The paragraphs below are a written adaptation of the verbal testimony I gave at Faith Protestant Reformed Church as a portion of Reverend Bruinsma’s larger presentation concerning the mission work in Pittsburgh. While reviewing the actual transcription of my testimony and as I went back to amend it to a more reader-friendly version, I did make some adaptations to the wording, as well as clarify and/or elaborate on some of the ideas I touched on in the actual speech. However, the core content or main points of the speech remain intact.
Before I outline the work or begin the discussion on the outlined points, I would like to add a statement clarifying my disposition towards those who are not presently and/or professedly Protestant Reformed. It was not my intent merely to hail the Protestant Reformed demonization. Admittedly my flesh does occasionally take me down that road, but upon contemplation of a sermon series we had on 1 Corinthians 13, a chapter written to remedy party strife in an ancient church, but nevertheless applicable to the church of today and its denominational exclusivity, I find I must also heed the call to love above all else. For that reason, I wish to say that my speech was not intended to demean or hurt anyone who sits in pews other than those that belong to the Protestant Reformed Churches. I do not believe that the Protestant Reformed Churches are the sole possessors of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ as expounded in the doctrines of sovereign grace, nor do I believe that all of God’s precious elect are only found in those same pews. That being said, and for anyone reading this who is not Protestant Reformed, know that it is my hope that you experience the same rest, peace, comfort, and love that only the Christ of the holy scriptures can bring.
I now move on to the writing. I am going to give a brief outline of the writing and then follow it by a discussion on each point. Each point represents a particular way in which we experienced the reality of the blessings offered by the doctrines of the Reformed faith as taught at the Pittsburgh Mission. The discussion will essentially be in narrative form (a testimony), explaining in a very personal way the manner in which we experienced each of these blessings. As an aside, I hope that as Reformed Christians we do not wince at the use of the terms, testimony, experience, or personal. I realize the nominal Christian world has abused, misused, and all but destroyed the proper connotations of these words, but they are words that in modern day Reformed Christianity we have a fabulous opportunity to reclaim and rightly define for both the unbelieving world and the realm of professing Christianity. My hope with all that is written below is that this testimony will bear witness of how the objective doctrines of the Reformed faith present themselves subjectively in the life of one family with whom God has established his covenant.
The power of true preaching and the doctrine of unconditional election
My wife and I do not come from a Reformed background. Connected with that deficiency, we did not grow up under true preaching. Truth be told, I am not sure either of us were aware of the existence of the distinction made between true and false preaching. As far as our experiences are concerned with particular types of preaching go, my wife grew up in one single church institute her entire life, the Church of the Brethren, which is essentially Anabaptist in its preaching. I, on the other hand, grew up as a kind of theological speckled egg. I heard Roman Catholic homilies, and sermons from the pulpits of Baptist, United Methodist, Pentecostal, and Lutheran churches. Though not preaching, I also did sit under and graduate college under liberal Catholic theologians. I suppose one can take off on a breakdown of the nuances between the doctrines taught in each of those theologies and how they manifest themselves in the preaching, but such is not the scope or intent here. It is more the intent to try to explain our conscious observations of what we see now as God’s providential transformation of our hearts by being brought under true preaching.
I don’t believe either Julie or myself had a “breakthrough” moment when we were all of a sudden like: “OK, I have been sitting under false preaching my whole life and here is the true preaching, and here we go….now we’re true Christians.” This much we did begin to realize, though; in each of the churches that we were in at the time, they did not satisfy us for one reason or another. Among these realizations about the preaching we encountered up to this point, we observed corporately:
There was no teaching of absolute truth.
There was no teaching about the authoritative word of God.
There was no mention of the doctrines of sovereign grace.
While I sincerely believe the preachers who we sat under were well intended men, and yes, women, we could not dispute the fact that the before-mentioned truths about truth were not taught. Even the fondness that we gained for them, and to some extent have not lost, could not alter that.
Reflecting on our response to the preaching, I am not sure that we really knew why we kept returning to hear it. We just knew we wanted to keep coming back to hear more, and so we did. As we did, we continued to learn and continued to return. We would have conversations on the way home from the services discussing the sermons, but we really couldn’t pinpoint one particular thing that was said in the preaching that kept bringing us back.
As we began to grow under the preaching, we began to see the doctrines of grace come alive in the preaching. It began to make sense. I suppose if I had to pinpoint the doctrines that grabbed a hold of me most, solidifying my convictions, they were unconditional election and the preservation of the saints. Although the latter is of extreme comfort, I will only elaborate on my thoughts toward the former.
To begin truly to understand the impact this doctrine had on me, it is important to understand at least in a brief way my disposition towards myself prior to embracing the doctrine. As a kid growing up, I was one who was very familiar with my own infirmities. I felt the pain and sorrow of sin horribly. I was one of those kids who had a very sensitive conscience, perhaps too sensitive. Total depravity was not a very difficult doctrine for me to believe by the time we began to sit under Rev. Bruinsma’s preaching. I sought several ways, sinful upon sinful ways to heal my infirmities. I also sought more religious ways as well. As I mentioned before, I went through all these different churches and sought all these different ways to deal with my infirmities, and despite all my attempts to immerse myself zealously in these different areas, I never really found lasting and true peace. There were moments of apparent peace, but the same bad cycles would soon start over again. However, as I began to understand the doctrine of unconditional election, that all began to change.
