In the Beginning
The history of redemption is the story of God’s amazing grace. That story begins before the foundation of the world in the eternal counsels of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the story of God’s condescending grace to His elect people in a covenant fulfilled in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. It culminates in the glorification of Christ and His church.
Year 2007 marked the 40th anniversary of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Sewickley. As her name suggests, the grace of God has been with this people. The story of the Lord Jesus Christ has become our story, too. Having died with Him and having been raised with Him to newness of life, it has become our joyful task to proclaim and to live out the glorious grace of our sovereign God.
Not unlike Israel’s forty years in the Exodus journey, Grace OPC’s pilgrimage these first forty years has been marked by trials of faith. We have been reminded that grace is the demonstration of God’s love to unworthy sinners. Again and again has God taught us that He truly does cause “all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). More and more has Grace Church been led to understand that predestined purpose, namely, to be conformed to the image of Christ.
The history of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church began in 1966. It was then that the Rev. Calvin Knox Cummings, pastor of Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, initiated a Bible study for a number of families in the Sewickley area. Here was a group of professed believers who were being disenfranchised by a brand of Christianity that had compromised the gospel.
At that time, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was openly committed to a social agenda that funded court cases for communist radicals while at the same time the church was debating doctrinal deviations that led to the notorious Confession of 1967. At issue was nothing less than the historic doctrine of the authority, the plenary inspiration, and the infallibility of the Holy Scriptures. And Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church was born, being organized as a chapel of the OPC on July 16, 1967.
Grace OPC traces her history to the formation of the new denomination that eventually became the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The issues of the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy had erupted into open spiritual warfare. The secular tenets of Darwinism and so-called higher criticism of the Bible were calling into question even the most essential truths of biblical revelation. Many were laying aside the certainty of Christ’s deity, His blood-bought atonement, His bodily resurrection, and His miracles. But even worse, such doctrinal deviations were being tolerated in the ranks of the church by those who themselves professed to be orthodox.
J. Gresham Machen and a little band of like-minded believers, however, refused to bow the knee to Baal. Taking their stand for the truth of the gospel, they endeavored to call the church back to moorings. Refusing to support a missions program that promoted non-Christian propaganda, Machen and the others were willing to endure church censure and loss of property for the sake of Christ. At a meeting of like-minded believers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the OPC was born on June 11, 1936. Mr. Cummings was among those ordained at that first general assembly.
Grace Church looks back further still in her history to the founding of American Presbyterianism (1787), to the work of the Westminster Assembly (1643-1652), to the outworking of the Protestant Reformation (16th century), and beyond to the creedal declarations of early church councils. But finally and ultimately she looks to Christ and His Word where her grace is defined.
The First Forty Years
In the summer of 1967, Grace OPC began meeting for worship on the Lord’s Day in the Holiday Inn of Sewickley, PA. A steady stream of faithful ministers of the Word filled her pulpit. Among those who preached in those formative years were Jay Adams, John Bettler, Henry Coray, Calvin K. Cummings, Clair Davis, Elmer Dortzbach, Richard Gaffin, John Mitchell, Leroy B. Oliver, Roger Schmurr, Wayne Spear, and Noel Weeks.
On December 28, 1969, the Presbytery of Ohio constituted Grace Church a particular congregation and the church’s first elders were installed. Then, on June 12, 1970, the presbytery ordained and installed Donald M. Poundstone as the church’s first pastor. Dealing with a congregation wounded from the trials in the mainline church, Mr. Poundstone endeavored to comfort and confirm the congregation in the historic presbyterian and Reformed faith. During his pastorate, the congregation purchased the Osborne School building. Dating from 1890, the building had been vacated and partially destroyed by fire. The congregation eagerly undertook renovations, and the building was dedicated on October 29, 1972. It remains today in service to the congregation.
When in 1975 Mr. Poundstone accepted a call to First OPC in Portland, Oregon, Grace Church was without a pastor for a time. Thus, the Presbytery of Ohio granted that the Rev. David King, pastor of the OPC congregation in Alliance, Ohio, would serve as Grace’s ministerial adviser and moderator of the session.
Grace Church called the Rev. Charles G. Dennison in 1976 as her next pastor. Serving from 1976 through 1999, Mr. Dennison was well respected as a preacher, presbyter, and denominational church historian. When the OPC celebrated her semi-centennial anniversary in 1986, Mr. Dennison was instrumental in the publication of Pressing Toward the Mark and The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, along with a historical video that have proven valuable to the OPC in recapturing a sense of her historical identity.
