Rev. Bruinsma is Eastern Home Missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches, stationed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The task of writing about missions for theStandard Bearer is not some new enterprise. Upon examination of the index of past issues of the SB, one is able to read more than a few excellent articles written by Rev. Cornelius Hanko in early issues of this periodical. Prof. Robert Decker, professor of missions in the Protestant Reformed Theological School from 1973 to 2006, wrote extensively on the principles and methods of mission work. Also, Rev. Ron VanOverloop, home missionary from 1979 to 1989, has contributed his fair share to this subject. What I intend to write in this article and others will therefore not be in many respects new. There are fundamental principles of missions that always remain the same, because they are scriptural. These principles may not be called into question, and when they are again presented they are not new. I do intend in my articles, however, to offer my own perspective as a missionary on various subjects relating to missions—a perspective that will, I hope, challenge everyone’s ideas on missions and stimulate some good, healthy, spiritual discussion.
There seems to be a resurgence of discussion among some in the Protestant Reformed Churches about the mission work we perform. That is good! That is the way it should be: everyone taking an active interest in sharing the gospel of grace with others! But there are two extremes that have presented themselves in this renewed discussion. Both of these extremes must be avoided.
The first is that of open and, at times, even adversarial criticism of the mission methods of our churches. The criticism can be heard that our churches do not know how to do mission work. Then, with that criticism, any number of modern methods are suggested that are not measured over against Scripture, but that seem to work for other churches. I have served on the Domestic Mission Committee of our churches for about eighteen years. During those years I worked with men who, though they admit that they continue to learn about the work of missions, have sought diligently to establish solidly Reformed mission methods. This is not something that happens overnight. For example, certainly we do not wish to fall into the error of those who maintain that the only way to do mission work properly is by proclaiming that God sincerely desires to save everyone who hears the preaching. That error alone has caused many a church’s mission labor to go spiritually shipwreck. We must carefully develop a distinctively Reformed way of performing mission work. This, I believe, is being done.
A second extreme swings in the opposite direction: a kind of halfhearted interest in the work of missions. This kind of interest is a result of the attitude that mission work is a luxury that the church of Christ may engage in only when it has enough money and preachers. Mission work is a secondary work of the church. This was expressed to me not so long ago when I was told, “I really do not give much money to missions. Most of my giving is directed to the Christian schools, because that is how God builds His church.” We will learn (once again) in our articles that mission work is an essential part of the work of the church of Jesus Christ.
Closely related to this extreme is the attitude of separatism among some. These maintain that if people with whom we come into contact do not believe the doctrines of Scripture the way we do, they are not worthy of our efforts. These critics are always suspicious of our mission work, and oftentimes of the missionary, that the work of missions may lead the church into the way of apostasy. Such an attitude precludes any kind of effective mission work.
These extremes regarding mission work have always revealed themselves in the church. One extreme claims a zeal for mission work, the other claims to be a solid anchor that guards our mission work from leading the denomination astray. But both are guilty of the same error: they do not present a healthy, well-balanced approach to missions that will result in Christ’s blessing and be used by Him for the gathering of His church out of the nations. It is my desire that the articles I submit may provide such an approach to the work of missions in our churches.
What is mission work?
Many Reformed writers have offered a definition of mission work. Most of them are sound, usually emphasizing different aspects of missions. The Protestant Reformed Churches have their own definition of missions that was adopted by their synod in 1962: “Mission work may be defined as that work of God in Christ whereby, through the official ministry of the Word by the church beyond the confines of the church, He gathers His church in the new dispensation from all the nations of the world, both Jew and Gentile.”¹ This definition emphasizes several scriptural givens regarding mission work.
1). Missions is a work of God in Christ. “The Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself by His Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to eternal life . . . .”²
2). Christ performs this work through the church institute and its office of the ministry of the Word.
3). It is a work that is performed by the church institute outside of the confines of that particular church.
4). The church is gathered from all nations of the world, both Jew and Gentile.
We will have opportunity to write about all of these elements that serve to define missions. Before we do, however, I also submit my own definition of missions—not because I believe the one given by synod is deficient in any way, but because there is a certain aspect of mission work that needs to be emphasized in our day. Mission work is that work of our ascended Lord by which He, through the church, proclaims the gospel to all peoples of the earth, without distinction, calling them to repentance and faith, by which call the Spirit works salvation in the hearts of God’s elect, adding them to the number of His church. This definition includes the following:
1). Missions is a work of God in Christ through His Spirit.
