Category Archives: Mission

Attending a Babine Funeral

I often still think about my few years as a missionary in Fort Babine, British Columbia.  It was an incredible experience, one that has left a mark on me.  To give you an idea of some of what we saw and heard, the following is an excerpt from my 2011 book, The Gospel Under the Northern Lights: A Missionary Memoir.  The events described here took place just a couple of months after we arrived in Fort Babine in October 2000.

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Attending a Funeral

Another interesting person we came to know and love was William Duncan.  He was an older single man who lived by himself in an immaculate house.  He had been a fishing guide and still had a passion for fishing, although his health didn’t always allow him to indulge.  When I first met him, he was 67.  He was comfortable talking about the fact that he was a hereditary chief from the Caribou clan.  His hereditary name was We Heh.  He had a lot of insight to give into the culture and history of the area.  He told me Fort Babine used to have one feast hall for each of the four clans, but they slowly deteriorated and disappeared.  Eventually, all the potlatch feasts would be held only in Burns Lake.  As a hereditary chief, Willie tried to attend all the feasts he could and he invited me to join him sometime.  One day I did.

Ted Lowley was a resident of the Lake Babine Nation reserve in Burns Lake and had recently passed away.  His funeral and the associated potlatch were held on December 9, 2000.  Willie was ready when I stopped by at his place at 8:00 in the morning and, together with Fred William, we set off for Burns Lake, via Smithers.  Along the way, we chatted and I discovered from Fred that the current population of Fort Babine was about ninety people living in twenty-six houses.  I also learned there was a lot of animosity between the people of Fort Babine and those of Burns Lake.  There was a strong feeling of alienation and that had to do with the history and the amalgamation process back in 1957.

We arrived in Smithers in good time, filled up with gas, and then headed over to the “Babine Bus Depot.”  That was what a lot of people called the Super Valu grocery store and its tiny mall.  There we had some breakfast together and met up with Adam George, who decided to come with us to Burns Lake.  We were in Burns by noon and went straight to the Roman Catholic Church there for the funeral service.  Approximately five or six hundred people were there for that, mostly native.

After the funeral mass, the coffin was taken to the cemetery.  After a few words from the priest and some sprinkling of “holy” water, the body was lowered into the grave.  As was typical for First Nations funerals, the family was expressive in their grief.  It’s certainly not what someone growing up in a Dutch immigrant community is used to.  It’s not bad; it’s just different and that’s fine.  Later on, all the immediate family members took a turn shovelling dirt onto the coffin.

From the cemetery we went over to the Woyenne feast hall.  Willie had been told that the funeral feast would start right away.  However, there was no one there.  By this time we were getting hungry, so Willie took us out for lunch to a local Chinese restaurant.  Afterwards, we headed back to the feast hall, but there was still hardly anybody there.  We took a tour around the Woyenne Lake Babine Nation reserve, including a look at the local Taj Mahal – the LBN band office.  There were a lot of new houses on the reserve, paved roads, good water and sewer, and a nearby hospital.

Finally, at around 4:00 we went back to the hall and more people were beginning to arrive.  There was lots of standing and sitting around and socializing.  The feast itself didn’t get started until around 7:00.  It began with prayer and then food was served.  We had bannock, soup, and platefuls of all kinds of other good stuff.   While we ate, people were busy making contributions to pay for the cost of the funeral.  There is some reciprocity involved with this aspect of the potlatch – in other words, a person would make a contribution knowing that eventually it would somehow get paid back.  But there were also many instances where people would make contributions with “no-return,” meaning they didn’t want to get paid back.  That was motivated more by generosity than by reciprocity.  The giving of gifts would go on for several hours, but we had to leave early because I wanted to be home by midnight.  The next day was Sunday and we would be up early to make the trip back into Smithers to attend church.  So that was the second time I attended a potlatch.  It helped me to understand more about First Nations culture in this part of BC.

A few days later, we traded in the big blue Suburban for a smaller vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe.  Our days of providing bus service between Smithers and Fort Babine were over.  With our family of four in the vehicle, there was only room for one more person.  The Tahoe was great to drive, although like with every vehicle we had up there, we ended up stuck in the snow and ice more times than I care to remember.  I also became an expert in changing flat tires – in short order I was able to do it in well under 15 minutes.

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Interested in reading more?  The Gospel Under the Northern Lights is available here.


