Previous article in this series: January 15, 2020, p. 14.
In our previous article we noted that the significant doctrinal differences between Reformed and Arminian churches result in differences in their mission work. The overarching difference is that while the Arminian approach is individualistic, the Reformed approach is covenantal. This accounts for a difference with regard to the objects of mission work. In general, the objects of Arminian mission work are individuals, whereas the objects of Reformed mission work are families. Why? Because God, who is Himself a family God, has revealed to us that He wills to save and ordinarily does save His people as families (believers and their seed).
But the doctrinal differences between the Reformed and Arminians also account for differences in at least two other areas: their goals and their methods. We now turn our attention to the differences with regard to goals.
The main goal of Arminian missions (and witnessing) is to bring an individual into a personal relationship with Christ. That is basically all. Very little or no thought is given to having that individual join a church and remain an active member in it. The latter is not that important. What matters most (if not exclusively) is that one is brought to exercise his supposed free will and to accept Christ as his Savior.
That this is the case is evident from the following “mission statements” of various Arminian churches: “Helping lost, broken people become passionate, devoted followers of Jesus Christ”; “Rescuing one another to follow Jesus every day”; “To present the gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that it turns non-Christians into converts, converts into disciples, and disciplines into mature, fruitful leaders, who will in turn go into the world and reach others for Christ.”1
That the goal of Arminianism is conversion is also evident from what traveling evangelists usually do at their crusades. Their desire is to have people come forward to accept Christ and to commit their lives to Him.
Toward the end of their services they issue an altar call. Everything that precedes the altar call is done with a view to that altar call. In fact, if no one comes forward, or too few do, the service often continues until the audience responds. And what usually happens is that if an individual does come forward to “give his life to Christ,” that is the end of it. Little is done with regard to having that person join a church. The new convert is left without a means to be spiritually nourished and to grow in faith. Having “converted” these people, the evangelist and his team consider their work done. They pack up their tent, their stage, bands, choirs, and all their other “tools of trade,” and move on, boasting of how many souls they have saved. Meanwhile, the one who has supposedly been saved is left (for the most part) to fend for himself. And as a result, often these new “converts” end up falling back into an ungodly life.
The goal of Reformed missions, however, is to bring the elect of God, with their families, into covenant fellowship with God and Christ, and with the people of God within an instituted church. That is, the goal of Reformed mission work is not simply the salvation of God’s people, but also their church membership. For the believer needs to be a member of a church institute. All who are saved are “bound to join and unite themselves” to a true church of Christ on this earth (Belgic Confession, Art. 28).
That this is a Reformed goal is seen, for example, from the language used in the Constitutions of some of our denomination’s Evangelism Committees. One such Constitution states the following: “In obedience to the command of Christ to preach the gospel to every creature, the church must bring the whole counsel of God to all men, in order to lead them into fellowship with Christ and His church.”
Church membership is and must be our goal, first of all, because it is in the church where the truth of the gospel is preached that one finds Christ. Christ is there in the preaching. The saved sinner, therefore, needs that preaching. He needs it because He needs Christ. There is no other way of salvation (Acts 4:12). He needs to hear Christ so that he comes to a saving knowledge of God and of his Savior (John 17:3). He needs to hear Christ in order to receive continued assurance of forgiveness and life eternal. He needs to hear the gospel because only then will he be preserved in his faith and grow in his spiritual life (Rom. 1:16; II Pet. 3:18). Without the preaching, one’s faith weakens and one’s spiritual life suffers and declines.
Another reason why church membership needs to be a goal of Reformed missions is that participation in worship is the means by which one enjoys covenant fellowship with Christ and with God. We enjoy this in the church service through God speaking to us and we speaking to Him. At the heart of God’s speech to us is the forgiveness of our sins. Without that forgiveness, fellowship with God would be impossible (Is. 59:2). We need to be forgiven, and to know that we are. And Christ alone can provide that forgiveness. By means of preaching He says to the sinner, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). The rest that He gives (and which is worked in our hearts by the Spirit) is that of knowing we are forgiven, we are at peace with God, and therefore we can enjoy covenant fellowship with Him. For this reason, too, it is crucial that church membership be a goal of mission work.