2). Christ performs this work through the church institute and the preaching of the gospel.
3). The gospel must be preached to all peoples of the earth without discrimination.
4). It is a general call to everyone to come to repentance and faith, but a call by which God sovereignly fulfills His desire to save unto Himself only His elect people in Christ.
Again, the various elements of our definition will be addressed in future articles. But before we begin we ought to establish first the biblical foundation for the work of missions. After all, if missions is such an important task of the church, if it is not a secondary but an essential aspect of the labors of the church, the Bible will reveal that to us.
The scriptural foundation for missions.
When considering the necessity of mission work, attention is usually focused on the command Christ gives the church in Matthew 28:19, 20: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”³ These verses are commonly called “the Great Commission.” They are the command of the Head of the church to His church to preach the gospel to all nations and peoples of the world. This command, it is said, must be what motivates the church to do mission work. Christ has commanded it; the church must obey! Although this may be true, a mere command in itself is not what motivates the church to go out and preach the gospel to all nations. Why did Christ give this great commission to the church? If we can understand that, we will find true motivation. The answer lies in the blessed truth of God’s covenant. The truth of God’s covenant is the foundation of, and therefore the motivation for, all mission work.
God’s covenant must be the incentive behind our mission work? Does not the truth of God’s covenant explicitly teach that God will gather His church from one generation to the next out of the children that are born to believers?Genesis 17:7 teaches, “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee,and to thy seed after thee” (emphasis mine—W.B.). The truth of God’s covenant teaches us that God will cause His church to grow from within the confines of that church by means of the generations born to believing parents. Does not the very idea of the covenant as taught in Genesis 17:7 and elsewhere contradict the whole idea of preaching the gospel to others? How then can the truth of the covenant be incentive for missions? Our churches have always placed heavy emphasis on the rigorous training of our children in the truths of God’s Word in order that the church can grow from within. Believing parents have pumped millions of dollars into Christian schools because they take seriously the truth of God’s covenant with His people. How then can the truth of God’s covenant be the motivation behind missions?
There is another marvelous truth revealed inGenesis 17 that too often is overlooked. We read these words of God to Abraham in verses 4 and 5: “As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.” Not only did God promise to establish a relationship of fellowship and friendship with Abraham and his seed, but God also told Abraham that in him all the nations of the earth would come to share in that fellowship and love of God. That is what the apostle Paul confirms in Galatians 3:8: “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, in thee shall all nations be blessed.”
Reformed churches must be fully aware that there are two distinct, yet interrelated, ways that the Son of God gathers His church in the new dispensation of the covenant. The one means is the faithful nurturing of the children of the church by believing parents and by the church itself. Parents are duty bound to bring up their children in the fear of the Lord. They vow this at the time of baptism. The church, too, in her offices, diligently instructs the children and youth of the church. Where this is done faithfully, God blesses the efforts of the church, and the church grows from within.
But the church may never ignore the other command of God’s covenant: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Equally important to the gathering in of the church in the new dispensation is diligent labor in the whole area of missions. The church must search out opportunities wherever they may arise to preach the gospel to all creatures. The members of the church are to be living witnesses of the gospel in their lives and in their speech. Why? In order that God through the faithful witness of the church to others might “add to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). How often Reformed churches cite Acts 2:39 as proof for the doctrine of infant baptism: “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” But do we overlook in this passage who else receives the promise other than we and our children? The promise is also “to all that are afar off,” that is, to all the peoples of the world. Surely, there is a qualifying factor that enters in: “even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” God does not choose to call everyone that is afar off. Nevertheless, God’s promise is still to be proclaimed to all those that are afar off. God establishes His covenant in Christ from one generation to the next in two distinct ways: by means of caring for the church itself and its children and by means of mission work. By means of missions, others are called out of darkness and grafted into the vine of God’s covenant.
That is incentive! How wonderful a blessing to see little children of the church grow up and take their place in the church. The church and its members must continue to work hard at that! But the church and its members must work equally as hard to share the gospel with others. How wonderful a blessing to behold the fruits of the preaching beyond the confines of the church! To see the zeal, the first love, of those called out of sin and error serves to remind the church and its members of what Christ has done for them too. What a wonderful gift God has given us in His Son!
¹ 1962 Acts of Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches, Supp. 9, p. 74.
² Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21, Q & A 54.
³ The parallel passage to this command is inMark 16:15, 16, where Christ commands His church to preach the gospel to every creature.