Rev. Bruinsma is Eastern Home MIssionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches, stationed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
God is pleased to gather His church and to save a people unto Himself by means of the mission work of the church. The church institute officially calls a missionary to go out and preach the gospel. He performs the work of missions. God by His grace and Spirit uses the preaching of the gospel to save those lost in their sin. But does this mean that mission work belongs to the church only through her offices? Does this preclude the members of the church from being active themselves in missions? Is the support they lend to missions only by means of prayer and money? How can we expect the laity of the church to become zealous in missions if mission work is confined only to the consistory rooms and the committees formed by the church to oversee the work of missions? May members of the church become actively involved in missions?
There are members of the church who confront those who ask such questions with a frown. In their minds these questions indicate a spirit of rebellion against the calling of the instituted church to do mission work. Lay people, it is thought, ought to keep their hands off. They have nothing to do with the work of missions other than praying for the labor and supporting it financially. To ask the question, “What can members of the church do in missions?” implies, they reason, a desire to be like the parachurch organizations who ignore the church institute by carrying on a work that Christ has entrusted only to offices in the instituted church. But this type of reasoning is wrong. The members of the church ought to be actively involved in the mission work of the churches. There are good and proper ways that they can serve in missions. These we intend to examine in the next several articles.
Before speaking of these ways, however, we must lay the proper biblical foundation for lay assistance in missions.
The church as a witnessing church
According to Scripture the church of Jesus Christ in this world is a witnessing church. We are not stating here that the church must be a witnessing church, or, that the church is commanded to be a witnessing church, but that the church is a witnessing church. In other words, the witness of the church and of her members belongs to the essential character of the church. There cannot be church where there is no witness. The church’s witness belongs to the very fabric of her existence. This does not imply that the church has failed in her confession concerning the church when she states: I believe a holy, catholic, apostolic church. We are not contending here that another attribute ought to be added to our confession of the church. What we would contend is that witnessing belongs to the church’s catholicity. When we confess that we believe that there is a catholic church, then we express our faith in a fundamental truth of the Scriptures: God gathers His church from the various nations, races, and languages of the world.
The question needs to be asked, however, how does God gather His church from the nations? How does that church become universal in nature? The hyper-Calvinist would answer that God does this simply by the power of His providence and grace without the aid or the assistance of anyone. The church simply has to preach to its own and God will bring into the church those whom He chooses to save. The church’s witness is given only by means of preaching within the sphere of the church institute. The only other witness the church gives is by the life of God’s people in this world—not by their testimony to others, but just by the way they live. There is need for nothing else.
This answer of the hyper-Calvinist does not meet the test of Scripture. When speaking of one of the signs of His second coming, Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” The church is called to preach the gospel not simply within the confines of the church itself. It is called to preach the gospel as a witness to all nations. Notice the emphasis here in this verse. The gospel shall be preached. Christ is not commanding His church here to preach to the nations, but it is assumed that the church will preach the gospel as a witness to the nations. Even when Jesus commands His disciples in the Great Commission, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), He does so on the basis of the fundamental character of the church as a witnessing church. After His resurrection, and just prior to His ascension, Jesus informs His disciples in Acts 1:8, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” Here Jesus teaches us that He will empower His church by the Holy Spirit to witness of Him to the uttermost, that is, the farthest, points of the earth. Jesus did not say, I command you to be witnesses of me. He says to His church, you shall be witnesses of me.
With the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the church she actually became a witnessing church. The third sign of the pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost attests to this power given the church by the Holy Spirit. Those who received the Holy Spirit on that day “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). The Spirit gave to these saints “utterance.” This means they were given the ability to speak forth. What they spoke forth was “the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). But the point is that they were given the ability to speak forth; they were given the ability to witness. Plus, they were given the ability to do this in the different languages of those people who were present to hear them. At the time of Pentecost, therefore, the church was given the ability to witness, to utter, to speak forth the good news of salvation. And it was given also the sign that this witness must be sent forth to peoples of all nations and languages of the earth. Pentecost was the birth of the church as a witnessing church.
The idea of witnessing
But what does it mean to be a church that witnesses? What is this witness spoken of in Scripture. That is an important question, since most people define this term in a modern context. Today witnessing has become synonymous with canvassing a neighborhood in an attempt to engage someone in a conversation about Christianity. Or with sitting in a coffee shop sipping on a cup of coffee until someone sits down at a table near you, and you start talking pleasantly with him or her, slowly edging the conversation toward a discussion of sin and salvation in Christ alone. We will evaluate this form of witnessing in a future article. At present I only bring up these examples because of the modern context in which the term “witnessing” is used. This is not the idea of witnessing in Scripture.
