Wednesday, November 3, 2004



November 3, 2004

Christ Church
PO Box 8741
Anselm House
Moscow, ID 83843

Dear Congregation,

Greetings in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

We are writing you on behalf of the 2004 Presbytery of the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches. In late August, your session requested that our Presbytery examine Pastor Wilson “in the broad areas of soteriology and sacramentology — especially as they connect to the recent controversy among our reformed brethren.”

We want you to know that the elders of Christ Church did not initiate this examination. The session did not have suspicions about his orthodoxy. They did not think that he needed to defend himself or prove to the world that he was a faithful minister of the gospel. Rather, Pastor Wilson himself brought the matter to their attention. Given the recent controversy over the objectivity of the covenant, he was convinced that such an examination would contribute to the peace of the churches. The session agreed with his assessment, and filed the request with Pastor Randy Booth, moderator of the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches. It should be clear, therefore, that this examination was not a trial in any way, shape, or form. At his own initiative, Pastor Wilson voluntarily put himself forward to be examined by his fellow presbyters.

In response to your session’s request Pastor Booth assembled a committee to examine Pastor Wilson. Pastor Booth also put together a list of questions. Pastor Wilson answered these questions in writing. At the presbytery meeting, we gave him an oral exam which included questions from the list, as well as many follow-up questions. All of his oral and written answers can be found at

The purpose of this examination was not to determine whether we, as a committee or as fellow presbyters serving in the CREC, agreed with all of Pastor Wilson’s formulations of various points on doctrine. Furthermore, we did not seek to examine his personal views on which the Reformed Confessions are silent. Our purpose was narrow in scope: Are Pastor Wilson’s views on the covenant, salvation, church, and sacraments consistent with the Reformed Evangelical Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Three Forms of Unity? Does he believe anything which contradicts the fundamental system of doctrine contained in those confessions?

Before the examination began, Pastor Booth reminded the delegates of presbytery of the purpose of the examination:

I want to make a few things clear from the outset of this examination:
  1. Pastor Douglas Wilson, having already been properly received by this body as an orthodox, ordained minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, is presumed to be such unless proven otherwise. There have been no charges brought against him, thus this is not a judicial trial. It is a voluntary examination requested by the Christ Church session.

  2. The CREC is a broad confederation of Reformed churches and thus it represents a variety of views within the scope of historic Reformed thinking. In this examination, it is the goal of the presbytery and her examiners to evaluate, determine and declare whether Pastor Wilson’s views are within that historic scope. Members of the CREC may disagree with Pastor Wilson’s answers at various points and yet both views might still be within the pale of historic Reformed theology.

  3. While Christ Church of Moscow, ID, and her pastor Douglas Wilson are members of the CREC, and are thereby entitled to the care and service of our confederation of churches, nevertheless, the particular views of Christ Church, Moscow and her pastor do not represent all the views held by the other member churches and pastors of the CREC. Our constitution and confessions define the parameters of our confederation.
The Preliminary and General Report of the Committee
Following the examination the committee met and discussed Pastor Wilson’s answers. We judged that his views are in complete harmony with the teaching of the reformed tradition. At presbytery we read our preliminary finding which reflects our general conclusion:

Having noted Pastor Wilson’s exceptions and clarifications to the Westminster Confession of Faith, we find him to be fully orthodox; that is, we find him to be in agreement with the system of doctrine contained in the Reformational confessions. We find his teaching to be in conformity to the Reformed Evangelical Confession, the Westminster Confession, and the Three Forms of Unity, which are faithful statements of the doctrine taught in the Scriptures.

Pastor Wilson’s Confessional Views and Exceptions
Since Pastor Wilson, as your minister, is in the process of subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Three Forms of Unity it may be helpful for you to know that his exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith clearly fall within the pale of orthodoxy. It is important to be reminded that given the historical circumstances of the Reformed confessions and new circumstances and insights into doctrine, exceptions often need to be taken (E.g., the pope is the antichrist). There is a longstanding tradition within American Presbyterianism, including the PCA, that officers may in good faith take exception to certain particulars of the Westminster Standards, if such particular exceptions are not inimical (i.e., hostile or injurious) to the more comprehensive system of doctrine. For example, the PCA’s Book of Church Order (21-4) permits a man to state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions. The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.

While our committee is not such a court, we see that our task is somewhat analogous. We are to judge whether these exceptions or clarifications “strike at the vitals of religion.”

