Rev. Smit is a missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, stationed in Manila, the Philippines.
I recently read a book written by Prof. David Engelsma and published by the RFPA in 2013 about the history of the origin, the writing, the adoption, and the rocky reception in the PRCA of The Declaration of Principles of the Protestant Reformed Churches during the early 1950s. While reading the book, I wondered whether in our mission work with those brought out of superstition and idolatry, cults, false churches, or churches far down the road of apostasy, the Declaration has any value today in our work with them.
While answering that question, keep in mind that the Declaration expresses, over against serious error, the understanding of the Three Forms of Unity in regard to the truth of God’s unconditional covenant of grace, double predestination, the promiscuous preaching of the particular promise of the gospel among the nations, holy baptism, saving faith, and even the autonomy of the local church.
How can that 63-year-old statement, whose original intent was very limited, have any value beyond that time and beyond the borders of North America in very different places and cultures? Our answer is that although the historical context of the Declaration was limited, yet agreement with the Declaration today does positively influence the work of missions in man’s global city.
First, agreement with the Declaration prepares a missionary for work in a world that is steadily becoming a global city. This unavoidable reality affects foreign missions directly. For example, the variation of church denominations that one may experience in North America may also be experienced to one degree or another in some Southeast Asian nations, particularly in the Philippines. At the same time, the variation of world religions in the Asian region is more and more found throughout North America.
Even though its origin and original application was limited to small parts of North America, yet the Declaration applies to places and cultures beyond North America. Agreement to it prepares a missionary for global warfare by and for our “catholic, undoubted Christian faith” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7, Answer 22). Since the Reformed faith is “catholic,” the Reformed missionary is assured that he will be bringing to a mission field the global truth that applies to all of God’s people in every nation, tribe, and tongue. Hence, a missionary need not worry, when affirming according to the Declaration what the Reformed confessions strictly maintain from the Word of God, whether he can properly preach the Word wherever the Lord might send him in man’s global city for His sheep and lambs.
Secondly, agreement with the Declaration equips our foreign missionaries to remain distinct from the missions of other churches today. It is a temptation sometimes not to be distinct. Realizing the reason, the discussion, the work, and cost to the PRCA of the adoption and defense of the Declaration, a missionary will resist having blurry preaching, and he will be motivated to show forth the full colors of the Reformed flag on the flag pole. When he carries the banner of truth onto the mission field (Ps. 60:4), by the grace of God he will be unashamed of the gospel and its distinct colors. He will be directed to proclaim the colors of Jehovah’s glory in their adorable brilliance through faithful labors.
In that regard, the Declaration has a place with the flag of our Reformed confessions. It is an explanation of what the true colors of the Reformed confessions are in distinction from other beliefs in the church world, which essentially teach that in some way the church’s righteousness, salvation, peace, and hope are based upon something that the church has done, can do, and must continue to do. The Declaration guides a missionary to hold high, and to keep clean and clear, the banner of truth, so that our churches in their work of foreign missions may fulfill the calling from Christ to be a pillar and ground of the truth (I Tim. 3:14-15).
Thirdly, agreement with the Declaration prepares a foreign missionary to combat error. Certainly, he will face many, such as Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism, the Federal Vision movement, Roman Catholicism, antinomianism, hyper-Calvinism, sickly radicalism, and even a loathsome haughtiness on the part of those who know the truth toward those who do not know the truth or who have not yet been converted fully to the truth.
To resist and overcome the host of errors that multiply, a missionary needs a sharp sword in his sheath. The Declaration shows how sharp the preaching of the Word ought to be in regard to all of the truth of God’s sovereign grace, but also in regard specifically to the covenant of grace, the promise of the gospel, double predestination (election and reprobation), and other doctrines. At the same time, the Declaration shows how balanced and humbling the truth of the Word of God is for the avoidance of radicalism and legalism. Of course, a missionary will need to use that sharp sword with wisdom and tact according to the needs and situation of those with whom he labors. Even so, in the faithful application of that sword in his labors, the missionary will be a tool to bring the other sheep to Christ in true faith, as well as a tool for the condemnation and destruction of the kingdom of darkness.
Fourthly, agreement with the Declaration reminds a missionary about the complete breadth and depth of being truly Reformed. A little investigation according to our Reformed standards reveals that some are not as fully Reformed as they may have thought. Full conformity to our confessional standards is still needed in doctrine, church government, worship, and in areas of daily antithetical living. They need to learn the complete answer to the question in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7, Question 22: “What is necessary for the Christian to believe?”
Agreement with the Declaration compels a missionary to give the full answer. The full answer is clearly summarized in the Three Forms of Unity, wherein is set forth the whole gospel promise and truth that we must believe. The Declaration prepares a missionary to teach that the Reformed confessions do show that it is even necessary to believe the doctrines concerning the particularity of the grace of God, election as the source of all of the blessings of salvation and one’s place in God’s unconditional covenant, and the gospel proclaimed globally with a particular promise for His eternally chosen church.
That complete answer a missionary must declare throughout his service to Christ’s other sheep in missions, so that by the time he must lay down his labors, he can say with all his heart what the apostle Paul did to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:27: “…I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.”
Finally, agreement with the Declaration by its last point underscores the need for a foreign missionary to teach Reformed church government, including proper church membership. In its last point, it affirms that the PRCA confess the principle of the autonomy of the local church and that only the consistory has authority over the local congregation.
By its affirmation of Reformed church polity, the Declaration reminds a missionary of his mandate to oppose the errors of congregationalism, independentism, hierarchy, rule of a church by one pastor, rule of a church by deacons, errors concerning proper church membership, as well as other errors related to the offices, assemblies, ceremonies, and discipline of the church. The Declaration motivates a missionary to teach by word and example the doctrine and blessed life concerning Reformed church government and Reformed church membership. He is guided to preach the blessedness of submission to the rule and care of Christ through the offices of elder, deacon, and preacher in a local, Reformed congregation. The good result will be that individual believers and believing households are led to give a complete confession of the Reformed faith and to experience the full joy of their only comfort in life and death within the communion of the saints under the means of grace weekly.
Therefore, we acknowledge that a missionary’s genuine appreciation for the history of and his full agreement with the content of the Declaration does have a good influence upon his work. In honor and obedience to our Lord, it promotes our missions to have a full-colored banner, a sharpened sword, and a trumpet’s clear sound. That approach is necessary in order for our missions to be rightly successful for the gathering and protection of Christ’s church over against the false religions, idolatries, heresies, ungodliness, and false teachings that lurk among the diverse neighborhoods of this increasingly global city.