Pastoral Q & A: Is It Necessary to Read the Liturgical Forms Exactly as Written?

When I was a missionary back in the early 2000s, I was working in a remote community where most people spoke English as a second language.  Additionally, these people had received little exposure to biblical teaching.  Our goal in that place was to establish a Reformed church.  Getting to that goal was going to be a long, incremental process.  Part of the process was introducing our fledgling congregation to our time-tested, biblically sound liturgical forms.  Since the Church Order does not apply to uninstituted, missionary congregations in the same way as to instituted, established churches, we had some flexibility.  With the Lord’s Supper and baptism forms, we adapted and simplified the existing forms.  This was done with the involvement both of the mission board and our supervising/sending consistory.  We aimed to reduce complex sentence structures and put the vocabulary and grammar as much as possible into Easy English.  The only form that became longer was the one for Public Profession of Faith.  In that instance, we adapted a form that had been used in Reformed mission work in Brazil — it had questions specifically related to repudiating Roman Catholicism.  In a missionary environment, working with an uninstituted congregation, this kind of flexibility is not only permissible, but often necessary.

But what about with an instituted church?  Instituted churches bind themselves to what they have agreed upon in the Church Order.  In both the Free Reformed Churches of Australia and Canadian Reformed Churches we have agreed that the sacraments shall be administered “with the use of the adopted forms” (FRCA CO 51, CanRC CO 56).  But what does that mean exactly?  Does that mean ministers are bound to read the forms exactly as we have them in the Book of Praise?

Our Church Order is not “the law of the Medes and Persians,” but it is also not a wax nose which you can point in whatever direction you wish.  Along with each article, there is historical background and also a history of interpretation.  The FRCA and CanRC Church Orders are based on the Church Order of Dort.  The original CO of Dort divided up the mention of the baptism and Lord’s Supper forms.  Article 58 said that “ministers shall employ the forms pertaining to the institution and administration of baptism.”  About the Lord’s Supper, article 62 said that “the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, together with the prayer for that purpose, shall be read at the Table.”  From this, it is reasonable to conclude that, with both forms, the original intent of Dort was that the forms should be read exactly as written.

Why did the whole idea of set liturgical forms develop in the first place?  It was because there such a diverse range of things being said in worship about the sacraments in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.  Each pastor had his own ideas and perspective; sometimes these appeared to be at odds with one another.  It was confusing and chaotic.  So it was considered wise and helpful to have uniformity in the way the sacraments were taught and administered.

In the history of the CanRC and FRCA, the normal understanding of the Church Order has been that we are bound to read the forms as written.  Ministers are not permitted to add and subtract from these forms at their whim, nor is there license to paraphrase at will.  Yes, there is room for minor, non-substantial variations.  For example, when I read the Prayer of Thanksgiving after baptism, I always insert the full name of the child at the end of the prayer.  There I’m simply substituting the full name for pronoun “he (or she).”  That’s not a substantial change.

Let me make two concluding points.

First, I’m convinced our liturgical forms could still use improvement in terms of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary.  In their current form they are beautiful, faithful, and useful, but they could be made more so.  When ministers feel the need to teach classes on the liturgical forms, and commentaries on the liturgical forms have been written, we may have a problem.  If they are to be regarded as quasi-sermons, our forms ought to be able to stand on their own as clear and faithful expositions of the essentials when it comes to the sacraments and other ordinances.  Now, there is a proper church political process to follow to make these sorts of changes.  Ministers on their own have no right to make changes to these forms independently of the proper process.  The forms are not ours to change.

Second, let me come back to what I said earlier about the Church Order not being “the law of the Medes and Persians” (which can never be changed — Esther 1:19).  I can imagine a situation where there is an instituted church facing special circumstances where it may not be feasible or desirable to read the liturgical forms exactly as written.  But in that case, again, it is not up for an individual minister or even for a consistory, to unilaterally forsake what has been agreed upon in the Church Order.  In those circumstances, the matter should be brought to a classis.  If an instituted church believes their circumstances require them to adapt the liturgical forms in some way, then present the matter to a classis for explanation and discussion.  At the very least, the other churches should be made aware that this particular church feels unable to maintain that part of what has been agreed upon.  This is part of what it means to live together in a federation.  We do everything “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) because our God is a God of order.


