What We Believe

February 15, 2004 Q & A

OPC Controversies and GA Reports


Can you point me to any web sites that have the explanations from the OPC regarding the controversies with Dr. Gordon H. Clark, and more recently with ruling elder John Kinnaird?

In this regard, would you be kind enough to answer the following questions? I was told that the followings are the statements from the OPC.

1. "God desires all men to be saved and yet His Son died for some of them and not others." What does it mean that God desires a certain thing but acts otherwise?

2. "Justification by faith and works." What is the definition of works here? Are they meritorious works by us?


There was a committee that reported to the OPC on the question of the free offer of the gospel. You can read the reports at here.

Something you should be aware of, however. A committee report is nothing more than a committee report. When the church faces a thorny issue, it sometimes asks certain gifted members to help think it through. It "commits" the matter to them for study; hence, they are a "committee." They report back and the church decides what to do with their report. In this case, there was a committee report and a minority report, thus reflecting disagreement among the committee members. The general assembly sent both reports to the churches "for earnest study." What that means is that the church saw the committee's work as helpful fodder for thinking about this issue, but they did not adopt it as an official position statement. That's true of all these committee reports. So please don't misunderstand them to reflect "The OPC position." To find "The official OPC position," you need to look at our Confession of Faith and Catechisms. The Confession and Catechisms don't answer every question. They are not so much a tightrope that our officers must walk as they are a fence outside of which we agree not to stray.

Here's the situation in a nutshell. Part of the Reformed ethos is to submit to all of Scripture, whether one understands it or not. The reason is that it is the Word of the living and true God, the Word of the infinite Creator given to finite creatures. The fact that an infinite God communicates to finite creatures means that we finite creatures will bump up against "mysteries" in his revelation. They are not contradictions because they are resolved in the infinite mind of God. But sometimes they appear contradictory to finite (and sinful) creatures. Because the Reformed ethos is to submit to all of God's Word, tensions sometimes arise in the Reformed community over how to handle these "mysteries." One theologian may stress one side, another the other side.

One example is this case of the free offer of the gospel. On the one hand, Jesus says that "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him" (John 6:44). Because of our total depravity, we are utterly dependent on the sovereign grace of God. By God's sheer grace, the elect will be saved. Because we are utterly dependent on God's grace, only the elect will be saved. On the other hand, Scripture says things like, "Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely" (Rev. 22:17). Scripture gives gospel invitations for sinners to come and find the grace of God in Christ.

Dr. Cornelius Van Til (whose influence is still felt in the OPC) argued that we should simply recognize that because God is so very, very great, we should humbly submit to the mysteries we confront in God's Word, embracing both sides even if they appear to contradict. We can trust that our heavenly Father understands how they fit together.

Some, like Dr. Gordon Clark, saw that approach as "irrationalism." He preferred to seek a solution to try to logically resolve such apparent contradictions. Dr. Van Til, on the other hand, saw that approach as "rationalism," an attempt to scale down God's revelation to the size of finite (sinful) human reason.

To put things into perspective, however, the two men agreed about much more than they disagreed over. I have every reason to expect that they are both worshipping our Lord in heaven now. But some of their admirers tend to blow their disagreements out of proportion, to fan them to flame, and to interpret everything in light of those perceived differences. And this gives rise to some grievous conflicts in the body of Christ. (I don't mean to suggest either that these disagreements are utterly unimportant or that I am innocent of such failings myself; I simply mean to give these matters a proper proportion.)

The case of ruling elder John Kinnaird from Bethany OPC in Oxford, Pennsylvania, revolved around what it means that, at the final judgment, our Lord will judge his people according to their works and openly acknowledge and acquit them (see Confession of Faith XXXIII, Larger Catechism 90, Shorter Catechism 38). He had been accused of teaching that God justifies sinners not through faith alone, but through faith and works, and his session had found him guilty. He appealed to his presbytery, which upheld the verdict. And so he appealed to the General Assembly. Again, the case provoked considerable debate. He contended that he did not teach justification through faith and works but was only concerned to emphasize that salvation involves not only justification but also includes sanctification and glorification.

Again, there was considerable divergence over whether the debate was over the doctrine itself or over the way that doctrine was stated. Some were persuaded that Mr. Kinnaird intended to teach orthodoxy, but that the way he actually taught was culpably confusing. Others argued that, even if at points he expressed his views in a way that confused some, his actual views are nevertheless orthodox. In this case, the General Assembly determined that the session and presbytery had erred in convicting him. This means that it reversed the original verdict. The Assembly insisted on maintaining both a free justification (the primary concern of the accusers) and a full salvation (the concern expressed in the teaching the accusers were challenging). In other words, the Assembly did not determine that what Mr. Kinnaird was accused of teaching is legitimate in the OPC; it determined that Mr. Kinnaird was not guilty of teaching what he was accused of teaching.

I hope you find this helpful. May God bless you.



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