A Pastor’s Journey to Grace
[Canadian pastor Robert Widdowson has in the past decade made a journey from being an unregenerate liberal minister to believing and preaching the doctrines of grace, and in a recent interview with John Van Dyk, the editor of Christian Renewal, he described the steps of this long pilgrimage (Christian Renewal November 24, 2010).]
The United Church of Canada (UCC) is part of the DNA of my family. Both sets of grandparents were UCC at the time of union in 1925. Later, my dad was an ordained minister and my mom worked in the Head Office of the denomination. Their first date was to a Billy Graham evangelistic crusade in Toronto. My parents were always very loyal to the UCC, including their theology which is liberal. My mother is still alive and has been the greatest supporter of her denomination I’ve ever met. Over the years, we’ve had many discussions about the gospel. However, there are definitely many differences between our beliefs. Although I was ‘a child of the manse’ I don’t recall ever hearing the gospel of the free offer of God’s grace.
A WALKING TALKING PHARISEE
Beginning as a teenager, I committed myself to a form of works-righteousness. So, by the time I was ordained to the office of minister of Word and sacrament in the UCC, I was a walking-talking Pharisee. I studied God’s Word and knew about Jesus Christ and God the Father, but not savingly. I cringe when I recall those days. The Lord was so merciful to save me early in my pulpit ministry. The warning that not many should be teachers for they will be judged by a higher standard was a passage the Holy Spirit used early after my conversion to bring me to my knees in repentance for the lies I had previously spewed from the pulpit. Thankfully, the congregation that had previously heard my errors also heard me repent and, then, preach the Word faithfully. One lady began calling me ‘Billy Graham’. At first I thought altar calls were biblical. The pamphlet by Iain Murray The Invitation System set me straight. It was one of the first pieces of literature I deliberately read for its Reformed content.
Even before my conversion, I was concerned about the state of the UCC, since I was something of a social conservative and the denomination’s extremism in social issues such as same-sex marriage concerned me. But I believed that reform was possible. After my conversion, though, the concerns increased and intensified. I wondered about an exit strategy when my mentor at the time, a godly pastor in a conservative Baptist denomination, advised me to seek an evangelical congregation within the UCC and serve there faithfully unless and until I was asked to leave. I followed his counsel and wound up in the church I presently serve.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SCRIPTURES
I have many concerns with the UCC, but my chief concern begins with its deficient, aberrant doctrine of Scripture. The Belgic Confession places the doctrine of Scripture as its second article; the Westminster Confession places it as its first. Besides the solid teaching of these articles, their very placements teach us how crucial revelation is to the whole of our faith. How can we know the true God, unless he graciously shows and tells himself to us? The seminary I attended rejected the classical doctrine of revelation; instead, it taught that the Bible is the product of human effort and, therefore, contains serious and insurmountable problems at its most basic level. Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons, to varying degrees, eat that kind of stuff up with a spoon. In some cases they have higher views of Scripture than the UCC! As you can see, that deficient doctrine of Scripture effectively cuts you off from the richness of God’s counsel. More seriously, though, such a view teaches that we can’t even trust the scriptural witness. If you are sincerely convinced that the Bible has errors and is not a reliable source of knowledge from God and about God then you are sunk in the harbour before you even set sail. It’s a brilliant move on the part of the extremists because it prevents people from turning to special revelation in their search for God. Instead, people are encouraged to rely entirely or mostly on general revelation. But, as your readers will know, even though general revelation can tell us a great deal about God, it can never tell us the most vital truths about him – how he saves his people. Broadly speaking, the UCC preaches a God whose nature is known, mostly, from studying the natural world (especially the individual self and personal ‘religious’ experience) and secondarily from the Bible.
Little wonder then, that among laypeople there is widespread confusion or outright hostility towards the thrice holy God, the nature of Christ, the saving work of Christ in his active and passive obedience to the Father’s will, the nature of the Trinity, the justification by faith alone in Christ alone through grace alone to the glory of God alone, and so forth. These great truths are only revealed in the special revelation of God’s written Word. Sadly, many in the UCC don’t believe that the Lord has spoken and that his Word is altogether true and trustworthy. But there are others who do not fall into this camp – they are true believers.
HOW DO WE MINISTER TO CHURCH-GOERS?
