There is much that separates the Reformed faith from Arminianism doctrinally.
Those doctrinal differences are expressed in the Canons of Dordt, which set forth the Reformed truths of unconditional election, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and preservation of the saints, and that over against the Arminian denial of these biblical truths. Arminianism rejects the doctrines of sovereign grace and instead defends conditional election, universal atonement, the free will of the sinner, resistible grace, and the possibility of falling away from salvation.
As always, false doctrine affects every area of belief and practice. For that reason, the false Arminian doctrines concerning salvation influence, among other things, one’s view of missions. The Arminian differs from the Reformed view and approach in missions in at least three areas: the objects, the goals, and the methods.
These differences stem from a more fundamental difference. Arminian doctrine is individualistic, and thus their approach to missions is the same. But Reformed doctrine is covenantal, and thus the Reformed approach to missions is covenantal. It is this fundamental difference that profoundly affects all aspects of the mission work of Reformed churches and missionaries versus Arminian ones.
In this article, we plan to consider the differences as regards the objects of mission work. We hope to consider the other two (goals and methods) in the future. The question before us now is this: To whom should we seek to bring and preach the gospel in our mission work?
The Arminian, in the work of missions, is interested in winning souls. He therefore aims at getting an individual to make a personal decision for Christ. He attempts to bring an unbeliever to the point where he will say, “I believe in Jesus and accept Him as my personal Savior.” Each person, whether married or single, a parent or a child, in a family or alone, is urged to decide for himself. Arminianism is individualistic. In the mind of the Arminian, the norm is the salvation of individuals. They focus, therefore, on seeking to save the individual.
The doctrinal background to this approach is the Arminian’s belief in the free will of the sinner. The sinner, they claim, is not totally depraved. He is not so corrupt by nature that he is wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all wickedness. It is true, they will say, that he is a sinner. But, although a sinner, he still has some good in himself and is also capable of desiring what is good. He is, therefore, able to desire salvation and to choose Christ for himself.
It is this belief in the free will of the sinner that leads to the prominence of their individualistic approach. The goal of the Arminian missionary is to persuade the individual to claim Christ as his own in order to be saved and thus to have his name written in the book of life.
The Reformed approach, however, stands in sharp contrast to this. For the object of the mission (and evangelism) work of the Reformed church and missionary is not predominantly the individual but the family.
As Reformed churches, we understand that God sovereignly saves and brings to faith in Christ, without the help of the sinner, all those whom He has eternally chosen in Christ (Acts 13:48). Thus, strictly speaking, the object of our mission work is the elect. We desire to be used of God in His work of calling the elect out of darkness and into His marvelous light. We labor with a view to the salvation of those whom God has eternally determined to save.
In addition to this, the Reformed church keeps in mind in its mission work the truth of God’s covenant. That covenant has a bearing on missions, for God’s covenant promise and purpose is to gather the elect, ordinarily, from the generations of believers and their seed. The Scriptures teach that God, in His wisdom, wills to save, not simply individuals here and there, but families. This is not to deny that election is personal, for each of the names of the elect is written in the book of life. In that sense, election is individualistic (although we prefer the word “personal”). But God has eternally purposed to save the elect, ordinarily, in families. He has determined to save parents and their children (Gen. 17:7; Mark 10:14; Acts 2:39). God, as our covenant God, takes a family approach in relation to His people (Ps. 127; Ps. 128; Prov. 24:3–4).
In light of all this, the object of Reformed mission work is the family. That this is so in Reformed churches is evident, for example, from how we refer to the number of members in our churches and in our mission work. We do not speak of so many individuals, but we count membership by number of families.
Understanding that God purposes ordinarily to save believers and their seed, we preach the gospel of God’s sovereign grace in Christ (as much as possible) to families. Families are the objects of our labor on the mission field. Our desire is that families gather under the preaching of the Word. We see to it that not only parents and adults are instructed in the truth, but that the children are also instructed in it. The Word of God is taught and preached to believers and their seed.
