Category: Pastor’s Word

The Westminster Confession of Faith

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

It’s shocking to hear that for many years, you couldn’t buy a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith, even from the Presbyterian Bookshop at 156 Collins Street. I remember Rev. John Mercer telling me that said some of his classmates took their ordination vow “I own the Westminster Confession of Faith” very literally. As long as it was on their shelf, they were okay. One didn’t even go that far, asking if he could borrow a copy of the Confession because he ‘should probably have a read of it’ before his ordination later that day.

Sure, ministers and elders have to agree with the Confession, but why should anyone else bother with it? It’s not like it’s the Bible!

Well, you should read a confession of faith if you want help to see how the Bible’s teaching fits together. That’s what any statement of systematic theology does: it gathers up what the Bible teaches, examines the developments, and states it succinctly.

As Carl Trueman writes, “Ask any Christian what they believe, and, if they are at all thoughtful, they will not simply recite Bible texts to you; they will rather offer a summary account of what they see to be the Bible’s teaching in a form of words which are, to a greater or lesser extent, extra-biblical.”

You should read a confession to check your interpretation of the Bible. As church history teaches us, a new discovery in Biblical interpretation is often an old heresy with a new name.

We are always in danger of what C.S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’ because of the inherent blind spots and cultural pressures of our own time. But confessions help us to evaluate and build on the understanding of believers before us, as well as our own.

And if none of that is convincing enough, confessions help us to focus on what is most important. If we emphasize only the aspects of Christian doctrine which matter to us, we risk transmitting an unbalanced, incomplete, and unbiblical Gospel. Confessions provide a ‘form of sound words’ (2 Timothy 1:13), a comprehensive statement of the Christian faith to pass on (2 Timothy 2:2).

You probably won’t be surprised that I think the Westminster Confession of Faith really is the best confession you’ll find. In 12,500 words (or about 45 pages without the Scripture proofs), the Westminster Assembly has given us a hard-fought, carefully drafted, and pastorally helpful statement of the essential doctrines of Christianity, which is valued by Christians well beyond the bubble of Western Evangelicalism.

If you have time to read 2 chapters of Packer’s Knowing God, Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom, or Sproul’s The Holiness of God, then you have time to read this helpful summary from start to finish.

So, read a paragraph or two as part of your daily devotions, or set aside time on Sunday afternoon to study a chapter and follow the Scripture references. You might prefer to use a booklet of the Confession on its own, download it from, or get one of the many apps like Christian Creeds & Reformed Confessions.

You’ll also be helped by the many commentaries on the Confession. I prefer Chad Van Dixhoorn’s excellent and accessible Confessing the Faith (Banner of Truth: 2014), which includes a modern English version in parallel to the original. The elders and I will be working through this helpful work together.

We should learn from the best of current practice without losing the best of the past. Our personal devotions, discipleship, family worship, corporate worship, and church government would all be enriched if we thoughtfully applied the Scripture-soaked wisdom in the Westminster documents to our present situation.

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

One Another

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

One of the most amazing passages in the whole Bible is what happened to Saul the Pharisee on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-9, 22:6-16, 26:12-18). It’s a familiar story to many of us:

Saul had been an approving witness to the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen the deacon (Acts 7:58). He then set about hounding the followers of Jesus, seeking to have the imprisoned and put to death (Acts 8:1, 9:1-2). But on the road, a light shone from heaven, and a voice spoke to him; that voice was the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 9:3-4).

It’s an amazing story of a great opponent of God’s people being confronted with Jesus, and being transformed into a servant of Jesus Christ (Acts 9:15-16, see also Romans 1:1, 2 Corinthians 4:5, Galatians 1:10, Ephesians 6:6, Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:1).

But there’s something else amazing in this story: what Jesus says to Saul. He speaks from heaven, calling, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).

When had Saul persecuted Jesus? Some say he might have heard the teacher from Nazareth, but we don’t know. When had Saul attacked Jesus? When had he arrested Jesus? When had he had Jesus bound and thrown into prison?


But Jesus says, “Why are you persecuting me?”

This is the staggering truth: what we do to Jesus’ followers, we do to Him.

Jesus teaches this Himself in Matthew 25. It is a scene of judgement. Some are condemned for failing to care for Jesus when He was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned. Others are commended for doing so. Both groups ask when this happened “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison” (Matthew 25:44, also v37-38).

