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Delight over Assurance

As one who receives the Standard Bearer via overseas mail to the United Kingdom, I am always the victim of deliveries that are either belated or not in sequence. Therefore, I have to hand only numbers 7 and 9 of volume 80 containing your editorials on assurance. Nevertheless, I feel constrained to express my delight at reading these two editorials on assurance.

As the assurance of which you write is not ours, but a product of Almighty God’s gracious gift, it is a just and inevitable consequence to claim that “it forms an integral part of salvation itself.”

In the event that our earthly experience has its weak moments, the assurance itself remains constant and irrevocable, because it still rests in the hand of our Creator. Its ownership has not been passed on to sinful man for him to manipulate. Assurance is not a “work” of man.

Doubt of God’s assurance is, simply put, unbelief. About this, Scripture warns us, “Take heed,” because doubt is the fruit of an “evil heart” (Heb. 3:12).

Let us, therefore, draw near to God in full assurance of faith, not with full assurance of faith (Heb. 10:22).

Alan J. Best

Cardiff, Wales, UK

More on “Gospel Services”

A few things need to be said, I think, about the recent discussion in our Standard Bearer concerning “gospel services” (Standard Bearer, Nov. 1, 2003, “Mission Preaching in the Established Church: The Gospel Service”).

I dislike arguments over terminology, but the term “gospel service” to designate a particular type of service for the particular purpose of engaging in missions strikes me as singularly inappropriate. Every true worship service is a “gospel service.”

Nor is the term biblical. While we may claim the right to invent our own vocabulary to express certain ideas, and while we may pour into such terms Reformed connotations, it is not wise to borrow terms from Arminian circles and attempt to give them Reformed meanings. This is confusion.

A “gospel service,” intended to be a deviation from the usual worship service in it character and purpose, puts an emphasis on the human side to preaching, which the worship ought not to have. The idea suggests (if not implies) that straight-forward preaching, which brings Scripture in all its force and is the kind of preaching our churches strive to promote, is inadequate to reach unbelievers. For the purpose of reaching unbelievers, we need to adjust our services with a different kind of preaching—a preaching that is preceded by an advertising blitz and by a certain preparation of the members of the congregation; that is adapted to ignorant people who have no knowledge of Scripture; and that uses simple terminology, etc.

What needs to be emphasized in our day of careless preaching is that the gospel is still the power of God unto salvation, and that a profound sermon on sovereign predestination, including the doctrines of both election and reprobation, can be (and frequently is) used by God to bring sinners to repentance and faith in Christ. This is the example set down in Paul’s epistle to the Romans—a letter to a newly formed and profoundly evangelistic congregation. It is the example we are to follow.

But it is the address of the gospel in which I am particularly interested. This, more than anything else, is the point at issue.

The minister in the local congregation addresses the gospel to the local congregation. What is that local congregation? It is the gathering of believers and their seed. The minister is right when he begins the worship service with the words: “Beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ.” He does not, as in so many churches, address his audience on Sunday morning with the words: “Esteemed audience,” “Worthy hearers,” or something similar. The minister addresses the congregation as God’s beloved, because that congregation is the object of God’s everlasting love. It is the bride of Christ for whom He gave His life. It is the apple of God’s eye, a church so profoundly loved by God that God will do anything and everything necessary to save her. It is the church destined to live in glory forever in fellowship with God.

I find a great comfort in hearing these words at the beginning of the worship service. The week has been extraordinarily difficult. Many problems had to be faced and the work was great. I am weary. Sins multiplied and rose up against me prevailing day by day. I almost was staggering (spiritually) when I crept into church on Sunday morning. The question would not be set aside: “Am I worthy to appear before God in His holy temple? Will God receive me after such a disastrous week?” It is with a sense of profound relief that I hear God say—at the outset: “Beloved…!”

It is the example of the apostles (cf. Rom. 1:7I Cor. 1:2II Cor. 1:1Eph. 1:1Phil. 1:1; and almost all the epistles). It paves the way for the benediction. I personally do not see how the benediction can be pronounced when the purpose of the service is to speak to the unconverted: “Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you.” And only the church can respond with the words, “Our help is in the name of the Lord….” What happens to these beautiful parts of our worship when the address is to the unconverted?

The essence of the gospel is Isaiah’s instructions for the content of his preaching? “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God…” (Is. 40:1). The church needs to hear that—every Sunday.