Missional and Reformed — Five Positive Theses

Fostering an outward-looking perspective for our Reformed churches is important to me.  Doing that while maintaining a Reformed identity is also vital.  So, the other day I posted five negative theses about being missional and Reformed.  Today, as promised, I’m following up with five positive theses.  As before, I offer the thesis and then a little explanation/commentary (asking you to realize that way more could be said).

1. Being missional involves putting Jesus and the gospel at the center of everything

This one is first because it is of primary importance.  Since we recognize the pressing urgency of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), Reformed churches must be always self-consciously putting the gospel out there.  By “gospel” I mean the good news of everything Jesus Christ has done and will do for sinners.   That gospel message has to resound not only in our preaching, but in every aspect of church life.   We ought to be known as churches that just can’t stop talking about Jesus.

2. Being missional involves intentional discipleship into an outward-looking mindset and practices

It is odd to me that the idea of discipleship is not more strongly emphasized in many of our Reformed churches — because Scripture teaches that one of the key things that defines a Christian is being a disciple of Jesus.  Being a disciple means being a student, not only in the sense of learning information from the Master, but learning to follow and imitate the Master’s way of life.  Our Teacher’s way of life was always outward-looking — he seeks and saves the lost.  So as Reformed churches, we ought to be discipling existing and prospective church members to do likewise.  Catechism classes should include discipling our younger members in how to reach out.  New member classes should be so bold as to teach new disciples how to start right away at making more disciples — we need to harness their excitement and enthusiasm for the gospel to spread the gospel further!

3. Being missional involves an attitude shift

Sometimes people have the idea that becoming more missional means radically changing everything we do as Reformed churches, dropping some things and adding others.  Not so.  Instead, at its heart, missionality involves a shift in perspective.  We go from having a church which exists as an end unto itself, to being a church oriented outwards and inwards.  We beginning thinking about the lost, we talk about the lost, and we pray about the lost.  This shift in perspective/attitude, also means adjusting existing programs to incorporate an outward looking perspective.  I give one such example here.

4. Being missional involves a cultural shift

Most, if not all, of our Reformed churches are what we call “high-context cultures.”  There are many unspoken assumptions embedded in our local church cultures.  For example, in the Free Reformed and Canadian Reformed churches, we usually expect everyone to know there is a section of Psalms in the Book of Praise, followed by a section of hymns.  In some of our churches, you are expected to look at the church bulletin and know that the women’s society meets at the church at such and such a day and time — no one will tell you, you just ought to know.  In other churches, strangely and sadly, you are expected to know that there is assigned seating.  Many more examples could be given.  Being missional means shifting to a low(-er) context culture where we don’t assume newcomers will automatically understand everything we do and say.  An excellent place to begin putting this into practice is the church website.  Ask an unbeliever to look at your church website and point out the Reformed jargon or anything unclear.  You might be surprised.

5. Being missional involves awareness that on any given Sunday we could have guests worshipping with us

We ought to pray about guests — that God would bring them and that God would bless them.  We expect to see guests and when they arrive, we want to be aware that they’re there.  For some years, I have greeted our members and guests before the worship service.  Part of the reason I do this is to be aware of who is worshipping with us, whether we have guests or not.  But congregation members should also be attuned to this.  In some of our churches, there are Bibles and Books of Praise in the pew (good missional practice, in my view), in others not.  For those who don’t, the members of the church should be observing newcomers and whether they have a Bible and Book of Praise, or not.  If they don’t, offer them one of yours, or help them to access the books from the ushers or whatever.  When there are guests, warmly welcome them — introduce yourself, offer hospitality, etc.  We do this because of who we represent — we represent our King.  He has a warm, friendly heart and so should we.

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With these five negative and positive theses, I don’t claim to have exhausted what could be said on this topic.  I also don’t claim that all of these are implemented in the church I serve or by me personally.  However, I believe they are goals for which we ought to strive.  I commend them for your serious consideration.  The world around us is perishing and the church is the means by which Christ will bring rescue.  Therefore, it behooves us to look outward and care deeply about the lost, while at the same time continuing on stand on the biblical teachings and practices which define us as Reformed churches.