The answer? “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40). That’s what Jesus said to Saul: How we treat other believers is how we treat Jesus.

John underlines this for us in his first letter:

“If anyone says, “I love God”, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 5:20, see also 2:3-6, 3:10-15, 18, 4:11).

So, how are we loving our brothers and sisters? Are do we love to gather together like a family should (Deuteronomy 4:10, Psalm 122:1, Acts 2:42, Hebrews 10:24-25, Revelation 1:10)? Do we put one another first (Philippians 2:1-18, Romans 12:10)? Do we live at peace with one another (Romans 12:16, Ephesians 4:2, James 4:11, 5:9, 1 Peter 5:5)? Do we forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13)? Do we speak the truth to one another (Colossians 3:16)? Do we encourage one another (Hebrews 3:12-13, 10:24)?

These are just a start of the questions we must ask as we seek to love one another. What is Jesus calling us to as we “Look not only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4)? Our priorities and interests in facilities and finances and forms of worship will all be challenged. Are we willing to listen, or will we ignore Jesus?

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

Easter: The Centre of Christianity

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

The Easter season reminds us of the central events of the Christian faith. None of us will know the breadth and depth of the good news about Jesus in this life, but anyone can know the key points.

Paul underlines them for us in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…”

These truths are the most important truths of the Christian message. That is not to say that the rest are dispensable, but that these are the facts without which the message about Jesus would be worthless.

Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3). His death on the cross was no accident. It was not just an example of love. It was an effective and sufficient sacrifice for all who repent and trust in Him. That is what the Old Testament Scriptures told believers to expect: God’s anointed, chosen Saviour would suffer and die, not because He deserved to, but for the forgiveness of the sins of others (Isaiah 52-53).

So, the message of Easter goes back far before the death of Jesus. It reminds us of the sovereign plan of God from all eternity to save a people for Himself (Genesis 17:7-8, Exodus 6:7, Jeremiah 7:23, 11:4, 30:22, Ezekiel 36:28, Revelation 21:3). It highlights the faithfulness of God in keeping His promises of salvation. It emphasises the obedience of Jesus in coming to earth, submitting to life as a servant and enduring temptation every day so that He would have a perfect life to offer as the sacrifice for sin (Philippians 2:8).

Our salvation could not be achieved by anyone deciding to become the Saviour, or to sacrifice Himself for the good of others. The sacrifice had to be perfect (1 Peter 1:18-19). The obedience had to be lifelong. And the offering had to be of unmeasurable value, otherwise it would not be enough for anyone but the one who died (Romans 5:15, 19).

Without the sacrificial, atoning death of Jesus Christ, there is no Christian message. We are still in our sins and unable to be forgiven. As Hebrews 9:22 says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

The truth of each of these claims is proved by the other point of Paul’s Gospel summary: “He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:4). The resurrection is spoken of in the Old Testament (Psalm 16:9-11, Isaiah 53:10-12, Jonah 1:17). Jesus clearly understood so (Matthew 12:40, 16:4, Luke 24:26-27). And so too did the first believers (Acts 2:34).

The resurrection is an amazing miracle, proving the power of God over sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). It is a declaration that Jesus is the Son of God (Romans 1:4). It is the source of spiritual life for all who believe (John 8:28, 10:10, 17-18, 12:32). It is where lasting moral transformation comes from (Philippians 3:10).

Without the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, there is no Christian message. It is useless to trust in a dead Saviour. As 1 Corinthians 15:17-19 says,

“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

So, this Easter, let us meditate on and rejoice in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as promised in the Scriptures, as testified to by the eyewitnesses of His glory (2 Peter 1:16). It may seem that God’s plans for the world are not yet finished, “but we see Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

What is Faith?

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Hebrews 11:1 defines faith speaks of faith like this: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But does that mean that faith is blind? Is it being sure about something that we can know nothing about?

Surely not! The chapter ends be reminding us of what is evident throughout the chapter: faith is faith in God’s promises: “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:39-40). The “things hoped for” that believers are assured of, and the “things not seen” that believers are convicted of, are the promises God has made. This is not blind faith.