Special services for the unconverted must necessarily involve something different: special texts to be used, special vocabulary to be employed, special emphasis on the demand for repentance and conversion. The people of God are temporarily neglected, referred to only indirectly, and not the audience for this particular service. I must express my disagreement with the following: “the danger that a preacher who holds to this clear teaching of the Bible faces is that he may draw a wrong conclusion, that he is to preach to the church as those who are saved and secure in Christ, who do not need to hear a call to repent and believe because they are saved already. If this is his view, he would conclude that there is no need for ‘mission preaching’…” (SB April 1, 2003, p. 302).

Nothing could be farther from the mind of a faithful preacher. Conversion, repentance, and the call to faith in Christ must be preached in the church of Christ, God’s Beloved (Heid. Cat., LD 31, Q. 84). Carnal seed is present in the church—always. This in no way detracts from the fact that that church, in spite of the wicked hypocrites in her midst, is God’s beloved, Christ’s bride. A farmer calls his field a wheat field because that is his purpose in laboring in it—even though it has thistles and pigweed. God calls His church His beloved, for such it is. The presence of carnal seed does not alter that—any more than the presence of wicked in Corinth altered Paul’s address.

Further, we live in a world of sin and possess sinful natures. Every child of God is in need of conversion, not only on the Lord’s Day, but every day of the week. Every child of God must be called to repentance and faith in Christ. Every child of God must be pointed to his sin, which he must before God forsake. Every child of God must be torn by the power of preaching from his inordinate love of the world to faith in Christ.

But we may not jump from this obvious fact to the need for a special service, directly to the unconverted. The minister must tell the congregation: You are Christ’s bride by a wonder of grace. Now become what you already are. Live as Christ’s bride!

The church of Christ is a witnessing church. I would even go so far as to say that a church that is not a witnessing church may not expect the blessing of God in the mission labors that that church performs through a called and ordained missionary. I am not, however, inclined to minimize the strong witness of God’s people in the world. This witness may not always be in word, and need not always be in word—although when the occasion requires it and God sets someone directly on his path, he must confess the name of his Savior. But the powerful and potent witness of the members of the Protestant Reformed Churches, not to be minimized in its effectiveness, is a witness of our Protestant Reformed Christian schools, the witness of the stability of our family life, the witness of a strong and uncompromising condemnation of divorce and remarriage, the witness of a sacrificial protest against ungodly labor unions, the witness of faithful husbands and fathers who work diligently at their jobs without engaging in the cursing, swearing, and foul language of those with whom they work, the witness of godly covenant mothers who work day and night to establish covenant homes, etc., etc. This is the kind of witness noticed by the world. This is the kind of witness to which Peter refers when in I Peter 3:15 he admonishes us to be ready always to give an answer to those who ask of us a reason for the hope that lies within us. The implication of Peter’s admonition is that we are asked! That is the important thing. We are asked why we are ready to support with our taxes the government schools and at the same time pay enormous costs for covenant education. We are asked why we are willing to give up our jobs, when we have children at home that need food and clothing, to escape the sin of membership in wicked labor unions.

America is not composed of unconverted heathen who have never had contact with the gospel. It is a “Christian country”; i.e., a country in which the gospel has been preached for generations. It is a country, therefore, in which God has nearly accomplished His purpose. Let us not underestimate the knowledge of the unbelievers about us. Perhaps ignorance may be the problem with many, but it is an ignorance born out of disinterest in their lives and in the lives of their forbears. God visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children.

But our witness is strong and powerful, and our neighbors, unconverted though they may be, see the parking lots of our churches full twice on the Lord’s Day and our pews occupied by adults and children morning and evening. They know why we do this. They know why we have our own schools. Not only the public school on Riverbend Dr., but also the Department of Education in Lansing, responsible for regulating the entire state school system, knows our schools. Not only do the workers in Keeler Brass know our stand against the union, but the UAW headquarters in Detroit also knows.

This is not to say that God does not save a remnant, brands plucked out of the burning. But God is sovereign in His eternal purpose. Especially in Europe and America God cuts off generations who are unfaithful and reject the gospel. He does not return to those generations. God does not continuously build walls in the erection of His house; He puts a roof on it.

