By Charles Stover | May 11, 2022
The third annual Gospel Reformation Network (GRN) National Conference was titled “The Church’s One Foundation: The Sufficiency of the Gospel in a Secular Age.” This year’s National conference took place May 4th and 5th at the historic Briarwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Birmingham Alabama. Briarwood is historic for many reasons, not least of which because it was the location of the Presbyterian Church in America’s (PCA) first General Assembly. If you are seeking ordination within the PCA, you would do well to remember that!
What is the Gospel Reformation Network? The GRN is an organization committed to cultivating healthy Reformed churches in the PCA. The GRN seeks to accomplish this by promoting these 7 distinctives:
- Biblical Fidelity & Confessional Integrity
- Gospel-Driven & Christ Exalting Ministry
- Earnest Prayer & Expository Preaching
- Intentional Evangelism & Personal Discipleship
- Godly Leadership & Presbyterian Polity
- Reformed Worship & Vibrant Community
- Missional Clarity & Church Multiplication
I hope to provide a summary of the Conference for those unable to attend or otherwise curious about what took place at the conference.
The conference began Wednesday morning, but many Elders arrived in Birmingham the previous evening and enjoyed table fellowship together before settling in for the night.
Immediately before the Conference began on Wednesday, attendees enjoyed breakfast while perusing the exhibitor displays in the fellowship hall. Reformation Heritage Books supplied an impressive inventory for the Conference bookstore, also in the fellowship hall , offering significant discounts and giveaways to a lucky few. Log College Press (LCP) hosted a book sale as well, offering reprints of 18th and 19th Century works by a variety of American Presbyterians. The LCP website hosts over 14,000 works written by American Presbyterians, some of which were cited during the conference. Other vendors included Ligonier Ministries, MORE in the PCA, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, Birmingham Theological Seminary, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Dordt University, Jumpstart Alabama, Lifeline, Providence Christian College, and the Rafiki Foundation.
Registration took place in the worship hall foyer, and attendees were given “swag bags” filled with Conference information, books, and a GRN mug. Then we were treated to a full day of worship in the sanctuary. Pastor John Haines Briarwood led us in psalms and hymns before each session, and representatives from MORE in the PCA, Reformed Theological Seminary, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary provided information and updates as well.
With the preliminaries behind us, I will now provide a brief synopsis of each session, drawn from notes that I took during the Conference. I hope this is a benefit for those who were unable to attend, as well as for those who attended but maybe forgot what they heard! Thankfully the GRN promises to publish full audio and video recordings of these sessions online soon for our edification and enjoyment. Admittedly these notes are imperfect, and it is not my intention to misrepresent any speaker in any way. Any shortcomings are mine and mine alone. I encourage everyone to listen to the sessions when they become available. With that being said, I do hope this synopsis is helpful to those interested in the Conference.
Session 1: “You must be Born Again!” by Dr. Jonathan L. Master
“In comparison with salvation, all other subjects are trivial. To waste time in the pursuit of wealth, or in chase of sensual pleasure, while salvation is not secure, is more than folly—it is madness.”– Archibald Alexander Hodge
President of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Dr. Jonathan L. Master provided an excellent summary on the doctrine of regeneration, and he exhorted pastors to recognize and act upon the primacy of gospel proclamation. The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to do the work of God! Faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17), and God uses the ordinary means of grace as instruments to bring about new birth. Evidence of new birth includes a new nature, a new identity in Christ, and a new relationship with God. Believers in Christ do not remain who they were, but rather are transformed over time through the process of sanctification. This is not to say that believers will become ‘perfect’ in this life, but they will experience a weakening of sinful desires as they pursue the means of grace within the church and commit their sins to mortification.
