Rev. Kortering is a Protestant Reformed minister-on-loan to Singapore.
Recently I was walking towards the bus-stop when a young man who lives across the street from us pulled up to me on his bicycle and began to chat.
“I understand you are a pastor,” he said. I affirmed the accuracy of his information. He continued, “I would like to come and join your church.” That got my attention, though I felt a bit uncomfortable with his calling FERC my church.
“And why do you want to join my church,” I interjected. “How many baptisms did you have last year?” he asked. I thought a moment, realizing he was speaking about adults who were converted. “Well, about five, if I recall properly.” “My church had over a thousand,” he gleefully responded. “See, you need me.” By this time I began to realize the direction of our conversation.
The bus stop was looming closer, so I had to hurry. “I think you and I have quite a different idea of preparing converts for baptism,” I bravely asserted. “When we baptize adult converts, we instruct them for at least a year, sometimes more, to prepare them. How much instruction do you give them?” “Oh,” he said, “we baptize them in the Spirit and that’s quick.”
“And why do you think your coming to my church will help us,” I asked. His answer, “I have the power of the Spirit. I can speak in tongues. I feel I should use my gifts in a small congregation. My church numbers thousands.”
Squeezed for time, I explained as best I could the difference between a biblical and Reformed view of saving souls and the perverted doctrine of the Charis—matics. At the end he asked, “Did you feel anything while I was speaking with you?” “Nothing,” I answered. “Then you don’t have the Spirit and my efforts would be in vain anyway.” With that he rode off with his bike and I waited for my bus. He is in National Service, so my guess would be he is about 20 years of age.
While I rode the bus, I reflected a bit on a recent article in the Straits Times, where it was reported that during this past year, Christianity in Singapore was the religion with the greatest percentage of growth. Even then, it still is only about thirteen percent of the population of about three million. Thinking about the “growth” in this young man’s church, the statistics diminished in value. Then if we add to that the preponderance of Roman Catholics who fly under the banner of Christians, and the miserable persistence of Arminian error, the reported growth of Christianity has a rather hollow ring. Every convert ought to be a qualified disciple prior to baptism. What a blessing to be part of a church that carefully and faithfully works with converts in such a way that Christ may be formed in them (Gal. 4:19). That takes much travail.
Now that we seem to be focused on numbers, there is a good way to look at numbers when it comes to the growth of the church. When Jesus gave those powerful words of Matthew 28:18-20, He was interested in adding more people, for as these disciples are made, the numbers of Christians increase. The book of Acts reminds us of the same thing, “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). Surely, God blesses the Word preached in both senses of the sweet smelling savour (II Cor. 2:14-17). For the preacher and the church, there is a great desire and urgency of heart that God may be pleased to save the people who come under the preaching of the gospel. Though the sovereign God has limited desire to save, the preacher has broader desires. The reason is obvious: we are not God. We do not know whom God is pleased to save. Hence, the drive to reach out, preach, witness to the lost is exactly that they may be saved. How many of them become saved is God’s sovereign domain. And always and again we finite creatures must bow before such a sovereign will and good pleasure.
From this perspective we can understand that easy disciple-making is a real temptation. Some are just plain lazy and want results without hard work. Others like to think God can do wonders in ways He has never promised. Then there are the temptations to gloat in numbers. After all, success is statistical, and that means counting noses. For many churches the proof of missionary success is in the results, and that means numbers. For many missionaries, the burden of success is that the God they represent is able to save, and often times in dramatic ways which demonstrate power over false gods and demons and such like. Then one needs souls to prove it.
To satisfy this demand for numbers, Christian leaders have resorted to many schemes. If numbers dictate methodology, the human mind can be very inventive. The easy believism of Arminianism is an affront to a sovereign God. Man has a free-will to respond to the four spiritual laws, and if used properly these can bring a soul into heaven. Reaction against such “fundamentalism” stimulated the social-gospel message. Proponents of it insist that there is more to becoming a Christian than individual salvation. There must be cultural benefit. Churches and missionaries got on the band-wagon by involving themselves in social issues such as democratic forms of government, education, proper treatment of women, elimination of poverty, and such like. Between these two extremes, we find many missions given over to an attempt to hold to traditional Christianity but contextualize it into a palatable and understandable format for non-Christians. So we see that attempts at missionary success go on and on.
What they all have in mind is some easy way to make disciples. It is that the message is easier for the missionary to bring, more attractive to non-adherents, or the approach he takes is the result of the latest “think-tank” on mission strategy which suggests success.
