeguard and preserve their precious heritage in the Reformed faith for future generations. Apart from holding to those doctrines and practices which all Reformed churches hold, they remain distinctive as a denomination, in holding to sovereign particular grace, as founded on God’s eternal covenant. Also, in applying the supreme Lordship of Christ to worship, they practice exclusive psalmody unaccompanied by music.

At present, the E.P.C. consist of five congregations, and two preaching stations. There are three pastors, or teaching elders, with approximately 350 souls under their pastoral care.

Since the recent separation of two congregations from our fellowship, we enjoy a measure of unity and purpose not previously enjoyed. We continue to maintain our synodical structure to help in the care of the congregations, which are separated by distances of up to 2,000 miles. We also have two young men as students in training for the ministry. We look upon these students as an answer to the prayers of the people, as our need for ministers is great. At our last Synod there was approval, on a limited basis, to take up the kind offer of help from the Protestant Reformed Churches in the training of our students.

To help settle and establish the work of our denomination further, the E.P.C. are seeking to revise their practice and constitution, with a view to making it more workable and applicable to Australian circumstances, and, in some instances, more consistent with their understanding of God’s Word. They are consulting the Orders and Practices of other Reformed Churches to assist them in this work.

Though the E.P.C. have had many trials and hardships, their continued existence is evidence of God’s gracious work. Though they battle with their faults and shortcomings, they desire to continue faithfully serving the Lord, in “their comer of His vineyard.” They seek to bear witness to the full-orbed Reformed faith which is the most consistent expression of God’s Word. They seek to do this without compromise, but with a compassionate understanding of the problems and the difficulties of others. They believe they need the brethren of other Reformed churches, in order to encourage and help one another in setting forth the Lord Jesus Christ, in all His beauty. They believe that the world lies in darkness, and needs this great light; therefore they are seeking to shine forth, to God’s glory, and the ingathering of His lost sheep who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

At present, their resources do not enable them to support their own missionaries, but they are seeking to witness and evangelize those around them. They support various missionary endeavors, which include the Presbyterian Church in Uganda, the Reformation Translation Society in Taiwan, and the Trinitarian Bible Society. The E.P.C. is at present preparing a symposium on denominational distinctives, and is working toward more regular publishing of their magazine, The Evangelical Presbyterian, as well as other publications.

The E.P.C. believes that the Westminster Confessional standards, as approved and qualified by the Reformed Church of Scotland in 1647, are the most consistent summary of the truths of God’s holy Word, and are in harmony with the continental Reformed symbols, such as the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt. They see these standards as part of their heritage. By the Westminster standards the E.P.C. mean: The Confession of Faith; the Larger and Shorter Catechisms; the Solemn League and Covenant; The Directory for the Public Worship of God; the Form of Presbyterian Church Government and the Directory for Family Worship; and the First and Second Books of Discipline.

At present, the E.P.C. are seeking to continue their contact with other Reformed churches, and with individuals who hold the Reformed faith as precious. Their aim is to enter meaningful, face-to-face discussion with them. They desire to understand precisely where they agree and disagree with others, and thus to what extent they can work together, whilst maintaining their distinctives.