Previous article in this series: November 15, 2019, p. 93.
“And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob…for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares….” Isaiah 2:2–4
There is a man of the world whom you encounter in your life. To be sure, we encounter many men of the world in our lives. Most of them pass by and we never see them again; or they enter our lives for a little while and then are gone again; or we see them frequently but have little to do with them. But there are others who are part of our daily lives. A coworker, a fellow student at college, a neighbor, a business associate.
You have asked about him: “What have you done with God?” You know that he knows about God because he too reads the elegant book of creation and has the glimmerings of natural light. But, you ask, what has he been doing with God? How does he suppress that knowledge of God? How does he flee from the presence of God? What specific lies has Satan fed him and which specific idols does he serve? You have looked for answers, not only by doing some research on his religion, but especially by observing and listening to the man himself.
You have humbly recognized that you are no better than that man of the world who holds the truth in unrighteousness. You do not look down on him, for you know that by nature you stand next to him. You recognize that you still do the same things as he does, only in different ways, and that God accepts you only because of the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. You have also made known to him that utterly important fact that you do not consider yourself better than he.
You have searched your heart, and God has shown you that what you are about to do is not motivated by the desire to prove that you are right and that man is wrong. Your motive is not to win an argument to prove your intellectual superiority, stroke your ego, or quiet your conscience that compels you to witness. But your motive is true love for that sinner and a sincere desire that he will join you, if God wills, in the halls of heaven.
You are ready to give an answer to that man with meekness and fear (1 Pet. 3:15).
You are ready to confront and reprove that man of his sin.
Elenctics, not polemics. There is such a thing as polemics, a calling to launch the arrows of war with pen and voice from the walls of Zion to refute the gainsayers and stop the mouths of false brethren who have secretly crept into the city of our God to bewitch her inhabitants. The watchman must do that. But there is a similar calling, which some have called elenctics, according to which the believer, who has gone outside the walls of Zion into the world, who is in the world but not of the world, either as an ordained missionary or an ordinary believer, reproves that world of sin. It is the great clash of the ages, the mighty shining of the light into the darkness, in which believers say to men of all nations, “Come ye, forsake the lie, turn from idols, go up to the mountain of the Lord, the house of the God of Jacob! Come to the King of glory who lived and died for the salvation of those who have been chosen to endless life in Zion!”
Many Christians nowadays do not want to reprove the unbeliever of his sin but only want to “share the love of Jesus.” That approach is faulty, first of all, because they almost invariably believe that Jesus loves every person of the world without exception. We do not believe such a love of Jesus exists for all men head for head. We know, from Scripture, that God loved Jacob and hated Esau, that Jesus loved the church and gave Himself for her. We know that those elect in all nations whom Jesus loves are those whom God brings to repentance precisely by means of the word of reproof that we speak! But this common approach of merely “sharing the love of Jesus” is also faulty because of the neglect of reproving the unbeliever of his sin. They only want to be positive. They do not want to confront. They do not want to talk about sin. But if we do not first reprove the man of this world of his sin; if there is no call to repentance, no spiritual break from his past, from his old errors, that man will carry his errors and superstitions right into the church. The result of such a procedure will be a synthesis of Christianity and paganism.
In missions and in witnessing, there must be a clash and a call to a radical, spiritual change.
How should this confrontation be done?
First of all, we to whom God gives an opportunity to clash swords with the man of this world with the motive of gaining him to Christ must remember that “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds, casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:45). We should not confront and refute the beliefs of our neighbor by our own “wisdom of words” or “excellency of speech.” We should not try to prove that his beliefs are wrong using mere rational or emotional arguments. Some Christians in the past believed we should do that. “The apologists of the first centuries were already of the opinion that human reason, the logos, was the powerful weapon with which they could attack the heathendom of their day.”1 Thomas Aquinas later taught that “it is possible to convince the heathen simply by appealing to reason, that there is and can be only one God, that there is justice, and a life after death. Human reason can usher a person to this threshold of faith, and the missionary does well if he convinces pagans of such matters by rational arguments.”2 The Reformers broke in principle with this notion. Yet even Gisbertus Voetius, the father of Reformed missiology, wrote, “We are of the opinion that it is very useful not to begin with an exposition of our faith, but with a refutation of heathendom, and that with the assistance of reason and the natural light.”3 It is also possible that Abraham Kuyper “thought too much of a refutation, with the help of philosophical arguments, in order to demonstrate ‘intrinsic falsity’ [of a religion].”4 But the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, philosophical arguments.
For even if we succeed and convince a man to repudiate his errors, he would be left in a spiritual vacuum that would soon be filled with seven devils even worse than the first. For our Lord teaches that when an unclean spirit has gone out of a man, it wanders in dry places, seeking rest but finding none. Then he says, “I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished.” Then he goes and calls seven more spirits which are even more wicked than himself and they enter the man and dwell there. And the last state of that man is worse than the first (Matt. 12:43–45). A man cannot exist as a spiritual vacuum. By our rational arguments we might drive out the lies he believed through the deception of one unclean spirit. But in the end, we will have only created space in his soul for the lies of seven more spirits even more wicked than the first.
No, when we clash swords with the man of this world and confront him with his sin, the weapon of our warfare must always be the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.
