Rev. Miersma is Western Home Missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Previous article in this series: March 1, 2008, p. 255.
We have considered the underlying foundation of election and reprobation in the work of missions, as it is also an element of the content of the gospel and mission preaching. With that in mind I would turn to another element of laboring in the consciousness of God’s sovereignty in missions. Mission work and evangelism is the work of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ by His word and Spirit.
To begin with, it may be well to call to mind the order of salvation, sovereign grace, taught in our Essentials of Reformed Doctrine classes: regeneration, calling, faith. Since man is born dead in sins, the dead sinner must first be immediately regenerated by the Spirit of God. This precedes the work of preaching and evangelism and is below our conscious experience. Jesus Himself teaches us this: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3) or enter it (John 3:5). “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). It is the new spiritual life that is effectually called by the power of grace through the gospel unto faith, repentance, and conversion of life. It is in that prepared or regenerated soil that the seed of the gospel, in the parable of the sower, grows and bears fruit, and nowhere else. Jesus speaks of this in another way when He says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live” (John 5:25). Christ Jesus calls the dead to life, spiritual life, a work that is a resurrection from spiritual death. He calls men unto faith by the Spirit. He is the chief prophet also today. He is, we may rightly say, the missionary and theevangelist.
The biblical order of the work of Christ by the Spirit, therefore, is regeneration, saving calling (by the preaching), and faith (the result). This is our confessional language. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 25, asks, “…whence doth this faith proceed? From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel….” The Confession of Faith, Article 22, uses the same language, “the Holy Ghost kindleth in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him.” The Canons of Dordt I, Article 3, put it this way: “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.” The Canons then quoteRomans 10:14, 15.
There are several observations we may make about this truth. We may begin with Jesus’ own words in John 10:16: “Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd.” The reference is to the gathering of the gentiles, the other sheep who are not of the fold of Israel, but are to be incorporated into it so that there will be one fold and one shepherd. Beside that unity of Israel and the church of the gentiles we should note first of all that Jesus says, “Other sheep I have.” He possesses them already from the Father and lays down His life for them (John 10:11). Second, in the context of missions and evangelism, we should note that He says, “them also I must bring.” Jesus brings them. He is the true missionary, the builder of the church, the gatherer of the flock. It is His work. The third element is, “and they shall hear my voice.” Jesus also tells us how He will bring them, the method. It is by hearing the voice of Christ. It is through preaching.
Preaching is the voice of Christ, which is the next observation we must make. We must understand and believe what the Scriptures teach about preaching. By the preaching of the gospel, through an effectual work of Christ by the Spirit, we hear Christ, and the sheep know His voice (John 10:3, 14). That is the point also of Canons I, Article 3, in quoting Romans 10:14, 15: “How shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach, except they be sent?” Literally, the text says, believe on Him whom (not of or about whom) they have not heard. The elect hearChrist in the preaching. His voice sounds in the preaching of the gospel. By it the spiritually dead are raised up.
Therefore the gospel and the preaching of it “…is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth…” (Rom. 1:16). This is the sovereign wisdom of God in Christ, “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (I Cor. 1:21). It is through preaching that the sheep hear the voice of the Shepherd and are saved. You cannot see or hear this work physically in a sermon itself, for it is the work of Christ by the Holy Spirit through the preaching. It is a work in the soul, which work is hidden from us. That work in the soul is a spiritual operation of grace that is effectual, powerful, and sovereign. Jesus knows whothe lost sheep are. He knows where they are. He also sovereignly directs His word to them so that they hear His voice, throughpreaching, and they know Him.
This is the consistent teaching of Scripture. To see that, we must add also a third element to our observations, namely, that preaching is by one called and sent. The word “to preach” and “preacher” refers to one who is a herald or ambassador of the king sent to speak His word in His name to His people. “How shall they preach except they be sent?”
Christ ordained the office of preaching and commissioned His disciples and the church to go “and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). It is in that light also that we must carefully understand certain passages. The early church, after Pentecost, had several preaching offices. “And he gave some, apostles; and some prophets; and some evangelists; and some pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11). The church had these offices for several reasons. First, the New Testament scriptures were not yet written, and to preach the gospel in the worship service, the church had only the Old Testament and could not compare scripture with Scripture the same way we can. There were special gifts of knowledge and understanding that would eventually pass away (I Cor. 14:29-32; I Cor. 13:8).