This implies that Reformed mission work involves teaching the parents concerning God’s covenant and of their calling, as covenant parents, to include their children in the church. The parents are taught to see to it that their children participate in worship and are attentive to the preaching. With regard to catechism instruction, parents are instructed to have their children attend. All of this because those children, “as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God.”1
Church members should also keep this in mind in their personal witnessing. Although any one of us might very well witness to an individual, the purpose in doing so is not only that that person might himself come to a saving knowledge of the truth, but that also his family might believe. Therefore, we also encourage and instruct that individual to witness of the truths of God’s sovereign grace in turn to his family (wife, husband, children, parents, brothers, sisters, etc.). He is especially encouraged, in light of God’s covenant promises, to bring his whole family to church so that they might hear and sit under the preaching of the gospel.
It is worth noting that many who write about missions do not take this covenantal perspective with regard to the objects of missions. Mostly they simply discuss whether the objects ought to be unbelieving individuals, or the nation (or tribe) to which the individual belongs. They do not mention the family as an object of mission work. This betrays a failure to view the covenant of grace as a central doctrine in the church and for the lives of God’s people. Thus, they also fail to see its application in the area of missions.
An exception, however, is the missiologist, R. B. Kuiper. He speaks of God’s covenant and its significance when he states: “…the doctrine of the covenant stresses the truth that in imparting saving grace to men, God, although not bound by family ties, graciously takes them into account.”2 Kuiper then writes that because of this the missionary may have “the assurance that, when God begins the good work in the heart of a father or mother, He will, by and large, continue that work in the hearts of their children; yes, will impart saving grace to children’s children unto distant generations.”3
That families ought to be the object of mission work is biblical. It is made clear in especially three passages in the book of Acts. The first is Acts 10, which records Peter preaching the gospel to Cornelius. Peter not only preached to Cornelius, but also to all his kinsmen. The object of Peter’s preaching was a family. The two other passages are found in Acts 16, both in reference to the preaching of the apostle Paul. In one instance, Paul preached to Lydia “and her household.” And in the other instance, Paul preached to the Philippian jailer “and all his house.”
In their mission work, the apostles were led by the Lord to preach the gospel to families. And God often worked in the hearts of all the members of those families, causing them to attend to the preaching and to confess faith in Christ. God was fulfilling His promise to save believers and their seed.
The above passages, therefore, are not only a biblical basis for infant baptism (household baptism), but also proof for the fact that mission preaching ought to be directed to households and families. The gospel should be declared, not only to the adults, but also to their children. All ages in a family must be considered, given attention, and taught.
And yet we might add that attention ought definitely be given to the heads of those households and families. For husbands and fathers can (and should) be instrumental in teaching their families and bringing them to hear the faithful preaching of the gospel. It has been said, “Preach to women and children, and you will have a church filled with women and children. Preach to men, and you will have a church filled with men, women, and children.” There is truth to that.
The late Rev. C. Hanko made a similar point in a pamphlet concerning missions. He states:
But then we must always follow the pattern of the Scriptures. Jesus and the apostles, for example, would never approve of the common practice of our day to try to reach the parents through the children. Jesus did say, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mark 10:14). He did not want the adults to stand in the way or to interfere with the children. But He did want the parents to bring their children to Him, also coming themselves to be taught of Him. The whole covenant idea of Scripture requires that children be reached through their parents, but not parents through the children. God gathers His church in the line of continued generations, so that when parents believed, also their children were baptized. We must not try to be wiser than God.4
This does not preclude the fact that God can sometimes use women to witness to their husbands and children (for example, Lydia). Nor would we deny that God can occasionally use children to witness to parents and siblings, or that God sometimes saves an individual from a family and not the whole family. But in general God works through those who are heads of households (for example, Cornelius in Acts 10; the Philippian jailer in Acts 16). This is the wise and wonderful way in which God gathers His elect in families.
The Reformed faith and the Reformed approach in missions is not individualistic, but covenantal. God, who is Himself a family God (in the Trinity), thinks in terms of families. And so must we.
1 The Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 27, Q&A 74.
2 R.B. Kuiper, God-Centered Evangelism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1961), 44.
3 Kuiper, 51.
4 Cornelius Hanko, “Missions, or ‘I will build my church’” (Grand Rapids, MI: Sunday School of the First Protestant Reformed Church), 19.