Not A Biblical Standard
We have seen that Prof. Dekker, although he does not state positively what would constitute a normal measure of evangelistic success in terms of the number of converts gained, considers the record of his own denomination to be a poor one. And on the basis of this poor record, Prof. Dekker apparently comes to the conclusion that there is something wrong with the mission method and motivation of the Christian Reformed Church. Further, this wrong he attributes to the message. “Certainly,” he writes, “if Christians believe that God loves all and Christ died for all, they will not be satisfied with that kind of missionary outlook.” In Dekker’s opinion, therefore, Christian Reformed evangelism shows little success, and this lack of success should lead the Christian Reformed Church to conduct earnest self-criticism and even agonizing reappraisal of the method, the motivation, and the message of their evangelism. I believe it is fair to state, therefore, that according to Prof. Dekkermission gains are the criterion whereby the mission message must be judged.
Now this may be a good method to follow in the world of business and salesmanship and marketing. If a certain firm markets a product, and if that product does not sell, finds little or no reception with the consumer, the proper thing to do is to conduct an agonizing reappraisal. There is something wrong. Is it in the sales department? Are there not enough salesmen on the road? Is not enough time spent in promoting the product? Is the advertising budget not large enough? Or is the fault with the advertising message? Of course, if the product is good, but if the sales program does not properly and fully present the product and accurately represent the good points, the advantages of that product, then the public must not be blamed; nor must the product itself be blamed; but the advertising department is not properly ‘motivated and is not getting the true message concerning this product across.
This is indeed a rather blunt example. But it seems to be an example of Prof. Dekker’s reasoning with respect to missions.
And this is an excellent method to follow in the world of business and marketing.
But when it comes to missions, this method is definitely not Biblical.
Let us turn to Scripture in order to see this. Is this the method of Christ, of the prophets, of the apostles? Did they judge the success of their evangelism by its results, that is, by the number of converts gained? And if there were but few converts, did they consider their mission unsuccessful? And if they found it unsuccessful, did they conclude that it was time to “reappraise” their motivation and their message?
First of all, let us look at some Scriptural examples.
And then we may take the example of the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself as our prime example. He was certainly the perfect “missionary.” But His “evangelism” often netted very meager results. When He appeared in the synagogue at Nazareth and preached the gospel, “all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, And rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong.” Luke 4:28, 29. Here was a case of meager results, therefore. When the Lord Jesus went to the country of the Gadarenes, they prayed Him to depart out of their country. When the same Lord Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes and fed five thousand in Galilee, what was the end result? It is recorded in John 6:66: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.” And what was behind this forsaking of the Lord? They had said, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” John 6:60. And what was the reaction of the Lord Jesus. Did He change His message and His .method and say, “O, my good people, you have misunderstood me. Don’t go away from me. Perhaps I did not make myself clear. But the message of my preaching is that God loves you all, and that I came into the world to die for all of you?” His immediate reaction is recorded for us inJohn 6:67: “Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?” To mention but one more instance from the ministry of Jesus Himself, what do the Scriptures say in John 12:37,ff. Listen: “But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him: That f the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom, hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. These things said Esaias when he saw his glory, and spake of him.”
The latter passage reminds us also of the prophets of the old dispensation and their “evangelism” was Isaiah himself, in the first place, who experienced the truth ofIsaiah 53:1. He preached the gospel of Christ, though he preached in an old dispensational setting and in old dispensational terms. And he found the results of his preaching to be very meager in terms of numbers of converts gained. Very few had believed. Did he judge his ministry to be a failure? Did he engage: in an agonizing reappraisal of the motivation and the message of his prophetic ministry? Did he come to the conclusion that some changes were necessary? It is afact that the results were meager. He it is, first of all, who asks the question, “Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed?” But it is also a fact that he went out preaching well aware that his “mission gains” would be meager, Isaiah 6:9-13: “And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed. Then said I, Lord, how long? And he answered, Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate, And the Lord have removed men far away, and there be a great forsaking in the midst of the land. But yet in it shall be a tenth, and it shall return, and shall be eaten: as a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof.”
The same experience was the lot of a Jeremiah, an Ezekiel, a Hosea, and, in fact, of all the prophets.
Never were the “mission gains” in Scriptural times spectacular in terms of numbers of converts. On the contrary, they would certainly have to be characterized as “meager.” It was always a remnant, a tenth, a very small minority, a “seven thousand that had not bowed the knee to Baal,” a “little flock,” that was converted and gathered. And the rest, the large majority, were blinded and hardened through the means of the same mission message by which the remnant was converted and saved, and they rejected the Word of the gospel. They stoned the prophets. They slew those that were sent unto them. They crucified the Lord of glory.
But never do you find in Scripture the “agonizing reappraisal” of the message and the method and the motive which Professor Dekker suggests as being indicated by meager results. Always the “missionaries” went right on preaching wherever and whenever they were called. And what did they preach? The answer is simple. They proclaimed the whole counsel of God, the sovereign God of our salvation in Christ Jesus. And what was the content of that “whole counsel of God?” That God loves all men, and that Christ died (and, in the old dispensation, would die) for all men? Never! The gospel of salvation was always particular, addressed in its very contents to the elect according to their spiritual identity: to the meek, the brokenhearted, the captives; the bound, them that mourn in Zion, those who were in ashes, those who were clothed in a spirit of heaviness. Isaiah 61:1-3.
Nor is it different in the time of the apostles.