This prophetic office included men like Agabus, who was a prophet also in the sense of foretelling what should come (Acts 10:27-30). The list of preaching offices inEphesians 4:11 also includes men who were called evangelists or “gospelizers.” Timothy and Titus were such. These men were co-laborers with the apostles, especially in mission work. We find such men in the church in Jerusalem. Philip and Stephen, originally called to the office of deacon, were such men. The purpose of this office was also to serve the laying of the foundation of the church by its being gathered. We find therefore in Jerusalem not only the apostles preaching in the temple, but Stephen disputing in the synagogues (Acts 6:9). It was this that led to his trial and death.
After Stephen’s death, followed by Paul’s persecution of the church, the church in Jerusalem was scattered abroad. Those scattered from the church “went everywhere preaching (gospelizing) the word” (Acts 8:4). That this was the work by the evangelists and that that is what is referred to is made plain by the immediate context in the next verses by the example of Philip. Philip is led of the Spirit as an evangelist to preach in Samaria and to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:5-40). The word began to leave Jerusalem, and by the labors of the apostles and evangelists to be preached in other cities, going from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria, as Jesus had said.
These were not individual efforts but the labor of the offices and the church. Peter, too, had to flee the city. It is in that context that Peter preaches later in Joppa (Acts 9) and to Cornelius (Acts 10). It is in that context also that we read of those who were scattered abroad in Acts 11:19 preaching (literally, speaking) the word, and preaching to (“gospelizing”) the Greeks in Antioch (Acts 11:20). The Scriptures are recording the work of scattered believers traveling in groups from the church in Jerusalem, among whom are those given of the Spirit to do the work of an evangelist, namely preach. And when that work is fruitful, the church sends Barnabas to Antioch, just as Philip was joined in Samaria by Peter and John. That office of evangelist abides today in the office of the minister of the word and particularly that aspect of the ministry that is mission work.
Now the point is an important one. “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word” (Rom. 10:17), that is, the word preached. Evangelism, “gospelizing,” is preaching. Mission work is preaching. Evangelistic outreach is preaching. When the Canons of Dordt in I, Article 3 speak of God “sending the messengers” with the tidings of the gospel, “joyful tidings,” it is speaking of preaching. Our forms for ordination of ministers and missionaries take the same approach. The reason is that the sheep, lost in themselves, but sheep according to election, must hear the voice of Christ to believe. He saves them. He brings them. It is His work through preaching.
This has a profound implication for Reformed mission work and evangelism. We must not limit the idea of preaching in this connection to the formal worship service. Jesus preached on a mountain in Galilee, from the stern of a boat, as well as from house to house. Paul likewise taught from house to house (Acts 20:20) and preached in the Philippian jailer’s house at night (Acts 16). Wherever there is an open door, we are to preach. That the voice of Christ is heard by preaching means that the missionary goes everywhere with his Bible open, speaking to all who will hear, not his own word, but from the Scriptures, “thus saith the Lord.” Whether in following up contacts, in the pulpit, or in the home at the dining room table, missions and evangelism are preaching the word.
That God saves His people by this means of grace and in this way works salvation does mean, however, that we stand today almost unique in the Christian world and among the Reformed and Presbyterian church world. The Christian church also of the Reformation is abandoning preaching through unbelief in this truth. They are doing so in the churches, to the spiritual destruction of the covenant seed in their generations. They are also doing so on the mission fields and in evangelism. Gimmicks and human inventions are supplanting preaching.
This can happen to us in our approach to missions and evangelism also. We want to see growth. We are perhaps inclined to look at numbers. We see the lost and want to do something. We forget, especially in North America, that we labor largely among those who have had the gospel in their generations and who are being cut off from the olive tree through unbelief (Rom. 11:19, 20). We are engaged in a difficult labor, plucking branches out of the burning. We live in a results-oriented culture of quick fixes, sound bites, and instant gratification.
Walking the way the Lord taught us, resting in His promise that His Word never returns void, is difficult. That God saves His people by preaching means that a large part of mission work and evangelism consists of not just one but three “p”s:preaching, prayer, and patience, or waiting upon the Lord. A large part of mission work and evangelism is a matter of waiting upon the Lord, in prayer, andletting the Word work! That His sheep might hear His voice, He is pleased, “by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (I Cor. 1:21). We therefore must walk in that “foolishness” of preaching by faith.