Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
In obedience to Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations, the church sends forth missionaries. The task of making disciples is both joyful and difficult. We experience the blessings of this activity when God gives converts. The early church rejoiced when they learned by firsthand experience that the Lord added daily to the church such as should be saved (Acts 2:47). Many a missionary, along with his sending church, experiences that joy today as well. It is a never-ending wonder of God.
Mission work does not end with the confession of faith and baptism of a new convert. Jesus made this very clear by His parable of the different kinds of soil (Luke 8:5ff.). The word preached falls on different kinds of hearers. Some respond in true faith, others respond in pseudo faith, which is determined over a testing period. For the most part, the missionary and his church cannot judge at the moment of conversion which is which. In due time, and that is also God’s time, it becomes evident and the church has to deal with it. That is why Christian discipline in the mission church is just as vital as it is in the mature congregation, where the youth of the church must be disciplined if their confession of faith proves pseudo.
The labors of the missionary and the mission church upon such a convert are crucial. In a general way, this labor distinguishes Reformed missions from Arminian. Because Arminianism is so individualistic, Arminians are focused upon getting souls saved, and they seem to neglect the nurture of those whom God saves. Reformed missionaries recognize this great need from two points of view. First, for the good of the convert, if he is going to “endure unto the end,” his young faith has to be exercised and trained. Second, we realize the importance of the church and the place of the convert in the body of Christ. Great effort has to be expended to prepare the new convert to take up the Christian commitment to let his light shine and behave as Christ wants him to act. Only then is he an additional blessing to the witness of the church in the midst of the world.
There are two aspects to his spiritual growth.
First, his knowledge of the truth must grow into the conviction of the truth. In the early stages of his spiritual development, he learns so much that is new and wonderful. His perspective of the world changes, for example, from that of insignificant material propelled by spiritual energy to that of a significant material world controlled by a personal God. His own personal importance changes, from that of a blob of cells floating on the merry-go-round of reincarnation, to that of one who was re-created in the image of God and is renewed in Jesus Christ and therefore has a purpose in serving such a sovereign God. The goal is that this newfound knowledge be more to the convert than an intriguing theory to be contemplated. It becomes truth bound upon his conscience because it is knowledge given from the infinite God of revelation.
Second, his life-style must change into a life of obedience before God. This is just as amazing as the substance of faith. When a person becomes a Christian, his entire value system and sense of rightand wrong are shaken to the core. In the early days of his searching, he learns much about the holiness of God and how he is to respond to it as a Christian. The entire law of God sets before him a different way of thinking and acting. The Bible expounds on this law and gives further details as to how we are to act in our relation to God and our neighbor. There are many things forbidden that before he practiced. There are many things that the Christian is exhorted to do, but he never considered them as worth doing or even cared about them. The law touches him on every level, especially the first table. He rejects idols and all the activity associated with their worship. He worships God in an entirely different way, and that too on the Lord’s Day. His prayer life changes. He learns to reverence the name of God both in prayer and when speaking about Him to others.
The second table of the law is just as radical. His honor of father and mother is far more profound than “filial.” It is a true love for his parents, so much so that he desires above all else their eternal salvation. Even though most of his family members and colleagues at work may reject him for his new faith, yet he does not hate them but loves them so much that he wants to share the gospel with them. Many of the Christian sisters and brothers learn to honor God’s gift of marriage to such an extent that, rather than marry a non-Christian, they forego marriage for God’s sake. Their value of earthly, material things changes from a pursuit of riches to using money for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Their mouth is an important vehicle for good or evil. Uncontrolled anger and wrath expressed in harsh words quickly spoils their godly witness, so they have to learn to control their tongues. And, last of all, they learn to covet the best gifts rather than seek after that which destroys their faith.
The part of this spiritual maturing that we want to focus upon now is that of obedience to God and His law. Obviously, we cannot separate this from faith and knowledge. The maturing process is one whole, both faith and life, and they cannot be separated, but go together. We can at least distinguish the two and focus our attention upon obedience to God’s law. How can we help a new convert become an obedient Christian who loves God and practices His law in all areas of his life? How beautiful he is when he says no when God says no, yes when God says yes, and learns to use Christian liberty properly. In many ways he is a weak Christian. He may know some guiding principles of holiness from the Bible, but he lacks the ability to apply them to his own life. He struggles with his own failures, since he too has a nature that opposes everything that is good. He faces keen opposition and even persecution from those who ought to support him, e.g., parents, siblings, and even friends. Such a fellow saint needs guidance. How must we give that to him?
There is a wrong way that is very tempting for a missionary to follow because it seems so right and effective. It consists of three elements, and notice with me that each one of the three is right and good in itself. The error is that, when taken together, and emphasized to the exclusion of love, it becomes a mind-set that produces wrong results. First, God is sovereign over all creatures and therefore has the right to determine right and wrong. He is the supreme authority. Second, as the sovereign God, He has the perfect right to set forth the demands of the covenant. He expects obedience to His law; He threatens all disobedience with punishment. To make this crystal clear to all the hearers, the demands of the law are spelled out in detail, usually a list of do’s and don’ts. The young converts need to know right and wrong, and the missionary is right there to indicate under each commandment what is expected and what is forbidden. He may even be tempted to flip off a list of “Reformed distinctives” or go so far as to legislate in areas of Christian liberty. Thirdly, the young Christian is told that it is his duty to obey God’s required law. If he wants to be a Christian, then he has to abide by its rules and conform to its practices as the church is teaching.
