A Look Forward - after Fifty-six Years

Robert D. Knudsen

New Horizons: June 1999

Home Missions

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Our Corner of the Harvest Field

The Home Missionary Who Never Retired

I joined the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1942, while I was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. I joined Covenant Church of Berkeley, under the ministry of the Rev. Robert K. Churchill.

I had made a conscious decision for Christ when I was seven years old. When I was in tenth grade, and a member of the United Methodist Church, I decided to go into the ministry. As I was finishing high school and entering university, I began to study for a local preacher's license. Soon after Pearl Harbor, I met with a group of Methodist ministers. At that meeting, when I refused to agree to attend a seminary on their approved list, they decided not to "take me under care," as we put it. I had to go church hunting.

Covenant Church was a new work then. It was meeting in a storefront, a good walk from the campus. Bob Churchill taught a course on gospel history at a student ministry called the Bible League. I attended these lectures during lunchtime, along with about ten other students. This course introduced me to an Orthodox Presbyterian pastor and turned me toward Covenant Church.

Mr. Churchill always presented the Reformed faith as rock-ribbed, in contrast to sentimental, pietistic spirituality. His preaching was filtered through Christian experience, but it was not experience oriented. He presented the Reformed faith as a complete world-and-life view. He wanted to lead people on an odyssey of discovery, as they penetrated the depths of biblical truth and sought to have their lives molded by it. He emphasized the cardinal doctrines of the Reformed faith, which meant criticizing liberal theology and Arminianism. (Be sure to read his book, Lest We Forget: A Personal Reflection on the Formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, published by the Committee for the Historian.)

When I approached Mr. Churchill about joining his church, he said: "Bob, if you want to join the church, I shall expect you to attend both Sunday services and the midweek meeting." I was unable to attend during the week, but I participated fully on the Lord's day. If Bob had not challenged me like that, I might have wandered from one church to another, as so many students were doing.

In university I went through an intense struggle that brought me to understand that everything is created by God and reveals him. Previously, my attention had been focused on personal experience. I began to see that the Christian faith embraced not only the inner life, but also the world as a whole. I came to understand that Christianity is a world-and-life view.

I did not yet fully understand the antithesis between belief and unbelief, but my eyes were being opened to see that humanism (as it was taught to me at the university) and Christianity had different views of what it means to be human. I wrestled through to the idea that Christian principles should be applied to all of life.

The Early Days

In the early days, life in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was often difficult. Most congregations were small and did not have their own buildings. I spent part of the summer of 1945 in Santee, California, assisting missionary Bruce Hunt (home from Korea because of the war) in starting a church. He was fond of saying, "There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip." He would often quote Scripture and say, "For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries" (1 Cor. 16:9).

The early days of the OPC were indeed adversarial. The break with the large Presbyterian Church U.S.A. was still fresh in the minds of many. There was sharp criticism of compromising with unbelief, of indifferentism, and of independency. For a while, some even harbored the idea that an Orthodox Presbyterian church should be planted next to every liberal Presbyterian church. Some such churches were indeed established, but the tactic was soon abandoned.

Our orientation became less adversarial; we had to devote ourselves to planting churches in advantageous locations. This was a natural development. Nevertheless, we must never lose our edge. We must remember the reasons our church came into existence and understand that those reasons remain valid.

Of course, there was a great need to build the church. Usually, prospective members were not well grounded in the Scriptures or in the Reformed faith. For the most part, preaching had to be simple and straightforward (which it should be, anyway). There was much need for visitation, in the congregation and in the neighborhood.

Bob Churchill said that he had to learn that most of his people had feet of clay. There were many who set themselves against the doctrines taught them. He knew about this. He himself, while in seminary, had resisted for years before coming to the Reformed faith. There was a constant need for instruction about the nature of the church, against the errors of dispensationalism, and about the covenant of grace and the legitimacy of infant baptism. We had to work hard at being Presbyterians and at building the church.


