Jubilee Tour explores Reformation sites

02-Venema preaching-cDr. Cornel Venema and his wife, Nancy, never expected they would lead a tour group in Europe to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. But in God’s providence, they were in Germany on the actual date marking the event.

Tony Aguilar, representing Levia Tour in New York City, contacted Dr. Venema and asked if he’d be willing to host a tour that included stops to significant sites in Reformation history.

“The itinerary was already in place, although I asked them to make a few changes after I agreed to work with them,” Dr. Venema explained. A concern that Wittenberg would be too busy on October 31 led to scheduling that visit a day earlier; a good move since many dignitaries were in Wittenberg for a celebration on the 31st and the tour group wouldn’t have had access to the Castle Church and other important sites for security reasons.

The group of 50 participants visited sites in Germany, France and Switzerland on the Reformation Jubilee Tour, which took place October 28-November 9, 2017.

01-Lutheran chuchThe tour began with a worship service in a famous Lutheran church in Berlin. Dr. Venema preached from Romans 3:19-4:5 about Christ as the just and the justifier. Rev. Mark Minegar (Allegan, MI) led the group in prayer. Nancy Venema played the organ.

On October 30, the group took a bus to Wittenberg, where they visited the monastery that eventually became Luther’s home. Another site was Phillip Melanchthon’s house, and participants also viewed the Castle Church door, where Luther had nailed his 95 theses 500 years earlier.

This was one of the most memorial days for Rev. Ed Marcusse of Immanuel’s Reformed Church (URC) in Salem, OR, and his wife, Denise. The couple enjoyed this once-in-a-lifetime trip as a gift from Rev. Marcusse’s current and former churches in celebration of his 25 years in pastoral ministry.

“Standing in front of the door of the Castle Church where Luther posted the 95 these was moving,” said Rev. Marcusse, “but even more interesting was touring the ‘Luther House Museum’, which the German government organized in commemoration of the 500-year anniversary.” He explained that when Luther married, Prince Frederick the Wise gave the then-empty monastery (where Luther had lived and taught) to him as a wedding gift. “This may seem like quite a large gift for one couple (the building is HUGE), but by the time he marries, Luther’s fame has spread all over Europe and on any given night he has between 30 to 300 visitors staying with him in order to soak up more of his teachings. His new wife, Katarina, feeds and houses them all. The daily life of the Reformer was well-chronicled in this museum.”

It was on the second floor of the former monastery that Luther frequently met with students after dinner for theological discussions. Notes taken during these “table talks” were published after Luther’s death.

06-Wartburg Castle-cTo celebrate on October 31, tour members began the day with worship. They then traveled to Erfurt, the city where Luther attended university, became a monk, and was ordained a priest. Part of the day included a trip to Wartburg Castle near Eisnach. When Luther left Worms after being declared a heretic, Prince Frederick arranged for Luther to be “kidnapped” and hid for ten months at Wartburg Castle. During this time of seclusion, Luther translated the New Testament from the Greek into German, a step that propelled the Protestant Reformation forward. People now could read these Scriptures for themselves.

On November 3, the tour bus stopped in Worms, Germany, and participants visited the Cathedral where the Diet condemned Martin Luther of heresy. The visits to Wartburg Castle near Eisenach and to the Cathedral in Worms, where Luther took his stand in 1521 in the presence of the young emperor and an assembly of the ecclesiastical and civil authorities, were highlights for Dr. Venema.

07-Worms Cathedral-c“Both of these places were pivotal in Luther’s reformation career, and you could not but be impressed by the courage that he was given by God’s grace to take his stand for the gospel and the authority of the Scriptures in the face of likely martyrdom,” he said. “North Americans, with our strict appeal to the separation of church and state and our history of religious freedom, have almost no sense of what Luther was facing and of the tremendous implications of his reforming work for the church and the Christian life in the world.”

The tour continued into France and arrived at Strasbourg, where participants visited the famous Cathedral as well as the homes of John Calvin and Martin Bucer. On the journey to Switzerland, the bus crossed a section of Germany and stopped at Constance. Group members viewed the building that housed the Council of Constance from 1414-1418.

Although the Council’s primary purpose was to deal with the schism caused by three men claiming to be the Pope, the Council made a sad and significant decision related to the Reformation. It condemned the Czech priest Jan Hus as a heretic and sentenced him to be burned at the stake.

10-Strasbourg Cathedral interiorThe execution of Hus took place 102 years before Luther posted his theses. It’s interesting to know that Hus is reported to have said, “You are about to burn a goose [Husa in Czech means “goose”], but in 100 years a swan will arise that you will not be able to kill.”

A Lutheran church now stands at the place where Hus was executed, and tour members had a worship service there on the second Sunday of the trip. Rev. Marcusse preached from 2 Timothy 3:15 on Sola Scripture.

“It was personally moving for me to do this,” he said. “As I preached, the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ mentioned in Hebrews was running through my mind.”

