Evangelism and the OPC: Part 2, Van Til and the Mantle of Machen

Eric B. Watkins

In the previous installment, we highlighted the importance of evangelism for OPC history and identity. Concern for the faithful preaching of the gospel was not only the context of the OPC's formation, but also something that Machen hoped would define the church's future. Evangelistic concern and OPC identity are inseparable. Yet anyone who is familiar with the OPC's story remains puzzled by God's providential dealing with our church in her earliest days. Within a year of the OPC's birth, Machen died. It would seem that the young church was left rudderless and without a captain. But God's church is not dependent upon particular men; it is dependent upon God himself. The Lord who gave, took away, and then gave again. In Machen's shadow stood Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), and on Van Til the mantle of Machen was laid. The OPC's evangelistic identity did not die with Machen. If anything, it was intensified and faithfully advanced by Cornelius Van Til.

Van Til's role in the OPC has been well documented. His work on apologetics (defending the Christian faith) is recognized in most conservative Reformed circles. He competently interacted with some of the most sophisticated theologians of his day, and took issue not only with elegantly expressed heterodoxy, but also with inconsistent Christianity as well. Nearly every pastor's library in the OPC contains Van Til's books that defend the faith. While these books are very helpful, we will give our attention to several statements about evangelism that Van Til made in his sermons.[1]

According to Van Til, the OPC was brought into existence for an evangelistic purpose. In a 1968 sermon to the General Assembly, he said, "Who then must bring to a world that is without God and without hope the message of constraining love of Christ for sinful men? Who must take the only name given under heaven by which men must be saved? It is our little church that was brought into existence for this very purpose. It is, thank God, not we alone. There are, throughout the world, others who have not bowed the knee to Baal, but I speak now of our task as a church, living in this time and in this place."[2] Van Til believed that the faithful proclamation of the gospel is the justification of our church's existence in this present evil age.

We can see from such a statement why Van Til would devote his life and energy to the defense of the faith. He saw himself as part of a church that was forged in the fires of evangelistic compromise—a church that had already suffered and lost much, yet was called to proclaim the "only name" by which we can be saved. It is rather inspiring when you think about it!

Van Til's sense of the OPC's evangelistic identity was something he wanted the church to understand. In a 1974 sermon at Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pennsylvania, he said to the saints, "To live unto him certainly involves bringing this message of comfort to those who are still in the clutches of Satan, who are still under the power of sin and are all their lifetime subject to the fear of death. For this purpose the OPC came into existence."[3] These sentences in the sermon follow a quotation of the Heidelberg Catechism, Question 1: "What is your only comfort in life and death?" The last sentence of the beautiful, Christ-centered answer reads, "Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit he assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto him." Note the last four words. For Van Til, "to live unto him" as a Christian "certainly involves" evangelistic concern. These words, addressed to "my fellow believers," were his plea to cultivate an evangelistic identity as part of the spiritual life of the church.

Van Til saw an interesting analogy in his relationship to Machen. If Machen could be likened to Moses, Van Til was Joshua.[4] He carried forward the mission that was begun, but not fulfilled. There are many ways in which this a fitting analogy. Van Til carried Machen's baton, or, perhaps better put, he sharpened Machen's sword and carried it into battle. He not only wrote sophisticated theological books that challenged the great minds of the day, but also wrote simple pamphlets on the faith for the common person,[5] and was admired for his street preaching. Like Machen, he practiced what he preached, and preached what he practiced.

One of Van Til's greatest concerns was for the way in which future generations of the church would carry the mantle of gospel proclamation. Would we faithfully inherit and implement the tools for defending the faith that he, Machen, and others left behind? Would the church succumb to the temptation to mingle with the world? Would we become content to simply retreat from the world into Christian ghettos created by self-imposed isolation and evangelistic pacifism? To live with such indifference would be to squander our inheritance as a church and to abandon the tools left to us to nostalgia and decay. Van Til appealed for a transgenerational "covenantal consciousness" that would recognize that the battle belongs to the Lord, and that God's people must actively embody an antithesis to the world's spiritual darkness. Through Van Til, we see that evangelism is not only a part of the OPC's history, but is at the heart of our identity as a church.


[1] Often, one of the less-traveled roads to understanding theologians is their sermons. Van Til's sermons shed light on his more academic works and are particularly helpful for their clarity and simplicity.

[2] Cornelius Van Til, "Joshua's Appeal for Covenant-Consciousness," in The God of Hope: Sermons and Addresses (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978), 50. Emphasis added.

[3] Cornelius Van Til, "Christ's Final Victory Celebration," in The God of Hope, 156. Emphasis added.

[4] Van Til employed this language in "Joshua's Appeal for Covenant-Consciousness." For a fuller development of this, see chapter 8 of John R. Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008).

[5] See his booklet Why I Believe in God.

The author is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Saint Augustine, Fla.