Every winter, hundreds of alumni and friends of Westminster Seminary California gather on the WSC campus from numerous states and countries to enjoy biblical teaching, fellowship, and the sunny Southern California climate. Due to state regulations related to COVID-19, however, an in-person conference this winter was impossible. Though disappointing, the WSC faculty was committed to continuing the tradition of serving Christ’s church through this teaching opportunity. On Friday, January 15, the WSC 2021 Annual Conference commenced virtually through a series of pre-recorded lectures on the theme “The Church in Exile.” The slate of speakers included President Joel E. Kim and Drs. Dennis E. Johnson, Michael S. Horton, David VanDrunen, A. Craig Troxel, and Bradley J. Bitner. The sessions explored the Church’s identity, relationships, and responsibilities during this present, though passing, evil age. Please visit our conference page to view each conference session.
The seminary was blessed to have Dr. Dennis E. Johnson, Professor Emeritus of Practical Theology, open the conference from Tennessee with his session, “The Church as Exiles.” Jesus’s death and resurrection redefine our identity and our destiny – who we are and where we are going. Dr. Johnson acknowledged that our calling to be exiles is uncomfortable in that often it results in us being marginalized, mocked, and persecuted. To be an exile is to be neither isolated from nor absorbed into our environment. Yet our hope lies in that Christ came before us as an exile in order to bring us home. Dr. Johnson explained, “By His wounds we are healed, and we straying sheep are retrieved by our Good Shepherd who brings us home to God our Father.”
J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Dr. Michael S. Horton, concluded Friday evening’s sessions by examining “The Church as Pilgrims.” Christian exiles are pilgrims, which by definition means we are on a journey toward a specific destination. As Dr. Horton noted, “A pilgrim is someone who knows we haven’t arrived, but he is not a tourist. He knows where he is going; he has a place. His eyes are fixed on a homeland.” Graciously, the Lord has not left us alone in this pilgrim life. “Through His Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, and through the shepherding ministry of pastors, elders, and deacons, He carries His pilgrims to the Celestial City.” Indeed, Christ passed through the judgment waters so that we might pass through dry lands.
Saturday’s sessions began with Dr. VanDrunen’s “The Church as Neighbor.” This address explored how the church can remain faithful to preaching the gospel, which inherently is offensive, while living peacefully with all people. In other words, how should the church relate to its unbelieving neighbors, especially knowing it has an offensive message for them? Part of our calling is to avoid offenses other than the gospel. We are to love our neighbors by living in peace and allowing our message of biblical truth to be our only offense. Dr. VanDrunen explained, “If we have to hold out an offensive message, let’s be sure that our neighbors don’t miss that message because they are so focused on other ways that we’re offending them.” This also means forgiving our neighbors when they offend us. He continued, “How will the gospel of forgiveness in Christ be plausible to our non-Christian neighbors if we don’t have a spirit of forgiveness toward others?”
Dr. Troxel followed by taking up the topic “The Church as Body,” which explored what it means for the church to be Christ’s “fullness.” Dr. Troxel’s message unfolded how this marvelous reality influences how we worship and serve Christ as creator, ruler, and redeemer. It may be tempting for the church to lapse into insecurity as if she pales in comparison to the expansiveness of Christ’s creation, but she can be comforted by the knowledge that she possesses in Christ everything necessary for her protection. Dr. Troxel exhorted, “The Church is the Body of Christ, so she is right to place her confidence in him, knowing her endeared place in his heart.” Christ withholds nothing of himself to sustain his Body new life and eternal life. In the midst of the life of an exile in this present evil age, this is great comfort to the Church. As Dr. Troxel explained, “We partake of a grace that can never be exhausted, from a fullness that can never be emptied, through a love that can never be measured.”
WSC President Joel E. Kim delivered the penultimate lecture of the 2021 Annual Conference, “The Church as Persecuted.” This session considered what the sufferings of the church in the past around the world teach us as the present church. While we should not consider every suffering and affliction as persecution, believers who live under the cross will inevitably be led to the cross if they remain faithful. In the midst of our suffering, we can look back to our brothers and sisters who have come before us as examples of faithful suffering. Even more, the church can look to Christ as our hope despite persecution. President Kim concluded, “We suffer because Christ suffered, and our sufferings point to a greater reality to come that transcends the one in which we find ourselves.”
President Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Church History Dr. W. Robert Godfrey was scheduled to deliver the final address of the conference. Sadly, a family tragedy prevented him from participating. On just a few days’ notice, new Associate Professor of New Testament Dr. Bradley J. Bitner stepped in to speak on “The Church as Confident.” The Bible encourages the church to have confidence despite the challenging conditions of her exile. No matter what the circumstances of our life or death that we face in the coming year, we can have confidence that God is indeed for us, even when our circumstances seem to say the exact opposite. The finished work of Christ is the foundation of this confidence. Dr. Bitner explained, “There is no condemnation for me when I stand on that last day before the judgment throne of my father because the verdict is justified.”
This year’s conference, though lacking the face-to-face interaction that has always been a hallmark of WSC, was filled with biblical and pastoral encouragement during a tumultuous time. It is our desire and plan to hold next year’s conference on campus, which promises to be a time of spiritual nourishment and Christian fellowship. Please plan to join us on campus next January for the 2022 Annual Conference.BACK