Preaching may be defined as “the authoritative proclamation of the gospel by the church in the service of the Word of God through Christ” (Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 637). Missions may be defined as that work of God in Christ by which, through the official ministry of the Word by the church, He gathers His elect in the new dispensation out of all nations of the world, both Jew and Gentile, with a view to the realization of the manifestation of His glory in the New Heavens and Earth. There are several elements in the definition of missions which deserve our attention. 1) Missions is emphatically and exclusively the work of God in Christ by the Holy Spirit of Christ. 2) Missions is accomplished by means of the official preaching of the Word or Gospel by the institute of the church of Jesus Christ. 3) Missions has as its immediate goal the gathering of the church (elect) both Jew and Gentile out of the nations. 4) Missions has as its ultimate goal the full manifestation of God’s glory in Christ in the New Creation. We shall, in this article, concentrate on the first two of these elements.
Preaching and missions! These two are inseparable. There can be no missions apart from the preaching of the Word. Whether it be missions on the home field or foreign, preaching and missions belong together. This is true because mission work is the work of God. God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit accomplishes the work. This is Scripture. God must “open the door” for the church to preach (cf. I Cor. 16:9; II Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3). God must give the increase or the work is futile (cf. I Cor. 3:7 in the context of I Cor. 1, 2). All things are of God Who has reconciled the church unto Himself by Jesus Christ. God has given to the church the ministry of reconciliation. God beseeches us through His ambassadors: be ye reconciled to God (cf. II Cor. 5:18-21). Our Reformed Confessions teach the same. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches us that “the Son of God gathers, defends, and preserves a church chosen to everlasting life. . . ” (L.D. XXI). “God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel. . . ,” according to the Canons of Dordt, II, 5. (In this same connection cf. Articles XXVII-XXIX of the Belgic Confession.) It is God, therefore, Who according to Scripture and the Reformed Confessions accomplishes the work of missions. Even though God gathers His church through His Spirit and Word, even though that Word must be preached, and even though the preaching is done by men, it is God in Christ through the Holy Spirit Who gathers His church out of the nations.
That missions is the work of God is also obvious from the fact that it is God Who saves, not man. God elects His church in Christ from all eternity (Eph. 1). God regenerates His elect so that they become spiritually receptive to the Gospel. God implants the seed of the new life in Christ in the hearts of the elect. God gives them the hearing ear, the seeing eye, and the heart that understands and believes His Word. This work of regeneration is absolutely indispensable to salvation, for without being born again a man cannot even see the Kingdom of God (cf. John 3). God sent Christ to make atonement for the sins of the elect and it is God Who applies the blessings of salvation to the hearts of His people. God calls them out of darkness into His marvelous light, God gives faith, God converts, justifies, sanctifies, preserves, and glorifies His people in Christ (John 3:16; Rom. 8:29, 30).
God also directs the course of missions throughout the world. The Word of God is not sent every where, nor is it sent at random, here and there, without purpose. The preaching of the Gospel takes the course which God determines (cf. Acts 16:6-10).
That missions is the work of God is further emphasized by the fact that Christ calls (summons and qualifies) preachers of the gospel (Romans 10:13-15). In close connection with this is the truth that preaching, apart from the operation and power of the Holy Spirit, cannot be effective (II Cor. 2:15, 16).
Hence not man but God is the one Who accomplishes the work of missions. The work does not depend upon man for its success, nor is man able to frustrate the work of missions. Mission work is absolutely and exclusively God’s work in Christ through the Holy Spirit. From a practical point of view this fundamental principle is the encouragement for the church and its missionaries in the often difficult work of missions.
This work of God is accomplished by the means of the preaching of the Word by the institute of the church of Jesus Christ. This follows upon the first, fundamental principle, viz. that missions is exclusively and absolutely the work of God in Christ. While this first principle cannot be stressed too greatly in our times, neither must we lose sight of the principle that missions is accomplished by means of the preaching of the Word. It is indeed true that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. It remains forever true that we cannot add to or detract from this great work of reconciliation. Nevertheless God has entrusted to the church the ministry (diaconia) of this reconciliation (cf. II Cor. 5:18-21). So important is this principle that to neglect it means we will simply wait and see what Christ will do, we will lose all sense of responsibility, we will fail to realize that what God will do He will do through His church. God does the work of missions, but God does that through the instrumentality of His church. Specifically this means God accomplishes the work by means of the preaching of the Word.
