I spent years in the UPC teaching Sunday school and even, in my resigned state, sat on the local church’s board of trustees for about a decade. I was not who I believed God had saved me to be and I did feel confused and lost (not necessarily from a salvific point of view – just not knowing where I was or what I was doing). The youth pastor who brought me to Christ and taught me nearly weekly bible studies during my senior year of high school had long ago left the UPC and was now pastoring two non-denominational churches. I began listening to him online and his expositional studies of scripture.
I began attempting to understand where the UPC stood among all the other denominations with respect to the theology it espouses. Even the most basic understanding of the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism was a foreign concept to me. The UPC call themselves ‘Apostolic’ as they of course, declare that they are the true church proclaiming the gospel message as it was proclaimed by the Apostles in the Book of Acts. I believe that the vast majority of members of UPC churches are generally ignorant of the roots the organization has within the Wesley-Arminianism tradition and how that differs from other understandings of the teaching of scripture. In the UPC mindset, because they are truly ‘apostolic’ there is no need for any understanding beyond this – they are the restored church of the apostolic age. They are the culmination of God’s progressive restoration of the church reclaiming that which was lost shortly after the apostolic period.
I also began praying earnestly that God would truly speak to me and direct me through His word – that he would help me set aside every presupposition that I might have as I open and read His word. I didn’t want to read my understanding into the scripture but to simply let God’s word speak to me what it had to say. I was at a pivotal point of frustration and almost anger – I was frustrated and angry at the church in general. Here I was, just wanting to know the Lord, wanting to know what his word had for me and in looking out at the world of churches felt almost resentful because of the confusion I was experience.
I started rereading Acts as this is where the OP place their theological emphasis. Those same old passages that bothered me in the past still stood out only stronger. Again, the UPC emphasizes Acts 2:38 as the concise statement of the gospel as proclaimed by the Apostles. Yet the message proclaimed by Peter in chapter 2 differs to the message that he proclaimed in the very next chapter and also differs from the message of salvation proclaimed by Paul to the Philippian jailer. How to make sense of this? Those passages dealing with individuals receiving the Holy Spirit where individuals speak in tongues – do these experiences accurately reflect what people experience and consider normative today in Pentecostal churches?
I came to reread Romans and that is when it happened – it was as though I had been reading God’s word in a dark room by candle light for 20 years and suddenly someone threw back the curtains and light filled the room and I saw in the scripture things I had never seen before – as though they were previously hidden. (I appreciate that they weren’t hidden but I was reading these words through my presuppositions and, therefore, didn’t allow the word to speak to me). I had read about justification by faith before but what that truly meant was somewhat lost on me. As I began reading the fourth chapter, it was as though my eyes were opened:
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
I began to appreciate what it meant to be justified. I finally understood what grace truly was in the context of salvation. I saw faith in a new light. But then all the questions came such as where does baptism fit into the picture? Why does Acts 2:38 say what it says? What does all this mean for me? I felt compelled to follow where the scripture led me but there was the element of concern: I’ve been taught the gospel according to the UPC all these years as the true and full gospel message. What if I’m wrong? What if the UPC is correct as they have so authoritatively taught all these years?
Additionally, I spent time rereading not only what the UPC teaches, such as books by David Bernard, but works written by those who hold different views such as Calvinists and others. It is important to take the time to examine the basis for the faith you proclaim and to do so you must take the time to understand the theological positions of those held by others and to evaluate each of the respective sides understanding of scripture and the basis for their position (the method of interpretation employed).
Upon coming to terms with the fact that the UPC is in error with respect to the gospel that they proclaim but, more importantly, with a more accurate understanding of complete work of Christ on the cross and what it means to be called and justified by grace through faith, I feel more at liberty, reassured and complete in Christ than I ever have in the past. I have a sense of “peace with God” that I’ve never appreciated before and recognize an ability to “rejoice in hope of the glory of God” regardless as to what happens.
When that sense of peace and hope came I began to realize the sense of bondage that resulted from the gospel as taught by the UPC. The continual sense that my salvation was tenuous and dependent on my performance propagated feelings of condemnation and that I was never going to be good enough to warrant God’s love in my life.
The man-centered emphasis within the UPC misses the point of faith, grace, justification, the cross, atonement, baptism, holiness and even sin. They truly do major on the minors and in so doing miss the point. This results in people generally falling into one of two camps – (1) there are those Christians who base their relationship with God on their performance day-by-day and end up as unhappy, ineffectual or simply anemic Christians because they recognize that they will never measure up on their own, or (2) there are those deluded individuals who have a form of their own righteousness that they contend is pleasing to God because they perceive themselves as doing a good job at keeping his commandments.
It is my aim to not be judgmental with respect to the state of anyone’s salvation or their relationship with God. Only God knows the hearts of men and God knows who his sheep are regardless of where they may attend church. Some of my comments may be critical but my intent is to hopefully help those that are God’s sheep to more clearly hear His voice and what He has to say in His word. We need to allow His word to speak to us and appreciate that our perception of the scripture is frequently clouded by our traditions and presuppositions.
It is not my intent to convince anyone to leave one church and move to another – it is my intent to challenge the ideas as presented by organizations such as the UPC. You shouldn’t fear challenges to your fundamental doctrinal beliefs if those beliefs are rooted in scripture. If you find that the beliefs you hold may in fact be based on a distorted view of scripture and you hold a high-view of scripture, I would expect that it would be your desire to bring your thinking, your faith, your life in line with the teaching of scripture. I also believe that when you do, what you will find is a greater appreciation and experience of the righteousness, peace and joy of the Holy Spirit in your life than you thought possible.