Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Vision (9/23/10): Testimony

I recently received an invitation to deliver the “Homecoming” message next month at the small, country church in the low country of South Carolina where as a child I was first gripped by the simple preaching of the gospel. I remember sitting in the wooden pew that Sunday evening and being overwhelmed with a sense of the sinfulness of my sin and of God’s righteous wrath. Then, I heard the good news of God sending his Son to die in my place on the cross. In that little church, under the preaching of the gospel, I repented of my sin and trusted in Christ alone for salvation. I shared this news with my church and was soon baptized.

In the years that followed, I continued to grow as a believer. There were times of rapid advance, but also times of stagnation and even declension. As a college student at Wake Forest University there were several key factors that contributed to my spiritual life. They included the taking of a New Testament class that excited in me a hunger for serious Bible study, my involvement in a campus Christian group and local church where I also met my wife, and four summers of service in ministry (three at a Christian boys’ camp and one in a boys’ juvenile detention center).

When I got to the end of my college experience, I no longer saw myself heading off to law school (my original intention), but, instead, I enrolled at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Seminary brought a new season of growth. I married my wonderful wife. I studied the Biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, and completed internships in ministry as a chaplain in an urban hospital and in a nursing home.

With seminary completed in 1990, my wife and I headed to post-communist Eastern Europe to serve as missionaries in Budapest, Hungary. For two years I taught English in the Hungarian Baptist Seminary, served in my local Hungarian Baptist church, and worked with the formation of a national Baptist youth committee (MABISZ-Magyar Baptista Ifjusagi Szovetseg—“Hungarian Baptist Youth Committee,” the first in Hungary after 45 years of communism). During my time in Hungary I had various opportunities to preach, teach, and minister in both English and Hungarian in local churches, seminaries, youth conferences, and evangelism events.

As we returned to the United States, I was sensing a call to local church ministry. I interviewed with several large congregations to serve as a youth minister but began to realize that my call was to pastoral ministry and the regular, stated preaching of the gospel. I then became the pastor of a small, rural Baptist church in the Northern Neck of Virginia where I was formally ordained to pastoral ministry in November 1992. I also began graduate studies in Biblical studies to enhance my ability to handle the original Biblical languages. It was during this time that I stumbled upon the method of expositional preaching. I also began for the first time to do some serious theological reading. One of the key texts I read at this time was James M. Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology. The seminary I attended had been liberal in doctrine and I had much remedial study to do. God also richly blessed my time in the Northern Neck, adding to our family our beautiful daughters, Hannah and Lydia.

In 1997 I was called to serve as pastor of a Baptist church in Charlottesville. For nearly 13 years, I served this congregation. Almost from the start I met with hardship in this ministry. In 2002 I narrowly survived an attempt to remove me from the pastorate by a faction in the church in a controversy over the issues of the authority of Scripture and the church’s denominational alignment. About a hundred people left the church at that time. I remained, slowly rebuilding the work, and continuing to labor toward meaningful reformation in the church, making significant strides in moving the church toward meaningful membership, introducing complementarian views on the roles of men and women, simplifying the church’s “committee” system, and teaching doctrinal, Biblical Christianity.

By the early 2000s I had gladly taken on the badge of being called a “Calvinist.” I have been asked when this change occurred in my convictions, and, I must say, it is not easy for me to pinpoint. I did not become a Calvinist by reading Calvin. I believe it was the default position I had come to, even as a youth, merely by reading the Bible. When I discovered the writings of the Reformers and the Puritans as a missionary and then a local church pastor I was amazed and encouraged to find men who had already thought intensely and written extensively on these great Biblical doctrines.

As the years advanced my doctrinal convictions were continuing to grow. I came to realize that Reformed theology meant more than merely embracing Calvinistic soteriology. I was beginning to see the wider implications of embracing Reformation Christianity, which includes the Regulative Principle in worship and the ongoing role of the moral law in the shaping of the Christian life. I also began to study and embrace the doctrinal perspective reflected in the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689). Part of this came simply by working through Spurgeon’s Catechism in our family devotions. God had further blessed our family while in Charlottesville by adding our three sons (Samuel, Isaiah, and Joseph).

I preached and taught these emerging convictions in my congregation but began to meet with opposition and, eventually, outright and even intense resentment and hostility. The church that had moved with me, for the most part, to Calvinism would not become Reformed. By November of 2009 I realized that it was time to complete my ministry at that church, and I offered my resignation. As my wife and I pondered where the Lord would have us to serve in the next phase of our lives, I determined that I did not want to undertake another effort in reforming a Southern Baptist congregation. I had become a Reformed Baptist and was contemplating moving somewhere to plant a Reformed Baptist Church. Several friends, both inside and outside the area, suggested that I simply stay in Charlottesville and begin an independent Reformed Baptist Church plant where one did not yet exist. God had called me to this area. My family had invested 13 years of our lives here. My wife and I prayerfully considered the possibility and determined to give it our best efforts.

As you by now know, Christ Reformed Baptist Church held its initial meeting in our home on the first Lord’s Day of January 2010. We entered this task knowing that many church planting efforts fail, especially those that hold clear confessional convictions. We were prepared, if the Lord chose to close the door, to move on to other labors. Over the course of these past nine months, however, we have seen a cohesive core group come together. We have witnessed six attendees confess “Jesus is Lord” and be baptized. Earnest worship and sincere fellowship have taken place. A church has been born. This coming Lord’s Day we will join in covenant and commitment to exist together as a distinct, visible, church body. We are both humbled and cheered by what we have seen God do in our midst. We look forward to many days ahead in fruitful partnership in this ministry. To God be the glory!

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeffrey T. Riddle

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