Missional and Reformed — Five Negative Theses

One of my passions is mission and evangelism.  I suppose this makes sense since I started my ministry as a missionary in 2000.  In every church I’ve served as a pastor, I’ve emphasized how important it is for believers to be outward looking.  I’ve repeatedly shown how God’s Word teaches us to be people who have a heart for the lost around us.  At the same time, I’ve always been convinced that none of this is contrary to our Reformed identity — quite the opposite!  In fact, the burden of my doctoral dissertation (For the Cause of the Son of God) was to demonstrate that, far from discouraging an outward looking perspective, the Belgic Confession fosters it.  Being missional is integral to being Reformed.

In years gone by, there were those who saw a tension between Reformed identity and being outward looking churches.  Sadly, today that phenomenon still exists.   To address it, I want to put out a number of theses about being missional and Reformed.  I’ll divide them into negative and positive theses.  In this post, I’ll lay out the negative theses and in a following post, I’ll do the other ones.  I offer the thesis and then a little explanation/commentary (asking you to realize that far more could be said).

1.  To be missional, there is no need to give up the Reformed confessions

Our Reformed identity is grounded in what we confess from God’s Word in the Three Forms of Unity.  These confessions foster an outward looking, missional perspective.  In For the Cause of the Son of God, I pointed out how the Belgic Confession was originally written as “the church’s witness to the world” (to use the brilliant title of P.Y. DeJong’s commentary on the Confession).  In a follow-up book, To Win Our Neighbours for Christ, I argued that also the Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dort foster a missionary-mindedness in our churches.  Our confessional heritage is decidedly NOT a liability when it comes to being outward looking.

2.  To be missional, there is no need to give up Reformed worship

Being Reformed means worshipping in a Reformed fashion.  By that, I mean that we do not worship God “in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word” (HC QA 96).  It’s what we call the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW).  Because it is grounded in Scripture, the RPW ought to be non-negotiable for Reformed churches.  A Reformed worship service ought always to have the same basic elements — the reading and preaching of Scripture, prayer, singing, offerings, and sacraments.  The circumstantial aspects of worship are negotiable and can differ from church to church.  A missional Reformed church can and should maintain Reformed worship, but it will often be necessary to provide instruction to visitors and new believers concerning that Reformed worship.  Such instruction, offered inside and outside the worship context, will also benefit those who have been longtime members.

3.  To be missional, there is no need to give up the Reformed name

It should be obvious that your name is part of your identity.  In his book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, Thom Rainer insists that it is a myth that “the unchurched are turned off by denominational names in the church name” (p.38).  In research for this book, Rainer discovered that over 80% of the formerly unchurched people he surveyed said that “the church name had little or no influence upon their joining a particular church” (p.39).  Further, Rainer points out that of those who said that the church name did have an influence, nearly two-thirds said that it was a positive influence.  There is no reason to believe things would be different with Reformed churches.  Giving up your Reformed name serves no missional purpose — so why do it?  Moreover, why not be upfront and honest about what kind of church you are?

4.  To be missional, there is no need to give up on our Reformed local church community

Sometimes Reformed believers resist efforts to become more outward looking by arguing that our priority has to be the local communion of saints.  First we need to work on a stronger bond between brothers and sisters in our church family, and then once we have that, then maybe we can start thinking about (and maybe even doing!) evangelism.  This is a false dilemma.  The church exists ultimately for the glory of God, but it exists for his glory through human beings.  The church exists for God’s glory through human beings loving one another both inside and outside the church.  Scripture does not prioritize one over the other and neither should we.  We are to love our brothers and sisters in our church family, but also love all those whom God places on our path — and show that love by sharing the gospel with them when God gives the opportunity.

5. To be missional, there is no need to give up on our Reformed connections

Here we’re thinking of the broader Reformed church community, i.e. on the federational level.  Here we’re thinking of connections through things like Reformed church polity.   Reformed churches differ from one another, even in the same federation.  They each have a different history and sometimes even a different church culture.  Different is not bad, so long as these differences are within the bounds of what we confess and what we have agreed upon in our church order.  Churches that are less missionally-minded need contact with more missionally-minded churches in minor assemblies and other such contexts.  All churches, however much missionally-minded, benefit from the accountability and encouragement that comes from living together in a federation.

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Reformation Confessions and Evangelism

We’re continuing to celebrate what God did in the Reformation starting 500 years ago.  For today, I’m sharing the notes from a talk I did in Brazil back in August.