Believers have been given a new heart and a new nature; no longer are they children of the devil and slaves to the world. They do not ‘identify’ with who they once were apart from Christ (Phil. 3:1-11), nor do they identify themselves by their sin once they have been united to Christ (Rom. 6:1-14). In Christ, believers are adopted, protected, and secure (Rom. 8). This world is not their home, but they will overcome the world by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Session 2: “Pay careful attention: Life & doctrine in the Gospel Minister” by Dr. Jonathan Gibson
“The coals of orthodoxy are necessary to the fire of piety.”– Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Westminster Theological Seminary Professor of Old Testament Dr. Jonny Gibson began his session by highlighting the symbiotic relationship between doctrine and Christian living (orthodoxy & orthopraxy). One cannot survive without the other. Ungodly living leads to ungodly believing, and godly living leads to godly believing (and vice versa). If the church is to remain godly, then it must be shepherded by godly ministers. Dr. Gibson then exegeted 1 Timothy 3:17, a passage every elder should know well. In summary, Dr. Gibson pointed out that the desire men have for pursuing the ἐπισκοπῆς is a good thing. It is a good desire because it is a good work. The office of overseer is the third highest office in the world (beneath Christ and His Apostles). This good work requires a good man with a good reputation. He must be “above reproach,” – not sinless, but blameless. He must not be marked by disgrace or deserved moral criticism. He must be a ‘one-woman’ man. His heart, eyes, arms, bed, and desires should be for one woman. Paul understood that this man was to be ‘heterosexually oriented,’ but that does not mean he has to be married or could not be remarried. His sinful desires must be mortified, and they must never be glorified. A simple question to determine whether a candidate is above reproach: Is this a person we want others to emulate? Is he setting a godly example for the flock? Jesus is the perfect example for an elder seeking to live above reproach. This good work is fueled by the good Word: “Grace be with you.” (1 Tim 6:21)
Session 3: “A Noble Task: Enduring Lessons on the Ruling Elder from Samuel Miller (1769-1850)” by Melton L. Duncan, Sr.
“Samuel Miller is the most important American Presbyterian you’ve never read.”
Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville Ruling Elder and Church Administrator Mel Duncan discussed the life and influence of Samuel Miller, an early Presbyterian father in America, and founding faculty member of Princeton Theological Seminary. Mr. Duncan reminded us that we are all products of the Princeton tradition. Samuel Miller was a lifelong learner and educator, and he was an activist in his early years (which he later regretted). Miller is known for his wonderful pastoral writings from his longtime teaching career. Perhaps his most notable contribution was providing a historical and scriptural basis for the office of Ruling Elder within the Presbyterian church. Miller argued that Ruling Elders are essential and necessary for the purity and edification of the church. Ruling Elders cooperate with Teaching Elders by supporting, caring, defending, and providing for them. Pastors need good Ruling Elders in order to shepherd the church well.
Session 4: “He will surely do it”: The Love of God & Progressive sanctification by Dr. David T.A. Strain
“The God of peace is establishing peace by waging war against our sin… When God’s Law is spoken of as the enemy, it will not be loved. Hear the Father’s voice in the voice of the Law. See in the Law God’s reflection. He desires for you to be made like Him.”
Firs Presbyterian Church of Jackson Senior Minister Dr. David T.A. Strain spoke on the importance of progressive sanctification within the life of every Christian. His session emphasized four primary points : 1) the source of sanctification in the gift of God, 2) the scope of sanctification in the work of God, 3) the summons to sanctification in the call of God, and 4) the certainty of sanctification in the promise of God. Dr. Strain warned against passive pietism which calls Christians to “let go and let God.” The Christian’s sins won’t simply fall off by beholding God’s work in justification. Every Christian must put forth effort in crucifying their sins by the Spirit’s power. Every square inch of man must be sanctified with an eye towards judgment day. Holiness is not “getting better…seeking flourishing…or becoming our true selves.” If the horizon of sanctification is this life, we are in danger of deep discouragement. The Lord calls the church to holiness (1 Thess. 2:12, 4:7), which is a continual summons. Pastors must learn to preach biblical imperatives without the fear of becoming legalists. Holiness is the requirement of God for His children. There is no love without obedience! The certainty of salvation is grounded in God’s promise, “He who calls you is faithful, he will do it” (1 Thess. 5:24).
Session 5: “Don’t shrink back! Holy courage & Gospel Confidence in a Secular age” By Dr. Jon D. Payne
“Without holy courage and sincere confidence in the power and sufficiency of the gospel, pastors will increasingly embrace the new Progressive Christianity – the one that makes deals with the culture to stay ‘relevant’ and ‘maintain a hearing.’ This is a slow death march toward Liberalism.”
