Rev. Daniel Holstege, former PRC missionary and now pastor of the Wingham Protestant Reformed Church in Wingham, Ontario
Does the title of this article seem strange?1 This will be my last article on the covenant and missions. Since the Lord has called me from the Philippine mission field back into an established church in North America, this will also be my last article for this rubric. So to conclude both this series and my writing on missions in the Standard Bearer for the foreseeable future, I would like to face the matter of our motivation to evangelize. Evangelization is chiefly the preaching of the gospel to the world by men sent by Christ through the church. But as we have seen, there is also a calling that comes to all believers to repeat the message of the gospel that we hear in the preaching through our personal witnessing (cf. I Thess. 1:8). So the question arises, What is our motivation, as missionaries, pastors, and believers, to bring the gospel to the lost? If we are not motivated to do so, why is that? My contention in this article may seem strange. It is this: God’s covenant, properly understood and warmly embraced, motivates us to evangelize.
The key is: “properly understood and warmly embraced.” I’m afraid that an improper understanding and/or an unbalanced emphasis in regard to God’s covenant has been one of the culprits for a lack of motivation for missions and evangelism among Reformed people, including Protestant Reformed people. I refer in part to our automatic association and even identification of the word “covenant” with “we and our children.” When we speak the word “covenant,” we have been trained to think automatically, even exclusively, of “we and our children, generations, homes, and schools.” Thus, I imagine it might feel strange and even alarming to hear me pointing to God’s covenant as a powerful motivation to evangelize. After all, God’s covenant has nothing to do with the heathen out in the world, does it? They are outside of the covenant, strangers from the covenant (Eph. 2:12). Surely God’s covenant motivates us to raise our children in the fear of the Lord and maintain good Christian schools. But how in the world does God’s covenant motivate us to reach out to the lost?
In this series, I have attempted to show that in this present time, in fulfillment of His promise to make Abraham a father of many nations (Gen. 17:4-5), God has extended His covenant far beyond Israel into all the nations and establishes His covenant in two ways: within the church with believers and their seed in the lines of continued generations and outside the church with the elect who grew up in heathen homes and communities. Yes, the heathen are outside of the covenant as long as they remain unconverted. But God’s purpose in the new dispensation is no less to establish His covenant with His elect among the children of believers than with His elect among the heathen. The saints in Israel longed for the days in which we live and sang, “Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee. O let the nations be glad and sing for joy” (Ps. 67:3-4).
But I fear that there has been among us an improper or underdeveloped understanding of this twofold way of God extending His covenant. God calls the elect into His covenant from the lines of the generations of believers and their seed. A goodly heritage is ours who were baptized as infants of believers, grew up in covenant homes, attended covenant schools, and live and die within the covenant community. But here is the problem: We have embraced this lovely truth to the neglect of the equally lovely and twin truth that God also calls His elect into the covenant from the heathen darkness of the nations and religions around us, and does so through missions and evangelism (Acts 2:39).
Indeed, we seem to have so embraced the first of these two truths that we practically identify the word “covenant” with believers and our seed after us. I wonder what results I would get if I would survey the members of the Protestant Reformed Churches, or other conservative Reformed churches for that matter, with the question, “What do you think of when I say the word covenant?” Observing the overwhelming emphasis in our writings over the years, and our default emphasis in our covenant theology, and the flow of our energies, manpower, and resources, I would expect many to answer something like this: “What comes to mind is the promise of God to us, our children and grandchildren, and our duty to raise them in the faith.” But here is the problem, that is not the covenant.
What is the covenant? It is near the heart of being Protestant Reformed to confess that the covenant is the relationship of friendship that God establishes between Himself and His people in Christ Jesus, the bond of love in which He embraces us as His sons and daughters, as members of His one big family that stretches back to the garden of Eden and forward to the new creation, that stretches from the East to the West throughout the nations. The covenant is the relationship of communion that God establishes, maintains, and perfects with all whom He has chosen and redeemed in Christ through the operation of His Spirit. The covenant is the relationship in which we enjoy sweet fellowship with God as our God already now by faith. The knowledge that God has established such a covenant with me in Christ ought to motivate me to evangelize.
Let us examine our motivation. Do we lack motivation to witness to our neighbors? Why is that? Many possible answers could be given. But if we are hiding our light under a bushel and ashamed of the gospel of Christ, we are sinning. Why do we commit that sin? Why do we lack motivation? Why do we feel satisfied that God has established His covenant with us and our children but feel little interest in God establishing His covenant with publicans and sinners in the world? On the one hand, we rightly rejoice in the fruit of the womb and thank God for our precious children who are a heritage from the Lord (Ps. 127:3). We rightly bring them for baptism in the conviction that they too are included in the covenant and church of God (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 27). We rightly train them up in the way that they should go and are diligent to teach them all the truths of God in home and school (Deut. 6:7, Prov. 22:6).
But consider: There is also a very natural impulse of hearty love and devotion to one’s own children and grandchildren that is found among the publicans and sinners of the world. And the complete lack of love for the neighbor is the natural inclination of every human heart. Is it possible then that we in Reformed churches have almost imperceptibly used the beautiful truth that God establishes His covenant with us and our children to justify the development and maintenance of a way of thinking and living that focuses almost entirely on our own children? Is it possible that we have used the truth to maintain a lopsided focus on the education of our own children to the detriment of pouring energy, manpower, and resources into the evangelization of the world? Is it possible that we are hording our covenant blessings rather than seeking to gain others to Christ that they may enjoy the same blessings?