The foundation or basis of our elenctics cannot be anything else than God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, writes J. H. Bavinck.5
How then do we perform the hard task of confronting and refuting the most personal beliefs of our neighbor? The same way we perform our other tasks of preaching, catechizing, counseling, and witnessing in general—by using the Holy Scriptures. But what if the man says that he does not believe the Bible is the Word of God? Well, of course, he will most likely say that! Nevertheless, whether that man believes it or not, the Bible is the Word of God, and therefore it is “quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
Do you believe that, my dear brother or sister in the Lord? We must believe that although our words have no power to convince the man of his sin, the Word of God has that power. The Word of God, by which the worlds sprang into existence, has the power to change not only the mind but also the heart. Above all, the preaching of the Word of God by the minister who has been called and sent into the world with the official message of the gospel has that power. It is the power of God unto salvation. But even in our personal witnessing, the Word of God together with the Holy Spirit is the only power that will convince our neighbor of his sin and bring him to repentance. The Holy Spirit, through the Word of
God that we speak, “will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8).
Therefore, when we confront the man of this world in our life, we must use the Scriptures. What a blessed treasure of the Scriptures has been given to us who grew up in faithful Reformed churches and homes! I grew up in the Protestant Reformed Churches in America and give thanks for the awesome gift God gave me to grow up hearing the sound expositional preaching of the Scriptures every Sunday. I was catechized in the Old and New Testaments by faithful pastors who required us to memorize Bible verses. I was rooted in the Scriptures by a godly father and mother who read and discussed the Bible with us every night—and walked worthy of the gospel. I was sent to good Christian schools from kindergarten through high school. What are we to do with this treasure? Has God commanded that what He has done be passed in tradition from father to son (Ps. 78:4–6)? Yes, and this: among the nations far and wide His glory celebrate; to all the peoples of the earth His wondrous works relate (Ps. 96:1ff).
When the opportunity comes for you to confront your neighbor in love, use the Scriptures! Take your Bible with you when you reprove him of his sin. Open your Bible, if he is willing to listen, and read a passage to him. Show him from Genesis 1 that there is a God who created the heavens and earth in the beginning in six days; and in Exodus 20 that He commands us to have no other gods before Him; and in Matthew 22 that God calls the man to turn from his atheism or agnosticism or paganism and to love Him with all his heart. Show him from John 4 that God is a Spirit whom we must worship in spirit and in truth and not through images; and perhaps from Psalm 96 bring him the call to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Show him from Scripture what God thinks about labor union strikes (Eph. 6), taking revenge (Rom. 12), sexual lust (Matt. 5), the love of money (1 Tim. 6), the lying tongue (Prov. 6), or whatever lies and sins are obvious and prevalent in his life. Then show him from Matthew 25 or Acts 17 that on the last day God will judge the world in righteousness through Jesus Christ whom He raised from the dead and who will return from heaven. In all of this, do not forget to tell him that you too are guilty of sin and are not better than he. After all, Romans 3 teaches that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But then show from the same chapter that you have been justified freely by God’s wondrous grace through faith in Jesus Christ without the deeds of the law.
When we clash swords with the man of this world, he might try to argue against the Word of God. Or he might shrug, laugh, and say, “Well, that is fine for you. But I do not believe that.” Or he might frown, scowl, and say, “Don’t talk to me about your religion, and don’t judge me for my beliefs.” Or he might shout, get red in the face, and say, “Who do you think you are? Oh, you think you have all the answers, do you? You probably think I’m going to hell along with everyone else who doesn’t agree with you. You self-righteous Christians are the reason for all the problems in this world. Why don’t you just keep your religion to yourselves?”
Do these possible responses from your neighbor cause you to fear and remain silent? Do they hold you back from engaging in the confrontation? Surely, we all have to fight against this fear. I freely confess that I have to fight against this fear. Let us hold on to the sweet encouragement of our Lord: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matt. 5:11–12). Let us pray with the apostles, “And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word” (Acts 4:29).
On the other hand, when we humbly reprove the man of this world, God might rebuke him through our words and fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah that many will beat their swords into plowshares, throwing away the lies they have believed for so long and repenting of their sins. Homer Hoeksema comments on Isaiah 2:4,
When they are convicted of their sin by the judgment and rebuke of Jehovah, the God of Jacob, they will become sorry for their sin, will repent and seek forgiveness and the grace of God in Christ…. The gospel says, “You are a sinner! You are lost! Repent! If you do not repent, you will go to hell! Get on your knees!” In the way of judging and rebuking, and in no other, God creates peace…. God penetrates the heart through his judgment. God convicts the heart by his word…. The sinner responds, “Yes, Lord, it’s all true.” Then God sets the sinner’s heart straight in relation to God. He makes the sinner’s heart bemoan its sin and curse and leads the heart to the cross, where it may find peace through forgiveness and reconciliation.6
What a joy for us, brothers and sisters in Christ, if God would use us poor sinners to bring others to repentance!
Elenctics is not the only aspect of missions and witnessing. There must also be with it a positive witness of the glad and hopeful tidings of the saving grace of God in Christ.
But elenctics is indeed an essential aspect of all missions and witnessing. May God give us humility, love for our neighbor, and boldness to reprove the man of the world in our life, and may He use our reproof to bring elect sinners to repentance.
1 J. H. Bavinck, Introduction to the Science of Missions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1960), 223.
2 Bavinck, 224–25.
3 Bavinck, 225.
4 Bavinck, 225.
5 Bavinck, 231.
6 Homer Hoeksema, Redeemed with Judgment: Sermons on Isaiah, vol. 1 (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2007), 64–65.