In the life of Grace Church, the 1980’s were years of labor spent in home missions. The congregation of Reformation OPC in Morgantown, West Virginia, was emerging; and the session of Grace OPC was appointed as the overseeing session. The Rev. Lawrence Semel, having been called as pastor by the congregation in Morgantown, served as part of the Grace Church session. He regularly made the trek up Interstate 79 from Morgantown to attend meetings, and the elders of Grace Church were regular in visiting the worship services there and in interviewing candidates for membership.
Men from the Grace Church session were also involved in ministering to the remnants of an OPC congregation in Canton/Alliance, Ohio area, which dissolved in 1982. Efforts were subsequently made to rekindle the work there, which included placing Mr. Daniel Gross, an intern, on the field there.
In 1984, a tiny band of believers in Oakdale, PA, applied to the OPC as a mission work. In 1981 the Rev. R. Daniel Knox had renounced the jurisdiction of the UPCUSA, and a group separated with him to form an independent congregation. Among the group, however, were dispensationalists and Pentecostalists, who refused to be led in a Presbyterian and Reformed direction. Thus decimated by their departure a group of less than 20 believers came looking to the OPC for help. Grace Church called Mr. Knox as an evangelist, and an OPC mission chapel was established that continued for three years before the decision was reached to dissolve the work.
Also, in 1984 Grace Church called Douglas B. Clawson as an evangelist. Amemorable occasion in the life of the congregation occurred in November 1984 when Mr. Clawson was ordained, and both he and Mr. Knox were installed as evangelists of Grace Church on the same night. Mr. Clawson would conduct a number of home Bible studies and visitations in the local community in the interest of reaching out with the gospel. As an evangelist of Grace Church, Mr. Knox would serve congregations in Oakdale (1984-1987) and then in Washington, PA (1987-1997).
Responding to a fellow minister’s plea for guidance in the redemptive-historical approach to preaching, Mr. Dennison in 1991 began meeting with Douglas Snyder, Daniel Osborne, Mr. Knox and Mr. Semel (OPC pastors) and others to read and discuss the writings of Geerhardus Vos. The monthly “Vos Monday” became a time of mutual encouragement and nurture greatly used of the Lord. Danny E. Olinger and Robert L. Broline, Jr. would serve Grace Church as associate pastors. Zachary R. Keele and interns Matthew E. Cotta and Robert E. Tarullo would serve pastorates elsewhere in the OPC.
The church was growing both spiritually and numerically and the church began to assess its options. The building was filled to capacity on the Lord’s Days, and space was deficient for morning instruction classes. It was clear something needed to be done. Architects were enlisted to strategize renovations that would accommodate the growing need, and decisions seemed imminent.
Then, in 1998 a stunning blow was dealt Grace Church when Mr. Dennison was diagnosed with cancer. It soon became apparent that the disease was life-threatening, and Mr. Knox was called as an associate pastor to assist in the ministry. The tragic circumstances of Mr. Dennison’s death in April 1999 left the church reeling for answers. But the Lord sustained the elders and people in a manner that in itself became an encouragement to many. At its annual congregational meeting in December the congregation voted to continue Mr. Knox as their pastor.
In the years that followed, as the congregation recovered and renewed its determination to move forward, Mr. Broline was called as an associate pastor. The building problem still remained and significant renovations were undertaken that helped but did not solve it. The session sensed the Lord’s providential encouragement to move toward the exploration of a church planting option. The congregation agreed to an amicable division of the congregation along geographical lines (basically the Ohio River), and a mission work was initiated in Moon Township. Mr. Broline served as their organizing pastor and Immanuel OPC was born.
After forty years as a pilgrim people, Grace Church’s participation in redemptive history continues. We thank God for our share in the gospel in the Lord Jesus Christ from the beginning until now. According to God’s saving grace, “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him” (Romans 8:16-17). More and more we have come to understand that the fulfillment of the Lord’s Great Commission mandate is marked by joyful travail, for “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church continues to learn that the church is a spiritual house comprised of living stones. Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Himself the cornerstone, we are being fitted together and growing into a holy temple in the Lord. Yes, the church is the people of God, pilgrims looking for a lasting city, “the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Thus in faith, we continue to preach, pray and call upon His Name.
Grace OPC looks to the future. She knows that God is her future. With the apostle Paul, we are learning to say in Christ that, “in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (II Timothy 4:8).
Therefore we also say, “Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 4:20-21).