Using Acts 20:17-38 as his text, GRN Executive Coordinator Dr. Jon D. Payne exhorted us to holy courage and gospel confidence in a secular age. In Miletus, Paul spoke against the false gods and ideologies inside and outside the Church there. Paul urged unbelievers to turn from the world to the living and true God, calling both Jews and Greeks to repentance and faith (Acts 20:21). There are two ideologies of moral religion within our society which are currently poisoning the church: the LGBTQ+ movement and Critical Race Theory. The PCA has not been immune to this infiltration. Revoice 2018 rocked the Evangelical world in general, and our denomination in particularly, by teaching that homosexual desires are immutable, and sexually disordered people (and their Churches) should not expect their sexual desires to change. This teaching contradictsWestminster Confession of Faith Ch. 13, which states, “the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified.” Dr. Payne argued that the gospel is not a halfway-house. Through faith in Christ we are set free to walk in the newness of life, which includes new desires. Compromise on Side-B theology within the PCA is a deferred decision on Side-A. Dr. Payne also gave examples of CRT’s infiltration within the PCA: PCA churches repenting of Nationalism, American Exceptionalism, and Native American genocide. One PCA church in the Midwest promises to be “unashamedly Christian and unapologetically African-American centered.” The PCA’s denominational seminary hosted a “privilege walk” for many years (though it has not hosted such a thing since 2018). Dr. Payne reminded us of the true mission of the church: to preach the gospel and make disciples. The means of grace must become the primary focus of our church life and programs. Ironically, the supernatural-transformative power of the gospel is denied by those on the far-right and the far-left.
Session 6: “Amazing Grace: Reflections on 40 years of Ministry in the PCA (1982-2022)” by Dr. Harry Reeder
“Every minister should view themselves as a steward and a servant.”
Briarwood’s Senior Pastor Dr. Harry L. Reeder III led the final session late Wednesday evening.Every pastor should view themselves as stewards and servants. He owns nothing but his responsibilities. The Elder is owned by Christ and must give an account for his life and ministry. Godliness is more important than giftedness. Every pastor needs to find ministry models from the Bible and history, mentors with whom to stay accountable, and fellow ministers to rely upon. Dr. Reeder shared his great love for PCA founding father Frank Barker, a voracious reader and lifelong learner. The church needs men who are humble enough to say, “I need to learn.” Dr. Reeder encouraged the use of the word “missional,” so long as we agree about what the church’s “mission” and “message” is. The church is not transformational (that is, tasked with transforming society as a whole). Transformation is the consequence of gospel preaching.
Session 7: “The History & Theological Declension of the Church of Scotland (1560-2020: Lessons for Today” by Dr. Ian Hamilton
“It’s costly to be faithful. Value truth over consequences.”
Westminster Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Newcastle, England) President Dr. Ian Hamilton began Tuesday morning from Philippians 2:3-11. He then provided the history of the Church of Scotland’s sad departure from biblical orthodoxy. The Church of Scotland began in 1560 under the fearless preaching of John Knox, but within two centuries began to waver on its commitment to Scripture by caving to the Enlightenment and German Higher Criticism. By 1889 one significant minister by the name of Marcus Dodds preached in a sermon, “Plenary inspiration is a theory which should be branded heretical.” The Church of Scotland continued to deteriorate in the 20th Century, falling prey to Radicalism, Liberalism, and Feminism. There has not been a case of church discipline within the Church of Scotland since 1831. Dr. Hamilton exhorted that a church must be judged by its willingness to execute church discipline, and not by its professed orthodoxy alone. Reformed churches must focus on feeding the sheep instead of the goats, without caring about what the Academy thinks. Declension within every denomination begins with the desire to “fit in” with the times. The desire to “have a seat at the table” will inevitably lead to a denomination’s demise. Many well-intentioned ministers desire to speak into the fallenness of the world, but too often the world ends up speaking more into the church. We must recover expository preaching, prayer, and confessional adherence within our churches.
Session 8: “Recovering Biblical Leadership in the Public Worship of God” by Dr. Richard Phillips
“Missionalism seeks to gain the approval of a culture which vehemently rejects God.”
Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville Senior Minister Dr. Richard D. Phillips began his session by sharing his testimony of coming to faith under the preaching of James Montgomery Boice, former Senior Minister at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Lord used the ordinary means of grace: the preaching and reading of the Word, right administration of the sacraments, and fervent prayer to draw Dr. Phillips to saving faith in Christ. For this reason, Dr. Phillips exhorted pastors to maximally saturate their worship services with the means of grace. This includes especially the public reading of God’s Word and congregational prayer. Dr. Phillips lamented the tendency within many evangelical churches to avoid reading Scripture and offering spontaneous, half-hazard public prayers. Quoting Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III, Dr. Phillips encouraged us to ‘Preach the Bible, Pray the Bible, Sing the Bible, and Read the Bible” during our worship services. The reading of Scripture and public prayer is to be led by an Elder or men preparing for the ministry (WLC 155-157). The reading of God’s Word and offering pastoral prayer are authoritative acts. Godly leadership begins with personal piety which extends into the pulpit.
For more information about the Gospel Reformation Network and the 2022 GRN National Conference, visit gospelreformation.net.
Charles Stover is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Redeeming Grace Fellowship (PCA) in Owensville, MO.