We certainly must not have the impression that in the apostolic era the preaching of the gospel, whether to Jew or Gentile, was an overwhelming success in terms of numbers of converts gained. Perhaps when we read in the book of Acts of the thousands who repented and were baptized at Jerusalem in the immediate post-Pentecost era, we are at first glance tempted to think that now at last things have changed.
But let us keep our bearings in this respect, and observe the following:
1) It is true that, especially in the first part of the book of Acts, Scripture numbers the converts to the church in the thousands, speaks of 3,000 on the day of Pentecost, of “many, ” and of 5,000 in Acts 4:4, etc. However, we must remember that even as far as these thousands of converts from the Jews are concerned; this, is not to be compared to today’s evangelism among the so-called unchurched, that is, the branches that have been cut off. Secondly, it must be borne in mind that this was the time of transition from the old to the new dispensation, and in this light their conversion must be viewed. Thirdly, when you compare these thousands with the 120 that were gathered in the upper room, the growth of the church was indeed amazing; when, however, you compare these thousands with the number of those who did not believe, then you must remember that the; church was in the minority. The power remained in the hands of the unbelieving enemies of the gospel; and presently the church, Christ’s little flock, was scattered abroad by persecution.
2.) Among the Gentiles, as the gospel advanced to Antioch, to Asia Minor, and thence to Europe, many congregations were established. Apparently the missionary travels of Paul were highly successful in terms of numbers of converts gained. However, again we must see the whole picture. In the first place, here was a completely new field of mission endeavor; and if the cause of the gospel was to advance, one might expect that there would have to be a relatively large measure of fruit upon the preaching. In the second place, whether the congregations were fairly large or very small,—and think, for example, what a struggling and small congregation the church at Philippi was,—they were all, in comparison with the hordes of pagans who remained unconverted, but little flocks. Persecuted minorities they were, in the midst of the strongholds of heathendom. And the missionaries were themselves persecuted from city to city, imprisoned, and finally put to death for the cause of Christ. Who were in the majority, the vast majority? Where did the power lie? It was not until the fourth century, when that unholy alliance of church and state, or rather, that unholy domination of the church by the state, was consummated, that Christianity became in any sense a majority religion! In the third place, think of that outstanding example of meager fruit: Athens! Athens, that cultural center of the world! Athens, the religious city par excellence! Meager fruits? Listen! “And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter. So Paul departed from among them. Howbeit. certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” Acts 17:32-34.
3) Never do you find the “agonizing reappraisal” of the “message and the motivation which Prof. Dekker suggests. Scripture nowhere judges the success or failure of mission endeavor in terms of the number of converts gained. And it certainly does not judge the correctness or incorrectness of the message and motivation of missions on this basis. On the contrary, you find other indications in Scripture, even concerning the relatively large number of converts in apostolic times. You, find this: “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” Acts 2:47. And in Acts 13:48we read: “. . . and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” According to Acts 18:9, 10, what encouraged and. motivated the apostle was this word of the Lord: “Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: For I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city.” Notice this: before Paul’s mission at Corinth was even fairly begun, much less completed, the Lord says to him in advance: “I have much people in this city.”
In conclusion, therefore, I fail to find in Scripture the method and the standard of judgment that Prof. Dekker seems to follow. I fail to find in Scripture this reasoning from results, this drawing of conclusions as to the success or failure of mission endeavor on the basis of statistics. And I cannot avoid the impression that this is an example of utilitarianism applied to missions. And of utilitarianism the church should have nothing!
All this I say not only in reaction to Prof. Dekker’s writings, but also for the instruction and warning of our own churches. I am fully aware that we are readily tempted to measure the church by the pound, and to measure the success of mission endeavors in terms of numbers of converts gained. This tendency is very strong in the ecclesiastical world of today. How many families in that area are interested? How many souls are there at that mission station? How many can you count on to organize? How large is your congregation? How many families did you gain in the past year? How many of those families came from the outside? How big is your seminary? How many students do you have? (Yes, I speak from experience in regard to the latter question. I even had a lawyer strike a low blow and attempt to discredit me as a witness because I had only one student at the time,—a low blow which even a worldly master-in-chancery recognized as being “below the belt.”)
There is a certain glamour about numbers, isn’t there? How many are concerned whether the modern day crusade-evangelists actually preach the truth of the Word of God? How many, even in Reformed circles, are genuinely concerned whether these would-be evangelists proclaim the Arminian and Pelagian lies which our fathers of Dordt characterized as hellish? How is it possible that men who have signed their name to the Formula of Subscription in the Christian Reformed Church can openly support Billy Graham and Leighton Ford as, for example, recently in De Wachter? How much rather we look at the vast crowds that will gather in the auditorium or the stadium of a big city to hear these pseudo-preachers of the gospel! How the news accounts in religious periodicals, as well as in daily papers, will keep close tab on the number of converts gained, the number of “decisions” for Christ! How little concern, with all the missionary concern, there is for the pure preaching of the Word for the gathering of the church, for the maintenance of the purity of the church, for the sanctity of the Lord’s table! If only there is a passion for souls! If only the mission work is outwardly successful! If only the church grows and becomes big1 If only the church and its institutions attain some stature in the eyes of the world!
Let us remember one thing, and take it to heart. There is one sure way to rapid growth for a church. Corrupt the doctrine of the gospel: and, simultaneously, relax the strictness of discipline. You will grow then; but your church will die as it grows.