By Rev. Stephen C. Magee, Exeter Presbyterian Church
From time to time, people visiting our church have asked me the question, “What do Presbyterians believe?” In our day the use of a word like “Methodist” or “Baptist” or “Presbyterian” can be very confusing, since those who use these labels are so diverse. I will attempt to answer the question based on my understanding of the historic consensus of Presbyterianism, with particular attention to the way that the Christian faith is practiced within our congregation.
Presbyterians are Christians
We believe in the fundamental truths of the Christian faith, as expressed in historic Trinitarian statements such as the Nicene Creed or Apostles Creed. Families are brought into the membership of Presbyterian churches through a profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. That profession of faith requires an understanding and affirmation of the following five truths:
- My biggest problem is my sin against God, and the punishment that my sin deserves. (Rom 3:23, 6:23, 1 Tim 1:15)
- The only solution to that problem is Jesus. I believe that He saved me from my sins. (Acts 4:12, Rom 3:25, Heb 2:14-15, 9:22)
- I surrender my life to Him. (Matt 28:19-20, Rom 6:1-2)
- As part of that surrender to Jesus, I commit to an active Christian life of worshipping God and working for Him as a part of a believing church. (Matt 10:32-33, Eph 5:25-27, John 13:35)
- Again, as part of that surrender to Jesus, I will let the pastors and elders of the church help me follow Christ. (Heb 13:17, 1 Thes 5:12-13)
Presbyterians are Evangelicals
The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word for “gospel” or “good news”. Historically, “evangelical” has been used as a label for those who hold to the Bible as a statement of absolute truth. It is the written Word of God, the good news worthy of our complete trust. We believe that the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments are fully “inspired” or “God-breathed.” We believe that the whole counsel of God concerning everything necessary for us to know in order to live for the Lord is either directly written in the Scriptures or can be rightly deduced from them. Nothing is to be added to them by new revelations of the Spirit or the traditions of men.
The final judge of all controversies of faith can be nothing else but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.
Presbyterians are Reformed
The word “reformed” is used in a variety of contexts with very different meanings. We use the term to describe a large segment of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. “Reformed” theologians are committed to the goal of the ongoing work of reforming the church according to the unchanging standards of the Scriptures. Those who hold to the teaching of reformed theology have a heritage that speaks clearly concerning the fundamental questions of the faith. Questions like:
“Who is God?”
“How deep is the problem of human sin?”
“How can people be saved?”
“What is the purpose and work of the church?”
“How are we to worship God?”
In particular, reformed believers hold to the sovereignty of God in all of His works of creation, providence, and redemption. This complete authority of God in the work of salvation is most often referred to as the “five points of Calvinism” that were affirmed at the Synod of Dort in 1619, and form the acronym “TULIP” as follows:
T: TOTAL DEPRAVITY - God restrains sin throughout the world, yet there is no part of my being that remains untouched by sin. (Gen 6:5, Jer 17:9, Rom 1:18-32)
U: UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION - God saves His people based on His righteousness and mercy alone, and not on any good works or intentions of those who come to Him. Even the faith we express is a gift from God. (Eph 2:1-10, Rom 9-11)
L: LIMITED (or particular) ATONEMENT - The work of Christ in dying for sinners on the cross was sufficient for all human beings, but was efficient (actually taking away our guilt) only for the people of God, who are called in the Bible the “elect.” (Matt 1:21, Heb 2:14-18, Mark 10:45)
I: IRRESISTIBLE GRACE - God will save the full number of his people. He renews and transforms their wills, enabling his children to call out to him in faith. This work of His saving grace ultimately wins the day! (John 6:37, Rom 8:28-30)
P: PERSEVERANCE (or preservation) OF THE SAINTS - Those who are truly saved, are always saved. They are united to Christ and kept by Him. (Mark 13:22, John 6:39, I John 2:19, 2 Tim 2:13)
Presbyterians Understand the Bible Covenantally
God deals with His people by way of covenant (Matthew 26:28, Luke 1:72, 2 Cor 3:6, Heb 8:13). A covenant is a solemn arrangement between God and His people. God entered into a covenant of works with Adam in the garden of Eden, demanding Adam’s perfect obedience. Adam’s failure would mean death for him and his posterity. By Adam’s fall, sin and death entered the world, and there was no hope from that point forward that we could win eternal life through the covenant of works (Rom 5:12).
But God was not content that His people would perish, and immediately at the time of Adam’s fall, God instituted a covenant of grace. In the covenant of grace, the obedience and death of a Messiah would provide all that was necessary for our forgiveness. The perfectly sinless life of Christ, his death on the cross (followed by His resurrection) assure us that the Lord has accomplished His gracious plan for His people.
This one great arrangement of grace has two administrations that are referred to in the Bible as the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Under both of these administrations, the people of God were granted eternal life only by the grace of God, and only through faith in the perfect work of a substitute that God would provide. As New Testament believers we live after the coming of that great Messiah, while Old Testament believers lived in faith as they awaited the future coming of the Lamb of God, who would take away the sins of the world.
