The Principles of Missions

We are still busy with the principles of Missions as these may be gleaned from the New Testament Epistles, especially the Pauline Epistles. In the previous two articles we noted that the Epistles emphasize the absolute necessity of the preaching of the Gospel. There can be no mission work apart from the preaching. The missionary is called and ordained by Christ so that he is an ambassador of Christ. As the official representative of Christ he speaks the Word of Christ. Thus through the preaching of the Word the sheep of Christ hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, believe, call upon His name and are saved. (Cf. Romans 10:13-15) Whatever the missionary does, therefore, he must certainly preach the Word. That has to be his chief concern. We also noted in our study of the Epistles that great stress is placed upon the calling of believers with respect to missions. Believers have a calling in the office of believer, as prophets; priests, and kings in Christ. Without the office of’ believer there could be no mission work at all, for Christ calls the missionary preachers through the church. Furthermore mission labor is impossible without the prayers and offerings of the church. Still more, the believers have the calling to support the mission work of the church by witnessing to the gospel through their speech and godly walk. The calling of believers, we concluded, is indispensable to missions.

In this article we wish to consider four more principles which underlie the work of missions. We shall cite these principles briefly and consider them more in depth in later articles. The first of these principles might be called the eschatological principle. By this we mean that missions most emphatically has much to do with the last things. Missions is involved with the signs of our Lord’s return and with that return itself. In the final manifestation of God’s glory in the redeemed, elect church at the end of the ages missions plays a significant role. This eschatological element is always present. It runs throughout the Epistles with reference to the preaching of the gospel to all nations. Thus the Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians: “Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth. . .” (Ephesians 1:9-10). And in that same chapter the Apostle speaks of the exceeding greatness of God’s power: “Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all” (vss. 19-23). From these passages it is evident that God’s good pleasure (“the mystery of his will”) is to gather together in one all things in Christ. Christ is given to be the head over all things to the Church which is His body. Both Jew and Gentile must be gathered out of every nation. The church of Jesus Christ must be built in order that the fulness of the Kingdom of God may come in the personal return of our Lord at the end of the ages. The church in her life and pre-eminently in her ministry and mission is involved, intimately involved, in that great task in the name of and by the direction and power of Christ her head. Thus the Apostle writes: “And he gave (that is the ascended Lord Jesus) some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-15). This gathering together of all things in Christ may be called the ultimate telos or purposeful end or goal of the mission work of the church. Through the preaching of the gospel the elect are gathered out of the nations and God realizes His purpose in Jesus Christ. While this is the goal of missions, it becomes at the same time a powerful incentive and encouragement as well. This is also the viewpoint of Lord’s Day XXI of the Heidelberg Catechism when it stresses that the Son of God gathers the church by His Spirit and Word, “from the beginning to the end of the world.” 

There are three more principles which stand out in the Epistles. There is what may be called the priority of the Jews. Much of the New Testament deals with this matter with reference to the problems and errors perpetuated by the Judaizers. These wanted to maintain that Christians had to observe all of the rites and ritual of the Jewish religion in addition to faith in Christ. One, for example, had to be circumcised in addition to being baptized, according to them. In this context the Scriptures have a good deal to say concerning the place of the Jew in the church in relation to the Gentile. Paul confesses to the Roman Christians: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” That formula, “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek,” recurs throughout the New Testament. And as a matter of fact, according to the Acts record, the Apostles invariably went to the Jew first and then to the Gentile. The gospel was first preached in Jerusalem, then in Judea, then in Samaria and then to the uttermost parts of the then-known world. The Apostle deals at length with this question in Romans chapters nine through eleven. He has deep concern for his “kinsmen according to the flesh” who rejected the gospel in unbelief. This is part of his conclusion: “Behold the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell (unbelieving Jews), severity; but toward thee (believing Gentiles), goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou shalt also be cut off. And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graff them in again. For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these (Jews), which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree?” (Romans 11:23-24) That is the priority of the Jews. The Apostle uses the figure of the olive tree to describe the church. The Gentiles who are wild branches by nature are graffed into that olive tree. The Jews are the natural branches of that tree and some have been cut off because of unbelief. As natural branches, however, it is possible for God to graff them into their own olive tree once more. This certainly does not mean, as many teach, that there is coming a large scale conversion of Jews at the end of the ages. There is no evidence of that in the New Testament. But the possibility that the Jew through faith may be graffed in again into the olive tree of the Church always remains. 

The Epistles also make plain that the heathen will of themselves never seek the gospel. Everywhere the Epistles emphasize that the heathen are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1ff.); darkened in their understanding (Romans 1:31Ephesians 4:18). We must not expect, therefore, the heathen to seek the gospel of themselves. Therefore, “Missions are not a response to an invitation, but they go forth in obedience to the command of Christ. In mission work we are thrust forth by God and not drawn forth by man.” (J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction To The Science of Missions, p. 55) 

Finally, “The salvation presented in the Epistles includes the whole of life” (Bavinck, p. 55). The essential concern of the gospel is obviously with the restored relationship of man to God, the reconciliation of the elect sinner with God. But the gospel is always more than merely, “believe and be saved.” Faith is more than a veneer. It is more than becoming involved in some daily and Sunday ritual. It is more than church attendance and family devotions. Out of this reconciliation in Christ the whole life is changed, renewed, and lifted to the higher plane of the heavenly. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold all things are become new” (II Corinthians 5:17, cf. also Galatians 6:15). “That new element that has come in makes itself felt over the whole range of life. Wherever Christ puts his hand upon a man everything is changed” (Bavinck, p. 55). This is precisely why the Epistles speak of almost every human relationship: marriage, widows and orphans, the poor and the rich, the education of children, the relationship of the believer to government, masters and slaves, freedom from anxiety, joy and grief, gold and honor. There is nothing which lies outside of the gracious salvation which Christ gives to them that love him, who are the called according to God’s purpose. It is true that the message of the gospel is closely tied to the circumstances of the times and deals with the specific problems affecting specific churches. The message, however, is so radical and so profound that what it says must be heard and applied throughout the ages. Thus Paul can say to us: “Godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is; and of that which is to come” (I Timothy 4:8). Thus not only is the inner life renewed, but every relationship in which we stand is fundamentally altered, and a new society, a new humanity is born of the gospel. Nothing in human life is indifferent, nothing lies outside of the power of sin, but also nothing lies outside of the salvation of God. “God will rebuild our whole existence from the ground up. Then it is indeed true that he who is in Christ is a new creature, in every respect” (Bavinck, p. 56).