I left the Protestant Reformed Churches of America (PRCA) back in June 2016. Up till then I had spent all of my life (21 years) in the PRC and had grown up under the preaching and catechism. I read RFPA books and was an active member in my congregation. I played organ on Sundays, served on the Evangelism Committee and Young Adults Society, and participated in several young adult retreats. I even wrote the occasional article for the Beacon Lights. I was also actively working towards becoming a minister. It was my sincere intention from my early teen years to enter the PRC seminary.
Why then did I leave?
My primary reason for leaving was due to the preaching in the PRC. As I listened to other sermons, preached by men outside of the PRC, I began to notice startling differences in the preaching. I began to notice I was spiritually fed a lot more by sermons from outside of the PR than from my very own pastor. This prompted me to begin studying the issue of preaching and as I discussed it with my pastor and consistory, my concern only grew. These concerns were only aggravated by various developments with the PR seminary. I eventually felt I could no longer, in good conscience, be a member of the PRC, for my convictions left me in constant conflict regarding the preaching.
Upon leaving the PRC I joined the Reformed Presbyterian Churches of North America (RPCNA). Since I left, I have had plenty of time to contemplate and ponder my reasons for leaving. I have also had numerous people ask me my reasons for leaving. So I thought I would set these reasons down in a couple of blogs posts.
It is not my intention in writing these reasons to be a John Engelsma, distorting the truth, slandering the PRC, angry and vengeful with respect to the PRC. It is my prayer to present my reasons humbly, meekly, truthfully, honestly, and in a manner glorifying to God. I hope to encourage a discussion, among those in the PRC and outside of it, of what I see to be various weaknesses and errors in the PRC. It is my ardent prayer to see revival and reform in the PRC and so I write these things in a spirit of love. I want this to be an honourable and beneficial discussion from God-fearing men and women.
I also understand that what I write may not be indicative of the PRC as a whole. What I relate in these blog posts come from my own personal experience. I certainly cannot speak for the practice of every single PR church. Nor will I be mentioning any names in my discussions. My reasons for leaving have to do with doctrinal concerns, not personal concerns and conflicts.
Finally, I write these posts hesitantly. I have never preached a sermon in my life, though it certainly is my desire to one day do so. I then write as a man who has simply studied the issue of preaching and not practiced it. So I approach the topic humbly knowing that I as a sinful man, am easily prone to error. May my arguments ever be validated by the Scriptures.
If you disagree with anything I write, if you think I am wrong, misrepresented a particular issue, have a question for me, or even have similar concerns that I do, I would like to hear from you. Feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the first subjects I wish to deal with is:
The Preaching in the PRC does not tend to be Evangelical
A good majority of the preaching I encountered in the PRC (there are exceptions) was not primarily interested in winning converts to the Christian faith by preaching to the lost, but more interested in stating and defending a particular doctrinal position. (To be clear: I am not saying that all the preaching is polemical, what I am saying here is that when the preaching is directed to others outside the PRC, it is more often than not, regarding doctrinal errors of other churches. It is not directed to those completely outside of a church.) Thus, the preaching was more interested in preaching against the errors of Baptists, the issue of common grace, divorce and remarriage, the covenantal errors of the Canadian Reformed Church, the free offer, the Roman Catholic Church, etc. than in preaching to those outside any visible church, or to even hypocrites and tares inside the visible church. I tended to find that various ministers would get more excited preaching against other churches, than in preaching the gospel. In this sense, the PRC practices limited evangelism. It emphasizes a ministry to other Christian denominations, to those already Christians, not to those without Christ.
If you disagree, consider these questions:
If the PRC is truly evangelical in its mission to bring the lost to a knowledge of Christ, how come its evangelism committees have evangelism lectures instead of evangelism sermons? How come the topics of those evangelism lectures are very often not on the subject of the gospel, but on some other doctrinal issue that would really only be of interest to other Christians? How come the majority of pamphlets produced in the PRC are on deep theological issues and very little on the basic gospel of Jesus Christ? Further, how often are prayers offered up to God for the conversion of souls?
I believe this practice of limited evangelism is wrong. The primary job of the church is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the lost. The church is to be evangelical to everybody. This is the consistent example of the preaching in the NT and it is the command of Christ. In Matthew 28:19, Christ gives the great commission in which he commands his disciples to go out into all nations preaching the gospel. They were commanded to make disciples of all tongues, tribes, and nations.
