From all that we have gleaned out of Scripture and our Reformed Confessions it ought to be obvious that the sole foundation of Missions has to be God’s eternal good pleasure in Christ. It pleases God to save His elect Church in Jesus Christ. It pleases God to manifest His immeasurable glory in that Church in Christ in the New Creation. It pleases God to gather these elect out of every nation into that multitude which no man can number (Rev. 7:9ff.). It pleases God to do this gathering out of the nations by means of the preaching of the gospel by the Church through the office of the ministry (Eph. 4:11ff.). The Scripture declares:”…it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (I Cor. 1:21). This good pleasure of God, therefore, is the foundation of God’s command to the Church as represented by the Apostles: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:15-16; cf. also Matt. 28:19-20; Luke 24:46-48).
This, we must understand, is the sole foundation of the missionary task of the church. It is this to the exclusion of any other foundation. This needs emphasis in our day for two reasons. There are those who claim other foundations for missions. But, more importantly, this principle is determinative of the Church’s method of labor and, specifically, of its approach on the mission field itself. This stands to reason, of course, for principle always determines practice. Hence, let it be clearly understood, the sole foundation of missions is the good pleasure of God.
Some prefer to speak of a double foundation for missions. These teach that the foundation of missions is both God’s good pleasure in Christ and what they term “the hidden thirst of the heathen for the gospel.” This “hidden thirst” according to them refers to a certain receptivity in the heathen for the gospel. Others speak of a “point of contact” in the heathen for the gospel or a desire on the part of the heathen for salvation. This is supposed to be what makes at least certain groups of heathen “winnable.” (Cf.Understanding Church Growth, Donald A. McGavran.) This is, we might add, the prevailing view among Roman Catholic theologians. G. Warneck, the late nineteenth century German theologian also held this view. Warneck spoke of a “historical-ethnic” basis in addition to God’s good pleasure. By “ethnic” he meant: “The capacity of men of all nations and cultural backgrounds for Christianity” (quoted from J.H. Bavinck, Introduction To The Science Of Missions, p. 63). Even Bavinck himself leans in this direction when he maintains that general revelation, while not the basis for missions, does provide the indispensable condition without which missionary work would hover in a hopeless void. Neither passage cited by Bavinck (Acts 14:17 and Romans 1:18ff.) supports this view.
The simple fact is that total depravity precludes any hidden thirst, receptivity, or point of contact on the part of the heathen. Scripture teaches, “For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:5-8). The carnal mind (mind of the flesh, R.D.) not only is not but cannot be (lacks the ability to be) subject to the law of God. That mind of the flesh is hatred against God and, therefore, is dead with respect to God. There cannot be any hidden thirst, point of contact, or receptivity in that carnal mind for the gospel. The mind of the flesh will not desire God apart from God’s own work of grace. It is precisely and only sovereign grace which creates receptivity in the heart of a man for the gospel. Consider what the Scripture says concerning the greatest missionary who ever lived: “He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them which believe on His name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:10-13). Not even “His own” manifested any receptivity for Jesus! Those who did receive Him, believed on His name. That is faith. And, that believing was a fruit of their new birth or regeneration. They were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man. They were born of God and, therefore, believed on the name of Jesus and received power to become the sons of God. The great fact remains:”…except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3ff.). These are but a few of the many passages which could be cited. Scripture everywhere teaches (it belongs to the warp and woof of the gospel) that only sovereign grace can create receptivity in the heart of man for the gospel. Apart from grace man is dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1ff.).
In summary, therefore, the first principle of missions is that its foundation lies in the good pleasure of God in Jesus Christ. God wills to save a chosen people out of every nation, tribe, and tongue. God wills to do that by means of the preaching of the gospel by the church through the special office of the ministry of the Word. This after all is a fundamental principle of the entire truth of the Word of God. That about which we speak is the absolute sovereignty of God and the sovereignty of His grace in Christ. This is why too only the Reformed Church which by grace believes, maintains, and lives out of this principle can do mission work. And, we repeat, the Church which is truly Reformed can do this work joyfully and with optimism. God has His people in the world. God will gather them through the Spirit and Word of His Son. There will be fruit upon our labors. Let us then labor while it is day, ere the night comes in which no man can labor!
The second principle is this: the message of missions is always essentially the good news (the evangel), the glad tidings of salvation by the grace of God in Christ Jesus to “everyone that believeth.” The gospel comes with joy to replace our sorrows, hope to replace our despair, courage to replace our fear, the peace of forgiveness to replace our guilt, life to conquer our death. That is true because the gospel always declares: “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
This certainly does not mean that there is to be no judgment and wrath preached on the mission field. The prophets of the Old Testament did not hesitate to proclaim the judgments of God upon apostate Israel. John the Baptist preached judgment right in the context of announcing the coming of Jesus. Jesus Himself preached the woes of terrible judgment upon the Scribes and Pharisees whom He did not hesitate to call fools and blind, hypocrites and whitewashed graves (cf. Matthew 23). Apostolic preaching likewise proclaimed the righteous wrath of God against all unrighteousness and unbelief of men. The whole counsel of God must be preached and the missionary after the example of the Apostle Paul must never shun to do that! Indeed he must be able to say what the Apostle said to the elders of Ephesus: “Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. And now behold I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: Save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God. And now behold I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more. Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:18-27). All the counsel of God certainly includes judgment. But essentially the message is “good news,” and that in itself becomes judgment to all unbelief.
This proclamation is the official proclamation. It is the call of the herald of Jesus Christ who proclaims the gospel of the Great King. It is the Word of the King through His ambassadors, the missionary preachers. This proclamation is also the witness of the King. This carries with it the idea of legal testimony. This legal testimony is left chiefly by means of the preaching, and it is supported and supplemented by the witness of the godly, pious living of the members of the Body of Christ.
This is the doctrine of missions according to Scripture and the Reformed Confessions. These are the principles which must be implemented by the church on the mission fields of the world. In summary, therefore, it may be said that the church of Jesus Christ exists for one purpose: the glory of God; to praise Him of Whom, through Whom and to Whom are all things! This purpose is served in the way of the church’s caring for its members and preserving the truth in the generations of believers by means of the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of Christian discipline. This purpose is no less served by the church’s gathering the elect out of every nation in obedience to Him who said, “Go ye into all the world…”