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Introduction

One of the most important contributions of the Reformation was its production of confessions and catechisms.  Only a few of them are still well-known today.  For example, Reformed churches continue to use the Heidelberg Catechism written in 1563.  They also continue to use the Belgic Confession written in 1561.  What many people do not know is that there were numerous confessions and catechisms produced during the time of the Reformation.  If we only look at the Netherlands, there were at least 18 Reformed confessions and catechism produced between 1530 and 1580.[1]  James Dennison has produced a four volume set of Reformed confessions from the 16th and 17th centuries.[2]  Volume One covers 1523 to 1552.  It contains 33 confessions and catechisms translated into English.  These come from all over Europe:  Switzerland, Germany, Spain, England, the Netherlands, Bohemia and more.  Moreover, this is not even close to a complete collection.  The number of Reformed confessions is simply amazing.

Why did the Reformation produce so many confessions?   After all, was not the Reformation all about Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone?  They said they believed in the Bible alone.  Yet they had all these manmade documents for their churches.  How could they fit those things together?  The answer is simple.  They believed that their confessions were just faithful summaries of biblical teaching.  Their confessions and catechisms never replaced the Bible or stood over the Bible.  They were guides to the important teachings of the Bible.

The Reformation churches saw that confessions and catechisms were helpful.  They were helpful as statements of faith.  When someone wanted to know what their church believed, they could turn to the confession of the church.  They were helpful as teaching tools.  When someone was going to be brought into the church, the confessions were a pedagogical tool for teaching the important doctrines of Christianity.  When young people were being discipled in the church, they would be taught with the help of confessions and catechisms.  They were also helpful as something to bind the church together in doctrinal unity.  These documents contained the faith that the church agreed upon together as the basis for fellowship.

In some instances, Reformation confessions were also regarded as evangelistic tracts.  This is certainly true for the Belgic Confession.[3]  It was addressed to a Roman Catholic world lost in darkness. It was an effort to win Roman Catholics with the gospel.  The Belgic Confession was originally written in French, not in Latin.  It was written in the language of regular people in order to win the regular people.  It was also originally written in the format of a tract.  It was printed in a small convenient format which would fit in your pocket.  It was meant to be printed cheaply and in great quantities so that it could be widely shared.  And it was.

In what follows, I want to look at some of these Reformation confessions and what they have to say about the evangelistic calling of the church.  I’m going to mention the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, of course.  I’m also going to be discussing some of the confessions and catechisms that are not as well known.  I should say that I will not be discussing the Westminster Confession or Catechisms.  These were written in the post-Reformation period in the 1600s.  Our focus is going to be on the Reformation in the 1500s, particularly on the non-Lutheran side of the Reformation.

William Farel’s Summary and Brief Declaration

One of the earliest Reformers was William Farel.  Farel is most remembered for the role he played in getting John Calvin to stay in Geneva in 1536.  Calvin was just passing through on his way somewhere else.  With fire in his eyes, Farel told him that if he would not stay in Geneva, Calvin would be cursed by God.  However, there is far more to Farel than this one incident in his life.  He became a Protestant in France already in 1520.  He was known as a powerful and passionate preacher of the gospel.  Farel also had a strong sense of the missionary calling of the church.  In 1529, he was preaching in the Swiss town of Aigle.  While there he drafted up one of the first Reformed confessions, his Summary and Brief Declaration.[4]   This confession was a personal effort and it doesn’t appear to have been ever officially adopted by any church.

In his introduction to the Summary, Farel speaks about his purpose in this confession.  He says that he was writing “for the well-being, profit, and salvation of each one.”  He expressed his desire “that the whole world give honor and glory to God alone.”  Finally, in the introduction he prayed that God would shine the light of his salvation in Jesus Christ “to such a degree that those from all parts of the world may come to worship our Father…”  This confession had a missionary purpose behind it.

Chapter 16 of Farel’s Summary is about the doctrine of the church.  The most important calling of the church is to preach the gospel.  The true church of Christ must preach the gospel not only to those of a high social status, but also to the simple.  Like Paul says in 1 Cor. 9:16, we will be cursed if don’t preach the gospel.  And if we don’t bring the good news to the lost and wayward, Farel uses Ezekiel 3 and 33 to remind us that we will be accountable for the loss of their souls.