How did they do this?
In Acts 2:14 – 40 Peter preaches immediately after Pentecost to a massive crowd. He soundly condemned the Jews for their sins, demonstrated that Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was the fulfillment of OT prophecy, and called them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. In Acts 3 we see Peter doing much the same thing, pointing out the sins of the Jews, calling them to repentance and belief in the name of Jesus Christ. In Acts 6, we read of Stephen rising up at his trial, condemning the Jews for killing the prophets, for resisting the Holy Spirit, and he proclaimed that Jesus Christ is God. In Acts 13 we read of Paul’s sermon in Antioch. Here Paul expounds the OT in light of Jesus Christ. He preached salvation alone in Jesus Christ, condemning sin and the despisers. There are thus three common themes: condemning of sin, calling for repentance, and pointing to Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation. This is at the heart of all evangelical preaching.
And this pattern continues throughout the book of Acts. The primary task of the church is to be evangelical, not to wallow in an attitude of contentment with regard to the salvation of others. The church is to be going out preaching to the lost (inside and outside the church), with its members being used by God as instruments in the salvation of others.
An Important Aspect of Evangelical Preaching is a Bold Preaching against Sin: Your Church must be Harshly Preaching against Sin
Let me ask you these questions:
How often does the preaching you hear convict you of sin? What was the last time you mourned over sin because of a sermon you heard? What was the last time you physically wept over your sin?
I ask these questions with grave seriousness. And I ask it not only out of a concern for those visiting your church, but also out of concern for you as a member of a church. It is the calling of your pastor to convict you of sin so that you grow in holiness. Your pastor should not let you be content with where you are spiritually. Your pastor should be urging you on to greater and greater holiness. If you have never felt convicted of sin by the preaching of your pastor, you ought to examine your own heart. You ought to examine the preaching itself, to see if it truly comes down hard on sin.This is an important test for how evangelical your church truly is.
If it is evangelical, it will preach harshly against sin. It will not just speak of sin as something outside in the world, but it will speak of sin as something very really inside the congregation and inside the hearts of its members. During my time in the PRC, I often found that sin was generalized and never made personal. Yes, sin was mentioned in the preaching, but it was never really something that I had to be concerned about. Much of the preaching never dug deep into my heart. It never applied the surgeon’s scalpel to my heart, causing pain, sorrow, healing, and growth. It never showed the grossness of sin. Serious sins were something out in the world, something that somebody else was doing, not myself. Sinners were the drunks, the adulterers, the hypocrites, and the homosexuals. Sin was not my own personal pride, my own personal lust, my own personal hatred or coldness towards my brother, my own covetousness.
In the harsh preaching against sin, there will be conviction of sin, there will be men and women left angry or completely destitute by the preaching. The world must be brought to a realization of their sins by the preaching. It is only when men have a knowledge of their total depravity that they will see the need for a Saviour. It is only when they see their own nakedness and false righteousness that they will cry out to God “save me!” Look at Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. Peter pulled no punches. He told them directly that they had murdered the Son of God: Jesus Christ. He told them that the man they had killed was now sitting in heaven, making his enemies his footstool. By the work of the Holy Spirit and the mercy of God in these men’s hearts, it left them convicted. They cried out “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter brings them the wondrous news of the gospel.
Again I state, it was often my experience in the PRC that the true seriousness of sin was never brought out in the preaching. The hearer was never brought to the position of utter destitution in the face of God. The supreme holiness of God was not brought out. His utter and dreadful wrath against sin often failed to be expressed. The preaching was not such that it made men quake in their dress shoes. This is in part due to the fact that people were told that the very fact that they worried about their salvation, was evidence that they were one of the elect. After all, the reprobate never have that concern. Thus, they were given an easy, but a false comfort! However, our comfort in our salvation is never, ever found in something that we do, especially something as trivial as being worried about our state of salvation. If the reprobate were never concerned about their eternal state we wouldn’t see them flocking to other religions. We would never ever see them trying to be good, trying to merit favour with God, trying not to incur His wrath. Our assurance of our salvation must always rest upon the mediatorial work of Jesus Christ, not our doubts and fears of our eternal state.
