The Second Coming of Christ and Missions (2)

Previous article in this series: September 1, 2015, p. 469.

In the previous article, we began a consideration of the relationship between missions and the final appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ. We explored the thought that faithful missions serves the final appearing of Christ by its authoritative proclamation of the second coming of Christ. In this article, we explore another aspect of how missions serves the second coming of Christ. Missions serves the coming of Christ as a power that is actually guided by the Lord to prepare the church and the world for His final appearing.

The preaching of the gospel in a mission setting is a spiritual power, necessarily affecting souls and lives of those to whom it is preached. That the preaching of the Word is a spiritual power in connection with men and salvation is taught from Scripture as explained in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 31, Q&A 84. There the preaching is defined, not as an informational or inspirational talk that can be received or ignored without consequence, but as a key power that opens and shuts the kingdom of heaven. The preaching of the gospel in missions is one of the mighty keys of the kingdom that both opens the kingdom to believers and shuts the kingdom to all unbelievers. Such a power has spiritual heart-and-soul consequences for both time and eternity. This is a sobering thought and reality about the work of missions.

What is taught in the Heidelberg Catechism is confirmed, first of all, in I Corinthians 1:18. There we learn that “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” The preaching is a means by which God powerfully saves His people from their sin, in spite of how the ungodly scoff at such a wonder as this. What a beautiful wonder to behold when God by His grace opens the hearts of His people so that they do repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ unto their salvation, walking in His truth with all diligence and sincerity! Such is the affect of the preaching upon those whom God has ordained unto eternal life (Acts 13:48).

However, as far as the power of the preaching of the cross of Christ upon those whom God does not intend to save is concerned, the Scriptures confirm that it is a power to destroy and condemn them. The Lord told Moses that when he would faithfully proclaim the truth of Jehovah and the command to Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go, the effect of his ministry would be that Pharaoh would harden his heart. In fact, it is clear that God intended in His sovereign providence to harden the heart of Pharaoh in this way so that he would be justly destroyed in the Red Sea (Ex. 7:3, 13, 14, 22).

God also told Isaiah that the effect of his ministry would be negative.

…Go, tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert and be healed (Is. 6:9-10).

In Jeremiah 1:10, the Lord told Jeremiah that the effect of his ministry would be both positive and negative. “See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant” (Jer. 1:10).

Jesus Himself experienced this negative fruit in His ministry. He experienced being rejected, and many hardened their hearts toward Him. After Jesus had preached the truth concerning Himself as the Bread of life, we read that “from that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:66). After Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58), and by this declared plainly that He is God, many took up stones to kill Him. That attempt at His premature murder was a clear indication that His Word had the irresistible effect of hardening people’s hearts against Him and His Word.

Likewise, a faithful missionary certainly may expect the sobering reality that his faithful preaching of the Word will have the irresistible effect in the ungodly, whom God does not intend to save, that they will harden their hearts in their unbelief and will sin against Christ.

This effectual power of preaching in missions, which cuts through mankind and separates between the elect (wheat) and the reprobate (chaff), is included in the symbolism of Revelation 6:1-2 when the first seal is opened by Christ. It is part of the meaning of the white horse and rider that Christ sends forth and guides in victory throughout the New Testament era until His goal is reached at the end of history.

What makes the preaching of the gospel an irresistible power unto salvation or unto condemnation? The efficacy of the preaching is not found in the missionary himself. Although the missionary needs qualifications for his work and works faithfully with his God-given gifts, even those things are not what makes his preaching effectual in the hearers. Although the missionary may be eloquent, his sermons captivating for young and old in his audiences, yet the sermons themselves are powerless with respect to its spiritual consequences.

Instead, we understand that the preaching is that power which produces results by the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul confesses that very thing in I Corinthians 2:4, “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” That verse indicates that the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ makes the preaching of the Word effectual. This is true in God’s chosen people, whose hearts the Spirit opens and into which He sows the good seed of the Word unto their salvation. This is also true with respect to God’s enemies, whom He does not know savingly, and to whom the Spirit sends the Word, as directed by Christ, for their judgment and condemnation according to their rejection of that Word.

This has been the understanding of the key power of the preaching, whether in the local congregation or in missions, by our Reformed forefathers. For example, John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion expounds this truth about the preaching in Book III, Chapter 24, Section 13. Regarding the negative effect of the preaching in particular, John Calvin writes sharply:

…Observe that he directs his voice to them but in order that they may become even more deaf; he kindles a light but that they may be made even more blind; he sets forth doctrine but that they may grow even more stupid; he employs a remedy but so that they may not be healed. And John, applying this prophecy, states that the Jews could not believe Christ’s teaching (John 12:39), for this curse of God hung over them.

Who intends and will make preaching have a positive effect for the gathering of His spiritual seed out of the world, or a negative effect on the seed of the serpent in the world to its condemnation?

Jesus answered that question in John 16:8, where He speaks of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter by whom the church is gathered unto Christ. But for the world, not so. “And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” As He did in the days of Noah through his preaching of righteousness and the coming judgment of the water flood of God’s wrath, so again the Spirit by His church will reprove the world, convicting them of sin unto their condemnation until the coming of the Lord in the fire-flood of His wrath.

This two-fold effect of the preaching directly serves the final appearing of Christ. It serves the final appearing of Christ in the sense that the preaching prepares the world for judgment, as the wicked fill up their cup of iniquity until God pours out His wrath on them at the end and goal of history. It prepares the false church for its terrible judgment by its rejection of the truth and by its attempt to overthrow God’s truth and true worship. It provokes the Antichrist to persecute the saints. With regard to the reprobate, the preaching brings them to condemnation before God. The preaching is that power that offends and irritates the world as well as the carnal seed within the church institute unto escalating opposition to the faithful saints of Jesus Christ. As the church faithfully continues to preach the Word, battles faithfully through every doctrinal controversy in history, becomes purer and clearer in her exposition of the Holy Gospel by the guiding work of the Holy Spirit, the lie and darkness, under the evil guidance of the spirit of the lie, will also certainly become more intense in its hatred against the truth and more openly violent against faithful missions carried out by true churches of Jesus Christ. In this way, the preaching of missions prepares the church and the world for the final appearing of Christ.

Understanding that faithful missions is an effectual power of Christ for the fulfilment of His will in history, we will also be careful about how we measure and document “success” in foreign missions. We may be prone to focus solely on the positive fruit of missions and, in so doing, judge the success of missions solely on the basis of how well the good fruit is being gathered. Although we certainly cherish with joy the good fruit of the gathering of God’s elect sheep out of the bondage of unbelief, idolatry, and superstitions, we ought not forget the sobering reality that successful missions also involves the hardening of hearts in the unbelieving reprobate.

That understanding is necessary. If we would evaluate the labors of the apostle Paul based solely on how much positive fruit he accomplished in comparison to the multitudes of people that he addressed, we would measure his ministry as a dismal failure. Realizing that faithful preaching by divine necessity also involves the inexcusable rejection of the true gospel by the unbelieving, we will refrain from the conclusion that missions is a failure when the majority of the fruit is hardened unbelief. While we earnestly pray and aim for the gathering of those whom God has ordained to eternal life by a faithful preaching and teaching on the mission field, yet we must reckon with the reality that God does hide His truth “from the wise and prudent” and reveals it only to “babes” (Matt. 11:25-27). To that fruit and power of missions we learn to submit, as Jesus Himself did. And, perhaps, as the day of Christ approaches, faithful missions will be more and more marked by that success.

Knowing the divinely governed effects of her preaching as it serves the coming of her Lord, let the church serve diligently in her missions with the earnest prayer, “Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.”