True faith has three parts: knowledge, agreement, and trust (called notitia, assensus, and fiducia by the Latin-lovers in theology).


There is particular knowledge that we must believe to have faith: That Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Resurrected Saviour of sinners. To have faith in Jesus is more than believing that there was a person called Jesus who existed. We have to hear the message of salvation and understand it (John 20:30-31 & Romans 10:9-14). Tedd Tripp writes, “We must know something of the One in whom we are to believe. It is not enough to merely be sincere.” We could be sincerely wrong.


So faith must go further; we must agree that the knowledge we received is true.

If you stopped people at random as they walked along Bridge Street and asked them to tell you the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, probably most of them could: A little girl goes for a walk in the forest, finds a house, knocks, and goes in. On the table are three bowls of porridge. The first is too hot; the second is too cold; and the third is just right. She then tries the different chairs in the house, but breaks one; then she falls asleep in the last of the beds she tries. The bears come home and she runs away.

Different people may emphasise different parts of the story, but nearly everyone knows it. And they all know that it isn’t true. That is knowledge without agreement. For faith to be faith, there must be a conviction that the good news we know about Jesus is actually true.


If we heard someone agreeing that, ‘Yes, Jesus is the Son of God who rose from the dead to take away sin,’ we might think we’ve discovered someone with true faith. But remember James 2:19: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” R.C. Sproul wrote, “Satan knows the truth, but he hates the truth. He is utterly disinclined to worship God because he has no love for God.” Knowing that the truth is true does not save.

There are personal (and often painful) examples for each of us. We think, ‘Why don’t they believe? They knew all the answers in Sunday School,’ or ‘We raised them to know the truth’. The difference is trust.

Trust is when, because the good news about Jesus is true, I depend on Jesus alone to do what He has promised to: to save me. And because there is this personal reliance, there will also be an affection for Jesus. We may know many things about salvation which are true, but unless the Holy Spirit changes the nature of our hearts, no amount of knowledge can save us. It is only when we know that the message of Christianity changes everything for us that we have true faith.

No one will be saved by believing, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”, unless we add, “of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15). So let us pray and speak so that we, our friends and family, our community and our world will know the truth, believe it is true, and depend on Jesus to save us.

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald


Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

The doctrine of baptism divides Christians. Almost all Christians believe that baptism is a practice given by the Lord Jesus to signify the unity of believers with Jesus Christ. The difference comes when we consider the place of their children.

The Covenant Promise & Sign in the Old Testament

In the Old Covenant, which God made with Abraham, children were a central issue. Abraham despaired that he had no heir to inherit the promises which God had given to him, including the promise that Abraham would have as many descendants as the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:1-8), and that God would be their God (Genesis 17:7-8). So, God gave Abraham the sign of circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14).

Circumcision was practiced by nations in Canaan. It was applied to youths as a sign of leaving the immaturity of childhood behind and entering into the responsibilities of manhood. God redefined that initiation rite by commanding that it should be given instead to babies who had no ability to decide for themselves. In doing so, God was showing that the salvation He promises doesn’t depend on our will but on His choice (John 1:11-13, 3:5-8; Ephesians 2:10; & Colossians 2:13).

At this point, Abraham already had a son named Ishmael, but he wasn’t a child of Abraham’s wife Sarah. Yet, when Abraham circumcised his family, Ishmael was circumcised even though he was not the one who would receive God’s promises.

So, for 2000 years, the sign of God’s covenant promises was given to all of the sons of Abraham, even though many of them did not receive the promises by faith (Romans 4:12; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Galatians 3:17-18; Jude 5). Yet, failing to give the sign of God’s promise of salvation was a serious sin (Exodus 4:24-26).

The Covenant Promise & Sign in the New Testament

Even in the New Testament, the covenant with Abraham has not been abolished (Galatians 3:1-29, especially 1-6, 13-14); in fact, circumcision and baptism are the same sort of sign for the very same promise (Colossians 2:11-12).

In the New Covenant, Peter declared to the crowd at Pentecost that God’s promises to Abraham were fulfilled in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:33-39): If you repent and believe in Jesus, God will forgive you and be your God, and you will be part of His people (Genesis 17:7-8; Exodus 6:7; Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:28; 37:27; 1 Corinthians 6:16; Hebrews 8:10).