The tour went on to Zurich, Switzerland, where Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger lived and worked. In Lucerne, tour members viewed a famous lion sculpture and the highly-photographed Chapel Bridge with its octogan-shaped Water Tower. The group then traveled through the Alps, enjoying breath-taking vistas of some of its highest peaks.

The final day of the Reformation Jubilee Tour was spent in Geneva. Rev. Marcusse was impressed by seeing “Calvin’s church and especially standing in Calvin’s auditorium, across the street from his church, where every weekday at noon he would teach, working his way through Bible books verse by verse. These talks were written down by faithful scribes and turned into transcripts, which we hold in our hands today as his commentaries.”

14-Elger mountain AlpsReflecting on the trip, Dr. Venema found it “sobering” that “many of these events and sites are long forgotten in a Western European society that is post-Christian and often ignorant (even hostile) toward its own history.”

He also sees a need for North Americans to develop a more balanced perspective. “I believe Christians, especially Reformed Christians, in North America face two challenges when considering the sixteenth century Reformation. The first challenge is not to ‘idolize’ a particular moment in history, to romanticize it, and to think that we need only to return to the past rather than continue to seek to be faithful to the Word of God and the gospel of salvation by grace alone. The second challenge is to recognize the importance of history in the unfolding of God’s purposes through time, to become better students of our own history so as to understand and appreciate more our reformation heritage and its continuing significance for the church’s life and ministry today.”

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 11 & 12 of the February 9, 2018, issue of Christian Renewal.


URC seeks right house for worship in DC


bldg 2For the last five years, Christ Reformed Church (URCNA) has met for worship in the historic Grace Reformed Church building, located on 15th Street in downtown Washington, DC. Like other Gothic Revival style churches, the building features lofty spires and luminous stained-glass windows. But the architecture stands alone in its sculptural tributes to key places and persons of the Reformation.

About to enter the front of the building, you’d see an arch over the double doors that bears the name “Grace Reformed Church” and depicts Christ’s ascension. You might pause in surprise when you noticed the arch is flanked by shields for the cities of Zurich and Geneva. Lift your eyes higher, above the soaring stained-glass window to the very top of the building’s facade, and you’d see a carved figure holding the coat of arms for Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate, who commissioned the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism.

A Sunday School building echoes the Gothic Revival style as well as the theological emphasis. Dr. Brian Lee, Christ Reformed Church’s minister, calls the building’s outside wall on the south, “Washington DC’s version of the Reformation Wall.” Sculpted elements list Zwingli and Calvin, Bullinger and Beza, Ursinus and Olevianus.

How did the structures come to be embellished with such distinctly Reformed touches? The history page on the church’s website provides the answer. In order to appropriately represent the church’s philosophy, architect Paul J. Pelz studied the history of the Reformed church and became inspired by it. Sculptor James F. Earley incorporated the unique names and symbols, contributing to a final appearance that Pelz believed made Grace Reformed “more artistic than any church in this city.”

pewsThe Reformed Church Messenger, the denomination newsletter, agreed with that assessment while affirming the clarity of the building’s Reformed witness. An article about the church’s dedication in 1903 reported, “In erecting this building the Reformed Church has done an appropriate thing in a beautiful way…. Within and without it is as beautiful and artistic as it is substantial and complete…. It stands as a monument first of all to the power and grace of the kingdom of Jesus Christ but it represents at the same time the history and genius of the Reformed Church….. The style of architecture; the shields of Geneva, Zurich and the Palatinate; the emblems cut into stone arches over the entrances to the church and the memorials in the windows and the chancel, combine to make one harmonious story easily understood by anyone who knows the Reformed church.”

A structure with such Reformed elements seems the perfect place for the newly-organized URC congregation to meet, except for the fact that the building is for sale and Christ Reformed Church needs to find a new meeting location once it sells.

The building belongs to Grace Reformed Church, formerly a Reformed Church in the United States congregation, but now part of the United Church of Christ. The dwindling congregation, composed primarily of elderly parishioners, has realized for some time that it could not continue to maintain the building. In the summer of 2016, the church informed Christ Reformed that current rental arrangements would conclude soon.

FrederickAlthough the owners appear willing for the building to remain a place of worship and encouraged Christ Reformed to put together a proposal, that possibility does not seem likely. Church buildings in the DC area bring a premium sale price because real estate developers are keen to convert them into high-end condominiums or other lucrative secular uses. Because Grace Reformed Church, with its Sunday School building and parish house, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, its value could be even higher than average. While Dr. Lee hates to speculate, recent sales lead him to estimate the building could be sold for around $5 million. He foresees the proceeds being placed into a trust that would eventually benefit UCC charities.

While the loss of this unique location poses extreme challenges to the fledgling congregation, leaders and lay members are embracing the opportunity to assess and solidify the church’s vision and mission.

Dr. Brian Lee

“This is a blessing,” Dr. Lee says, “especially for a newly-organized church like ours, a precious opportunity to ask anew where the Lord would have us plant our pilgrim flag and how he would have us serve him in this time and place.”