Be that as it may….
God’s covenant properly understood and warmly embraced will motivate us to witness to the world. Consider: We are unworthy sinners in ourselves. We were poor orphans cast aside and unwanted lying polluted in our own blood. But God said to us in our miserable state, “Live.” He said, “When I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness; yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest mine” (Ezek. 16:1-8). We were filthy sinners, and we still sin against our God every day. But God sent Christ to shed His blood for us on the cross, and Christ promises us in the Lord’s Supper, “This is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28).
The covenant is not first of all about our children, but it is about God’s gracious establishment and maintenance of this intimate relationship of fellowship with us in Christ. The covenant is our salvation! If the covenant were merely a pact or agreement God made with us at our baptism that depends on our acts of faith and repentance for the reception of eternal life, then I do not see how the covenant could be a powerful motivator to evangelize. But when we understand that the covenant is our salvation, what a motivation to evangelize! God has established an everlasting bond of friendship with me! God is my God and my Father who so loved me that He sent His Son to die for me and reconcile me to Him! God is near to me in His love and tender mercy, whispering His secrets to me, comforting me in my troubles, protecting me from all evil or turning it to my good, walking with me and talking to me, dwelling in my very heart by His Spirit! God is my Friend! God will never leave me or forsake me! Therefore, I have nothing to fear in life or in death. I need not fear what man thinks of me because God is my God. I need not fear what man does to me because God is for me. I need not fear if man hates me when I witness to him because God loves me.
Does not God’s covenant cause you to overflow with joy and hope? Now our God comes to us and says, “Talk about me to your children when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.” But He also says, “Talk about me to the world when you go into the midst of it, as missionary, pastor, and believer. Do not be afraid of them or ashamed of me. I will be with you. But do not keep your lips silent. You are a city on a hill. You cannot be hid. Let your light shine. Hold forth the word of life. Sound forth the word of the Lord to everyone you meet.”2
Indeed, the promise of the final perfection of God’s covenant in the future fills us with a blessed hope that also motivates us to evangelize. I find it fascinating that the goal of God with missions and with His covenant converge in the second coming of Christ. God calls us to send out missionaries into all the world and promises that when this gospel is preached in all the world as a witness to all nations, then the end will come (Matt. 24:14). His goal with missions is the gathering of all the elect into the covenant out of the nations, after which Christ will return. Then God will bring His covenant to the goal of perfection in the new heavens and earth. The holy city, new Jerusalem, will come down from heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband: the whole covenant people gathered out of the nations and brought to Christ. Then the tabernacle of God will be with men forever, and He will dwell with us, and we will be His people, and God will be with us and be our God. He will wipe away all tears from our eyes and there will be no more death, sorrow, crying, or pain, for the former things will have passed away. And He will make all things new (Rev. 21:1-5). His goal with the covenant is to bring it to the perfection of dwelling with His people face to face in the world to come after gathering them all into His covenant in this age through the children of believers and missions to the heathen.
That is our hope. Does not that hope motivate us to evangelize? Oh, do not strangle our motivation by claiming that we should not expect very many to come to Christ anymore, that we should only expect the church to get smaller and smaller in these last days. Do we now know the hour of the Lord’s return? Do we know for sure that the Lord is now only gathering the last few stars of the innumerable multitude of the seed of Abraham? Let us not limit God. He may yet do great things. Let us fasten our hearts on the hope set before us that when the mission is complete, Christ will come and God will perfect His covenant with us. Let us fervently plant and water but leave the increase to the Lord. We know not whether the end is a few years away or a hundred. The Reformers thought they were at the end (1500s). But five hundred more years have passed, and in the meantime massive world mission efforts have taken place and massive numbers have been saved among the heathen. In our century, we know not how close or far away the end now is. But we know that we must continue to run the race of evangelization until the beast forces us to stop and flee for our lives. Then we will know that the end is very near indeed.
My hope and prayer is that this series on the covenant of God and our mission to the world has stimulated and challenged our thinking and that God will use it to spur us to open our lips and show forth the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.
1 See Jason L. Kortering, Evangelism in the Established Church: The Calling of Committees and Individuals concerning the Work of Evangelism (Grand Rapids: First PRC), p. 41: He mentions that some think our covenant view and emphasis actually hinder evangelism: “Is not our emphasis on the covenant an obstacle to personal evangelism? We emphasize correctly the importance of the Christian home, the Christian church, and the Christian day school. This makes us introspective and self-focused as people of God. If we do this in obedience to Christ, how are we supposed to reach out to others who do not share this view and who even reject it? Won’t we lose our covenant perspective?”
2 “The reason for our joyful walk of faith in every circumstance, in prosperity and adversity, is our God and His love for us. If we take this approach, our covenantal blessings will not deter us from reaching out or tempt us to abandon them, but rather encourage us to appreciate these blessings and be ready to share them with others…. As Reformed believers, our goal is not simply to ‘save souls’ but to bring souls into God’s covenant, including the church, home, and school…. What a thrill it is when others receive eyes to see and hearts to believe such a wonderful truth…” (Kortering, Evangelism, p. 42).