—(Prof.) H. Hanko

Response:

I have read carefully the contribution of Prof. Hanko to our consideration of “Mission Preaching in the Established Church.” Though the brother expresses different ideas and some of them critical, we do appreciate them as it gives us opportunity to develop some of them further and to work towards understanding in the minds of our readers.

The brother makes the following points, which I will attempt to address.

1.The term “gospel service” is inappropriate as it is unbiblical and Arminian.

2.A special service for the purpose of bringing the gospel to invited neighbors is wrong for two reasons: it emphasizes human effort in bringing the gospel, and it conflicts with the unique character of worship, which is Christ’s intimate fellowship with His body, the church.

3.He criticizes the occasion for such a “gospel service,” which involves the outreach of the members to their neighbors. He offers two criticisms of such an effort: First, the effective witness of the membership is the life and walk of each member, not the speech (as is involved in canvassing the neighborhood, distributing literature, discussing with them the truth, and inviting them to worship). Second, the situation in America is much like that in Europe—people have had the gospel but spurned it, hence God does not return to them and we cannot expect much results from such effort anyway. There may be the remnant.

I will begin with the last one because, if true, this method of outreach is ineffective and the entire subject of “special services with a view to bringing the gospel to our neighbors” becomes irrelevant and falls away.

The most important point that I would like to make is that it is the duty and sacred privilege of every member of the congregation to speak of his faith to his neighbors wherever he may be. He must do more than respond when others ask, he must initiate such a conversation as God gives him opportunity. I agree that the foundation of such a witness is the godly life of the believer. The Holy Spirit expresses this in I Peter 3:15, 16: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts and be ready always to give an answer….” Notice, the text does not say, sanctify the Lord God in your walk, but it says, sanctify the Lord God in your hearts. Out of the heart comes forth the issues of life (Prov. 4:23). This is called our conversation in the New Testament (I Pet. 1:15). Such conversation includes both our speech and our actions—word and deed. If we do this properly, we must be ready with our defense of faith (“answer” in this text can be translated “apology” or “defense”), since our neighbors will both hear and observe us and ask us the reason for it.

The important role of the individual believer in bearing witness of the gospel is repeated throughout the entire New Testament. The so-called Great Commission ofMatthew 28:19, 20 includes foremost the task of the church sending forth missionaries and pastors doing the work of an evangelist. The success of such labors includes in a real sense the assistance of the members who give their own witness. The apostles themselves were surrounded with others, who assisted them and reasoned alongside of them, such as Apollos (Acts 18:24-28). This passage also refers to Priscilla and Aquila, who were lay-people, who explained the gospel in greater detail to Apollos. We think of Acts 8:4, which mentions that the persecuted Christians, who were scattered, went everywhere and preached the Word. The Samaritan woman, upon the occasion of her conversion, went and told the men of her city (John 4).

This is important to maintain because this is the prophetic office that Christ gives to every believer. To be sure, much of the expression of this office of prophet is within the domain of the covenant, within the home, church, and school. It is no less important to use it as we speak to our neighbor. We are anointed by the Holy Spirit, trained in the Word of God, motivated by love of God and the neighbor to initiate speech with our neighbors. These neighbors include those who work with us on the job, those who go to school with us in the university, those who live next door or anywhere else. The character of a prophet is irrepressible joy and conviction to speak the truth in love. It is to nurture a godly relationship with a non-Christian with a view to his salvation. This is not only biblical, it is also confessional. The third reason the Heidelberg Catechism cites as to why good works are necessary for the Christian (good works include our proper speech as well as our actions) is that “by our godly conversation, others may be gained to Christ” (Q. 86).

If God blesses such efforts, the goal is to invite others to worship, to hear the voice of Christ Himself. Our witnessing is to speak about Christ to them and to explain to them the reason of our hope as Christians. There is something far better, and that is that they may sit with us at the feet of the Master to hear Him speak.

We are taught by the Word of God that we may never limit our duty of labor because of the unlikely prospect of positive results. We may never despise the day of little things (Zech. 4:10). We must obey Christ, no matter whether we may risk job, friendship, or even life. Even if all we may expect is the saving of a remnant as a brand plucked out of the burning (Zech. 3:2), it is all worth while. The one lost sheep may be living right next door to you or working beside you on the job, and God may have placed him there for you to initiate love and care, to take an interest in him and speak to him of the wonderful works of God. Yes, America and Europe are abominable in their iniquity, and surely all workers of iniquity shall perish, but we do not know who among them may be the elect of God. Maybe our neighbor despises Christ like a Paul, but may yet come under the mercy of Christ unto salvation.