You see what I mean when I say that all three are perfectly correct if placed in a right context. The above context is incomplete because it emphasizes exclusively external conduct and does not deal with the inner workings of grace and the Holy Spirit. It is the teaching of morality that Christ criticized when he addressed the Pharisees. Work righteousness is intimately connected with authority, rules, duty, and such like. It attempts to make Christians by external compulsion, by rules and demands. The result of such attempts is to produce hypocrites, who conform to the rules outwardly, but give precious little attention to the heart.
Jesus condemned all such wrongful attempts to teach morality when He said to the rich young ruler, who had just testified that he kept the entire law from his youth onward, “Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and come and follow me” (Matt. 19:21). Yes, he externally kept the law, but internally he didn’t know the first thing about love (the heart of the law). The way to prove love would be literally to sell all his goods and give it to the poor and become Jesus’ disciple. That made him sad.
The antidote to the above is to teach godliness. Do we not read in the Proverbs of old, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning (principle) of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10)? The message of Galatians is that we are no longer under the law as a schoolmaster, “for we are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:24ff.). In contrast to the law and its teaching as used by the Pharisees, Jesus called to the people, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28ff.). Why is it easy? It is easy because doing the will of the Father out of love, rather than duty, is a pleasure. This can be forgotten in a zeal to get converts to shape up in a hurry. Teaching godliness is far more difficult and takes more time, especially prayer, because we admit that we cannot get people to “shape up,” we can only be agents in God’s hands for His Spirit to do this work.
Yes, God is sovereign and possesses all authority to demand obedience to His law. When we teach respect for God and obedience to His law, we must include references to God as the covenant God, the God of love and mercy. The demands of the law were laid upon Jesus Christ; the punishment for disobedience fell upon Him as He bore the guilt of our sins. He fulfilled the law for righteousness, both in His suffering the pains of death and hell imposed by the holy law of God and in living a perfect life of love before God and His neighbor. No one has greater love than “to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The amazing thing is that this love God gives to us when we become a Christian. We are changed, in our legal standing before God, from guilty to righteous, but also, in our personal relationship, from enemies to friends. We become the friends of the living God, and He is our Friend. Love dominates this relationship. Our obedience to the law of God is not simply out of duty in response to His demands. It is much more. We freely, out of love, desire God’s friendship; and we know we can enjoy it in the way of keeping His law.
The same is true for us in our earthly relationships. A wife may say to her husband, “I submit to you and obey you because it is my duty.” That is of course true. But as every husband knows, it means much more to him if she says, “I submit to you and obey you because I love you and I love God.” By such an expression, the delight is there and the yoke of Christ is easy then. It is rooted in our heartfelt relationship of love to God and His Son, Jesus Christ.
Such godliness must be nourished.
First, the missionary himself must be a godly man. His power is not to throw his weight around because he has authority, even if it is from God. His power is in prayer, zeal for God, and holy living. All who observe his life know he is a man of God who lives in close fellowship with God. He becomes an important role model to the young Christians around him.
Second, in both his preaching and teaching he administers the Word of God not with some high-handed warning of authority (you had better listen to my preaching because I represent God, and you had better do what I say because I am the preacher), but with humility. He knows his own sin and openly leads the congregation both in public prayer and personal conversation to admit and confess sins earnestly before God. In my limited mission experience, I found that the three parts of our beloved Heidelberg Catechism served as the framework, not only for all my preaching, but for my pastoral counseling as well. Comfort is found only in admitting sin, seeking forgiveness in Jesus, and living a grateful life according to God’s ways. Such a pastor or missionary is kind, understanding, patient, and non-judgmental when he labors with young converts. Yes, he must be firm and uncompromising, yet it is in a way that exudes mercy and forgiveness. After all, that is the way our heavenly Father deals with us, no matter how mature we may be. Only then will obedience be more than just necessary, it will be delightful.
Finally, because our entire ministry, whether as missionaries or pastors, is completely dependent upon God, and obedience to God’s law and holy living is His work of sanctification, we realize that prayer is vital. Again, our catechism expresses it so well, “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only who with sincere desires, continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them” (Q. 116). Sin has a devastating effect in the life of any person, including new converts. It works havoc in the church, whether mission or established. We need and therefore must seek holy living. Such living comes from God, who continues to give His Holy Spirit to work grace in the hearts of His children. Prayer is the God-appointed way for such spiritual presence and blessings. Just as we parents must pray for the individual needs of our children and families, so we must pray for the individual needs of struggling converts, backsliders, and persecuted ones, that God may give them strength to be faithful and thus to be useful in His kingdom to His glory.
True obedience is a spiritual act that flows from a godly heart.
If we stop to think about it, this is also true as we lead our children and youth to obey God’s will and way. We need to nurture godliness in them.
May God bless every effort to nurture such godliness whether at home or in the mission field.