One need only look in the Bible to see the importance of strong preaching against sin. Prophets throughout the Old Testament called Israel to repent, they reminded Israel that God was angry at them for their sin. Isaiah goes so far as to call Israel (which was the visible church at the time) Sodom and Gomorrah in Isaiah 1. The apostles in the New Testament did likewise. Paul addresses the church in Galatians as being fools. Christ, through the apostle John, warns the church of Pergamos that unless they repent of their fornication God will punish them (Revelations 2:16). Paul orders Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1 – 2 to reprove and rebuke sin: “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” Furthermore, Paul states in Acts 20:21 that he in his ministry was, “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Confessional Evidence for Strong Preaching Against Sin
The importance of preaching intensely against sin is brought out in the Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 31:
- “Thus: when according to the command of Christ it is declared and publicly testified to all and every believer [through the true preaching of the gospel], that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven them of God, for the sake of Christ’s merits; and on the contrary, when it is declared and testified to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God and eternal condemnation, so long as they are unconverted; according to which testimony of the gospel God will judge them, both in this and in the life to come.” (Emphasis Mine)
Further, Daniel Hyde in his commentary on the Belgic Confession called With Heart and Mind, argues that the Reformers understood “justification to be purely preached when the Word was “rightly divided” (2 Timothy 2:15) into its two parts: law and gospel. The law was preached in all its terror (emphasis mine), while the gospel was preached in all its comfort.”
The importance of such preaching is also expressed in the Form for the Ordination (Or Installation) of Ministers of God’s Word where it states that “they [i.e. ministers] faithfully explain to their flock the Word of the Lord . . . and apply the same as well in general as in particular to the edification of the hearers instructing, admonishing, comforting and reproving . . . preaching repentance towards God and reconciliation with Him through faith in Christ [emphasis mine].”
Lazy Consciences and Comfortable Average Lives
What was the last time you heard a sermon in which you were told that if you do not repent of a particular sin, you will face the wrath and judgment of God? What was the last time after hearing such, you felt the absolute need for a saviour? Such that you yearned for the preacher to bring the message of the gospel? Such that you felt that you could not leave church in any satisfied state, unless you heard the gospel and were brought to a revelation of Jesus Christ?
The truth is we all have lazy consciences. We can hear a sermon on the subject of a particular sin, but if its seriousness is not shown, if the wrath of God against it is not preached, if the holiness of God is not preached, we can leave the pew as comfortably as we entered it. We can toss off a particular sermon on sin because it did not prick our conscience. We can leave church after a sermon, comforted in the fact that we belong to a church. After all we have a pretty happy and content life. Things are going well for us. We attend church twice a Sunday, attend church functions during the week and because of that everything must be just fine with our eternal state. We are living the average Christian life. We may have our secret pet sins, but they are nothing that serious.
Don’t you want to live more than the average Christian life? Don’t you want to grow in your personal relationship with your Saviour, with the Triune God?
In order to do so, we need evangelical preaching. We need harsh preaching against sin. The tares inside the church, the unsaved visiting on a Sunday morning, the covenant children walking in rebellion or complacency, and the hypocritical adults all need strong, evangelical, preaching against sin. Preaching that convicts. Strong preaching against sin brings those elect sinners who are not yet saved, to a knowledge of Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour. Indeed, proper preaching against sin ought to be applicable to both the elect who are saved now, and those who have yet to repent. It is applicable to the elect who have knowledge of their salvation as it brings them to a greater understanding of the wondrous beauty that is theirs in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It also presses them on to live a more and more sanctified life out of thanksgiving to God. It further grants them comfort knowing that no matter how great their sin, they have been forgiven by their Redeemer: the Lord Jesus Christ. After all the purpose of the law, as Paul states in Romans, is so that we might know sin and that having that knowledge of sin, we might be driven to the cross of Christ.
As Luther states in On the Freedom of a Christian,
“For not one word of God only, but both should be preached; new and old things should be brought out of the treasury, as well the voice of the law, as the word of grace. The voice of the law should be brought forward, that men may be terrified and brought to a knowledge of their sins, and thence be converted to penitence and to a better manner of life. But we must not stop here; that would be to wound only and not to bind up, to strike and not to heal, to kill and not to make alive, to bring down to hell and not to bring back, to humble and not to exalt. Therefore the word of grace, and of the promised remission of sin, must also be preached in order to teach and set up faith; since, without that word, contrition, penitence, and all other duties, are performed and taught.”