Clarification on the Covenant of Works
Pastor Wilson stated that “the ‘covenant of works’ was not meritorious.” In answering Question 44, Pastor Wilson wrote that his concern is not with the word “merit” but with certain medieval conceptions of merit. He denies a “treasury of merit” as a container of a merit substance. If merit is “defined by the terms of the covenant,” he whole heartedly embraces the notion. Technically speaking, Pastor Wilson’s understanding is not an exception but a clarification of the Westminster Confession of Faith. He is willing to speak of merit and the covenant works so long as these concepts function within the context of God’s grace and favor. In his written answer, he pointed out that he is in agreement with Calvin’s statement in the Institutes, where he said, “I ask, what need was there to introduce the word merit, when the value of works might have been fully expressed by another term, and without offence?” (3.15.2)

Furthermore, even if Pastor Wilson had explicitly rejected the Westminster Confession’s teaching on the Covenant of Works, we would not necessarily find him to be outside the reformed tradition. Prof. Jelle Faber was a professor theology at the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches. He noted that the Covenant of Works is not essential to Reformed theology. The Covenant of Works is absent from the Three Forms of Unity, the confessional standards of most reformed churches in the continental tradition. Faber wrote,

But the question must arise: Can man ever earn anything in relation to God? The Belgic Confession states in Article 24, speaking about man’s sanctification and good works: Therefore we do good works, but not to merit by them (for what can we merit?); nay, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not He to us, since it is He who worketh in us both to will and to work, for His good pleasure. Would this confession be valid only for the life in the covenant of God’s grace and not also for the covenant in the Paradise situation? The question “For what can we merit?” is a strong and striking rhetorical statement concerning the basic structure of the relation between God and man, Creator and creature. Each and every breath was a gift of God of life, and the creation of man as the image of God was fruit of God’s favour. (

This committee is aware of the widespread misrepresentation of Pastor Wilson’s adherence to the cardinal doctrine of justification by faith alone. Pastor Wilson took no exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith on justification, and readily insisted that justification is by faith alone. He was clear in his affirmation that no works or merit enter into our standing before God. The work of Christ alone is the ground of our justification, and faith is the alone instrument.

The Sabbath
Pastor Wilson took a very minor exception to the Westminster Confession’s view of the Sabbath. In answering Question 3, he stated that he does not believe “that the intention of Scripture was to exclude recreation, especially in the context of the fellowship of God’s people.” Again, this exception falls well within the stream of reformed thought. Many within conservative Presbyterian denominations have taken a more substantial exception to the Westminster Confession of Faith’s exposition of the Fourth Commandment.

Further, it is interesting to note that the reformed tradition allows for differing views on the Sabbath. For example, the Hiedelberg Catechism does not prohibit recreation,

103. Q. What does God require in the fourth commandment? A. First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained and that, especially on the day of rest, I diligently attend the church of God to hear God’s Word, to use the sacraments, to call publicly upon the LORD, and to give Christian offerings for the poor. Second, that all the days of my life I rest from my evil works, let the LORD work in me through His Holy Spirit, and so begin in this life the eternal sabbath.

Also, the lesser known Genevan Catechism, written by Calvin, states just as clearly that “the observance of rest is part of the old ceremonies, it was abolished by the advent of Christ” (Q 170); “it is ceremonial” (171); and that what is “beyond ceremony” is that it is “to figure spiritual rest; for the preservation of ecclesiastical polity; and for the relief of slaves” (172–173). This is the very three-fold purpose discussed in the Institutes. In answer to the question (181), “What order, then, is to be observed on that day?” He says merely, “That the people meet to hear the doctrine of Christ, to engage in public prayer, and make profession of their faith.” He maintains strongly, “In regard to the ceremony, I hold that it was abolished, as the reality existed in Christ (Col. 2:17).” Finally he asks (185), “What of the commandment then remains for us? Not to neglect the holy ordinances which contribute to the spiritual polity of the Church; especially to frequent sacred assemblies, to hear the word of God, to celebrate the sacraments, and engage in the regular prayers, as enjoined.”

Pastor Wilson’s view of the Sabbath is clearly within the bounds of the reformed confessional tradition. Indeed, his view only slightly differs from the Westminster Confession.

Visible and Invisible Church
Is Pastor Wilson’s understanding of the visible/invisible church distinction true to the Westminster Confession? It should be noted that Pastor Wilson did not take an exception to the Confession on the language of visible/invisible Church (Westminster Chapter 25). His only exception on Chapter 25, “Of the Church,” is found in paragraph 6:

Though we believe the Pope of Rome to be anti-Christian, we do not believe him necessarily to be the Anti-Christ, Man of Lawlessness, or Beast of Revelation, etc.

