The Proper Standard
Having come to the conclusion in previous installments that the answer to the question that forms the title of this editorial is emphatically negative, so that we must never be tempted- to judge the success or failure of the church’s mission message and methods by the numbers of converts gained or not gained, I wish to conclude this phase of the discussion on a positive note. I have tried to show that Professor Dekker’s entire approach to this phase of the subject of missions is fallacious: it is a “success” approach. And I venture to say,—although I emphasize again that Professor Dekker has thus far made no attempt to define “success” in missions,—that Dekker’s definition of what constitutes genuine “success” in missions would differ radically from mine.
However, I would certainly agree with Professor Dekker that the church must engage in earnest self-examination and self-criticism with respect to its mission message and methods. I would even underscore this. For if there has ever been a day when much that passes for mission-preaching and mission methods cannot measure up when subjected to careful scrutiny according to proper tests, it is the day in which we live. There is much so-called “mission zeal,” and the church is full of mission “zealots.” And if a church or an individual does not get on the band-wagon of this mission zeal, he is soon castigated as one who does not believe in missions and who has no mission zeal at all. But one thing is certain: whatever “mission zeal” is found in the church should be a sanctified zeal. It should be more than a superficial and frenzied enthusiasm. It should not be a zeal that is fired up by the apparently sympathetic, but falsely sentimental, emotional appeal that there are “so many poor, lost, unsaved souls who are all the objects of God’s love, and who will go lost forever if we do not do our utmost to bring the gospel to them and convert them.” This is the kind of talk that is often heard in our day from so-called evangelicals. If the reader will pardon the expression, I call this “pure bunk.” Worse than that, it is the lie! For not only is it not true that all the poor, lost, unsaved souls are the objects of God’s love, but the fact is that there is not the slightest danger that a single lost soul who is of the number of the elect will go lost forever. This is impossible. But this vague, undefined passion for souls, this mission zeal that is essentially man-centered makes its inroads into Reformed circles. I am not saying that this is Dekker’s mission theory; but whatever his theory is, he is no t doing very much to stop this tide of false enthusiasm by the ideas he is promoting. And whatever Professor Dekker may be battling in the Christian Reformed Church, he certainly does not appear to be battling against this type of mission enthusiasm. Yet for the Reformed churches it is exactly at this point that we ought to fight the battle. Our mission methods and message, as well as our mission zeal, must be solidly Reformed. And to me there is nothing more detrimental than this superficial, sickly, emotional mission zeal that characterizes the general run of evangelism in our day. Detrimental it is, not only for the work of missions itself; but worse than this, it corrupts with its sickly and sentimental Arminianism the church itself that must be obedient to the mission mandate of Christ. Hence, it is indeed highly necessary for the church always to be busy in earnest self-criticism with respect t o its mission work. How otherwise in an age of Arminianism gone wild can the church’s zeal be sanctified? And how otherwise can the church’s mission labors be properly conducted? Mark you well, I do not deny that the church must be zealous. Nor do I deny that at times the church is sadly lacking in the proper zeal. I would even say that the church is, being imperfect in this world, never as zealous and as wholeheartedly active in the sphere of missions as it ought to be and as it could be. But that zeal must be properly motivated, and it must be properly directed. To this end our earnest self-criticism must serve.
And then let it be at once established that all of our mission zeal and efforts, all our mission message, all our methods, must be subject to Christ and subject to His work whereby He, 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 everlasting life, agreeing in true faith.” Heidelberg Catechism, Ques. 54. Any mission that is not willing to serve this purpose and this work of Christ, and to serve this only, has no right of existence before God. Any mission labors that have another aim than this are not worthy of the name “mission.” Christ, the risen and exalted Lord, is the great church-gatherer. Christ the Son of God, operating by His Spirit and Word, is the Missionary, the Author of all mission work.
With respect to the question of the proper criterion, or standard, of the missionary’s message and methods, therefore, this can mean but one thing. The proper standard according to which the message and methods, as well as the motivation, must be judged is the Word of Christ, the Scriptures.
Any appraisal or criticism of our mission endeavors, whatever the aspect subjected to scrutiny, must measure up to the test of the Scriptures. Lest there be any misunderstanding on that score, I mean the Scriptures according to the Reformed interpretation thereof as embodied in the Three Forms of Unity. Why must this last be added? Negatively, the reason is that there are many who claim to perform mission work according to the Scriptures, but whose claim is false. And positively, the reason is that the Reformed interpretation embodied in our confessions is the truth, pure and simple; it is the systematic setting forth of the truth of the Word of God in all its purity, and that too, in contradistinction from every other alleged interpretation.