Because there is one arrangement of grace throughout the whole Bible, there is much from the Old Testament Administration that is still in effect today. But there is much that has been fulfilled in Christ. All of the Bible is essential for our life of faith today, because all of the Bible speaks of Christ, the Son of God and Savior of sinners. (Luke 24:27)
Presbyterians Endeavor to Live Covenantally
God has made a covenant of grace with us as His people. We are to respond to that covenant with faith and obedience. As part of that obedience, the Lord calls us to is to live in covenant with others, displaying the law and grace of God in our various relationships as we live as citizens of heaven in a fallen world.
Church: God calls us to be a part of the covenant community of the church. (Eph 4:1-16) This is to be a place of individual transformation, as we turn away from sin, and turn toward God by the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us as His body. (Eph 4:17-5:21)
Marriage and Family: God calls men and women together into the special covenantal relationship of marriage. This covenantal union is to be a display to the world of the wonderful relationship between Christ and the church. (Eph 5:22-33) God also calls us as parents and children to special covenantal relationships as parents and children within the family. (Eph 6:1-4)
World: God calls us to live covenantally and faithfully as we relate to the world, working for Him in all that we do, and endeavoring prayerfully to be fruitful and submissive countrymen in the midst of a world full of sin and misery. Together we labor to bring the love of Christ to every tribe and tongue and nation, and to display the mercy and justice of God by the power that He supplies. (Eph 6:5-20)
Presbyterians Believe in Biblical Church Government
The Scriptures indicate that God has ordained a government for the church. The Father has set His Son to reign as the King of the Church. He has given gifts to His people, and has given continuing offices to the church of elders and deacons.
The elders include ministers, teachers, and pastors. These men are called by God to watch over the spiritual lives of the flock, and to make disciples. They are to teach the people to follow the Word of God, and they are to help the members of the church in their high calling as Christian men, women, and children. (Acts 20:17-38, Eph 4:1-16, 1 Tim 3:1-7, Heb 13:17)
The deacons are responsible and godly men within the congregation who are called to care for the physical needs of the members of the church, and of the various facilities and programs of the church. They are to pay special attention to the needs of the poor and to encourage the congregation in the use of their gifts and abilities for the progress of the Lord’s kingdom throughout the world. (Acts 6:1-7, 1 Tim 3:8-13) Presbyterians are “catholic.” The word catholic means universal or world-wide. When we say that we are “catholic” believers, we mean that we believe in a connectional, world-wide church, rather than independent congregations with no governmental relationship between one another. Church members are accountable to God through the ministry of the elders of the local congregation. Churches and pastors of local congregations are subject to Presbytery, a regional body of elders and pastors. Presbyteries are subject to a national gathering of elders that is called “General Assembly.” The Assembly meets once per year and oversees a wide variety of ministries reaching throughout the world with the gospel of Christ.
Presbyterians Worship God According to the Dictates of the Scriptures Alone
We believe that Christians are to worship God only, and only as He has commanded us in the Scriptures. We believe that all the principles and practices that must inform our worship are contained in the Scriptures.
For this reason we do not worship with images of God or man-made spiritual objects or according to man-made schedules. We believe that the first day of the week, Sunday, is the only holy day of obligation, and is a celebration of the resurrection of Christ (Matt 28:1, Acts 20:7, 1 Cor 16:2).
We order worship according to a pattern of covenant renewal, beginning with the call of God to His people, progressing to prayers of adoration and confession, finding pardon from Him for our sins, hearing His Word as His eager children, offering up our lives to Him in obedience with thanksgiving, communing with Him at His table, and being dismissed with His blessing.
Presbyterians Consider the Children of Even One Believer to be a Part of the Church
God has commanded us to make disciples of all nations. We are to baptize those who are becoming a part of the covenant community, the church. We are then to be engaged in teaching those who have been baptized to obey all of the Lord’s commands. (Matt 28:18-20) Children are to be considered as a part of the church if they have even one believing parent. (1 Cor 7:14) We believe in training young people in the faith. We encourage parents in their duties to read the Bible to their children, to instruct them in the faith, to pray with and for them, and to set them a godly example. Through the teaching ministry of the church we desire to teach young and old the whole counsel of God.
Finally, Presbyterians believe that there are many faithful Christians who belong to other denominations. Even beyond the bounds of the Christian faith, we certainly desire that all of our friends and neighbors in the Exeter area would be blessed in great ways, regardless of their religious perspectives.
On a more personal note, I am glad that you are investigating the Christian faith, the Scriptures, and the Presbyterian Church. If you would like to know more about what our church believes or about our ministries and plans please come see me. You may also find it interesting to read the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is printed at the back of our hymnals, and has been quoted at various points in this text. May God grant you wisdom and fruitfulness in His service. May you taste and see that the Lord is good!