Previous article in this series: February 1, 2016, p. 210.
Biblical missions ought to proclaim the truth of the final appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ at the end of history through the signs of that return. The faithful proclamation of that truth, on the basis of which men are called to repent and believe the promise of the gospel, will serve the coming again of Christ by means of its negative and positive fruits. Christ comes through the preaching of the gospel and thereby sifts out from among the chaff of the nations, tribes, and tongues of the world His elect kernels to repentance and faith. In this way, the final appearing of Christ is served and draws near quickly. That truth instills confidence in a missionary for faithful service in his calling.
Having proper confidence while a missionary labors is a blessed gift—and a necessary one because of disruptions and disappointments of various sorts that are common to missions.
A missionary may wrestle at times with weaknesses in his own labors and abilities. He may struggle with his ability to converse in the local languages and dialects with the people of God, but then struggle even more with his ability to preach in the local dialects and languages, which demands precision in pronunciation and careful word choice for clear, edifying sermons. Because of the demands of the workload and the heartfelt concern for the welfare and good future of the mission work, the missionary may succumb to exhaustion or the feeling of “burn out,” which regular furloughs are meant to address. He may face the changing needs of his family, and the added good work with his family may at times take away from his time and ability for the mission work as he would like. Situations where a missionary comes to terms with his limitations and with the demands of the workload may disappoint him in varying degrees. What will encourage him to deal with disappointments in his labors?
Many examples can be found in the history of missions in which foreign missionaries struggled with the apparent lack of fruit on their preaching and instruction among those who lived in idolatry. For all the effort and patient labor some missionaries gave, the positive fruit was sometimes very little, or non-existent. It was easy to become somewhat distressed at the very slow pace of conversions. For example, some Reformed missionaries noted that they had labored for four to ten years in their respective fields until their first converts were baptized. Another Reformed missionary, laboring in China in the 1840s, experienced the gathering of only five converts after initially serving in his field of labor for seven years.1
A major item of discouragement often has been that the amount of work is greater than the supply of laborers. That the workload is greater than the supply of laborers was the analysis regarding the PRCA mission work in the Philippines, as noted in a recent quarterly mission newsletter. After a thorough summary of the workload, the newsletter concluded that:
Another missionary is certainly needed in order to share this workload. But what especially contributes to the need for another missionary is the fact that we are working with so many different churches, groups, and contacts, and find it very difficult to do justice to the work in any one church or area. From our earthly point of view, it seems we could make more progress with the work of establishing solidly Reformed churches and a solidly Reformed denomination, under the Lord’s blessing, with at least one other missionary here.2
That situation is actually not new for New Testament missions, including recent Reformed missions. A missionary from the Reformed Church in America, laboring in China in the late 1800s gave a similar evaluation, although with an obvious hint of discouragement:
Our greatest burden, one which at times threatens to make us spiritless, is to see opened doors not entered, opportunities lost, the effort of years wasted, simply from the want of sufficient force to carry out the work.3
Besides those disappointments, there are other things that might hinder a missionary’s spiritual ambition in the work. For example, there may be unexpected sickness and/or death of missionaries or family members that interrupt the work. Sometimes opposition to the preaching and instruction may be so hostile in some mission fields that it brings the weekly flow of the work to a standstill. When regular members of an outstation or a newly formed church suddenly leave for various reasons, even after being admonished diligently, there may be great discouragement.
When such things happen in mission work, what is an appropriate response? When it is realized in missions that many are called but only a few actually repent, believe, and are baptized into the church, do we conclude that there is some flaw in the true gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ? Do we begin to question the ability of the Lord of the harvest to manage His work?
