In previous articles we considered two significant differences between Reformed and Arminian missions, namely, the differences regarding the objects of mission work and regarding the goals of mission work. We now consider a third, namely, differences in missionary methods.
Arminians are generally results-oriented in missions. They are interested in numbers. Their purpose is to persuade as many individuals as possible to accept Christ. They view it as their duty to stop sinners in their tracks, turn them around, and thus keep them from ending up in hell. I have often spoken with such missionaries, and it does not take long for their focus on numbers to come to the fore. They very quickly speak of how many individuals have been converted, how many churches have been planted, and so on.
This goal directly affects their methods. Basically, they will do whatever it takes to get people to accept Christ. For that reason, moral persuasion occupies a prominent place in their methods. The unbeliever must be persuaded to give his life to Christ. And because they view conversion as man’s work, man is able to persuade and man is able to be persuaded.
In order to persuade someone to choose Christ, Arminians use human methods rather than God-ordained, biblical methods. Anything goes: eloquent and passionate speeches, the testimonies of worldly celebrities, emotionally stirring songs, powerful music, artistic shows, dramatic performances, and whatever else will move a person. If these are successful in drawing crowds and in convincing men and women to choose Christ, the methods are perfectly legitimate. But if these methods do not work well, then it is time to look for and try a different one. The basis for determining and judging the validity of any missionary method is simply its effectiveness. The end justifies the means.
The missiologist, John M. L. Young, rejects this idea when he states:
But we must remember that the door to the kingdom of God is not opened by the power and persuasion of human reasoning alone, nor by any other human effort. … [M]en are not argued into the kingdom of God; they are born into it.1
A driving force behind this Arminian approach is their idea that the missionary (and also the individual believer in witnessing) is responsible for the salvation of those to whom he speaks. But this puts missionaries (and believers) under duress. They must be the ones to persuade people to believe in Christ so they are saved. And if the person to whom one speaks does not believe and is not saved, it is the fault of the missionary. He is now guilty before God if that person goes to hell.
One of the terrible consequences of this Arminian approach is that the missionary and the church members live with the guilt of failing to save certain people. This is something I have personally witnessed in those who have come from an Arminian background—until, of course, the Reformed truth delivers them from that bondage. But until they are delivered from this lie, they carry and live with an unbearable burden.
Another serious consequence is the effect that this approach has on worship. Because the focus is to draw crowds and to stir people emotionally to heed the altar call, anything at all is acceptable in worship. Any semblance of true worship is hard to find, and true preaching of the Word is usually nonexistent.
But what about Reformed missionary methods?
In contrast to the above, the Reformed method is simply this: preach the gospel. The Scriptures call us to do so. In obedience to that, we faithfully declare the Word of God on the mission field and in all our evangelism labors.
Cornelius Hanko summarizes it in these words:
Never can it be emphasized too strongly that mission work is preaching of the Word. Never may it be replaced by anything else. So often, emphasis is laid upon hospitals and clinics and schools rather than on the preaching. And that is definitely wrong. True enough, the needy must be helped, the sick must be cared for, and the children must be taught. But this is all secondary and must supplement the preaching rather than replace it.2
Reformed churches and missionaries are not (should not be) interested in numbers, nor in methods that will supposedly produce great results. We are simply interested in obedience to the command of Christ. He requires that missions be the preaching of His Word to all the nations of the earth. We therefore preach Christ and Him crucified. We glory in nothing else but the cross of Christ. That cross is the only hope of salvation, and thus the preaching of that cross is the only hope of any positive fruit in missions. We preach Christ, and in that preaching we set forth the call of the gospel, “Repent and believe.”
The Scriptures are perfectly clear concerning this. Those who are called and ordained to the work of a minister or missionary must go out into all the world and preach the gospel (Matt. 28:18-20). They are charged to preach the Word (II Tim. 4:1-2). They are to preach nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified (I Cor. 2:2, 9:16). They must be unashamed of the gospel, for the preaching of that gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:15-16).
And this is all that we need to do—simply proclaim the truth. We leave the rest to God, for He is the One who saves. We do not have to convince people to become believers and to become saved. We do not have to persuade anyone to accept Christ. For it is not of man who runs or wills, but of God who shows mercy (Rom. 9:16). We simply plant the seed, and God uses it to gather His elect.
Concerning missionary methods, Prof. D. Engelsma states it well when he says:
There is a great concern today over methods of evangelism. Men try to discover what will make evangelism effective. The danger is not only that they resort to unbiblical methods, but also that they fall back, in the matter of missions, upon their own resources—their own wisdom, their own strength, their own inventions. The method of evangelism is preaching Jesus Christ and Him crucified; and that which makes this effective is the Holy Spirit.3
As far as method is concerned, therefore, the Reformed church and her missionaries understand and keep always in mind that we are simply instruments in the hands of God. We do not need to convert people. We do not have to change any hearts. We do not need to come up with persuasive methods to accomplish any of this.
This does not mean we may do the work of preaching and missions carelessly. Certainly not. We must be very careful in handling the Word of God and in declaring it to others. We must preach and teach the Word clearly, understandably and effectively, and apply it wisely to the people in their God-given situations in life. But that is all we need to do. Whether on the mission field, or in our worship services, or in our daily interaction with others, the Reformed method is simply to speak the Word of the gospel of God.
As we faithfully do so, God is pleased to use it, by His sovereign power, to bring His elect to conscious faith and salvation in Christ. He sees to it that the Word is effective. He, by His Spirit, uses it to bring the elect (usually as families) into covenant fellowship with Himself. He does what He alone can do. Salvation is accomplished, not by human might or power, but by the Spirit of Jehovah (Zech. 4:6). The power of mission work is not man (not the missionary), but the Holy Spirit.
Our mission work must be done without concern for numbers. The Reformed church ought simply to continue spreading the gospel regardless of the amount of fruit. “So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (I Cor. 3:7). Reformed missions is not man-centered, but God-centered—both in its theology and in its practice.
Our mission work must also be done in humility, for we are but weak and sinful means whom God is pleased to use to fulfill His will to save His chosen.
Our mission work must be done in confidence. We may do it with the assurance that God will have the victory and, thus, also all the glory. He will gather unto Himself every member of Christ. God knows exactly for whom Christ died, and where each of them is. He therefore directs His church in the spread of the gospel.4 The result will be that all who are ordained unto eternal life will indeed believe, be saved, and be glorified—not by men, but by God. We can therefore engage in this work with the confidence of victory.
The Scriptures give us a powerful incentive for faithful mission work. It is this: when the gospel of the kingdom has been preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations, then the end will come (Matt. 24:14). Missions is the great task of the church that God uses to bring about the return of Christ. “We cannot change the appointed day, but our work is necessary as the appointed means to fulfill the requirement to take the gospel to all His elect before He returns.”5 And when all the elect have been saved, then the mission task of the church will be finished and Christ will appear in clouds of glory to take us home.
What an incentive! May it spur us on to carry out this work faithfully, and even sacrificially, with a view to the salvation of God’s covenant people and the glorious return of our Savior.
1 John M. L. Young, Missions: The Biblical Motive and Aim (Pittsburgh, PA: Crown and Covenant Publications, 2007), 24.
2 Cornelius Hanko, Missions, or I will Build My Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Sunday School Mission Publishing Society of the First Protestant Reformed Church), 19-20.
3 David J. Engelsma, Evangelism and the Reformed Faith (South Holland, IL: Evangelism Committee of the Protestant Reformed Church, 1994), 18.
4 See Canons of Dordrecht, Head I, Article 3 and Head II, Article 5.
5 J. Young, Missions, 13.