In unconditional election I found a salvation that was declared to me. In other words, it wasn’t based on my decision. It wasn’t based on the fact that I walked down an aisle in response to an altar call. It wasn’t a feeling or a movement or a hands-up-in-the air, spirit-filled, speaking-in-tongues experience. It was the objective fact that there existed a God who through his Son decided to fellowship with me before time even began; and there was no condition, set forth by either myself or anyone else, under which that fellowship would or would not occur. As a true Father would, God told us he was going to be our friend. He didn’t leave it up to us. He didn’t say, “Boy, I really love you and I’ll be your friend, but you are going to have to come part of the way.” No! He established the fact through his Son, saying “I am your God, you will be my friend.” Tremendous, dependable, and unchangeable comfort lies within that doctrine.
The preaching and the doctrines contained therein were the chief way, I believe, God drew us; but there was also a more practical and personal relationship that we engaged in that supplemented that preaching—a relationship the Lord used not only to keep bringing us back to the mission, but to stay there and become grounded there. With that I lead into my next point.
The work of a beloved under shepherd
We have a very faithful under shepherd in Rev. Bruinsma. In addition to being a faithful preacher, he has been a counselor and leader chiefly characterized by his faithfulness and gentleness. He has always been there and has never been a tyrant. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
When we first started coming to the mission, our attendance at services could be streaky at times. We would come for a month and then not show up for three weeks or so. When those moments of streakiness occurred, we weren’t met by a pastor who would not follow up with us, or at the other extreme, a pastor who beat us over the head when we weren’t there. I got gentle emails to which, by God’s grace, we were able to respond, and then gently be brought back into the mission, where we continued to hear the preaching, continued to be convicted of our sin, and then with that to be brought back to the cross. I suppose one can assume this is characteristic of any good pastor, and I think it is, but what I am trying to emphasize is how these characteristics, though common and assumed, are extremely meaningful and persuasive in leading a work, especially a work as fragile as a mission field.
On a deeper and more individually personal level, I find in Rev. Bruinsma an example to follow of how I ought to lead my family. He has been very much a father to me in this respect. You see, with difficulty and a sense of defensiveness, weakness, bashfulness, and insecurity, I confess that I come from a divorced home. We all believe that unlawful divorce from a doctrinal perspective is sin, and therefore something to be abhorred and hated. But for me the hatred of it is exacerbated because of the consequence it has on all parties involved, including and especially the children, like me. Though not nearly as prevalent now because Christ has become the strength in my weaknesses, I struggled with my confidence level in being able properly to love my family and lead my home. The calling of a husband and father in the Christian home is one of such tremendous responsibility and proportion, even if you have had a good example to follow in your earthly father. But throw into the mix a lack of having a daily example to emulate and carry over into your own family, and it appears beyond impossible. However, God in his mercy and through an officebearer of the church has given me a real life example that shows me that it is possible for me to lead my family and home, despite the inability I feel to do so properly. In his life I see the fruit of the spirit of Jesus Christ and the constant emphasis of relying on Christ to lead one’s family.
As an aside, and perhaps outside of this article’s scope, I want to encourage any reader who finds himself identifying with some of the sentiments I mentioned above and/or are coming from a similar situation, to cling to Jesus Christ and to exercise your faith in knowing he is the strength in your weakness and infirmity. He is in full control of your situation, has borne your infirmity, identifies with it, and has put it to death in principle, which means you do not have to live in the pain of these infirmities. Also, do not underestimate the experiences and wisdom of some of your fellow saints in the church who may have dealt with the same experiences. Seek them out, talk to them, and learn from them. They love you! To those who are reading this and are inclined to treat your fellow saints who come from these situations as lepers, I encourage you to not be high minded, and if you are, repent and thank God for his grace that you have not had to endure those hardships. Then give your life to sharing in that saint’s joys and sorrows, encourage them so that they in turn, and in spite of their weaknesses, can serve the church of Jesus Christ.
Ah, the church!
Church unity and familial bonds established by Christ
The above two points for us have helped inculcate in us the idea of church as family. As scripture affirms, the church is where we find the truest and holiest form of family. As family, we love the church! I can say that there are times that I have felt such affections for the church that it literally hurts my body. The concept of the oneness of the church, its intimate unity in Christ, transcends any distance or fleshly limitations in space in time. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
Julie and I have been out to visit the churches in Michigan three times since beginning regular attendance at the work in Pittsburgh, and each time we leave Michigan describing our visits, amongst other descriptions, as ones of mutual encouragement. In Romans 1 Paul talks about “the mutual faith of both you and me.” It is both edifying and amazing how we (I refer to Julie amd myself, although I believe this would apply to all members of the work in Pittsburgh) haven’t known each other that long. We didn’t grow up with you, and you didn’t grow up with us; we didn’t grow up in the same churches. Yet when we fellowship together, when we’ve eaten meals together, we feel like we have known you for years, and we hear these same sentiments from you. I understand that this sentiment (of feeling as if you have known someone for years, but whom you have known only for a short time) is used frequently as well by the world. But what is not a common denominator between the two is the grounds on which that sentiment is based. Our common ground is Christ and all that is implicit in both our individual and corporate relationship with him (meaning his life, love, and covenant universally manifested in all his followers in the same manner).
Today it seems we speak often of family trees and genealogy, and from the strictly human point of view. I have noticed even in the Protestant Reformed Churches an emphasis on the particular Dutch strands each family comes from. These human ties and family histories are great! I very much look forward to enjoying my own. But far exceeding what “sma,” “stra,” “sema,” or “Fennell” clan we come from is that of our family tree of faith. In that tree we not only have one another at present in the church militant, but also those of the church triumphant—Luther, Calvin, Augustine, Anselm, Justin Martyr, Paul, Peter, Isaiah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, and Adam! We all are tied together at the root, who is Jesus Christ, and his unifying a marvelous love!