In chapter 17 he develops this a little bit further when he writes about the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  These keys do not come from human beings, but from God.  Specifically, Farel says that the Holy Spirit helps us to understand the Bible, but also sends us out to preach the gospel.  Here Farel refers directly the Great Commission as found in Matthew 28, Mark 16, and John 20.  Farel understood that the Great Commission to bring the gospel to the world is still a commission for the church today.

Chapter 35 is about the Power of Pastors and here too we see a missionary and evangelistic emphasis coming through.  Listen to what Farel writes:  “When the true pastors evangelize purely, ‘God speaks in them’ (Matt. 10:19-20) by such a great power that believers have eternal life, and unbelievers are confounded.  And never will the messenger of God be overcome.”  The greatest portion of chapter 35 is a prayer to God – quite unusual for a confession.  Farel prays about how the Word of God has been kept out of the hands of the people for so long.  He then says,

Must your holy gospel be so lowly revered so little that it is neither spoken, nor regarded, nor read?  Why have you commanded that it is to be preached throughout all the world to every creature” (Mark 16:15) so that every creature may hear it and know it, if it is not permissible for each one to read it?

Notice again how he refers to the Great Commission in Mark 16.  He believes it is God’s command for the church of all ages.  Let me give just one more quote from chapter 35.  Here again, Farel is praying:

Rise up, Lord, show that it is your pleasure that your Son be honoured, that the ordinances of his kingdom be publicized, known, and kept by everyone.  And that everyone know you through your Son “from the greatest to the smallest” (Jer. 31:34).  Make the trumpet of the holy gospel be heard to the ends and tip of the world.  Give strength to the true evangelizers, destroy all sowers of error, that all the earth may serve, call upon, honor and worship you.

Another form of this prayer is found at the very end of Farel’s Summary.  From this confession dated 1529, it is readily apparent that this Reformer had a heart for the lost and an eye for the calling of the church to bring the gospel to the lost, not only nearby, but also “to the ends and tip of the world.”

Calvin’s Catechism (1537)

Moving on to another Reformation confession, we look at something written by John Calvin.  Calvin is well-known for his book, the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes in March of 1536.  He arrived in Geneva later that year, in August of 1536.  The Institutes were then quite a bit smaller than the final edition published in 1559.  While the book was meant for theological training, it was not suitable for teaching children or the less educated.  Consequently, one of the first things that Calvin did in Geneva was to summarize the Institutes into the form of a catechism.  This was Calvin’s first catechism and it was published in French in 1537 and in Latin in 1538.[5]  This catechism would have been used for teaching in the Reformed church at Geneva.

The 1537/38 Catechism is not written with questions and answers, but with articles or paragraphs.  It’s still called a Catechism because it was used for teaching, and also because it contained the three essential parts of Christian teaching:  the Law of God, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Historically, having those three parts is what defines a catechism, not having questions and answers.

Like his friend William Farel, Calvin too had a missionary heart and it shows in this first catechism.  It’s especially evident when he deals with the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.”  What was Christ teaching his people to pray for?  Calvin writes, “We pray…that God’s reign may come, that is to say, that the Lord may from day to day multiply the number of his faithful believers who celebrate his glory in all works…”  We are praying for the success of the gospel.  Calvin adds, “Similarly, we ask that from day to day he may through new growths spread his light and enlighten his truth, so that Satan and his lies and the darkness of his reign may be dissipated and abolished.” According to Calvin, the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer has to do with evangelism.

Calvin’s Catechism (1541) and the Large Emden Catechism

In 1541 Calvin wrote a new catechism for the church in Geneva.[6]  This time, however, he didn’t use paragraphs or articles.  Instead, he tried the question and answer format.  This catechism was large — it contained 373 questions and answers.  But again, as before, it covered the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Just as with the earlier Catechism, Calvin links the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer to evangelism and the growth of the church.  Christ was teaching us to pray that “day by day the Lord may increase the numbers of the faithful…”  Note how he speaks of an increase in numbers.  In the next question and answer he says something similar.  The question asks, “Is that not taking place today?”  The answer, “Yes, indeed – in part, but we pray that it may continually increase and advance…”

This understanding of the second petition was common amongst Reformation catechisms.  I can mention two other examples.  The Polish Reformer John à Lasco wrote the Large Emden Catechism in 1546.[7]   This catechism too speaks of asking God to “sanctify, increase, strengthen and preserve in the unity of the faith, the gathering of the faithful…”  The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 speaks in a similar way, “Preserve and increase your church.”  The word that was used in the original German for “increase” means multiply numerically.  There was a consensus amongst Reformed churches that the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer involves Christians praying for God to grow his church through evangelism and mission.  Just in passing you should note that this understanding is found in the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms later on too.