This is not a controversial exception and is often taken within conservative Confessional presbyteries.

In the oral exam, Pastor Wilson made clear that he accepted the Westminster distinction on the visible/invisible Church. He embraces the theological reality that all the elect from all ages are an invisible church.

His concern, however, was with absolutizing the distinction between the visible and invisible church to the point that we view them as two different entities. This division leads to many practical and pastoral aberrations. He repeated that a distinction between the visible/invisible distinction should not lead to a disparaging of the visible church. He did not deny the theological reality of all the company of the elect as an invisible Church, but that we cannot by believing in that deny the reality of the current/visible/actual church.

In this he is simply following the thought of Prof. John Murray of Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) who warned against the dangers of turning a legitimate distinction into an absolute separation. There are not two churches, visible and invisible. There is one church with visible and invisible aspects (Murray, Collected Works, 2:231–236).

Pastoral wisdom must admit great abuse of this distinction which has now become a division. Many evangelical Christians are not, de facto, members of the visible church. They waft from church to church with no stability. The Westminster Confession clearly states that “the visible Church . . . is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25:2). Moreover, to the “catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God . . . and doth, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto” (25:3). The abuse of our own day is that many believe the effectual working of the Spirit is outside the visible Church.

Pastor Wilson’s clarifications suggest the need for additional distinctions, such as the historical and the eschatological church. The eschatological church and the invisible church have the same roster. The one church, insists Pastor Wilson, has visible, invisible, historical, and eschatological aspects which we can distinguish. The Confession acknowledges an eschatological dimension of the Church saying, “there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will” (25:5).

In light of the Confession’s full teaching (chapter 25), we judge that Pastor Wilson’s clarifications and pastoral admonitions are not only consistent with the Westminster Confession, but are quite consistent with the early Reformed Confessions (Belgic Confession, Second Helvetic Confession, etc.) that know no visible/invisible distinction. Moreover, the cautions of Pastor Wilson are a helpful reproof in light of the denigration of the visible Church. The Bible makes plain, there is “one body” (Eph. 4:4, 1 Cor. 12:12).

Pastor Wilson clarified “that the ‘worthy receivers’ of the Lord’s Supper may include all baptized covenant members who are able to physically eat and drink the elements, including very young children being raised in the discipline and admonition of the Lord (provided that they are not under discipline.) He holds to a form of paedo-communion. Many of the churches of the CREC not only hold this view but also practice it.

It is interesting to note that many presbyteries in the OPC and PCA allow ministers to take an exception here to the Westminster Confession. Though neither of these denominations allow children to partake of the Eucharist in virtue of their baptism, many of their churches allow young children to commune at the table. Although we recognize that few Presbyterian and Reformed Churches practice paedo-communion, the members of this committee are convinced that it is an obvious application of Covenant Theology. Communion is a sign and seal of the covenant for all covenant members.

Brothers and sisters, we want you to know that Pastor Wilson is a faithful minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He loves Jesus. He loves the church of Jesus Christ. We have personally witnessed his dedication to gospel ministry. We are pleased to serve our Lord together with him within the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches. We are delighted to call him our brother. All of us can say — without any hesitation — that Pastor Wilson’s teaching has greatly influenced our ministries. He is a great blessing to us all.

Congregation, receive Pastor Wilson with all joy and thanksgiving. We encourage your continued confidence in Pastor Wilson as he watches over your souls with the other elders of Christ Church. He is a minister in good standing in the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches and he is robustly orthodox. We are convinced that Presbyterian and Reformed churches can learn much from him. “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct. . . . Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive to them, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must given account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you (Heb. 13:7, 17).

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be upon you!

Yours servants in Christ,

Jeffrey Niell, Pastor of Emmanuel Covenant Church, Phoenix, AZ
Burke Shade, Pastor of Cornerstone Reformed Church, Carbondale, IL
Gregg Strawbridge, Pastor of All Saints’ Presbyterian, Lancaster, PA
Dennis Tuuri, Pastor of Reformation Covenant Church, Oregon City, OR
Garry Vanderveen, Pastor of Christ Covenant Church, Langley, BC, Canada
(Minutes of the 8th Annual Meeting of Presbytery of the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches, 86–92)