One other thought, America and Europe are changing with respect to who it is that populates the country. In my home town of Holland, Michigan, surrounded by such Dutch enclaves as Overisel, Vriesland, Drenth, and such like, the Dutch are a minority of only 36 percent. America as a melting pot continues; there are peoples of virtually every nation surrounding us. And they take with them their idolatry or philosophies, and more than likely many of them have never heard the gospel. We have a duty to them as well.

Is there a place, then, for a special service in which neighbors, with whom members have diligently shared the gospel, may join the congregation and hear the gospel preached to them? We agree, such inquirers may join the congregation at any time and will hear the Word of God preached by a faithful pastor. This is not a matter of dispute. Our focus of interest is a special service for this purpose. What about the two objections?

Is it an over-emphasis on the human side if we put forth effort to meet special needs for non-Christians who may attend? This may include the choice of passage, simplicity of message, use of illustrations, and such like. The answer to this lies in the examples of Christ and the apostles as they adapted their message to various audiences. Christ used different words when addressing His disciples, Mary and Martha, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, or the scribes and Pharisees. Paul certainly preached quite differently to the Ephesians than he did to the philosophers on Mars Hill or when standing before King Agrippa. This may be applied to us as we encounter different circumstances, domestic or foreign missions, conversations with individuals, and such like. If the consistory decides to hold a special service because they have encouraged the membership to invite their neighbors to the service, it is not a concession to the human side of preaching to ask the pastor to choose an appropriate text and message for this occasion. Rather, it is following the example of Christ and the apostles to address the gospel to the audience God places before him.

If there is anyone on the face of the earth who champions salvation as God’s sovereign work, it has to be missionaries and pastors. If I learned anything in my twelve years in Singapore, it is that we never give up on God and never try to do something without God. The work of saving a soul is exclusively divine (Eph. 2:8-10).

More significant is the objection that if the pastor takes into consideration the presence of such people, he will fail to treat the congregation properly. How can he speak the votum or the concluding blessing if non-Christians are present? It will interfere with his address of the gospel and dilute the intimate and precious relationship that Christ enjoys with His own church.

I do not take this objection lightly. The concern is well taken and the pastor has to resolve this issue. I proposed a solution in my series of articles. There is no mention made of this. The church may have unconverted members who are walking in sin (this does not mean that I view the congregation as mixed or preach to them as such), who need to hear the gospel of repentance and faith. Also we know from Scripture that not all Israel are the true Israel, there may be reprobates in the congregation who need to hear the word of warning and judgment. Because of their possible presence in the congregation, the pastor must meet such needs on a regular basis. On the occasion of a service to reach non-Christians, the pastor may very well pick a passage that addresses such needs in his own congregation and preach it to them in the presence of the guests. If the text includes a reference to unbelievers or unconverted, the application can be made to the church in worship and to those in the audience who may be unconverted, as the pastor may choose to make the application. In this way there is no change in the character of worship, only the adaptation of the gospel to an important occasion, a message that emphasizes the gospel, the need to repent from sin and embrace Christ and His Father as the only way of salvation.

My caution that a Reformed preacher must not assume the salvation of his audience and that he has to put forth effort to call to repentance and faith is to the point. Prof. Hanko seems offended by this caution since every Reformed pastor knows this and will do this. I sincerely hope so, but a caution is never out of place and a reminder may go a long way to help. I did not intend to throw stones. I do not want this aspect of preaching to be neglected.

Finally, there is the terminology. Should we call such a special service “gospel service.”

I have no special axe to grind with its usage. In a certain sense, the good news of the gospel is written on every page of the Bible and permeates every sermon. There is this aspect, which we must not overlook. When the word gospel is used in the New Testament, great emphasis is laid upon the message of conversion, repentance, and faith. A few examples are Mark 1:14, 15Acts 14:7-15Romans 1:16I Corinthians 9:18, 19;Ephesians 1:13. If we use the term “gospel service,” the emphasis of this service is that the pastor preaches a gospel message, one that emphasizes a call to repent and believe.

Perhaps we could better call such a special service a service of outreach. Maybe that is a more accurate designation.

—(Rev.) J. Kortering