So, the appropriate response is for sinners to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, and to be baptized in recognition of God’s promise to forgive their sins (Acts 2:40-41).

Again, baptism was already used as a Jewish initiation rite, just as circumcision was. For that reason, and because salvation is by grace through faith not on the basis of works, baptism must only be applied once (Titus 3:5). The circumstances of your baptism, including who does it, and whether it was by sprinkling, pouring, or being immersed, does not make it more righteous or more effective.

New converts to Judaism were baptised. But now, God ordained that converts and their children should be baptized as a sign of the promise He gave to them. As Peter said, ‘the promise is for you, and for your children, and for all who are far off,” (Acts 2:39). Because, in the New Covenant, the promise of salvation are given to believers” children, it is appropriate for them to receive the sign of the promise too.

Now, this doesn’t mean that God has promised to save everyone whose parents believe. No, God’s promise is, “If you receive the promise signified by baptism, then (and only then) you will be saved.”

The children of believers are privileged to receive the promise because their parents are to teach them the way of salvation by faith in Jesus from their earliest days. This is an advantage the children of unbelievers do not have. But it doesn’t guarantee salvation.

That distinction between God’s covenant people and the world should be recognised, and so should the responsibility parents have to covenant children.

Are There Covenant Kids in the New Testament?

But, is there such a thing as covenant children? There isn’t a verse which says, “And Peter even baptized little Malachi, even though he was only 3 months old.” But while the baptisms of households may be inconclusive (see Acts 11:13-18; 16:15, 31-34; & 1 Corinthians 1:16), we do meet children in the pages of the New Testament who are treated as part of the people of God.

Paul could write to the children in the church at Ephesus with a command to “obey your parents in the Lord for this is right.” This is the very same basis that children in the Old Covenant were commanded to honour their parents: they are “in the Lord”, part of God’s people and therefore expected to obey His commands and receive His blessings (Ephesians 6:1-3).

It is for that same reason that fathers are told to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). That doesn’t just mean correcting them as God requires, but discipling them, or training them to be followers of Jesus. To make disciples of Jesus means teaching the way to be saved (by faith) and to teach the way to live as someone who has been saved (also by faith). Every believer needs this training from other believers, and covenant children should receive it at home as well.

But Should We Baptise Covenant Kids?

There is no direct command, “You shall baptize your children,” but the children of believers have always received the covenant sign, whether circumcision or baptism. So it is up to those who would restrict baptism to believers only to justify their position from the Scriptures because they are the ones arguing for a change from the pattern God established. Our preferences cannot overrule what God has established.

Appeals to an age at which children become accountable for their sins will find no support in Scripture. The consistent message is that all people are sinners from conception (Psalm 51:5 & Romans 3:23). Otherwise, if children were not sinners, God would be unjust to decree that any should die before they were accountable for their actions (Romans 5:12-14). Only those who deserve the wages sin pays, die (Romans 6:23).

On the positive side, children may know their Saviour from an early age, like John the Baptist, who did so in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41-45). We cannot understand how children so young could have faith, but we must remember that faith doesn’t begin with our intellect; faith is a gift which God gives to people who cannot believe (Ephesians 2:8). That is why believers can have peace and certainty if their children die at a young age (2 Kings 12:21-23); not because they’re innocent (because no one is), but because God is gracious and He promises His grace and salvation to believers’ children by faith (Acts 2:38).

Withholding Baptism from Children

It has been argued that the children of believers should be baptized and that for there to be any change to this consistent patters, there would need to be positive evidence in favour of the change, not just opinions or preferences or the assertion that “It’s different in the New Testament.”

There is no evidence that such a monumental change happened in the early church; if it had, there would have been heaps of controversy, and yet there was none.

Actually, it was not until the latter Reformation period in the 16th century that anyone challenged the idea of baptizing the children of believers. At this time, everything that was not Biblical was to be removed, not matter how difficult. But the Reformation left infant baptism in place. That wasn’t out of a sense of tradition or because no one thought to change it. It was because careful examination of the Word of God convinced people that baptising the children of believers was Biblical.

Are we as committed to believing what the Scriptures say, or are we just going along with what we have heard?