The First and Second Helvetic Confessions

The First Helvetic Confession was published in Basel, Switzerland in 1536.  There were several authors, but the most well-known of them was Heinrich Bullinger.  The First Helvetic Confession was written to unite Reformed believers in Switzerland, but it was also hoped that this document could be instrumental in bringing unity with the Lutherans in Germany.

The First Helvetic Confession was therefore sent to Martin Luther for his review.  It was hoped that he would approve of it and that would lay the foundation for closer relations with the Lutherans.  Along with the Confession came a declaration or introduction written for the Lutherans by Heinrich Bullinger.[8]  That introduction speaks of the evangelistic calling of the church.  Bullinger wrote the following:

Although the Lord has expressly said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44), yet it was his will that the gospel of the kingdom should be preached to all nations and that bishops should discharge this duty of the ministry, with great care and diligence, and with special watchfulness, and be instant in season and out of season, and by all means, that they might gain as many as possible unto Christ.  For therefore, when he was ready to depart hence into heaven in his body, he said to his disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). [9]

I really do not understand how any serious scholar can say that the Reformation churches didn’t believe in the abiding relevance of the Great Commission.  We see it here again.  Bullinger and the church at Basel believed that the gospel was to be preached to all nations by the church today.  And it’s also noteworthy that Luther did review this confession and did approve of it – he had some reluctance but only about some of the wording in the articles regarding the Lord’s Supper.[10]

Since there was a First Helvetic Confession, there must also be a Second.  And perhaps you’re wondering what that says about evangelism.  The Second Helvetic Confession was written by Heinrich Bullinger and appeared in 1566.[11]  The first chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession is the most well-known part of this document.  It’s about preaching.  Bullinger famously said that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”  What he meant was that when the Scriptures are faithfully proclaimed, God is speaking to us through such preaching.  Bullinger goes on in that first chapter to point out what Scripture says about inward illumination.  The Holy Spirit has to bring light to a dark heart before there will be faith.  But, he says, that does not eliminate the need for preaching.  Bullinger writes, “For he that illuminates inwardly by giving men the Holy Spirit, the same one, by way of commandment, said unto his disciples, ‘Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15).”  So the gospel needs to be preached, and not only in the church, but “to the whole creation.”  Again we ought to note the abiding relevance of the Great Commission for the Church.

Many Reformation confessions spoke about the marks of a true church.  Three marks are often mentioned:  faithful preaching of the gospel, the faithful administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of church discipline.  One of the confessions that mentions these three marks is the Scottish Confession of Faith of 1560.[12]  Six men with the first name John were responsible for writing it, the most famous of these Johns was John Knox.  The Scottish Confession of Faith says in article 18 that the first mark of a faithful church is “the true preaching of the Word of God.”  Now you might be tempted to think that this is referring only to preaching done within the church, and not missionary or evangelistic preaching.  However, there is a proof-text for this statement in the original Scottish Confession.  The proof text is Matthew 28:19-20 – the Great Commission.

The Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism

We find something similar with the Belgic Confession of 1561.  This was written by Guido de Brès as the official confession of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.  Article 29 deals with the marks of the true and false church.  Just like with the Scottish Confession, the first mark of a true church is that she practices the pure preaching of the gospel.  In the first editions of the Belgic Confession, one of the proof-texts for that teaching was again, Matthew 28:18-20.  The Reformed Churches were not just thinking of preaching within an instituted church in a worship service.  They were also thinking of Christ’s continuing call for the church to preach the gospel to the nations.

That brings us back to the Heidelberg Catechism to finish off.  I’ve already mentioned it a couple of times.  The Heidelberg Catechism is the most well-known of all the Reformation catechisms – and for good reason.  It was commissioned by a godly prince named Elector Frederick of the Palatinate.  It was first published in 1563.  It was mainly written by Zacharias Ursinus, a professor of theology in Heidelberg.  He was assisted by Caspar Olevianus, a pastor in Heidelberg and others as well.  The Heidelberg Catechism is loved all over the world for its warm and personal presentation of the faith of the Bible.  It also deserves to be known for the way it speaks of our calling towards those who are lost.  I’ve already mentioned what it says about the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer – we pray for the increase of Christ’s church.  But there are other places where the Catechism speaks about evangelism, about our calling to be God’s instruments in increasing his church.