This, then, is the only proper test, criterion, even as it is the only proper test of all preaching.
It is, in the first place, an objective test. Whatever other standard may be set up, it will be certain to be a human, and for that reason, a purely subjective test. It is not a question of what we, mere men,—and sinful men, besides,—think of mission work: what constitutes its success, how “successful” it ought to be, how that success is to be achieved, whether our message and methods are the best that can be designed in order to achieve mission success. Whatever we, of ourselves, think of these questions is certain to be wrong. Who are we, for example, to say that our aim should be to convert and save as many as possible and to say that we must tell everyone, “God loves you,” and “Christ died for you,” when Christ Himself tells us that His commission as the Author of all missions is otherwise: “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.” John 6:38-40.
Let me add at this point immediately that the proper, the Reformed, use of this test is not to by-pass the confessions as though they did not even exist, and simply to jump to Scriptures. This is not the Reformed method of testing. Nor is it the proper method to go to Scripture first and then adjust the meaning of our confessions to our supposed interpretation of Scripture, in order then to apply the test to our mission work. Our confessions are the embodiment of our true, Reformed interpretation of Scripture. Hence, the test must be: Scripture according to the confessions.
Need I add that this is exactly the test to which every minister or missionary, as well as every elder and deacon, solemnly promises to submit in the Formula of Subscription?
Then, too, let it be emphasized that this test applies no less to the missions of the church than to the regular ministry of the church. The idea frequently seems to be abroad that somehow we can afford to be less strictly Reformed on the mission field than at home, that on the mission field we can cooperate with those who are not Reformed, that the sharp edges of the Reformed truth can be filed down somewhat, that we can perhaps be a little Arminian and cooperate in a united venture with those who are less than Reformed, that perhaps the differences between the Reformed faith and the position of others must not ever be brought out, lest the objects of the church’s mission become confused and disillusioned even because of the many divisions among Christian churches. This very idea probably arises out of a desire to be “successful” on the mission field. But nothing could be farther from the truth. On the mission field and at home, as surely as the Reformed faith is the truth of Scripture, we must be Reformed, and that too, openly, not covertly.
In the second place, this standard is authoritative. It is a sure test just because it is the divine test. On the one hand, that means that only when, and in as far as, our mission methods and message measure up to this test, only then can they be said to be usable by Christ, to be subject to Him and His work, to serve His cause of missions. Christ certainly does not gather His elect church through the lie, but through the truth of the Word of God. Those who proclaim the lie may be very insistent that they are zealously serving Christ in their evangelism and their missions; but if their word does not, according to the test of Scripture and our Reformed confessions, stand in the service of the Word of God in Christ, they are false prophets. And we have the authority of Christ’s own Word for it. On the other hand, the very fact that this is divinely authoritative ought to be of great comfort and assurance to the church. For it means that as our proclamation goes forth in harmony with the test of the Scriptures, it certainly goes forth successfully, that is, successfully in the true sense, namely, that Christ will use that proclamation of His Word unto the salvation of His people. And if we speak of motivation in the sense of incentive, could there be any higher, any greater incentive than this, the incentive of guaranteed, divinely guaranteed success? As Reformed people we have nothing to be ashamed of in our mission work, provided we are faithful to the truth in our preaching. The power and the effect of the pure preaching of the Word is not in our proclamation. It is not a matter of moral suasion, as though the mere external call of the gospel could accomplish anything. We need have no fears that the gospel, according to the Reformed presentation, will not be palatable to those to whom it is proclaimed: it is never palatable to the natural man. But the power and the efficacy of that Word preached is of God. And if only we may have the confidence, based upon the test of Scripture, that the message we bring is the Word of God Himself, we may rest in the assurance that God’s Word never returns unto Him void: it accomplishes all that whereunto He sends it.
This, then, is the crucial test.
The all-important factor in our obedience to the mission mandate is whether we are willing, by the grace of God, to stand in the service of the Word of Christ, to stand in the service of His church-gathering work, and therefore to proclaim His Word in all its purity.
This remains the fundamental issue in the “Dekker Case.” Is Dekker’s message of a universal, redemptive love indeed the Gospel?
And the test is not: mission gains. These, or the lack of them, may never tempt us to adjust the message.
The test is: Scripture and the Reformed confessions.
By this test, the verdict is: tried and found wanting.