It is the purpose of this article to give account of the Reformed doctrine and practice of preaching over against the charge that denial of the well-meant offer of the gospel is destructive of lively preaching, especially of lively preaching to the unconverted in missions, or evangelism. It intends to show that there is not one shred of truth in the charge that denial of the offer hampers missions. Hopefully, it will allay the fear of some who, having been misled, go in the direction of the offer because “otherwise we may lose evangelical preaching.”
The foundation of the activity of preaching the gospel is God’s eternal decree of predestination. The reason why God has the gospel preached, both throughout the world in missions and in the established churches, is that the elect may be saved, to the praise of His grace. Because of election, there are many in the fallen human race, among all nations, who are God’s people and who must be saved. Preachers must go into all the world to preach the gospel to every creature (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-20), so that these elect may be brought to salvation. After the Spirit has converted them and gathered them into churches, the gospel must be preached in the churches in order to feed the sheep and to build up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:12ff.). Neither mission-preaching nor any other form of preaching is grounded in, a love of God for all men and a desire of God that all men be saved. All preaching is grounded in the love of God for His chosen people. What motivates the Church, what motivates a missionary, what motivates a pastor is: the gathering, defense, and preservation out of the human race of the church chosen to everlasting life (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 54)—and a sufficient motive it is, leaving nothing to be desired.
Scripture teaches that divine election—not a universal love of God or a desire that all be saved—is the basis and motivation of missions, indeed of all preaching. This is Jesus’ teaching in John 10. The Good Shepherd causes His voice to be heard in the world—how Jesus emphasizes the importance of His voice in this chapter. His voice is simply the preached gospel in all ages. His voice, i.e., the gospel, saves. It leads the sheep out (vs. 3); it causes the sheep to follow Him (vs. 4); it safeguards them from the strangers, thieves, and robbers who are bent on the sheep’s destruction (vss. 5, 8); it brings the sheep into the fold (vs. 16); it is the means by which Jesus gives His sheep eternal life (vs. 28), preserving them from perishing. For salvation, the Word must be preached and heard. But one thing is abundantly plain: the reason for the voice of the Shepherd is “my sheep,” i.e., the gathering and preservation of those men and women whom the Father eternally gave to Jesus in His decree of election (vs. 29). Jesus does not send out His voice because God loves all men and desires all men to be saved. In the human race, among all nations (vs. 16), there are some who are sheep, in distinction from others who are not sheep (vs. 26). This is due to predestination. The Shepherd comes for the sheep, to give His life for them (vs. 11) and to call them (vs. 3).
The entire Old Testament is proof that preaching is grounded in election. God showed His Word unto Jacob, not to any other nation (Psalm 147:19, 20). The reason was not that the other nations were less likely to respond with repentance and faith. On the contrary, Christ Himself said that if the mighty works done in the great cities of Israel had been done in Tyre and Sidon, “they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes,” and that if they had been done in Sodom, “it would have remained until this day” (Matt. 11:20-24). But the reason why God gave His Word to Israel was that He had chosen Israel to be a special people unto Himself, above all people that are upon the face, of the earth (Deut. 7:6ff).
That the work of missions is based on election is plain from the New Testament. According to Acts 18:10, the Lord encouraged Paul to labor in Corinth by telling him in a vision: “For I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city.” Before Paul and the gospel ever got to Corinth, the Lord had much people there by virtue of God’s election of many in that city. The reason why Paul was sent there to preach and the reason why he had to remain there preaching, in the face of opposition, was the salvation of the elect in that city. Paul knew very well that God did not love all the Corinthians and that God did not desire to save all the inhabitants of that city. Nothing of the sort motivated him to preach the gospel as a missionary. But he knew himself to be the instrument by whom the Lord gathered His people.
This relationship between election and preaching is set forth in all of the passages of Scripture that base the calling upon election. Romans 8:30 teaches that God calls the predestinated, or elect. II Thessalonians 2:13, 14 says that it is those who are beloved of the Lord and chosen from the beginning whom God calls by the gospel. II Timothy 1:9 states that people are called “according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.”
It is established, first of all, then, that the ground and motivation of all preaching, including missions, is election—not a grace of God for all. Missions, or evangelism, needs no “boost” from universal grace. Let him who still insists on bolstering missions with his fictitious grace of God for all men and desire that all be saved beware lest he, like Uzzah, be found “assisting” the ark of God—which needs no assistance—with unclean hands.