Just focus on the kind of disciple God has in view. The person to be baptized must be a true convert. Now, obviously, all such converts will not be alike. There is quite a difference between the aged 80-plus gentleman who is converted on his deathbed and the young teenager who is involved in the youth group. There is a difference between the educated businessman who boasted for years about his free-thinking and the Chinese educated who struggles with Chinese dialect and is encumbered with the superstitions of Taoism. Nevertheless, every disciple of Christ must be converted from all his past sins of unbelief and wicked practices and replace them with Christian faith both as to belief and life’s practices. If a disciple is truly converted, he knows God as his God and Jesus as his Savior. He is overwhelmed with His sins of the past, and he desires forgiveness in order to be at peace with God. That peace can continue only in a life of obedience and thankful praise of the God who saved him. He must be a disciple willing and able to serve his Master.
That doesn’t come quickly or easily. Some may enter glory with little of this experience, as is the case with deathbed conversions. But for anyone who has the sacred privilege of being converted and being used by God in the midst of His church on earth, the process takes much time, prayer, learning, struggling, and surrender.
I think of the contrast between Madam Yip (her real name) and Ah Moi (not her real name)
While CERC was out tracting (distributing flyers, inviting people to come to a gospel meeting), they came to the home of Madam Yip. She was in her nineties, not able to speak English, only broken Cantonese. She allowed the visitors to come in and talk. They shared with her the gospel, briefly, and asked if they could come again. This led to a regular Sunday afternoon visit by one of the sisters of the church (one of the few who could speak Cantonese). She went to her flat and read the Bible and explained the passage. This went on for over two years. As Madam Yip grew in her faith, the church sent one of the elders/pastors who gave her more systematic instruction in the Christian faith. Within a year, she was prepared to express her faith in a simple, godly fashion. As the elder’s questions penetrated deeper when he examined her to assess a “credible profession,” she replied somewhat upset, “What more do you want, do you want me to take my heart out, so that you can see that I love God?” The work of the Spirit had borne its fruit. She was baptized at 91 years of age. Because all her children were non-Christian, she had to depend upon the church for her spiritual support. This was especially true when the relative with whom she lived hated her for becoming a Christian and thereby abandoning her family tradition. To give her a hard time, she filled the rooms of the flat with idol gods, fifty plus, all over the place. You could not look anywhere without seeing idols, and the old lady was overwhelmed with grief. Now she has been delivered from that frustration, as she is in an old-folks home. When she comes to church, one of the members summarizes in Cantonese the message. Since she is a little deaf, it gets a bit distracting, but we all understand. Even with such an aged saint, her conversion was not quick and easy, it took years. And her faith is very childlike, yet profound.
Contrast that with Ah Moi, the first young lady in Singapore that I led to Christ. She came to CERC quite unexpectedly. She had been on holiday to Australia and met a young man there. They took a shine to each other, but the young man was from the Reformed Church in the Netherlands and she was a Buddhist from Singapore. Correctly, he had said to her, I cannot be serious about marriage unless you become a Christian and also join a Reformed church. He flew back to Holland, she returned to Singapore. She looked up “Reformed Church” in the Yellow Pages of the telephone directory,and CERC was the only one listed. That’s how she showed up in church that first night.
She was a knowledgeable Buddhist and knew nothing of Christianity or of the Reformed faith. Fearful that this was conversion for marriage, I proceeded slowly. Every Saturday for over two years we spent an hour to an hour and a half in our study of the Bible. She explained to me Buddhism, and I taught her the truth of Christianity. She was not easily persuaded, not even to get a husband. The Lord worked slowly and persistently. Somewhere in the middle of her studies, her future husband came to visit her in Singapore and was quite pleased with her progress. It was with a mixture of fear and pleasure that I watched that romance bloom into marriage. She was baptized in CERC shortly before they were married in Singapore and then off they went to live in the Netherlands. I have to be honest, we did receive some letters sprinkled with tears and frustration. How would she ever survive in that country? With God’s help she worked out her difficulties, and both are now settled in his Dutch church and community. During her most recent visit to Singapore, her little girl was carrying an alphabet book with each picture described in Dutch.
The Spirit did not wave a magic wand over Madam Yip or Ah Moi and work quickly and easily. It took years of tears and struggle. And so it always is. There are no exceptions. God works through His Word, by His Spirit, as it is diligently brought to those whom God wills to save. The key is the Word of God. When we get away from that and think there is a shortcut and a quick fix because of magical revelations and divine communications, we get into serious trouble.
The way to the human heart is through the mind, and the way into the mind is the written and spoken word of instruction. God continues to gather His church by the preaching of the gospel.
It is so reassuring to read and reread the words of Matthew 28:18-20. There Jesus says that we are to make disciples by the ministry of the word and baptizing. As they come to conversion and faith, He adds, “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” The holy life is an inseparable part of conversion. That, too, must be taught. It doesn’t come with the magic of baptism or by some quick infusion of grace.
My young neighbor, notwithstanding.
How precious is the promise, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” That comes from Jesus, who had just asserted, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.”
How else would we give all the glory to God and erase any boasting of men?
God bless each one of you in your disciple-making.