We are discussing the relationship between the preaching of the gospel as the sole instrument of mission work and the coming of the Lord. It is our intention to demonstrate how the fact that this present dispensation is the age of the Lord’s return determines the character and principles of missions. We have already shown how that, inasmuch as this dispensation is the age of Christ’s coming, this dispensation is the age of the signs of Christ’s coming. And, if it be the age of the signs of Christ’s coming, the preaching of the gospel is the principle sign out of which all other signs come and upon which all other signs follow.
Before we proceed with this subject, I want to call attention to an editorial which recently appeared in the Presbyterian Journal, the issue of November 16. Because it is short, we quote it here in full.
We’ve seen it several times of late: “Historically speaking, the age of the missionary is drawing to a close.”
All over the world a mounting hostility against the white man is making it harder and harder for missionaries to do their work where countries are stretching their muscles in new independence. Sober churchmen believe that we may even witness the day when missionaries, as we have known them since William Carey, will be no longer.
We were reading one such pessimistic evaluation of the modern scene when suddenly the words of the Lord came to mind: “This Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”
Of course! The one “sign” of the return of Christ for which His disciples were especially to watch was that the gospel would have been taken around the world. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that the whole world must be brought to Christ before He returns. To the contrary. The Scriptures suggest plainly that the human situation will become worse and worse, with proportionately fewer and fewer obedient to the Gospel . . . even in the Church. But the Gospel will be taken everywhere for a witness unto all nations.
The end of missionary work will mark the end of an era, they say. Indeed it might be just that. It might mark the end of the age.
We agree not only that the end of missionary work “might” mark the end of the age; but that this is the principle sign by which the end of the age is pointed out to us. But the question remains: Why is this so?
When Christ ascended into heaven, He was exalted at the Father’s right hand. This was the reward given to Him for His perfect work on the cross. When Christ suffered and died on the cross, He accomplished several things by His perfect obedience. In the first place, He bore the sin and the guilt of His elect people and paid the price that was demanded to satisfy God’s justice. He suffered all the penalty for sin in the place of His people and took away sin’s curse. In the second place, He earned for His people the fullness of salvation which includes the full perfection of heaven. In the third place (and closely connected with this), He destroyed the power of sin. He fought in fierce combat with Satan in His hours of suffering. He conquered over Satan and loosened his grip on God’s world and on His elect people. He defeated all the enemies of God and gained a magnificent victory over every power His own suffering as being the judgment of the world and the casting out of the prince of darkness.
But Christ’s ascension was closely connected to His cross. The result therefore was that, in the ascension, Christ was given a position at God’s right hand. In this position of authority and power, Christ is given supreme rule over all God’s works. From henceforth, all that God does is performed through Jesus Christ. To Christ is entrusted the full execution of God’s counsel. All that God determined to do in His counsel, is now carried out through Christ. This means further, that the work of providence (a work which is actually the realization of God’s eternal counsel) is also carried out through Christ. The sustaining, governing and directing of the whole creation and of all creatures in it belongs to Christ. This work He executes from His lofty position in heaven.
If therefore, Christ’s ascension is connected with His cross, then surely we can see how the exaltation of Christ results in the absolute sovereign rule of Christ over all things. He rules as Lord of lords and King of kings. He rules sovereignly, in the name of the Father, over all things.
But in His rule, He has a purpose. This purpose is the goal of His Father’s counsel, the realization of His Father’s purpose. That is, the purpose of Christ’s rule is the end of the world, the judgment of all men, the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth, the salvation of the elect. When Christ rules universally over all things, he directs the creation and men (and angels and devils) in such a way that they must be a means to serve that glorious end.
Christ rules over His elect. He died for them on the cross. And because of His cross He rules over them in such a way that they are saved from the kingdom of darkness and brought into His own kingdom which shall some day be everlastingly established. He saves them by the power of the preaching of the gospel. For He sends forth His gospel as the “power of God unto salvation.” This gospel is His own powerful and irresistible word. It is the sovereign call of Christ, a call which cannot be turned down. For Christ calls, not only through the outward preaching of the gospel, but also through the operation of the Spirit in the hearts of His own. That gospel is the means of salvation to those for whom Christ died and who are eternally destined to live with Christ in glory.
