Evangelism and the OPC: Part 3. Spending Our Inheritance
Eric B. Watkins
What would you do with an inexhaustible inheritance? The purpose of this final article is to reflect on the way in which evangelism is not merely part of our past, but also vital to our current sense of identity and mission. The previous two articles demonstrated that J. Gresham Machen and Cornelius Van Til believed that God had called the OPC into existence with a definite evangelistic mission. Evangelism was not merely a sidebar of the church’s life; it was essential to her being and justified her existence.
Had it not been for his clear sense of evangelistic urgency, Machen would not have been willing to burn the torch as brightly as he did. Van Til not only proclaimed that evangelism was at the core of the OPC’s reason for existence, but also, like Machen, practiced what he preached. He added to and strengthened what Machen had begun. Van Til’s self-consciously biblical and Reformed apologetic method may have been the gift God gave in place of the Machen whom he took away. In the hand of a willing servant of the gospel, Van Til’s apologetic method is a well-crafted, multipurpose tool for defending the faith.
Machen and Van Til remind us of Moses and Joshua. Machen was like Moses, who brought a generation out of a perishing land, but did not live to see much of the conquest. Van Til was like Joshua, who would carry on what Moses began and lead the people into conquest. Van Til employed this metaphor himself, seeing the church of his time as the generation that was called upon to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15). He was greatly concerned that subsequent generations remain faithful, both in theology and in practice. So we must ask the question: how faithful are we being with our inheritance?
One of the greatest mistakes that we could make would be to elevate Machen and Van Til so high as to make them unreal and less like us. In reading through their sermons, it is humbling to see them reflect on their own weaknesses and failures. It is a common theme. Van Til believed that God uses genuine humility (awareness of our own weakness) to create in us a boldness for his gospel. Of the apostle Paul, Van Til wrote:
True humility requires him to be bold on behalf of his Lord. If he will not be bold for Christ, then Christ will bring him low and humiliate him. True boldness for Christ and true humility in Christ go hand in hand. (God of Hope, p. 123)
This is a hard statement for any servant of the Lord to hear. God wants us to be bold, but only in him and for him. If we lack boldness in Christ, he will “bring us low and humiliate us,” so that we might boldly proclaim the gospel. What a sweet irony it is that boldness for Christ comes through humility, just as strength to proclaim the gospel comes through weakness. Our fathers in the faith seemed to know this well.
How do these truths motivate our current generation? Are we bold in the Lord? Are we sufficiently mindful of our own weakness to proclaim that we have no strength in ourselves and to proclaim to a dying world that they are hopeless apart from Christ? Perhaps if we find ourselves unwilling to be bold for Christ in evangelism, it is because we have lost sight of our own weakness apart from him. I will admit for myself that there are many reasons why I shrink back from evangelistic boldness. Perhaps we can all identify with some of them: we have good theological excuses not to do it, we are too busy, we fear men more than we fear God, and we love the praise of men more than the praise of God. May God forgive and strengthen us.
These things have always hindered God’s people from carrying out their mission. They hindered Israel in the conquest of Canaan. In response, God gave a promise to comfort and embolden them: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1:9). This promise was later repeated to another group of people who were weak and fearful. Jesus told his disciples, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
There are obvious similarities between the commission given through Joshua to the Israelites and Jesus’ commission to his disciples. God’s people in both cases were told to carry out their mission knowing that the Lord would be with them and that he alone would be the source of their strength. One dissimilarity is striking, though. The Israelites were told to wield a sword and kill the inhabitants of the land, thus driving them out of the kingdom. Christ’s disciples, however, were told to take sword of the Lord, which is the word of God, and with it bring life to the inhabitants of the land, thus driving them into the kingdom.
I believe that God has given the OPC a splendid inheritance. I have never been more thankful to be a part of our denomination. We have an inspiring history, a glorious calling, and the highest motivation—the glory of God. Our church was forged in the fires of evangelistic concern. Those concerns remain. We have inherited the gifts and calling of those who came before us. At the risk of mixing metaphors, I will say that the battle belongs to the Lord, and that the fields are white for harvest. Our inheritance is secure and inexhaustible in Christ himself. How will we spend our inheritance?
The author is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Saint Augustine, Fla. New horizons, July 2011.