How may we minister to them? How may we love them as our neighbour? I think prayer, certainly, is essential – we should be praying for reform among the UCC laity and leaders. I wonder, too, if we might serve them by exposing them, gently and graciously and patiently, to a good ministry of presuppositionalist apologetics. Let me explain. Outsiders are usually surprised to learn that there are true believers in the UCC and also that there are many others who have heard the gospel, but in a watered-down form. Like every other true believer, the ones in the UCC need solid biblical preaching, properly administered sacraments, and good discipline in order to mature and be fruitful. Sadly, they usually must seek the solid biblical teaching outside of their church – through books, the TV or the internet. But the quality of the content of the material from such sources varies wildly. R. C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, and John McArthur are all online, yes, but so are some real duds. As for the sacraments and discipline, the true believers in the UCC may go for years without properly administered sacraments, let alone good discipline. So, they are like lambs without a good under-shepherd. They are ripe for hearing a defence of Reformed convictions, if it’s done in a gracious manner and with tremendous patience. I wonder if the true believers in the UCC are something like the people in Ephesus who were disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19.1-10). The difference is, those UCC folk do believe in Jesus Christ. But the similarity is that they haven’t heard the whole counsel of God. Paul preached the Word to the Ephesians and some responded in faith and were immediately baptized. Then for three months he ‘spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them’ (v.8). When he met with opposition, he remained another two years, continuing his apologetic ministry outside the synagogue (v. 10). I’m not suggesting that Reformed people should enter UCC churches the way Paul entered the Ephesian synagogue and begin preaching (verse 8). That would be unwise. However, the apologetic ministry that the apostle conducted outside of the synagogue, in the hall of Tyrannus (verse 9), may hold promise.
When I led Sproul’s The Holiness of God and Chosen by God as small group study in our home, the few UCC folks who participated were struck by the depth of the doctrine. Some had been UCC members all their adult life, but had never heard the stress on the holiness of God or the election of his people. The careful study of Scripture persuaded some that the Reformed convictions were an accurate interpretation of God’s Word. They found real comfort in those doctrines. And it began with a defence of the faith. Someone like Sproul is excellent for this approach because he is a reliable teacher and also very gracious in his style of teaching. So, I would encourage your readers to invite someone from the UCC to a Bible study as a way to introduce them to the teachings of the Reformed faith. But only do so only if you are willing to expend large quantities of love and patience on them. It is a work with modest yields for some time. Yet we look to things that are unseen and eternal.
THE ALPHA COURSE
In the wake of September 11, 2001, I began reading Albert Mohler, who introduced me to the Reformed worldview through his outstanding apologetics which he employed as he commented on world events. For the next few years I continued reading Reformed material. I found it intellectually satisfying, but I was still unregenerate. In the spring of 2002, I was ordained in the UCC. In September, 2003, I received the gift of new life through the evangelistic efforts of Nikki Gumbel, the leader of Alpha; Terri [Robert’s wife] was regenerated soon afterward to the praise of God! Significantly, it was Albert Mohler’s Reformed apologetics, which I’d been reading since 9/11, that prepared the way. It was entirely a work of God’s grace; I believe that regeneration is monergistic. But Mohler’s presuppositionalist approach pulled the rug from under the feet of every proud argument I had built against faith in Christ. His defence of the faith left me with no excuses when the gospel was presented to me one night in the small group setting of Alpha. I was speechless. After hearing that I was a sinner and that Christ alone was my Saviour, I went home, repented in genuine sorrow, and cried to the Lord for forgiveness through Christ.
I knew something wonderful had happened. Before that night I had aggressively criticized both the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the reality of his bodily resurrection – from the pulpit! But immediately after that, I found both the cross and the resurrection really real and truly true. And I repented before my congregation and told them about my new faith.
THE BEGINNINGS OF UNDERSTANDING CALVINISM
I still didn’t hold Reformed convictions. For the first two or so years of our new life in Christ, Terri and I were Arminian. Finally in early 2006, by God’s mercy, I was led to fully embrace the Reformed doctrines of grace. That spring, I engaged in an intensive study of Scripture, Reformed articles, essays, and books, overlaid with much prayer. I became convinced that the Reformed faith was the closest, most accurate interpretation of God’s Word. As B.B. Warfield said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘Reformed theology is simply biblical theology.’ As I discovered from my own studies, no one but the Calvinists were treating biblical teaching on such things as election with the fidelity those doctrines demanded; only Reformed folks were able to explain the richness and complexity of that and other doctrines. TULIP burst upon my mind like the dawn after a very dark night.
In those days my chief teachers – besides God’s Word and the testimony of God’s Spirit – were Gresham Machen (Christianity and Liberalism), Albert Mohler, John Piper, R. C. Sproul (Holiness of God, Chosen by God, Knowing Scripture), and John Owen (Mortification of Sin). As a result of that season of study and prayer, I rejected the Arminian-Wesleyan view and began to hold fast to the Augustinian-Calvinistic one. My wife soon followed me. As is usual with those who come to the Reformed faith as an adult, I was, in the beginning, narrow and abrasive in the expression of my convictions. But it didn’t take long to learn how expansive and gracious the Reformed doctrines are in truth. I quickly mellowed (not because of any merit on my part but as the doctrines of grace were worked into my life by the goodness of God the Holy Spirit!). My wife and I are both thoroughly settled now in our Reformed convictions (and, as I said, have been for some time).
Now that I am being released, I am preparing for the next step and waiting on the Lord. I am free to seek a godly congregation in a sound denomination.
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