Already Christ is the King of His people. He rules over them making them citizens of His kingdom while they still tarry for a little while in world. Already they are brought to allegiance to Christ. Already they acknowledge Christ as their Lord and King. They bow in humble submission to Him and worship when they shall live with Christ in the kingdom of heaven. And this anticipation is intense and eager. All this because the gospel has saved them.
But Christ rules also over all things. In the first place, this means that Christ has the sovereign rule over the whole of God’s creation. This is why there are signs also in the physical world. Scripture speaks of such signs as the sun being darkened, the moon turning to blood, the stars falling from their places, all sorts of natural calamities such as earthquakes, pestilences, etc. Christ brings these signs into the creation to speak with a powerful voice of the fact that He is coming in judgment. All because His cross had cosmic significance. But this is not our immediate concern.
In the second place, Christ rules over the affairs of men. He is the sovereign Lord of all. On His cross He crushed the head of the serpent and defeated all the forces of sin and evil. Now, from heaven, He rules in such a way that also devils and wicked men must serve His purpose. It is true that they still live out of the principle of hatred and opposition to Christ and to His kingdom. They do all in their power to destroy Christ’s cause and defeat His Church. They rouse themselves again and again to do battle with the armies of the elect saints. All they do, in the conquering of the creation, in the advance of science and technology, in the development of the arts and the humanities, they do in order to defeat Christ. But they are totally unsuccessful. And their lack of success is not simply due to the fact that Christ is stronger than they, so that Christ defeats them at last after a long and bitter struggle. Not at all. Christ rules sovereignly over them — also in all their wicked ways. Christ rules in such a manner that they cannot do anything apart from His sovereign rule. Christ makes all that they do serve His own purpose. He sets kings on their thrones, and casts them down again. He brings nations on the battlefields of the world where they are hurled at each other to their mutual destruction. He sets the boundaries of the nations and directs the forces of history in all their complexities. And all of it serves His purpose.
This is why even though the nations rage and the people imagine vain things, He that sitteth in the heavens laughs and holds them in derision. Cf. Psalm 2. This is why those who march in the armies of Christ are not only conquerors; they are more than conquerors through Him Who loved, them. Cf. Rom. 8:37.
Thus the rule of Christ is twofold: Christ rules over His elect to make them willing and obedient citizens of His kingdom. Christ rules over the wicked so that they, even in their hatred of Christ, serve Christ’s purpose.
Yet there is a principle of unity in this rule of Christ. This principle of unity is that everything must serve the goal of history and the end of God’s counsel. And this principle of unity is attained through the preaching of the gospel: Christ accomplishes His rule in all things so that all things serve His purpose through the power of the gospel. This is the thesis of these articles.
How is this possible?
In order to understand this, we must remember that the gospel is indeed, on the one hand, a power of salvation. But, just as really, and on the other hand, the gospel is also the power to harden. There is more than one text in Scripture which teaches this truth.
We find this purpose expressed by the Lord, for example, in Matthew 11:25-26. Here the Lord is praying a prayer of thanksgiving for the reactions He has found to His preaching — reactions both of faith and unbelief. And He finds the deepest reason for gratitude in that the will of God is being done: God has revealed the truth to some and hidden the truth from others. “At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight.” Now it is true that the power of salvation and of hardening is not, in this text, immediately ascribed to the gospel, but to God. But we must remember in the first place, that, in the context, Jesus is speaking of the unbelief of those who saw His mighty works and heard His preaching. God hid these things from the Jews of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum — cities in which the Lord had brought the gospel of the kingdom. And, in the second place, the Lord Himself adds in vs. 27: “All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.” And finally, the power of the gospel is, after all, the power of God Himself through the Spirit. The gospel has no power in the mere outwardly spoken word. It has power only because God gives it power.
But this truth is also expounded elsewhere. When Jesus began preaching in parables, the disciples asked the Lord why He taught in parables. His answer was that these parables were a means to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah in which prophecy Isaiah spoke of the fact that, through the preaching, Israel would be hardened. “And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but unto them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables; because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.” Matthew 13:10-16.
Paul very emphatically teaches this in a well known passage in II Corinthians 2. “Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ.”
We have mentioned this point — this important point, at length; it is a principle which underlies all missionary work. But we shall have to withhold further comment on this for the present. Our purpose now is merely to show that the gospel is a twofold power. And it is because the gospel is a twofold power, that the gospel is also the unifying principle in this sovereign rule of Christ over His people and the wicked.
We shall speak of this further, the Lord willing, in our next article.