This means, and this needs emphasis in our times, the work of missions is not the work of the individual believer within the church. Every believer is not a missionary. Only those whom God calls and sends through His church are missionaries. Only these are authorized and qualified by God Himself to preach the Gospel on the mission fields. Believers have a calling with respect to missions. Of course they do. An important and necessary calling belongs to every Christian. Every believer must pray for the mission work of the church. Believers must pray that God will send forth laborers for the harvest is great and the laborers are few (Matt. 9:37, 38). Believers are called to support financially the mission work of the church. They must assist the church and its missionaries in every way possible. This calling is important, so important that without the prayerful support of the members of God’s church mission work cannot be done. But the work itself, the preaching of the Word by which means Christ gathers His elect out of the world, can only be done by the church through its missionaries. There is another highly significant and necessary aspect to the believers’ calling. They must witness by word of mouth and walk of life to the truth of the Gospel. God uses this witness to bring His own under the preaching of the Word that they might hear Christ, believe in Him, call upon His Name, and be saved. This, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, belongs to the necessity of the Christian doing good works, Why must we do good works? The last reason mentioned by the Catechism is “that, by our godly conversation, others may be gained to Christ” (L.D. XXXII). Believers are chosen in Christ in order to show forth God’s praises and glory (Eph. 1:12; I Peter 2:9-12). Believing wives are called to be in subjection to their unbelieving husbands that these may be won by the godly conversation of the wives (I Peter 3:1). Believers must be prepared always to give an answer to everyone who asks a reason of the hope that is in them (I Peter 3:15). Where, by the grace of God through the faithful preaching of the Word, believers are faithful to this calling mission work flourishes. But the work itself, the preaching of the Word by which means God in Christ gathers His elect, can be done only by those lawfully called of God through the church.
That this is true means also that mission work is not the work of “mission societies,” or what are called in our day “para-church organizations.” These societies which flourished in the 19th century and persist today arose out of two historical situations: Pietism and, later, Fundamentalism. They were organized especially in European countries with state-controlled churches. Groups within the state churches attempted to do what the churches were not doing, viz., carry out the mission mandate. They were an attempt to escape the political (colonial) influences of the state churches and an attempt to be faithful to the commission of Christ to preach the Gospel to the nations. However pure the motivation of those who organized these societies may have been, mission work is not the work of associations which stand outside of and alongside of the church. It is the task of the church to preach the Gospel to every nation.
No other institution than the church of Jesus Christ may assume the responsibility to preach the Gospel. The church ordains those called by Christ to preach the Gospel. These missionary preachers are the ambassadors of the Lord Jesus Christ (II Cor. 5:20). Theirs is the task to preach keerussein, herald) and to witness (marturein, Acts 1:6-8) to the ends of the earth.
Does this mean that all that a missionary may do is preach? The answer is yes! This does not mean, however, that all that a missionary may do is preach in a formal worship setting. This will be the positive fruit of his preaching if the Lord so wills. The missionary’s task is to declare both publicly and from house to house the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:20, 21). Whether he be addressing one individual or a large crowd the sole task of the missionary is to expound the Holy Scriptures. Mission work is God’s work. It is a work which God has assigned to His church. It is accomplished by means of the “foolishness of preaching” (I Cor. 1:21). This is God’s will.
Mission work, therefore, belongs to the very essence of the task of the church. One cannot conceive of the church apart from missions. A church which does not engage in mission work is disobedient to her Lord and is not worthy of the name, church. One cannot conceive of mission work apart from preaching. A mission where the Word is not preached is no mission. May God give us grace to be faithful to this work in the confidence that it pleases “God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (I Cor. 1:21).