In Lord’s Day 12, the Heidelberg Catechism speaks about the three-fold office of Christ.  Other Reformed catechisms do that as well, including the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms.  It’s common to confess that Christ is prophet, priest, and king.  However, it is rare to confess that Christians share in Christ’s three-fold anointing and office.  In fact, I have not been able to find any other Reformed Catechism which says that besides the Heidelberg Catechism.[13]  The Heidelberg Catechism asks in QA 32, “Why are you called a Christian?”  Answer:  “Because I am a member of Christ by faith and thus share in his anointing…”  Christ was anointed with the Holy Spirit to be a prophet, priest, and king, and so have Christians.  We have the same Holy Spirit living in us giving us the same calling as our head Jesus Christ.  As part of that, I may “as prophet confess his name…”  This is a calling to speak to everyone we can about the Saviour.  A prophet must speak.  A silent prophet is unimaginable — a silent prophet is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  If we truly are Christians, then we are prophets.  Then we truly need to witness to Jesus Christ to whomever we can with the words from our mouths.

The Heidelberg Catechism also speaks about our lives having an evangelistic purpose.  The Catechism divides up into three parts:  our sin and misery, our deliverance, and our thankfulness.  Lord’s Day 32 begins the third part of the Catechism on gratitude.  The question is:  since we are saved by grace, we must we still do good works?  There are four reasons given.  One is for us to show our thankfulness to God.  Another is so that he may be praised.  The third reason has to do with our assurance.  And the fourth reason has to do with our neighbours:  “that by our godly walk of life we may win our neighbours for Christ.”  Living in obedience to God sets us up for evangelistic opportunities.  Unbelievers watch and see that we are different from others.  That can make them curious.  That can make them ask us questions.  Questions like, “Why are you different?”  Then we can tell them about the Saviour who has redeemed us and who is working in our lives with his Spirit to make us different.

Conclusion

The Reformation produced this vast quantity of confessions.  In each instance, the Reformed people behind these documents were seeking to be faithful to the Word of God.  I haven’t told you about all the proof-texts and Scriptural support for everything you’ve heard.  A lot of it is obviously biblical — at least I hope it is.  Certainly we can all agree that the missionary calling of the church is biblical.  The Bible calls us to evangelize.  Since this is such a strong message in the Bible, we should not be surprised to find it being expressed in various Reformed confessions and catechisms.  Now I should add that you will not necessarily find it in all Reformation confessions and catechisms.  But definitely in the best ones, and especially in ones that have stood the test of time – ones like the Heidelberg Catechism.  In conclusion, one of the most important ways to understand the Reformation is as a missionary event.  Because it was a missionary event, many of its creeds and confessions also speak of the evangelistic calling of the church of Christ.

[1] See Williem Heijting, De catechismi en confessies in de Nederlandse reformatie tot 1585 (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1989).

[2] James T. Dennison, Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008-2014).

[3] See my For the Cause of the Son of God: The Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession (Fellsmere: Reformation Media and Press, 2011) and To Win Our Neighbors for Christ: The Missiology of the Three Forms of Unity (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015).

[4] In what follows, I’m using the translation found in vol. 1 of Dennison’s Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, 53-111.

[5] In what follows, I’m quoting from the translation found in vol. 1 of Dennison’s Reformed Confessions, 354-392.

[6] I’m using the translation found in vol. 1 of Dennison, 468-519.

[7] Dennison, vol. 1, 590-642.

[8] Luther and Calvinism, eds. Herman J. Selderhuis, J. Marius J. Lange van Ravenswaay, 195.

[9] Peter Hall (ed.), The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1992 reprint), 255.

[10] “The Myth of the Swiss Lutherans,” Amy Nelson Burnett, Zwingliana 22 (2005), 48-49.

[11] See Arthur C. Cochrane (ed.), Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 224-301.

[12] Cochrane, Reformed Confessions, 163-184.

[13] Craig’s Catechism (1581) speaks of Christians sharing in Christ’s office as a priest, but not as prophet and king.  The Large Emden Catechism asks (QA 135):  “Are there no priests any more?”  Basically, the LEC’s answer is no.