Of course, it is absolutely wrong for anyone to rely on being baptized as an infant for their salvation (Romans 4:12). But it is also wrong for anyone who relies on being baptized as an adult for their salvation, and there are many of those as well (Acts 5:1-11 & 8:9-24).

But the problem is not with baptising infants, but with parents who don’t tell their children what baptism signifies, God’s promise to them: If you repent and believe, you will be saved (Acts 2:38, 40).


If we see baptism as my declaration of my faith in God, or as my promise to try my best to make my children Christians, in both cases, we miss the point. Baptism is about God’s promise to save incapable sinners by giving us faith. That’s why it’s appropriate for it to be given to incapable babies.

God gave us the sign assures us that what seems impossible is true: sinners will be saved.

Then, the question remains: Have you received the faith and salvation that baptism illustrates?

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

The Next 40 Years

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Last time I wrote, I reviewed the events of the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia 40 years ago. Our attention then turned to our side of the fence. I assessed the Parish of Benalla using six characteristics of the Presbyterian Church of Australia today, as identified by our present Moderator-General, Rev. John Wilson.

The question remains, ‘What will the next 40 years hold for us?’ and how can we prepare for them? The unavoidable answer is that we must address our shortcomings. Dealing with John Wilson’s list is a good place to start:

  1. A tendency towards theological pride and self-sufficiency;

Jesus repeatedly gave strong warnings against hypocrisy. The most familiar is Matthew 7:1-6. His warning that we must remove the speck in our own eyes before attempting to remove the log in a brother’s eye.

As we’ve been seeing in James, it’s not enough to say we believe the right thing; if we don’t live what we believe, then our faith is dead (James 1:4, 22-27; 2:14-26). If we really believe in “God, the Father Almighty” we’ll be less concerned with self-preservation. If we really believe in “Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Saviour”, we’ll want to introduce people to Him. If we really believe in “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life”, we’ll be regularly and passionately praying for Him to give life to the spiritually dead, rather than making excuses for why they don’t believe.

  1. A failure to appreciate the shortness of the time until Jesus’ return (especially in our evangelistic efforts);

This relates directly to our evangelistic efforts. We don’t know how long it will be until Jesus returns. We don’t even know how much longer we’ll be free to tell people the good news about Him (I suspect that the pressure to keep quiet will quickly grow). So what can we do?

Our goal has to progress from inviting people to church, to introducing them to Jesus. That’s a different conversation completely. Instead of talking about our building, our friends, and our minister, we’ll talk about Jesus’ identity, His mission and His call to repentance and faith. We’ll know we’ve been heard, not just when people appear at the front door on Sunday morning, but when they understand who Jesus is, they agree with the message they’re hearing, and they are changed by it.

Let’s have those conversations, urgently!

  1. A reactive (rather than proactive) stance to cultural changes;

The continual waves of social and cultural change will not be reversed by us wringing our hands and remembering how it used to be. Neither is it our task is simply to oppose what is wrong. We must speak and act for what is right.

Not only should we speak against proposed changes to Australia’s marriage laws, but we need to encourage and support marriage ourselves. Young people need to be in our homes to see what Christian marriages look like. Engaged couples need our counsel and advice as they prepare for a lifetime together. Married couples need the assistance of other Christians in dealing with the issues that inevitably come when two sinners live with each other.

Our culture says that marriage is only about love, and that when love is gone, the marriage can end. We need to say and show that love is a choice and an action, not just a feeling. It’s no accident that men have to be commanded to love their wives and give themselves for them (Ephesians 5:28) or that older women are commanded to teach younger women to love their husbands (Titus 2:4)! We can only do that kind of teaching when we have real relationships of trust and love.

Then we’ll be proactive, rather than waiting for problems to appear, which the minister will somehow be able to solve.

  1. A tendency to fight among ourselves (including with other Reformed and Presbyterian groups);

As I noted last time, our parish has been repeatedly divided, not so much through theological disagreements, but by the failure of relationships. We have sinned and been sinned against, and yet have refused to repent or forgive, and be reconciled.

Jesus taught His disciples to pray, ‘Forgive us our sins as we have forgiven those who sin against us,’ (Matthew 6:12). If we will not do what Jesus calls us to do, and go to our brother to be reconciled to him, our very claim to be Christians is called into question (Matthew 5:23-24).