The means by which God saves the elect is the preaching of the gospel. The elect must be saved, i.e., delivered from the spiritual death into which, like all the other members of the human race, they are conceived and born (Eph. 2:1-3) and translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Col. 1:13). They must have their eyes opened and must be turned from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 26:18). They must be converted (Acts 3:19); they must be drawn to Christ, in Whom is life and apart from Whom is death (John 6:44, Matt. 11:28); they must be made to believe on Jesus Christ (Acts 16:30, 31; Acts 20:21) with the true and living faith through which they are justified (Rom. 3:28) and sanctified (Acts 26:18). Having been converted, they must be converted daily (Heid. Cat., L.D. 33); nourished (I Pet. 2:1); preserved in the faith (I Pet. 1:5); and edified (Eph. 4:12).
All of this salvation, God accomplishes by the preaching of the gospel. This is the confession of the Reformed faith. The Canons of Dordt begin, in the opening articles of the First Head, by stating the good news that God in His love in Jesus Christ has determined to deliver some of the fallen, guilty, and depraved sons of Adam out of their sin, condemnation, and death (1 & 2). Deliverance from perishing and the enjoyment of eternal life come through faith (2). “And that men may be brought to believe, God mercifully sends the messengers of these most joyful tidings, to whom he will and at what time he pleaseth; by whose ministry men are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified. . .” (3). Those who receive the gospel “and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith, are by him delivered from the wrath of God, and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them” (4). The Canons teach that the preaching of the gospel is the God-ordained means of the salvation of the elect in the Fifth Head, Article 14: “And as it hath pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so he preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of his Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the sacraments.”
In viewing preaching as “the means of grace” the Reformed faith reflects the teaching of Scripture. Article 3 of the First Head of the Canons quotes Romans 10:14, 15, where the apostle says that faith is necessary for salvation; that hearing is necessary for faith; and that a preacher and preaching are necessary for faith; i.e., that the means by which God saves men is the preaching of the gospel. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and this is why Paul was not ashamed of it, but was ready to preach the gospel everywhere (Rom. 1:15, 16). It pleases God to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching (I Cor. 1:21). The decree of election unto salvation includes that the means unto salvation shall be “belief of the truth,” to which the elect are called by God “by our gospel” (II Thess. 2:13, 14). The history of the book of Acts makes plain that it is the preaching of the gospel that saves men in the sense that guilty, disobedient unbelievers become forgiven, obedient believers (cf. Acts 2:6-41; Acts 3:12-4:4; Acts 4:12; Acts 10:34-48; Acts 11:19-21; Acts 13:38-52; etc.). Many passages of Scripture teach that it is the preaching of the gospel that saves men in the sense that the reborn, believing people of God are preserved and built up. Acts 14:21, 22 shows that, just as preaching is necessary for the conversion of sinners, so it is necessary for the confirming of saints: “. . . they (the apostles) returned . . . confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith. . .” In Acts 20:28, Paul charged the Ephesian elders to “feed the church of God,” i.e., with the Word. In bidding farewell to these elders and to the church of Ephesus, Paul commended them “to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up. . .” (Acts 20:32). The burden of the pastoral letters of Timothy and Titus, addressed to pastors of established churches, is: “Preach the word” (II Tim. 4:2) and “speak thou the things which become sound doctrine” (Tit. 2:1). By this preaching, the saints are perfected (II Tim. 3:17) and recovered if they stray (II Tim. 2:24-26).
The second principle, therefore, that undergirds the Reformed doctrine and practice of preaching, both in missions and in the pastoral care of the churches, is that God uses the preaching to gather and preserve those whom He has ordained unto eternal life—there are elect, but they must be saved, and they are saved by preaching. Now, this is ample reason to impel the Church and preachers to preach the Word, in season and out of season, within the congregation and without. There is no need of any notion of a universal grace of God to be trumped up to stir up our missionary zeal. Hence, in the preamble of the “Constitution of the Mission Committee,” the Protestant Reformed Churches confess: “The Protestant Reformed Churches believe, that, in obedience to the command of Christ, the King of the church, to preach the blessed Gospel to all creatures, baptizing, and teaching them to observe all things which Christ has commanded, it is the explicit duty and sacred privilege of said churches to carry out this calling according to the measure of our God-given ability. We believe that this missionary activity includes the work of church extension, and church reformation, as well as the task of carrying out the Gospel to the unchurched and heathen. . .”
(to be continued)