In the face of discouragements, faithful missionaries have shown remarkable and exemplary confidence in the coming Lord of the harvest. For example, that confidence is evident from one Reformed missionary’s labors in China long ago, the Rev. Daniel Rapalje, who wrote in one of his missionary reports: “Though the laborers are few, the Lord of the harvest will in some way, provide for gathering in the ripening grain.”4
Another more recent example is a statement by Rev. Daniel Kleyn, also in the November 2015 Philippine Mission Newsletter: “We also remain convinced that the Lord will provide the man He has sovereignly determined to send to this field. We wait patiently and prayerfully on Him, the Lord of the harvest.”5
That confidence in the face of disappointment is rooted in the Lord of the harvest, including the truth that He is coming again. It is rooted in the truth that Christ comes through the preaching of the gospel, even through a very difficult way: with much weakness, disappointments, and the humanly distressing reality of the great workload with few laborers.
In light of the humanly impossible way in which the Lord accomplishes His ingathering work, there is legitimate confidence in the Lord because, first of all, the Lord is in sovereign, providential control of the way in which missions progresses through the earth in the New Testament. He guides it to the uttermost parts of the earth in fulfillment of His promise. Our place in that work as His servants and all of our activity in that work does not change the fact that He governs the advance of the gospel through the earth according to the Father’s purpose.
In the second place, the Lord guides the progress of missions in this difficult way in order to prevent the church from boasting in herself as the cause or reason, either in whole or even in part, for the ingathering of the elect in Christ. It is a real temptation that we begin to boast in ourselves when the fruit of missions is a substantial gathering of believers and their seed. In order to prevent a church’s fall into that temptation, the Lord guides the work usually through difficult ways. This is the lesson that the Lord taught Gideon according to, “And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me.” The way in which the church is gathered must fit the way in which He returns: the way of the wonder of grace and salvation. That alone prevents the church from any boasting in herself, and motivates her to the praise of Jehovah alone.
Although limited laborers and the great workload are often a distressing reality for us, being reminded thereby that Christ is the sovereign, ruling, wise Lord of the harvest, the Lord instills in us confidence that the ingathering of His church for His final appearing will not fail.
While we do our mission work, we may be confident in the Lord with regard to the results of the Word preached. As that Word is faithfully preached and taught, we may be assured that the Word’s purpose will always be accomplished (). We ought not be dismayed when we experience that the Lord uses the Word preached to harden and to soften, to cast away and to gather, and to destroy and to build up. When positive results to the preaching seem to be non-existent, even after many years of faithful labor, still we may find rest and peace in the sovereign Lord of the harvest who brings to pass that result as well as preparation for His final appearing.
There is confidence in the Lord that all those whom He has ordained to eternal life will believe. There is confidence in the Lord that He will bring salvation to believers and their seed according to His counsel of election and His covenant promises. There is confidence that the Lord, with respect to the elect alone, “…is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (). Although the Lord is returning quickly, His final appearing will not take place until all His elect have been gathered to Him in true faith. The burden of whether someone will believe or not believe the gospel faithfully preached is a burden that a faithful missionary casts on the coming Lord in confidence that He, by His Holy Spirit and Word, will make sure that all those who have been ordained to eternal life will be saved—not even one of them shall perish.
In light of the challenging work of missions, a good confidence in the Lord is nurtured by the Lord through His Word and especially much prayer. The realities of the work itself and the truth that the harvest is the Lord’s work, forces us, as missionaries and supporting churches, to pray without ceasing to the Lord for His blessing, guidance, and strength to persevere in the duty of being His submissive and obedient servants with regard to His harvest.
Pray, then, with confidence in the Lord of the harvest that He will grant laborers for the harvest according to His will and good pleasure (). Pray with confidence in the Lord that He, according to His good pleasure and riches in glory, will provide, sustain, and preserve His faithful laborers unto abundant fruitfulness to His glory alone. Pray with confidence in the Lord who manages His harvest work faithfully and wisely in preparation for His final appearing.
1 Gerald F. De Jong, The Reformed Church in China, 1842-1951 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1992), 40-41.
2 Rev. D. Kleyn, “Philippine Mission Field Newsletter” (November 2015), 2.
3 De Jong, 84.
4 DeJong, 54.
5 Kleyn, 2.