About a dozen volunteers, representing a broad range of the congregation’s demographic, are meeting for prayer and discernment. Part of their task is to determine questions and issues to bring before the entire congregation. Do they want to continue meeting downtown as the only Reformed witness in the city? Or do they want to move out to the suburbs, where most of them live? Do they want to continue focusing exclusively on Sunday worship and fellowship or find a facility that will permit the implementation of mid-week programs? Parking in DC is a problem, and many residents prefer not to drive in or out of the city. Church leaders feel it is important for members of the congregation to have input and play an active role in the important decisions that must be made.

Dr. Lee views this as a two-step process. The first step is figuring out, “How do we want to live our life together?” And the second step follows. “If we do that, what kind of building do we need?”

He explains that doing ministry in the midst of a city with a highly-transitory population is very different from the situation experienced by many URC congregations. Churches in smaller towns often enjoy a “generational aspect” that provides continuity and foundational resources. By trial and error, Christ Reformed Church has been discovering the “little details” that work within its metropolitan context. Although many city churches have updated worship or made compromises in other areas, Dr. Lee believes the congregation remains committed to the priority of worship that centers on the preached Word. Nevertheless, the church faces what he calls a “covenantal renewal moment.”

“This is a big step in the life of our church,” he says. “We’ve always been somewhat ‘accidental’ in our worship space, and we desire now to make a more intentional and long-term commitment in a particular neighborhood with a particular vision.”

Christ Reformed Church began meeting for worship on November 4, 2007, under the supervision of Zeltenreich URC (New Holland, PA). Classis Eastern U.S. concurred with the request for organization on October 14, 2015, and a celebratory worship service was held on January 21, 2016.

The congregation consists of about 70 total souls, although its composition is constantly changing. One family recently moved out of state, but two young women are being instructed toward membership. In addition to Dr. Lee, the church is served by two deacons and an elder. A former elder, who served for many years, continues as a member of the church.

As Christ Reformed Church faces the challenge of what may well be the loss of its historic and unique location, the congregation requests prayer for unity.

“We’re not so much seeking a particular outcome, as we desire spiritual unity through this process,” Dr. Lee says. “And stay tuned to see how the Lord blesses us during this time. He is the Lord of Provision, and we know he will.”

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 18-20 of the October 12, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.

Hope for reformation in Germany


Simon SchusterReformed Christians who value the Heidelberg Catechism may have difficulty imagining Germany as a country requiring reformation. But that’s the reality. Many church buildings are now museums with tourists passing through rather than believers sitting under the preaching of the Word. But gospel light is piercing the dark religious landscape of Germany.

Reformed believers are uniting in an effort to bring Reformation2Germany (R2G). That effort is beginning where an important and highly-personal catechism was written 452 years ago, in Heidelberg. And a current student at Westminster Seminary California (WSC) plans to return to Germany in a few years to help promote the new reformation.

Simon Schuster hopes to graduate from WSC with his Master of Arts in Theological Studies in May of 2016. He has already obtained his M.Div. degree from Reformed Theological Seminary in Heidelberg (Reformatorisch-Theologisches Seminar Heidelberg) and desires to return to that city to minister and to teach.

“I do hope to be ordained, but first want to pursue a PhD,” he says. “Without doubt, I want to go back to Germany and do church planting there as my primary focus. But because the RTS [Heidelberg] is a very small seminary and in need of further teachers, I’d like to help there as well.”

The Seminary is closely associated with R2G, which formally began in 2010, when Sebastian Heck was ordained as an associate pastor of Grace PCA in Douglasville, GA, laboring out of bounds in Heidelberg, Germany. After about a year of preaching, Rev. Heck planted the Independent Evangelical Reformed Church in Heidelberg.

R2G is not a missions organization, but an effort to plant more confessional, Reformed churches and establish an indigenous German denomination that is distinctively Reformed. The Heidelberg Catechism is part of its constitution, and the work is under the supervision of the session of Grace PCA and under direct oversight of a subcommittee of Northwest Georgia Presbytery (PCA).

The R2G website states, “We believe that such a committee of Presbytery is a wonderful embodiment of how Presbyterians ought to do missions. It reflects our Presbyterian polity, provides true ecclesiastical oversight, and the necessary structure for setting up a provisional Presbytery in Germany. It also provides the infrastructure for cooperation across denominational borders, particularly as R2G seeks to partner with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the United Reformed Churches (URCNA) and other Presbyterian and Reformed denominations.”

Simon Schuster grew up in a Christian home, but Reformed truth eluded him until he came to understand the difference between justification and sanctification.

“I was always interested in the Bible, even as a child,” he says, “but it was especially this time when I found rest in Christ that aroused the desire to serve as pastor so that many people can have this deep joy of the Gospel.”

Simon became a member of Pastor Heck’s congregation and was licensed to exhort in 2014. While he attends WSC, he is under the oversight of Oceanside URC, which has also licensed him to exhort.