Another significant reason why Reformed mission work involves bringing new believers into the church is the blessing of the communion of saints. God’s people need each other. They are members together of the body of Christ, and their experience of belonging to that body and to each other does not wait until heaven but is meant to be enjoyed already in the church on earth. Through that fellowship with each other, the members of Christ edify one other. They comfort those who are sorrowing. They lift up those who are weak. They bear one another’s burdens. They encourage each other in life’s difficulties. They restore each other when they fall into sin. They help and encourage each other to walk together on the straight and narrow way that leads to life eternal. The newly converted sinner needs all this too, and thus needs to become a member of a true church.
But there is still more. The covenantal goal of missions has in view that the covenant pervades the life of those who are saved. They are not only brought into the covenant fellowship of God and of His people in the church, but flowing out of that, the covenant life is established within their homes and daily lives. They know God’s friendship. They experience the reality that they are walking through life with their sovereign Friend at their side. He walks with them through the valleys. He is with them at work, in school, and in every area of life. And He establishes His covenant in their homes and families, sovereignly fulfilling His promise to save believers and their seed. There are exceptions, of course, but we know that that is the ordinary way God works. In order to experience and enjoy the covenant in his home life, a new believer needs to become a member of a faithful church that preaches and teaches all these truths concerning the covenant.
All of this means that the goal of missions is to establish churches. This is exactly what the apostles did, as recorded in the book of Acts. Where the preaching resulted in a gathering of believers, churches were established. The apostles understood that the people of God needed to become members in instituted churches so that they could feast spiritually each Lord’s Day. The apostles, therefore, worked diligently to establish congregations that had their own officebearers and that could be called “churches.”
By the grace of God, that has been and continues to be our goal in mission work, too. Prof. D. Engelsma puts it this way: “Evangelism does not end with ‘getting someone saved,’ but continues in their being taught to confess the truth in the true church…For this reason it is also essential in the work of evangelism that those brought to the saving knowledge of the truth be directed to join a true church, a soundly Reformed church. No Reformed missionary could say to a convert, ‘Now join the church of your choice.’”2
The person who has expressed an interest in and love for the truth of God needs to come to and eventually join the church where the truth is faithfully maintained, for there alone will he hear the voice of Christ. By means of that faithful preaching, Christ works in the hearts of His elect to give them the blessed experience of the riches of His grace and of His covenant.
All of this means that an essential element of Reformed mission work is the establishment of indigenous Reformed churches. This is pointed out by the missiologist, John M. L. Young, in his definition of missions: “Missions is the work of the Triune God, through His Church, of sending Christ’s ambassadors to all nations to proclaim His whole Word for the salvation of lost men, the establishment of indigenous churches, and the coming of God’s kingdom, all for the glory of God.”3 The establishment of such churches must be our goal so that those who are brought to faith in Christ can join themselves to those churches and receive the means of grace there.
Acts 2:47 confirms what we have been saying. There we read, “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” God’s people were added “to the church.” The reference is to the church as an institute. This passage does not refer to the church as the universal body of Christ, for the elect believers were already members of that church and had been from eternity.
Those who were brought to faith in Christ were added to the church as an institute, there to hear the gospel, to enjoy fellowship with God by means of His Word and Spirit, and to live in fellowship with the people of God.
That is the biblical and Reformed goal of missions. We must keep it always in view. And whenever this goal is attained, we thank the Lord for His goodness and for His sovereign hand in establishing new Reformed churches and bringing new believers to be members of such instituted churches on this earth.
1 These mission statements were gathered from the Internet and belong to various Baptist and non-denominational (“community”) churches in the USA.
2 David J. Engelsma, “Evangelism and the Reformed Faith” (South Holland, IL: Evangelism Committee of the Protestant Reformed Church, 1994), 12.
3 John M. L. Young, Missions: The Biblical Motive and Aim (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant Publications, 2007), 3.