December 09, 2002 Q & A

OPC Distinctives


I am wondering about the beliefs of Orthodox Presbyterians. I am a protestant Christian and go to a non-denominational Church so I am trying to find to what denomination to call myself.


The answer to your first question, "... what denomination can I call myself?" if you "go to a non-denominational Church" would ordinarily be that you would be classified as "Independent." Of course that doesn't say too much as to where you stand among all the denominations and non-denominational (or independent) churches in the Christian world.

Many non-denominational churches include in their name the phrase "... Bible Church," indicating that they hold the Bible to be the inspired, infallible Word of God. That narrows the field somewhat. However, there are many varieties of Bible churches which are so distinct that it would be hard for them to live together due to their theological differences.

So, first of all, let me set forth several groups of churches and indicate their outstanding distinctives. And, for the most part, independent churches might find themselves at home in any one of these.

I'll start first with Presbyterians. "Presbyterian" means "governed by elders." (A minister is also considered to be an elder.) But their doctrine is "reformed," that is, they hold to Calvinism as a system of doctrine which they believe most correctly embraces all the Bible in a cohesive doctrinal system. English, American, Scottish, and some other Calvinists adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith and The Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the "Westminster Assembly of Divines," which met in London's Westminster Cathedral from 1642 to 1647. Doubtless, you have gathered some of this from visiting the OPC website.

Two characteristics of this system of doctrine are that God has chosen His elect from out of our fallen human race from all eternity and that those He chose he calls to Himself through the hearing of the gospel message. It is He who chose us, drew to Himself through the hearing (or reading) of the message of the cross.

This happens as a result of the Covenant of Redemption, in which God the Father covenanted with His Son that the Son would come into our fallen world as true God and man in one Person with two natures to accomplish the redemption of all who call on Him through faith, which faith God gives by His Spirit, apart from whom no one is able to believe, being dead in trespasses and sins. (See John 3:16; Romans 8:28-30; Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 6:44.)

God's Covenant of Grace hass been in force throughout history, first, beginning with Genesis 3:15 throughout all ages till the death and resurrection of Christ, on the promise of a Savior to come, and second, from that time till the coming of Christ to judge the living and the dead at the end of this age, on the basis of a finished redemption.

We call this the Reformed Faith because of its rediscovery and proclamation beginning with the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

Returning to the rule of Christ over the church through elders (where "Presbyterian" comes in), we reject independency in church government. Our reason for that is that, since the death of the Apostles, there are no infallible prophets (since God's Word was completed during the apostolic era). Therefore, the Bible requires a plurality of elders to execute the rule of Christ through His Word and Spirit. And the New Testament Church instituted this rule of elders (also called bishops or overseers) for all the distinct congregations in the New Testament era. The Epistles of Paul are evidence of that.

And Acts 15:1-35 give us the Presbyterian model for settling disputes in the churches. That is why, historically, Presbyterians reject independency, although there are some independent, Calvinistic churches who hold to the Calvinistic doctrines, yet admit no organic connection to other congregations of like faith and practice. They may govern by elders, but only on the local level.

I've said much about Presbyterianism in particular, because I speak as a minister of the "Orthodox Presbyterian Church." "Orthodox" is derived from the Greek, meaning "Straight teaching." That is an emphasis of our denomination.

There are many Presbyterian denominations throughout the world, and especially in the USA. We are distinct from many others—especially the older "main-line" Presbyterian denominations—because we believe they have gone beyond Scripture in what they teach and allow. Other denominations have lesser differences from the OPC, and with them we maintain "sister"-denominational relations. So much for the discussion of Presbyterians.

There is also the Lutheran tradition, coming from Martin Luther and those who influenced Lutheranism after his death. Their basic differences are differences in government (they were originally state-established churches (in Germany and the Scandinavian countries). To a considerable extent they hold to regeneration (the new birth) by baptism, which Reformed churches reject. They also hold that Christ is physically present in the Lord's Supper. And they tend to be Arminian in their doctrines of salvation (although that was not true of Martin Luther himself). That is, unlike Calvin, Arminians hold that all of fallen humanity since Adam are born with the ability to repent and believe the gospel. In such churches, saving the lost is a matter of human persuasion rather that divine calling.

There are several denominations of Lutherans in America. Some are more biblical than others. But they all share in the doctrinal distinctives mentioned.

Baptists, generally speaking (along with Congregationalists), are independent. That is, while they associate for fellowship and for missionary endeavors, they are not subject to one another, as are Presbyterians. And all decisions are made by congregational vote. Baptistic distinctives include their belief in baptism by immersion and "confessing" baptism. That is, baptism is their "confession of faith in Christ."

Some Baptists have adopted Calvinistic doctrine as to salvation. Many of these consider themselves to be "Reformed Baptists" (even though they do not follow the Protestant Reformers in their view on baptism). But by far the larger number of Baptist churches adopt Arminianism in their view of salvation and evangelism.

Just a word about Episcopalianism: Episcopalians derive from the Church of England. The church is governed by bishops (an office which in their view is distinct from elders). They are Hierarchical - that is, authority passes from Christ to Archbishops to the people, similar to Roman Catholicism.

As to doctrine, Episcopalian churches were basically Calvinistic in creed. They vary from "High Church" to "Low Church" as to the sacraments (high-church Episcopalians or Anglicans are called "Anglo-Catholics").

I could speak about "Dispensationalism," which was enshrined in the original "Schofield Bible." This theology found a home in Presbyterian, Baptist, and Independent denominations during the early and middle of the 20th Century. They are still with us today.

Dispensationalists hold to blood-atonement and are generally Arminian, though some are 4- or 5-point Calvinists. Their primary distinctive is the belief that God administered His work of salvation on different principles in different ages (or "dispensations").

Their main antithesis (at least in the older dispensationalism found in the old Scofield Bible) is between Law and Grace. The Mosaic period was (in some sense) under Law, while, since Pentecost, the church is under Grace.

In eschatology (doctrine of last things), Dispensationalists are "pre-tribulational premillennialists" (which is different form historic premillennialism). According to this view (popularized in the "Left Behind" books), when Christ comes at the "Rapture," the saved will be secretly taken to heaven before the unveiling of the Antichrist. Then follows the "Great Tribulation," followed in turn by the Millennium, and after that the "falling away" (Rev. 20:1-3). Then will occur the "Great White Throne Judgment" and the beginning of the eternal state. The OPC does not hold to this view of future events.

I have run too long already. If you have questions on this latter subject, please feel free to return with more questions.

I close with an explanation of the confusion of the churches since the Protestant Reformation. This is a sinful world. and Christians still have the remnants of sin in them after conversion to Christ. That's the meaning of 1 Corinthians 13:12-13. And Satan, though cast out of heaven, is very busy confusing the Lord's people. We in the OPC don't say that only "Reformed" believers are saved. In all of the denominational groups mentioned above God has His true people. It is not for us to separate the sheep from the goats. Christ Jesus will do that on Judgment Day.

So we recognize our oneness with all the redeemed host, knowing that, when Jesus comes, we shall "know as we are known." The problem is not with unclarity in the Word of God, but is US! But must we give up and sail to heaven as kindergarten students of God's Word? Divine enlightenment comes, in God's measure, to those who study and absorb the blessed Book. By God's grace alone, the OPC has sought to stick to the Bible in all our controversies. We welcome all who are hungry for growth in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.



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