Some level of disagreement is unavoidable, even in the Church. Wherever sinners are, there will be sin. But how we deal with this sin is the bigger issue. Christians should be able to disagree without fighting. And Christians who fight must be able to be reconciled. The world is watching to see if we really are Jesus’ disciples who love one another (John 13:34-35).

  1. A nominal commitment to Presbyterianism, which is actually strongly individualistic rather than connectional (both in our understanding how people relate to God and one another, and in how congregations work together);

Many of us are happy to be called Presbyterians. But our practice of Presbyterianism is another issue.

Do we actually believe that being ruled by elders and being connected to other congregations is the Biblical form of Church Government? That doesn’t often match our practice.

The love which Jesus commands us to have for one another isn’t just a feeling (James 2:8, 15-16). We have to actually help one another. Galatians 6:2 says, ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.’

It seems that our commitment to one another’s welfare only comes to the surface when there is an opportunity to discuss their problems with others. The elder’s oversight of us is not something we seek out; instead, we tend to hide our troubles. And our interest in other congregations really comes to the fore when there is trouble (especially if the trouble isn’t being handled the way we think it should be).

Our membership vows commit us to sharing regularly with our fellow Christians in worship on the Lord’s Day, to giving a God-honouring proportion of our time, talents and money for the Church’s work in the world, and submitting to the authority of the Session as they exercise pastoral oversight of the congregation. Again, this will only happen when we develop real, deep relationships with one another based on trust and truth. We need to depend on the Holy Spirit to equip and enable us to be faithful to these promises.

  1. A love of money, with many of our resources dedicated to maintaining property and programs as they are rather than taking the Gospel to the lost.

In our decision-making, we tend to prioritize our preferences over what is needed to proclaim the Gospel to others and build up believers. Our first question shouldn’t be ‘What can we afford to do?’ but ‘What does the Gospel require us to do?’ Our priorities should not be limited by what we have, because as we commit ourselves to God’s work, He will provide what we actually need through the generosity of His people. As we work together to spread the Gospel, it will demand real, financial sacrifices from us. Until we are ready to give the Lord our wallets, we cannot be sure that we have submitted ourselves to Him.

So, then, what will the next 40 years bring for the Parish of Benalla?

If we keep going the way we are, we will not be here in 40 years. But if we address the heart issues that are before us, we may see the Gospel bearing fruit among us and in our communities in ways we haven’t for many years.

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

How Are We, 40 Years On?

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Where were you on Thursday 22nd June 1977? No, it’s not the date of moon landing or the dismissal of Gough Whitlam. After years of discussion and two nation-wide votes, two-thirds of the Presbyterian Church of Australia left the denomination to join the new Uniting Church in Australia.

Union with other churches was on the agenda of the PCA since its own formation by the federation of state-based Presbyterian Churches in 1901. At the first meeting of the new national church in 1901, our first Moderator-General Rev. John Meiklejohn said, “Through Union we have placed ourselves in the position in which we can consider the question of a wider Protestant union without the risk of further disunions among ourselves… Our Church looks with longing eyes towards a larger union of Protestant Churches in the noble service of God and His Christ.”

Discussions about uniting with the Methodists and Congregationalists failed in the following decade because the Presbyterians also wanted to unite with the Church of England (though the inclusion of bishops in the united church proved an insurmountable difficulty). A renewed attempt in 1920 made it to a national vote of members, but failed as less than 50% of Presbyterians voted at all. The negotiations which resulted in the Uniting Church began in earnest in 1955, with pivotal meetings of the Joint Commission on Church Union held in 1957, 1959 and 1963. The first congregational vote for Church Union was held in 1972 with another in 1974.

In the intervening years, sectarian divisions in Australian culture had become less pronounced, which was a good thing. However, the push for organisational unification misrepresented Jesus’ prayer for unity among His people. The unity Jesus prayed for is a spiritual unity based on a shared commitment to the truth of His teaching (John 17:6, 8, 11-12, 14, 17-21; 1 John 2:18-27).

The doctrinal basis of the Uniting Church was a compromise document aimed at minimising areas of disagreement and ultimately undermining the authority of the Scriptures as the Word of God. Davis McCaughey (who before Union was a Presbyterian and later became the Governor of Victoria) said that the church “must be prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church.”