In addition to the Heidelberg church and Reformed Theological Seminary, R2G is attempting to launch a ministry to college students called Reformed University Fellowship. Because Heidelberg University is consistently ranked Germany’s number one educational institution and listed in the top 75 on global charts, more than 30,000 students from around the world enroll in its medical, legal, science, and humanities programs. R2G hopes that the college ministry would spread to other institutions and further the church-planting vision.

The R2G website (reformation2germany.org) explains that because Germans view church planting efforts with suspicion, it is important to share that the work is not bringing anything new, “but simply the old Reformation faith.”

“What could be more natural than founding a Reformed church in a city with a rich and influential Reformed past and teaching the Heidelberg Catechism in the city where it was drafted?”

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 20 of the October 7, 2015, issue of Christian Renewal.

Imprisoned for her faith

Marie Durand by Simonetta Carr; Christian Biographies for Young Readers; Reformation Heritage Books; cloth; 64 pages; © 2015

Marie DurandWrongful incarceration is a hot topic of current interest, but few people realize how many Christians have been imprisoned (often without even the pretense of a trial) for their faith. Arrested as a young woman, Marie Durand remained in prison for thirty-eight years.

This remarkable woman, who kept the faith through decades of imprisonment and difficulties beyond, is the subject of the latest Christian Biographies for Young Readers book by Simonetta Carr.

Marie Durand was born in 1711 into a family who secretly taught their children the Protestant faith. When she was seven, her mother was arrested, and her father was arrested when she was seventeen. Marie’s own arrest curtailed her plans to marry. Imprisoned in a tower that allowed snow or rain and disease-bearing mosquitoes free entry, she and the other women and children suffered greatly. Marie became a leader and encourager, despite her frequent bouts of what may have been malaria. When Marie finally was released, she discovered her home had been plundered and she had to pay her cousins to reclaim her property. She died less than ten years later.

As always, Simonetta skillfully distills complex history into an understandable narrative. The beautiful illustrations add visual interest to Simonetta’s engaging story about a faithful woman who lived for her Lord during a lifetime of wrongful incarceration.

The above book review by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 42 of the August 26, 2015, issue of Christian Renewal.


URC in Santee reaches out with Reformation teaching

signThe first-ever Reformation Conference hosted by Christ URC in Santee, CA, drew an astounding number of first-time visitors. Of the approximately 130 attendees, more than 60 were not church members.

“The idea behind the conference was to provide San Diego with an opportunity to be introduced to the Reformation and Reformed theology,” explains Rev. Michael Brown, pastor of Christ URC. “We want others to come into contact with biblical Christianity, so this was a vehicle for doing that.”

The conference introduced basic Reformational truth by focusing on the five solas. Dr. R. Scott Clark spoke on three: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, and Solus Christus. Dr. Michael Horton covered the concept of Sola Scriptura, and Dr. W. Robert Godfrey addressed Soli Deo Gloria. Christ URC’s pastor, Rev. Michael G. Brown, introduced the speakers and monitored a final question and answer session.

All speakers evidenced their thorough theological expertise and engaged the audience. The men know each other well, and their camaraderie was especially evident during the Q & A session.

Dr. R. Scott Clark
Dr. R. Scott Clark

In his presentation, Dr. Clark noted that the Reformation wasn’t about a lack of grace—the Medieval church was “soaked in grace”—but it was about the meaning of grace. He explained how the church considered grace as “a kind of medicine or stuff” with which you were injected in the seven sacraments, and that this “stuff” enabled you to do your part. He used the analogy of meat thermometer, saying that Luther was constantly sticking this thermometer into himself to see if his acceptance measured up. What Luther finally learned was the truth that justification was not a recognition of what has been accomplished by an infusion of medicine or by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but a declaration of what has been accomplished once for all by someone outside ourselves.

Going on to Sola Fide and Solus Christus, he said, “We only benefit from this by faith. Faith is the sole instrument that looks away from us and looks to Christ.” Although the Roman church replaced Jesus with other mediators (chief among them, Mary), Luther learned to rest, trust, and lean on the finished work of Christ alone.

Dr. Michael Horton
Dr. Michael Horton

Dr. Horton began his talk by correcting a misconception about the Reformation. “It was not a problem of the authority of Scripture, but the view of Scripture and tradition.” He pointed out that Rome viewed the two as different forms of the Word of God, written and unwritten. He referred to the “dogma of implicit faith,” noting that it requires the acceptance of all dogmas taught by the church rather that an act of real faith on the part of the Christian.

“Scripture is authoritative because it comes from the Father, the content is the Son, inspired by the Holy Spirit,” he said. “Candlesticks can be removed.”

As an example of how tradition changes, he cited the 1870 decree making it necessary now to believe that Mary was bodily assumed into heaven. “No basis for bodily assumption is found anywhere in Scripture,” he said.

He quoted extensively from early church fathers regarding the authority of Scripture alone. He concluded, “If any church agrees with the scriptures, that is a Christian church.”

Dr. W. Ro
Dr. W. Robert Godfrey

Dr. Godfrey tackled the large topic of Soli Deo Gloria by focusing on the aspect of worship. He began by expounding on the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, recorded in John 4. He noted that Jesus took her question seriously and responded to her theological awareness in a way that indicated “worship issues are central” and “foundational to the experience and life of God’s people.” The day of the old debate between Jews and Samaritans came to an end in Christ. We no longer worship at the mountain in Jerusalem, but in spirit and truth.

“This doesn’t mean we worship really emotionally,” he said, “but in the Spirit, which he gives to his people without measure so they can enter into worship. In truth, God is seeking worshipers. True worshipers, who worship in truth. No matter how sincere the worship, if it’s not according to God’s word, God is not pleased with it.”

“We must not be wiser than God,” he said, reminding hearers of the Heidelberg Catechism’s discussion on the second commandment. Idolatry is “always the besetting temptation of our hearts. We want more than the Lord has given us because we’re not content.” He compared the attraction of Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic worship over Reformed worship to the appeal of a buffet over ham and cheese buns. “But someone has sprayed the whole buffet with salmonella,” he said. “Ham buns are sufficient and safe.”

“We should insist that we’re not going to be led into…idolatries,” he concluded. “This is the heart of the matter of how we give glory to God alone. We treasure his Word. We honor his Word.”

Rev. Brown reads questions for the panel.
Rev. Brown reads questions for the panel.

Presenters answered questions regarding the practice of indulgences, the relationship between faith and works in the book of James, and the state of American evangelicalism.

Dr. Horton said, “We’re born Pelagian and we go in that direction, unless we’re taught constantly in the other direction.”

Dr. Godfrey spoke about how revivals replaced the Reformation, with an emphasis on the question of deciding for Christ rather than finding your rest in him.

churchOrganizers were pleased with the turnout, likely a result of effective promotion. Pastor Brown shares, “We spread the word about the conference three ways: 1) Internet and social media. 2) Professional-looking fliers distributed throughout the community. 3) An advertisement on the Abounding Grace radio program that I do every Friday with Rev. Chris Gordon (pastor of the Escondido URC).”

Audio files of opening remarks and conference lectures are available online at the Christ URC website: http://www.christurc.org/conference-lectures.

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 10-11 of the November 26, 2014, issue of Christian Renewal.

New Zealand Reformation celebrations

Venema-church door-1Reformation celebrations are rather rare in New Zealand. Yet churches belonging to the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ) hosted some significant Reformation-related events in 2012.

Rev. Leo de Vos says about a meeting held on Reformation Day in the Reformed Church of Silverstream, “Some of our churches are not inclined to have services on special days while others are not used to holding any service to recognize the Reformation, so this was rather new.”

The Silverstream meeting was one of several stops on a New Zealand tour by Mid-America Reformed Seminary president, Dr. Cornel Venema, who traveled with his wife, Nancy, and others from the Mid-America community between October 23 and November 10. In addition to the Silverstream Reformation event, which was held in the Wellington area, Dr. Venema spoke at two conferences and preached on two Sundays at locations on both the North and South Islands.

“We were very thankful for the number who came,” says Rev. Peter Moelker. “We had pastors and members attending from the Reformed Churches (RCNZ), but just as many from outside the RCNZ, including Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist.”The Reformed Church of Avondale hosted the Auckland Reformation Conference 2012 on October 26-27. Between 100 to 120 people attended the conference on “The Supremacy and Finality of Jesus Christ.”

Dr. Venema spoke in three lectures on the supremacy and finality of the word of Christ, the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and worship through Christ.

venema speaking-2

“In that the Reformed churches of any stripe in New Zealand are all relatively small, it was a great opportunity for mutual encouragement in our desire to be faithful witnesses of the Lord in this increasingly pagan city,” says Rev. Moelker. “We had been praying that the Lord would prepare the way and that the Word spoken would be particularly helpful and challenging to us in our context. The Lord certainly answered that prayer.”

While in the Auckland City area, Dr. Venema also spoke informally at a breakfast meeting of pastors and office-bearers about recent theological discussion regarding the Two Kingdoms/Natural Law view.

At the Silverstream event on October 31, Dr. Venema focused on the finished work of Christ our mediator, based on Hebrews 10:19-25. He pointed out that worship should be a great privilege since Christ has opened the way and we no longer must worship through priests or sacrificial ritual.

“Approximately 150 people attended and sang beautifully,” says Rev. de Vos. “We do sing the roofs off of our churches in New Zealand! I believe that many people appreciated recognizing Reformation Day and the wonderful gospel message preached.”

The Reformed Church of Dovedale hosted the second conference, which was held at St. Christopher’s Anglican Church in Avonhead (Christchurch) on November 2-3.

venema speaking-1-c

“We deliberately held the conference at this church hoping to attract some of our local evangelical Anglican brethren, but sadly (for scheduling reasons as much as anything else) none came,” explains Rev. Andre Holtslag. Still, about 60 people attended each of the three lectures on “Contemporary Challenges/Opportunities Facing the Evangelical and Reformed Churches.” Under that theme, Dr. Venema addressed challenges to preaching as the principal means of grace, challenges to the churches in evangelism, and challenges to the Reformed understanding of Christ’s Kingship (the Two Kingdoms/Natural Law debate).

“The response has been quite favourable with folk benefitting from timely reminders about these important truths,” shares Rev. Holtslag. “We are hoping to make this conference an annual or bi-annual event as the Reformed faith needs wide exposure. I believe the addresses on preaching and evangelism were very helpful as we too can so easily get sidetracked by this new idea or that fresh approach.”

Dr. Venema, who spent several childhood years in New Zealand while his father, Dr. Richard Venema, served congregations there, had meaningful visits with many old friends and acquaintances. He was most moved, however, by the vitality of the churches.

“The New Zealand churches are few in number, and relatively small in size, but I was encouraged by the wonderful singing of the congregations (would put us to shame, I think), the simplicity of the lifestyle of the people, and even the openness of the young people of the congregations,” he says. “My father wanted so much to go along with us, but his age and health wouldn’t permit it. He would have been ‘pleased as punch,’ to use one of his favorite expressions, to see the vitality of the churches. I don’t mean to paint too rosy a picture, but I was personally moved by the visible evidence of the Lord’s faithfulness from generation to generation in building and preserving his church among the Reformed Churches in New Zealand.”

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 10-11 of the January 16, 2013, issue of Christian Renewal.

The RPCNA’s Reformation Indy 2012

About 200 people attended the Reformation Indy 2012 conference at Southside Indianapolis Reformed Presbyterian Church on March 23-24, 2012. Dr. Joseph A. Pipa, Jr., president of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, spoke on the theme, “Divine Guidance: Finding God’s Will in a Confusing World.”

Dr. Joseph Pipa

“I was assigned the topic,” Dr. Pipa says, “but think it very useful for today’s Christian.” He listed his hopes for the conference as: “to simplify the process of decision making; help people be more practically committed to the sufficiency of scripture; help get rid of a voodoo approach to guidance; and help both parents and young people better appreciate the parental role, particularly in vocational and marriage decisions. Also to challenge young men to consider the call to ministry.”Dr. Pipa addressed attendees in three lectures: Scripture and Guidance, Providence and Guidance, and Practical Steps for Guidance. He also answered questions during a 45-minute session at the conclusion of the conference.

Conference organizers have multiple goals for the annual conference.

The Keddies

“We hope to establish this as a ‘lamp’ for the Reformed faith in Indianapolis to reach out to the Christian community with sound teaching,” explains Senior Pastor Gordon Keddie, “and also to be a meeting place for the Reformed community and those who are wrestling with the issues which we hope to address in future years.”

Southside Indianapolis RP Church began to plan its first Reformation Indy conference on “Balanced Christianity” in 2010, but at very short notice had the opportunity to host speaker and author Rev. Ted Donnelly (pastor of Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland and Professor of New Testament at the Reformed Theological College in Belfast).

“Since he is so well known in RP circle, it was well attended,” says Rev. Keddie, “notwithstanding the haste with which it had to be put together and the limited time for publicity.”

The 2011 conference emphasized “Reforming Missions” with speaker Rev. Steven Miller, former OPC missionary in Eritrea, now a pastor and Adjunct Professor of Missions at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh.

“We are very happy with the progress we have seen in three years,” says Rev. Keddie. “The news is getting out. Perhaps half of the people come from other churches and some attendees I spoke with are being drawn to the Reformed faith.”

Next year’s conference is scheduled for March 22-23, 2013, with Dr. Joel Beeke speaking on “Spiritual Warfare.” 

Southside Indianapolis RP Church consists of 220 members with an additional 30-40 adherents. The congregation began meeting in a member’s home in 1979 and has met on its current property for 28 years.

“Originally the building was a house (built of Bedford limestone) with a three car garage,” Rev. Keddie says. “As the church grew, from about 50 souls who were sent from Second RP on the Northside, additions were made until just three years ago a $1.2 million auditorium was added.”

The original part of the building was then converted into a suite of offices, a small conference room, and a large classroom. The property is a 3.5 acre site on the south side of Indianapolis on Meridian Street, which Rev. Keddie describes as “the central N-S axis not only of the city, but also of the state of Indiana.”

In addition to Rev. Keddie, who is from Scotland, the congregation is served by Associate Pastor David Whitla, from Northern Ireland. Both are married to American women. The Keddies have three adult sons and anticipate the birth of their second grandchild. The Whitlas have four young children.

The Whitlas

 The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 14 of the April 11, 2012, issue of Christian Renewal.

Calgary conference: “Ingredients for Reformation Today”

A Reformation conference hosted by Bethel URC in Calgary, AB, on October 28-29, 2011, explored intriguing topics under the theme: “Reformation Then and Now: Ingredients for Reformation Today.”