I do not like controversy; nevertheless, I have lived through several controversies within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. When I arrived as a new student at Westminster Seminary in July 1944, the Clark controversy was well under way. It centered on the incomprehensibility of God. I participated in the so-called Peniel controversy, which focused on divine guidance and the possibility of special revelations outside of the Bible. I also participated in the controversy surrounding the views of Professor Norman Shepherd. Is justification by faith alone, or are works somehow necessary for justification? Is it possible in some sense to lose our election?

The OPC has been molded by its controversies. For some time now, we have enjoyed rest from very divisive ones, but we must be ready to deal with them wisely when they come. We must seek to work through unresolved issues. May I point to several dangers?


I mention, first, the danger of misunderstanding or abandoning a truly biblical and Reformed view of nature.

This danger raises its head when God's special revelation (in the Bible) is overemphasized to the detriment of his general revelation (in nature). The Bible is not the only source of direction for our lives. There is a place for human wisdom as infused by the teachings of the Word—for "sanctified common sense." God's speaking in Scripture is indispensable to understanding his revelation of himself in his works, but understanding his works is important to understanding his words.

Reflecting deeply on the biblical idea of creation leads one to reflect deeply on the biblical idea of nature. We hold that there is a divinely given order of things. The created order is the natural order. Creation is all-comprehensive including both what is "natural" and what is "spiritual." We should not distinguish "the creation" from human activity, therefore; man's created estate is his natural estate. Whatever is unnatural has come as a result of sin.

The creation has been radically affected by sin, both personally and cosmically. It needs redemption at its very root. In his work of redemption, God is restoring his creation, making it new again. God's redemption, then, embraces all things. Reflecting deeply, one comes to see everything in the light of the triad: creation, fall, redemption.

Even in our Reformed tradition, we find the teaching that mankind has the natural capacity of reason. This continues on after the Fall, weakened but not destroyed. The sphere of reason is often identified with nature and is thought to be somewhat independent of God and his revelation. We have come to understand, however, that "nature" is not a semiautonomous sphere. From the first, even before the Fall, nature has been interpreted by special revelation. From the beginning, there has been a unity of God's speaking in his words and in his works.

Thus we see that God reveals himself in everything. Revelation is not restricted to an occasional epiphany; we live in an environment that reflects God's glory. As we respond in faith to what he has told us, we come to a fuller understanding of God as Creator and Sustainer of all things and of our place in his creation.

Science, Human Wisdom, and Common Grace

Consequently, we have the obligation to study God's revelation in nature. We study it, indeed, in the light of what he has revealed in his Word. But we must study it nevertheless. We must face the difficult questions concerning the relation of our biblical faith to science. Christians have the responsibility to develop a methodology that is both truly scientific and informed by the teachings of the Word of God.

Some of us are too high-minded on this subject. Others have given up on it. Our world-and-life view will not allow us to give up or be high-minded. We should encourage the study of science from a Christian point of view.

As Christians, we should seek to live well-rounded lives. We should have an eye for the destructive influence of sin in the creation, but we should fix our eyes on the grace of God in Christ, which is active in us and the world, healing and restoring.

Another consequence is that we should appreciate human wisdom wherever it is found. Human wisdom is not limited to one people or even to the elect. Our lives should be led by wisdom, which is from God, but which is spread abroad in the world, like so many other divine gifts, among both the elect and the nonelect. We may learn from human wisdom, but we must remind all mankind that whatever it has is a gift of God, for which he should be given the glory. We must assert that unbelief robs human wisdom of its foundation and substance.

This line of thought validates our thinking about God's common grace. "Common grace" is God's restraining the effects of sin, sustaining the order of creation and allowing life to go on. Common grace is common, in that it is extended to the entire creation. Common grace is grace, in that it is free and undeserved. It provides a foundation for God's ever-present work in history and for the continuing call of the gospel for all men to repent and come to Christ. Men may reject God in the face of his gracious sustaining of his creation, but his gracious upholding of their lives, indeed of the entire world, is what makes their rebellion possible in the first place.

God's common grace is a testimony to his long-suffering with mankind and his desire that all men everywhere should repent. To use Cornelius Van Til's terminology, the unbeliever must be shown that he is living on borrowed capital. He ought to understand the issues of spiritual life and death, which are manifest all around him.


I also warn against legalism. This is a constant danger for the church.