The position of the Uniting Church on a range of moral, ethical and doctrinal issues has met and exceeded the warnings of continuing Presbyterians against the theological compromise that the Basis of Union represented.

But we must hear Jesus’ warning against presuming to remove the speck in our brother’s eye when we may have a log in our own (Matthew 7:1-7). How has the Presbyterian Church of Australia fared since 1977?

The determination of the ministers, elders, and congregations which continued as Presbyterians was outlined by Rev. Neil Macleod in a protest at the 1974 General Assembly (which took the decision to unite). They declared that the PCA would seek:

  1. “The promotion of the glory of God;
  2. The extension of the gospel throughout the world; and
  3. The building up of the people of Christ’s church.”

And all this would be done:

  1. “In humble dependence on God’s grace and the Holy Spirit;
  2. While maintaining the Confession of Faith; and
  3. According to the Word of God.”

This much has been true, and we should be very thankful to God for that. As John Sandeman writes in the July edition of Eternity, the Presbyterian Church of Australia is “a church that, like its members, has been born again… Rather than 40 years in the wilderness like Moses, the PCA has had 40 years of rebuilding in which it has transformed into a (nearly) completely evangelical church.”

The present Moderator-General, Rev. John Wilson, describes the PCA as “almost unrecognisable from what it was in the 1960s.” A recently published book of essays entitled Burning or Bushed: The Presbyterian Church of Australia 40 Years On (edited by Paul Cooper and David Burke) describes the transformation. Some states have struggled and turned the corner, others languish, and others seem self-assured of a strong future.

What challenges remain?

John Wilson boldly identifies six characteristics of the PCA today:

  1. A tendency towards theological pride and self-sufficiency;
  2. A failure to appreciate the shortness of the time until Jesus’ return (especially in our evangelistic efforts);
  3. A reactive (rather than proactive) stance to cultural changes;
  4. A tendency to fight among ourselves (including with other Reformed and Presbyterian groups);
  5. A nominal commitment to Presbyterianism, which is actually strongly individualistic rather than connectional (both in our understanding how people relate to God and one another, and in how congregations work together);
  6. A love of money, with many of our resources dedicated to maintaining property and programs as they are rather than taking the Gospel to the lost.

Well, what about us here in the Parish of Benalla? Have those features of the wider denomination been seen here among us in the last 40 years? Please permit me as a relative newcomer to say that I’m afraid that all six have been, and still are today.

  1. We can recognise the theological faults of other believers, but we are slow to see our own (or the ways in which we fail to live out what we say we believe);
  2. Our evangelistic efforts are rare (recognising that inviting people to church events is not the same as telling them the good news about salvation in Jesus Christ);
  3. We decry the changes around us but do little to encourage the good things which remain;
  4. Each of our congregations has been diminished since Union, not so much by theological differences, but by the failure to repent, forgive and be reconciled. This has brought shame on the Gospel and damaged the reputation of the church before the watching world (John 13:34-35 & 17:21);
  5. Our ideas of what it means to be Presbyterian often don’t include taking an interest in or praying for the spiritual life of others in the same congregation, let alone those in the other congregations of this parish, of the Presbytery or the wider church. Our commitment to being ruled by elders (the literal, grammatical definition of ‘Presbyterian’) often fails when their decisions could be unpopular, even when they are made with the word of God and the best interests of His Church at heart. A notable instance of this is the lack of preventative and corrective church discipline (see also the previous point);
  6. We have yet to make the Gospel our highest priority in all decision-making, and are instead committed to maintaining our bank balances. This doesn’t mean we should have an irresponsible attitude to the financial resources, but we need to be more generous and deliberate in using what God has given us to ensure that we are serving His work of evangelising the lost and strengthening His people.

In his essay on the history of Church Union, Rev. Peter Barnes quotes historian Manning Clark: “He asked whether we are ‘bored survivors, sitting comfortless on Bondi Beach, citizens of the kingdom of nothingness, who booze and surf while waiting for the barbarians?’ That is the question that the PCA has to answer.

Well, what about it, brothers and sisters? Are we simply glad to have survived 1977, resigned to the ineffectiveness of our present methods, and waiting to be wiped out by a hostile culture?

What will the next 40 years hold for us? That’s a question for next time.

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald