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The PCA GA: Corporate Repentance and Jesus Calling.

On January 11,2024 I posted a piece condemning the book Jesus Calling as a gross and influential violation of the Second Commandment. I placed responsibility for this grave offense squarely upon the Presbyterian Church in America. The denomination's integrity requires a reckoning with her 25 year long failure.


Twice in the present century (2002, 2016), the General Assembly has publicly and formally repented of heinous sins committed by our forebears: the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) 150 years previously, and our own PCA founding fathers some 50 years previously. While it was understood that individual Christians and ecclesiastical courts did originally and specifically bear guilt for these past sins, the lack of lamentation and restitution for these sins at the time and over successive decades prompted great distress.


          Corporate repentance through the General Assembly was a somber action in keeping with the seriousness of racism; moreover, it has served to vindicate the law of God among us. The General Assembly stirred consciences and enlivened future vigilance toward present temptations and offenses. All controversy was not ended, but the problem was transformed from an encumbering burden from the past to a solemn responsibility for the future.


Even more gloriously, these acts of corporate repentance vindicated the gospel among us. "So Peter opened his mouth and said: 'Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him'" (Acts 10:34–35). "God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God" (1 Corinthians 1:28–29). "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3:17).


          These oracles have become renewedly honored themes. With the honor of our corporate repentance, there has come in the PCA an observable fertility of funding and initiatives and ministry reaching beyond our historic demographics. Of course, at a pivot point after 50 years as a continuing church, one must heed the prophets and treasure up joy when nudged to despise "the day of small things" (Zechariah 4:10). As the gospel does not denigrate the Law of God, but makes us the God of Sinai's busy household, so our corporate repentance under the gospel is invigorating our ministry.


The overture below strikes near an issue which can be contentious among us, images of the Lord Jesus Christ; and it may evoke concern about skirmish points regarding the regulative principal of worship among us. Larger Catechism 109 receives a commonly allowed exception for the pedagogical use of images of Christ, and not uncommonly men express discomfiture with the flat rejection of all mental images therein. How the representation of Jesus in Jesus Calling differs from such pedagogy is obvious by a mile. Even road construction using blasting caps poses no danger to those country neighbors. Similarly, I doubt any nuance or difference in worship among us will be disturbed by conclusions that imply Jesus Calling is not a wholesome liturgical model.

         

In the age of the image, the deep-fake, and immersive virtual reality, we must certainly get up to speed. It would do us well, be the wise way to seek wisdom: to consider how we may already be behind the curve based on our previous record. Jesus Calling may be new to us, but in nearly all respects (saving perhaps the therapeutic bent), the book has precedents in church history. The PCA has not amended Larger Catechism 109, and the Westminster Divines did not pen it and pass it as some marginal notation. If we have failed with good instruction, what can best prepare us for uncharted territory?


If there is substantial truth to the assessment which I have presented previously, then the PCA's failure requires our earnest attention. Erecting an ad interim committee on Jesus Calling takes in hand a publicly serious matter, queries our theological commitments, and provides an opportunity to discover our faults and duties. Corporate repentance bears fruit.


Whatever conclusion returned by an ad interim committee on Jesus Calling, I trust it would serve to vindicate the law of God among us. Yes, I have a stern and condemning view of the book. Given the well documented appearance of evil in the form of a book incubated in our communion, a serious investigation and resolution by the General Assembly cannot fail to enrich our stewardship of God's inscripturated Law. I am in fact incredulous that any well informed person might dispute the appearance of evil. The ugly appearance can only be dismissed by a process which also serves "in order that [our] earnestness for [Christ] might be revealed to [us] in the sight of God" (2 Corinthians 7:12).


What might corporate repentance produce in our gospel ministry? Granted, my self-esteem is over-educated enough to think that such a committee will be as wise as I deem myself. But what, if? I don't have the wisdom to determine what kind of bread our Father will give when asked. Not a snake. He gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask (Luke 11:11-13). What sort of pivot point might we find in addressing our own sins rather than the sins of our fathers?


The Apostle John wrote with great confidence in his audience's faith. He schooled them to recognize the marks of that faith and to build up their assurance in Christ. And, he thought it of immediate and abiding importance to send them off with one last exhortation: Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).


How might discovery and humiliation and grace and repentance with the Second Commandment invigorate our usefulness in gospel mission? I don't know. I'm a self-professed stupid man who didn't take action about this during my 25 years in the PCA. I do know this: the denigration of idolatry was a public mark of Paul's widespread gospel impact-- conversions and changed lives by faith in Christ. We too might be honored with the vexation of wicked men because we are eroding their market share: And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods” (Acts 19:26).


Such vexation is a primary argument to forget that Jesus Calling came from the PCA. When the PCA repented for racism far and nearer, the world of all sorts were glad to think well of us, or to wonder what took us so long. We did commend the character of God and the vastness of his patience and mercy. That is not why they had to respect our action.


If the PCA repudiates the book as both abominable and dangerous, if she goes on to repent as the single ecclesiastical authority at fault for the existence of Jesus Calling, it will not improve our public relations. It will improve our witness. It will tell people where to flee from evangelical idols, especially little children like us. It may make Thomas Nelson and HarpersCollins huff and puff however they might. If it is Biblical, if it is true, if it is our confession of the faith-- then, whatever consternation and consequences-- we will have reason to rejoice and celebrate (Matthew 5:11-12).


I must add one other bit of parallelism with the PCA's previous acts of corporate repentance. We must not do it like a Corporation, but like a family. In the debate leading up to, and then the lingering slow settling out from our repentance of past racism, men were handed public dishonor in the wake of our actions. Teaching Elder Dr. Morton Smith, a PCA founding father and our first long serving stated clerk, is one of them. It exceeds my ability to tersely and adequately express the debt we owe to him.


As a gospel herald, I am glad that his view of Acts 17:26 has passed away, but it is foolish ingratitude for his memory among us to be vandalized. As a member in the PCA, I owe Morton Smith. As a reader of others' remembrances of him, I wish I could be such a man. The people who love the author of Jesus Calling ought not be put to embarrassment nor provoked to argue for her person and life to be cherished. If repentance is called for, it is by the PCA, and the call comes from a father who loves his family. Families don't burn their own in effigy.


A proposed overture to the PCA General Assembly

(citations have here been reproduced as links)


Erect Ad Interim Committee on the Book Jesus Calling


The book Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence, authored by now-deceased PCA church member Sarah Young, is one of the most influential published Christian works of the present century. Regardless of the author's intentions, as documented below, the book contains and promotes ostensibly grave errors and has been firmly rejected by influential public figures within, and theologically akin to, the PCA. The following proposed overture would establish an ad interim committee to document the PCA’s historical relationship to the book, demonstrate whether the book constitutes a violation of the Second Commandment, and bring recommendations for any warranted actions of repentance by the PCA.


Whereas, communion with the living and true God is mediated by the Lord Jesus Christ alone, and “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (John 1:18); and


Whereas, while the apostle John’s instruction about true saving faith dwells on three preeminent marks– confession of the incarnate Christ, sincere love of fellow Christians and the earnest repudiation of sin– his final, summary exhortation is the pithy, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21); and


Whereas, the church of Jesus Christ does not have jurisdiction to judge outsiders (1 Corinthians 5:12), yet the most publicly disruptive event of Paul’s ministry in Acts erupted from the Gospel’s efficacious debunking of idolatry: “And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods.” (Acts 19:26); and


Whereas, opposition to idolatry is entailed by the sixth vow of every PCA teaching elder, Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace and unity of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account?  (BCO 21-5); and


Whereas, PCA courts have a responsibility regarding not only our system of doctrine but also any matter which “strikes at the vitals of religion” (BCO 19-f, 21-4g, 34-5); and


Whereas, PCA presbyteries specifically hold authority “to condemn erroneous opinions which injure the purity or peace of the church“ (BCO 13-9f); and


Whereas, it is the task of the General Assembly, “to recommend measures for the promotion of charity, truth and holiness through all the churches under its care” (BCO 14-6k); and


Whereas, the PCA has a responsibility within its jurisdiction to discipline and so restrain the promulgation of opinions or practices harmful to the peace and purity of the church, per “. . . for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity, whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation; or to the power of godliness . . . they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against by the censures of the Church.” (WCF XX.iv); and


Whereas, the PCA’s subordinate standards stipulate among the sins forbidden by the Second Commandment:  “. . . all devising, counselling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; . . . ; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, . . . inwardly in our mind, . . .  in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it; . . . though under the title of . . . devotion, good intent, or any other pretence whatsoever . . .” (Larger Catechism 109); and


Whereas, the book "Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence" has provoked on-going criticism among evangelical believers for the last 15 years or more, and wider attention; and


Whereas, leaders respected across the spectrum of the PCA have publicly criticized and warned against the book: Kathy Keller of Redeemer NYC in “The Redeemer Report,” Justin Taylor on The Gospel Coalition website (here and here), Tim Challies in his regular writing ministry (here), and Michael Horton on The White Horse Inn website (available here); and


Whereas, according to the author’s own account in the original Introduction of the first editions, the text consists of messages from Jesus produced in a fashion similar to the occult practice of automatic writing (For an attentive overview of the original Introduction and comparison with the revised version in subsequent editions, see the post from Ruth Graham at The Daily Beast.); and


Whereas, the advertising for the book describes it accurately as, Written as if Jesus Himself is speaking directly to you, Jesus Calling invites you to experience peace in the presence of the Savior who is always with you;”(here); and


Whereas, the book consists of 365 daily readings cast as the words of Jesus Christ directly addressing the reader, and is published specifically to provide benefits obtained by the worship of Christ: “In many parts of the world, Christians seem to be searching for a deeper experience of Jesus’ Presence and Peace. The messages that follow address that felt need;” ( For readers without a copy of Jesus Calling, this quote and further analysis by Tim Challies can be found here.); and


Whereas, by design, Jesus Calling is an idol, 1) because the text is a tool for experiencing a mental image– not a picture but an articulate and counterfeit personality– of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, and 2) because the image is used for the purposes of purported communion with the true risen Lord Jesus; and


Whereas, Jesus Calling is enormously influential: having sold 45 million units (which makes the author the bestselling Christian writer of all time), having been translated into 35 languages, and having launched a brand with social media presence, merchandising, a television series and a version marketed for use with children; and


Whereas, it is public knowledge that the author before, during and after both the production and publication of Jesus Calling was a member of the PCA and a career missionary with Mission To The World; and


Whereas the publisher Thomas Nelson (owned by HarperCollins) is not under the jurisdiction of the PCA, and the author’s passing in August 2023 has carried her above the jurisdiction of the PCA; and


Whereas, because Jesus Calling was published in 2004, it is unreasonable to bring a complaint to or against any court of the PCA on this matter, as “The passage of time since the alleged offense makes fair adjudication unachievable,” especially given the likelihood that “degradation of evidence and memory may have occurred in the intervening period” (BCO 32-20); and


Whereas, based on the facts here cited, it is plausibly arguable that the PCA failed to uphold its standards in pastoral care and discipline and stands as the one ecclesiastical authority at fault in the promulgation of the single most influential, particular and concrete tool of idol worship among American evangelicals.


Whereas, in the recent past the PCA, by action of the General Assembly, has confessed and corporately repented in solidarity with our distant fathers for the sins endemic to American Chattel Slavery and our much nearer fathers for sins of racism during the period of the American Civil Rights Movement; and


Whereas, these previous actions of corporate repentance require an abiding concern for how similar corruptions may well continue among us despite opinions and anecdotes to the contrary; and


Whereas, Larger Catechism 110, to which there is no common exception in the PCA, gives us specific and grave reasons to give serious consideration to the possibility of corporate sin in this matter: “ . . . besides God’s sovereignty over us, and propriety in us, his fervent zeal for his own worship, and his revengeful indignation against all false worship, as being a spiritual whoredom; accounting the breakers of this commandment such as hate him, and threatening to punish them unto divers generations . . .”; and


Whereas, pastoral fidelity within the jurisdiction of the PCA, and filial loyalty to professing Christians beyond the PCA, as well as evangelistic compassion for those outside Christ must reckon with the practical dangers of idolatry: “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:8); and


Whereas, the PCA’s sister churches in the membership of NAPARC have a particular interest in this matter, per the commitment to, “Exercise mutual concern in the perpetuation, retention, and propagation of the Reformed faith.”; and


Whereas, the guilt which may be plausibly argued would likely suggest shame for particular agencies of the General Assembly and persons significant and honored in their endeavors; and


Whereas, the guilt which may be plausibly argued ought to be demonstrated or dismissed in a fashion free from any appearance of institutional modesty; and


Whereas vindication from anything shameful most rightly satisfies the conscience when received from a party not directly involved in the matter under scrutiny; and


Whereas the General Assembly’s Theological Examination Committee (BCO 14-1,14) is both the smallest and arguably most independent of the standing committees; and


Whereas, the pithiness of the apostle John’s, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” presumes a simplicity that may challenge us; and


Whereas, questions required by the PCA’s relationship to Jesus Calling, may ultimately serve “in order that [our] earnestness for [Christ] might be revealed to [us] in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 7:12); and

 

Whereas, the seriousness of this matter is matched by the unflinching grace of the living and true God who instructs forthrightly: “But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:3); and


Whereas, the passing of an overture by the General assembly does not entail endorsement of the “whereas” statements, and unanimity on all the preceding points is not necessary; 


Therefore be it resolved that the General Assembly erect an Ad Interim Committee tasked to return a report to the next convened General Assembly:

  1. Documenting the PCA’s historical relationship to the book, Jesus Calling

  2. Demonstrating whether the book constitutes a violation of the Second Commandment according to our Subordinate Standards as proved from Scripture.

  3. Bringing recommendations for any warranted actions of repentance by the PCA.


Therefore be it further resolved that the General Assembly’s Theological Examination Committee be empowered as a commission to populate the ad interim committee with four (4) Teaching Elders and five (5) Ruling Elders (including from their own number if they so decide). 


Therefore be it further resolved that the committee be encouraged to make judicious use of video-conferencing and to seek assistance from TE Wayne Sparkman of the PCA Historical Center, and the budget not exceed $10,000 to be funded by gifts to the AC designated for this purpose.



Submitted to Eastern Carolina Presbytery by TE Benjamin T. Inman 1/12/24

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