Dr. J. Mark Beach, Professor of Ministerial and Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, spoke about the need for modern believers to overcome tendencies toward works religion and distortions of grace.

His Friday evening lecture, “Learning the Way of Grace (Not Works),” began by showing that the Protestant Reformation was primarily about salvation by grace alone.

“It is easy, however,” said Dr. Beach, “to unlearn this truth in the rough-and-tumble of life, to fall into a ‘works religion’ without realizing it, and to suffer under the oppression of our own human-fashioned Christianity.”

By examining the biblical characters of Naaman (2 Kings 5) and the rich young ruler (Mark 10), Dr. Beach explored how to relearn the way of grace.

“By relearning salvation by grace alone,” he said, “the church is on its way to reformation afresh.”

Continuing with the theme of “Ingredients for Reformation Today,” Dr. Beach’s Saturday lectures focused on two common distortions of grace he labeled “Jonah Christianity” and “Elder Brother Christianity.”

Dr. Beach addressed the first distortion of divine grace by looking at the book of Jonah, demonstrating how to recognize and overcome loveless Christianity.

“Grace that is reluctant grace is no grace at all,” he said. “We must recapture that blessedness of God’s loving grace that seeks us out and finds us so that we love as He does, and so that we celebrate the gospel that keeps us, carries us, and brings us home. In overcoming distortions of grace, we shall experience the reformation of the church in our own time.”

Dr. Beach demonstrated that the second distortion of divine grace, “Elder Brother Christianity,” corrupts the gospel and undermines the church’s witness to the world.

Using the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15, Dr. Beach unmasked the ways in which the modern church falls into a twisted version of Christianity that is judgmental, unkind, denunciatory, and ungracious to the lost.

“This attitude bespeaks our own lost state, should we succumb to it,” he said. In order for the church to be re-formed in our time, it is vital that we hold before us the “love of God in Christ Jesus that welcomes sinners home and joins the celebration, with the angels in heaven, over the healing of the lost.” 

About 75 people attended the conference. The Calgary Protestant Male Choir and an organ/trumpet musical intermezzo contributed to Friday evening’s celebration. Inheritance Publications offered a selection of Reformed books and music during the conference.

Dr. Beach continued with the Reformation Day theme as he preached at Bethel URC on Sunday, October 30.

Following the evening service, one woman told Dr. Beach that his addresses and sermons were like “a giant hug from God.”

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 30-31 of the December 28, 2011, issue of Christian Renewal.

Colorado Springs conference on the grace of God

The Springs Reformed Church hosted its fourth annual Colorado Springs Reformation Day Conference from October 28-30, 2011. The Colorado church is affiliated with the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), sometimes referred to as “the Covenanters” due to its association with the Scottish branch of the Reformation. The denomination consists of nearly 100 congregations in North America and Japan.

Dr. Cornelis P. Venema

The theme of the conference was “But for the Grace of God” with speaker Dr. Cornelis P. Venema, President and Professor of Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. Dr. Venema essentially followed the presentation of his book, But for the Grace of God, which was recently printed in a revised form by Reformed Fellowship.

“I gave five presentations (two in sermonic form on Sunday) on the so-called ‘five points of Calvinism’ or ‘TULIP,’” he said. “The presentations aimed to show that these are not particular points held by some sect within the church, but basic gospel themes that a biblical and evangelical Christian ought to affirm.”

Dr. Venema stressed particular aspects of each teaching. In his first address, he spoke from Romans 3:9-20 and Ephesians 2:1-10 on “Pervasive Depravity: God Saves Sinners.” His second address, based on Ephesians 1:1-14 and Romans 8:28-30, was on “Unconditional Election: God Saves His People.” The third address, “Particular Redemption: God Saves His People,” was based on John 10:11-21.

The two Sunday sermons focused on God’s grace. From John 3:1-8, he preached on “Efficacious Grace: God Effectually Saves His People.” And from Romans 8:28-39, he spoke about “Persevering Grace: God Preserves His People.”

Between 150-250 people attended the conference from a variety of Reformed and Presbyterian churches in the Pike’s Peak region, including RPCNA, OPC, URC, CRC, and RCUS. Dr. Venema also preached at an ecumenical worship service on Sunday.

“Though the conference lectures were good, the preaching was superb, bringing home to our hearts and lives the vital and living relevance of these truths that we hold so dear,” said Rev. David Reese (Springs Reformation Church). “As we have each year…we also had a joint-NAPARC Thanksgiving Reformation Day Service, in which ministers and elders from the RPCNA, the URCNA, and the OPC took leadership roles, and the congregation was made up of members from various NAPARC congregations…as well as many others from various non-Reformed churches in the area.”

In a special breakout session on Saturday afternoon, Dr. Venema addressed “Children at the Lord’s Table?: Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion,” briefly summarizing the argument in his book of the same title.

On Friday evening, youth from junior high through college age had the opportunity to ask Dr. Venema questions.