The word “witness” is used both in the Old and New Testaments. In general, “to witness” means “to give testimony.” In most cases it is used in a legal sense. For example, when one enters into a courtroom to give testimony on behalf of or against another, he is considered a witness. This is true because, first of all, he has witnessed what has happened. This idea of witness is used in the Bible. John the Baptist said to his disciples when they became jealous for John because of Jesus, “Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him” John 3:28. His disciples heard John say that he was not the Messiah. They witnessed these words.
A witness in a courtroom is also called such because he must bear testimony either for or against another. Pilate asked Jesus the question concerning the witnesses the Jews brought against Him at His trial, “Hearest thou not how many things they witness against thee?” (Matt. 27:13). Here too, the term witness is used strictly in a legal sense as one who testifies before another concerning someone else.
In other places in Scripture, however, this term simply refers to the testimony that a person or people in general give concerning another—in the case of God’s people, the testimony they give concerning Christ and salvation. It is inherent in the very nature of the church to witness. The church gives testimony to sin, to the need for repentance of sin, and the need to flee to the cross of Christ alone where pardon from sin is found. The church speaks out to others, not just to herself (though this is necessary too), of the good news of salvation. When this happens, the church is truly a catholic church. In other words, the church becomes worldwide because it is a witnessing church. 1
This witness of the church must be distinguished. The Scripture, first of all, clearly teaches that the church is called to be a witness by means of the official preaching of the Word. We have already concluded this. In Matthew 24:14 Jesus teaches that the gospel will be preached as a witness. In Acts 4:33 we read, “And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.” This was done through their preaching. The witness of the church through her preaching, therefore, is a given. If the church fails to preach, she has silenced her witness to Christ. If she becomes involved in all manner of activities other than the preaching of the gospel, she is no longer doing mission work.
The witness of the members of the church
But our concern in this article is whether the members of the church, that is, the laity, are also called to be witnesses. And if they are, may they take an active part in mission work? The Bible also addresses this concern. Scripture overwhelmingly supports the witness of the individual child of God. The church is a witnessing church, not merely in the preaching, but in the life and confession of every individual child of God. Again, it is not simply a matter of whether believers are called to be witnesses. Believers are witnesses. One cannot be a believer without being a witness. Witnessing is the life of the child of God.
This is true because of salvation itself. The child of God is saved in order to be a witness to God’s glory. We learn in I Peter 2:9, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous life.” In this verse the purpose of God in our salvation is revealed. God has chosen us as His people, He has made us His own peculiar or special people, He has called us out of the darkness of unbelief and into the light of salvation, why? In order that we might show forth His praises! He has chosen us and saved us as His people, a holy people, a special people to show forth His praises in this world. That is the witness of the believer. He testifies of God and His glory.
It is on this basis that Jesus teaches us in His Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14-16,
Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
Those who are saved in the blood of Christ are the light. A light shines in the world. People see in the believer his Christianity. What he believes becomes his life—a life that reveals itself to others in his whole demeanor. Such a testimony is inherent in the very salvation we receive. It is not some mechanical method of mission work. It is the law of the very life of the child of God. It is the life that flows out of his salvation. We are not simply commanded to show forth God’s praises. The believer does show forth God’s praises. It is his life. The very life of Christ in Him shines forth for others to see.
Witnessing is the life of the child of God, in the second place, because through the anointing of the Holy Spirit believers have become prophets. This truth was boldly proclaimed by the men of the Reformation. God’s people belong to the office of all believers. The members of Christ, and not just the clergy, have received the anointing of the Spirit. Believers are made prophets, priests, and kings in Christ. The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 12, Q & A 32, defines the believer’s office of prophet as the ability to confess Christ’s name in this world. The term prophet itself means “one who bubbles over.” This is true of believers. We are those who bubble over with the testimony of our Lord Jesus Christ. We, to use the words of Peter to the Sanhedrin in Acts 4:20, “cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” As a result of the work of the Spirit in his heart, every believer is a witness. He is not merely called to be a witness. Witnessing is a part of his spiritual makeup.
In the third place, witnessing is the fruit of faith. Those who believe are also those who make confession of what they believe with their mouths.
The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach . . . . For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation”
This confession of God’s people is not a one-time confession that we make when we stand up before the church and make confession of faith. Our confession is something that we carry with us into our lives in this world—where we work, where we live, in our recreation, in our friendships. Believers confess what they believe. In fact, Jesus says in Luke 12:8, 9, “Also I say unto you, Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God: but he that denieth me before men shall be denied before the angels of God.” Confessing what we believe before men is an earmark of the believer.
This is where mission work begins. If the members of the church institute that preaches the gospel to others do not take seriously their own personal witness in this world, then mission work becomes worthless! This being established, we will now consider in what ways the laity can become actively involved in missions.