The Scriptures teach that we are sons, not servants. We enjoy the freedoms that come with sonship. We do not serve God better when we specify his commands in greater detail. We follow the command, "Love God with all your heart." Of course, God's commands are still in force. No one who loves his neighbor will steal his wife from him. No one who loves God will deprive him of true worship.

But a nominal obedience to the commandments, which are an expression of love, is empty without that love. True Christian freedom is lacking if we are constantly on edge lest we transgress some rule. We should remember the words of John, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment" (1 John 4:18). We live as sons with God's love filling our hearts. We increase in wisdom, growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Church

I also warn that we should hold high our biblical doctrine of the church. We should live up to J. Gresham Machen's exultant statement, "Now at last we have a truly Presbyterian church." We must understand the benefits of our Presbyterian system and work to bring it to full flower.

Presbyterianism gives each of us the opportunity to carry out the biblical mandate, "Let each esteem other better than themselves" (Phil. 2:3). Of course, in the church, as elsewhere, some will have a more leading position than others. But the Presbyterian system opens the way to everyone to use his talents, to have his say, to exercise his rights.

The ministers among us are, first of all, members of presbytery. We enjoy the fellowship, we take on its responsibilities. I find it strange, therefore, that there are some who take presbytery and its discipline lightly. There are some who do not understand the dangers of independency.

Facing the Future

I cannot predict what will happen to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. We hear good reports about progress in our churches. I can assure you that the condition of the churches in our presbytery is better than it was forty years ago. There are many opportunities before us.

But, we must remember, there are many adversaries—and not all of them are outside our fellowship. Among us there is truly many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip. Let us pray for wisdom. Let us grow in understanding.

We are faced with many challenges. There is the challenge of Rome, which is increasingly placing its stamp on American culture. Are we aware enough of the cultural significance of our biblical, Reformed faith, so that we can understand the influence of Rome and find an antidote to it? We are faced with the challenge of Islam, which is the fastest growing religion in America. Are we learning about it and instructing the people in our churches? Are we able to identify the influence of neopaganism and the occult in our culture? In our country we are experiencing a precipitous decline of morality. Are we sufficiently aware of this, and are we facing up to it with a rock-ribbed Calvinism?

We have been dealing with the question of how best to form men for the Orthodox Presbyterian ministry. Some have complained about the declining influence of the OPC at Westminster Seminary. I resonate with that. But, we must realize, Westminster was never an OP seminary. We should be very concerned with how our men are trained to be pastors and missionaries—that is our primary goal; but if we want our men to teach in world-class seminaries, we must help them obtain the necessary training. The training of all our men should be thorough. We may not retreat into an Orthodox Presbyterian ghetto. Seminary instruction must address the issues deeply and on a broad scale.

Christ, the Solid Rock

Let us have a deep love for the church of Jesus Christ, and let us pray without ceasing for its welfare. As we preach and teach, let it be with understanding and fervor. As we pray, let it be in complete trust that God answers prayer and that his Son ever lives to intercede for us. As we sing, let it be to the Lord, with thanksgiving in our hearts. As we bring our offerings, let it be a token that we belong, body and soul, to our Savior, who loved us and gave himself for us.

As we consider the challenges that face us, let us be confident that God is in control of history and that he is carrying out his purposes. In all things, let us radiate the joy of our salvation, so that we may adorn the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that men and women may see Christ in us and be drawn toward him.

I have never regretted my decision to join the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Our church may be small, but we have God's Word! Our confidence must not be in man's wisdom, apart from God; it must be in the message of salvation, given by God himself in his Word, of which we have been made ambassadors.

We are committed to preach the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. How grateful we should be that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church offers us the opportunity of doing this freely and fully. We joyfully preach the full counsel of God!

I close with the words of a familiar hymn:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus' name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

This is a summary of a talk delivered by Dr. Knudsen to the Presbytery of Philadelphia on November 20, 1998. Dr. Knudsen, an OP minister, is professor of apologetics, emeritus, at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). He quotes the KJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 1999.

New Horizons: June 1999

Home Missions

Also in this issue

Our Corner of the Harvest Field

The Home Missionary Who Never Retired

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