“One unique aspect of the conference was meeting with a group of young people after the Friday evening session, answering their questions on a wide range of topics of interest to young Christians in our contemporary culture,” Dr. Venema said. “The questions were keen, and the discussion was a weekend highlight.”

Rev. Reese also hosted a sermon discussion time with Dr. Venema for students of high school age after the Sunday morning worship service.

“Dr. Venema’s illustrations and explanations of Irresistible Grace were greatly helpful to our covenant youth,” he said. “Our youth interact with their various broadly evangelical friends who all have dramatic testimonies of conversion, while many of our youth have grown up in the arms of the Church, not knowing a particular day of, or, dramatic conversion. He explained, using the illustration of one’s birth certificate, that we don’t look at the birth certificate to prove that one has been born (again!), but that they are currently alive and well!”

Rev. Reese hopes the annual conference encourages more fellowship among area NAPARC congregations and spreads the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Next year’s conference is scheduled for October 26-28, 2012, with Dr. Joseph Pipa (Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary). The conference is free, features a discounted bookstore, Saturday lunch, and child care. Check out http://www.csrdc.wordpress.com for more information.

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 14 of the December 7, 2011 issue of Christian Renewal.

Reformation resources

You won’t see John Calvin bobble-heads or Martin Luther window clings in the seasonal aisle of your local discount store, but Reformation Day is right around the corner.

Many Reformed churches sponsor conferences this time of year, which recharge adults’ Reformed batteries, but what about the kids? How does your family or church jumpstart children’s love for the Reformed faith?

Readers who’ve known me for many years may recognize this as a subject close to my heart and remember the original Reformation Celebrations at our local Christian school. From the beginning planning stages of those events, organizers believed that while learning about our great Reformed heritage was crucial, no event for kids could succeed as an alternative to Trick-or-Treat unless it included two elements: fun and free candy.

Rev. Andrew Eenigenburg and the people at West Sayville Reformed Bible Church share a desire to teach children about the Reformation in an interesting way while making a small concession to their sweet tooths. I’m writing an article about their annual special Sunday school celebration for families that includes candy for kids, but focuses on presenting and reading a Reformation-related book.

Last year’s featured book was Faithfulness Under Fire: The Story of Guido de Bres by Bill Boekestein. I reviewed the book and interviewed Boekestein and artist Evan Hughes last year. You can read both the interview and the review here. Guido de Bres was the author of the Belgic Confession, one of the three confessions embraced by Reformed churches in the continental tradition known as the Three Forms of Unity.

Boekestein has since written a book describing the history behind another of the Three Forms of Unity: the Heidelberg Catechism. He plans to write a third book on the Canons of Dort.

This year West Sayville Reformed Bible Church will incorporate Boekestein’s second book in its Reformation-themed family Sunday school. And I hope to review the book in Christian Renewal as well as on this blog. You can view a trailer for his new book here.

Boekestein’s book on the Heidelberg introduces children to the three men most responsible for crafting the popular and well-loved catechism: Caspar Olevianus, Zacharias Ursinus, and Frederick III. Evan Hughes again contributes artwork to the combined effort: The Quest for Comfort: The Story of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Each book is available from Reformation Heritage Books for a mere $7.50, about what you’d pay for a couple cups of flavored coffee. The coffee might jumpstart your mind one morning, but the books will ignite young minds for a lifetime. 

These two little books are excellent resources for parents or church educators who want to introduce children to the authors of Reformed confessions and the critical times in which the works were written.

Church school instructors using Not My Own: Discovering God’s Comfort in the Heidelberg Catechism may want to consider using Boekestein’s The Quest for Comfort as a supplemental reading during class or giving it to students as a Reformation Day or Christmas gift. Not My Own by Glenda Mathes (yes, me) is the first volume in the “Life in Christ” catechism curriculum produced by First United Reformed Church in Chino, CA, and available from Reformed Fellowship.

Other Reformation-related resources for children deserve mention in this post as we anticipate observing Reformation Day next Monday.

Janie Cheaney and Emily Whitten, the wise women over at Redeemed Reader, are currently giving away a copy of Reformation Heroes, a book by Diana Kleyn and Joel Beeke. This is an excellent book that has been placed in our church library. Since it sells for $25 on Amazon, you may want to check out their contest!

The October 26 post at Redeemed Reader features a guest review by Shanna Gonzalez of Paul Maier’s Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World. The review is worth reading simply for its handy pronunciation guide at the end.

Although I’m short on time and this listing is far from exhaustive, I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the beautiful and excellent books by Simonetta Carr.

Simonetta has written books on John Calvin, Augustine of Hippo, Athanasius, John Owen, and will soon release Weight of a Flame: The Passion of Olympia Morata.

Her books are available from Amazon, Christianbook.com, Reformation Heritage Books and other distributors. Each book is a literary and visual delight!

John Calvin bobble-heads and Martin Luther window clings may remain scarce. But Reformed parents and educators have access to some very helpful books that can help them spark within children’s hearts a lifelong love for the Reformed faith.