Category Archives: Mission

The First Mark and Mission

1561 Belgic Confession with proof-text referring to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

Of the Belgic Confession’s articles on the doctrine of the church, article 29 is probably the most well-known amongst Reformed church members.  It describes the marks of the true and false church.  First among the marks of a true church is “the pure preaching of the gospel.”  What does this mean for mission?  What does this mean for our churches in relation to the lost around us in our own communities?

Historical Background   

In the early 1950s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) was beginning to develop a deeper conviction about its responsibility to spread the gospel at home and overseas.  To be sure, missionary consciousness was part of the CRC’s fabric from its beginning in 1857.  Initially, prayerful and financial support were given to Dutch and South African mission works.  It took some time for the CRC to develop its own missionary efforts.  There were extensive discussions at early CRC Synods about whether mission should be a denominational, classis, or local affair.  Eventually, the CRC settled on a denominational approach to mission.  The CRC Synod of 1880 appointed their first missions committee, then called the “Board of Heathen Missions.” In 1888, the decision was made to begin mission work among the American Indians.  In 1896, the CRC finally began work among the Navajo and Zuni peoples of the American Southwest.

The CRC began overseas work in Nigeria a few decades later.  It was one of the missionaries to Nigeria who really began to stir up discussions about mission in the CRC.  Unfortunately, Rev. Harry Boer would go on to become infamous for his objections to certain points in the Canons of Dort, but for our interests here, we can note his role in stimulating CRC interest in spreading the gospel in the mid-twentieth century.          

In 1952, a Christian Reformed consistory overtured the CRC Synod to “to draw up a creedal statement concerning missions.”  The CRC Synod declined to do so, on the grounds that “The work of Missions is included in the connotation of the first mark of the church, namely ‘the faithful preaching of the Word.'”  This was the earliest rumblings of dissatisfaction in the CRC with the Three Forms of Unity regarding mission — a history that I have traced and evaluated in one of the chapters of For the Cause of the Son of God.  Interestingly, the CRC Synod appealed to article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  Speaking through its Synod, the CRC in this era considered that the Belgic Confession spoke to the missionary task of the church. 

However, this was not a unanimously held position in the CRC.  Later in 1952, Harry Boer published his response to the Synod’s decision.  He pointed out that the CRC edition of the Belgic Confession then in use did not support the grounds for this decision.  The relevant part of article 29 of that edition reads, “The marks by which the true Church is known are these:  If the pure doctrine of the Gospel is preached therein…”  Boer built his case on the word “therein.”  He noted that the earlier Dutch and Latin translations did not have that word.  He did not mention the earliest French editions of 1561/62, but they do not have it either.  While Boer was wrong about the Belgic Confession in many respects, he did get this correct.  There was a problem here with the old CRC edition of the Confession.

When the CRC published a new edition in 1985, this problem was corrected.  The Canadian Reformed Churches also had “therein” in their first English edition.  I suspect that it originally came from the English text adopted by the CRC in 1912.  But when a new edition of the Confession was adopted by the CanRC in 1983, “therein” was gone. 

Several North American Reformed churches continue to use the English text that basically dates back to 1912 and includes “therein” in article 29.  Among these are the Heritage Reformed, the Free Reformed, the Protestant Reformed and the Reformed Church in the United States.  Until this is corrected, Boer’s point sticks among these brethren:  one cannot appeal to the first mark of the true church in article 29 as a place where the Belgic Confession speaks about mission.

Biblical and Reformed = Missional

One might also ask whether it is even biblical to restrict the mark of a true church to what goes on in established congregations in their public worship services.  This is a place where the original 1561 Belgic Confession can help us.  Matthew 28:18-20, the Great Commission, is one of the proof texts for this statement in the original confession as penned by Guido de Brès.  In that passage, our Lord Jesus sends his disciples out to preach, teach, and disciple “all nations.”  Through those disciples, our Lord was also sending out his church of all ages and places.  Clearly the original intent of the Belgic Confession was to include the missionary calling of the church under the first mark.  A church that does not faithfully proclaim the gospel inside and outside its membership has a credibility problem when it comes to being a true church.

The Reformed churches in the days of de Brès understood this well.  Being Reformed meant being outward looking.  It meant looking outwards and seeing the vast numbers of lost people who needed the gospel because they did not have Christ and were heading for hell.  It meant that the pastors were compelled by love to take seriously the charge of Paul to Timothy:  “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5).  And they did. 

But this outward looking orientation indicated by article 29 was not limited to pastors.  Martyrology is a genre of religious literature dedicated to the stories of those who have been martyred for their faith.  The most well-known in English is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.  The first Reformed martyrology was written in French by Jean Crespin in 1554.  In that first edition, as well as in subsequent ones, Crespin described not only the martyrdoms of Reformed pastors, but of many Reformed church members.  They were often killed for sharing the biblical gospel with friends and neighbours.  Compelled by love, they could not keep silent.  Among them were believers who had been pastored by de Brès, including at least one entire family, the Ogviers of Lille.

According to our Belgic Confession, the navel-gazing, self-obsessed church places a question mark behind its status as a true church.  The ghetto mentality is not Reformed.  When we’re labelled “the frozen chosen” and we deserve it, we’re not being faithful to either our confessions or Scripture.  Instead, being Reformed means being missional, not only in terms of sending out missionaries to distant lands, but being outward looking and caring about the lost right in front of us who need the gospel.


Don’t Share Your Faith?

Sharing the gospel isn’t only a biblical imperative, it’s also something every Christian should instinctively want to do.  If you love your Saviour, why wouldn’t you want others to hear about him?  However, someone could be held back by a Scripture passage which, at first glance, seems to tell us not to share our faith.  I’m thinking of Romans 14:22a, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.”  That could be understood as saying Christians shouldn’t evangelize.

When faced with an interpretive issue like this, it’s a good idea to look at other Bible translations, especially if you don’t know the original languages of Scripture.  Above I quoted from the ESV, a translation which attempts to be both literal and readable.  The New King James Version is similar:  “Do you have faith?  Have it to yourself before God.”  While the first clause becomes a question in the NKJV, it still represents essential a literal rendering of the Greek. 

This is an instance where the New International Version is helpful.  The NIV leans more to a “dynamic equivalent” approach to translation.  In this approach, being literal is less important than being understandable.  This approach has its pros and cons.  But in Romans 14:22a, the meaning is clearer in the NIV:  “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”  This translation makes it clear this has nothing to do with evangelism. 

With the ESV and NKJV, it is possible to discern that from the context of Romans 14:22.  The context has to do with convictions about eating clean and unclean foods.  However, the word “faith” usually refers to faith in God or in Christ and that can throw us off in verse 22.  Sometimes the word “faith” can also refer to the whole body of Christian teaching, as in “the Christian faith.”  But the Greek word pistis can occasionally also mean “conviction” or “belief about something” and so it is here in Romans 14:22a.

We can learn two things here. 

First, we’re reminded again that “a text without context is a pretext.”  You could remove Romans 14:22a from its context and make it sound as if God is telling us not to evangelize.  The context helps us see how such an assertion would be erroneous.  So remember to always study the context.

Second, we see that there are no perfect Bible translations.  I appreciate a lot of things about the ESV, but its literal approach sometimes hinders understanding.  I appreciate some things about the NIV, but its dynamic equivalent approach sometimes forces readers to adopt a questionable understanding.  The takeaway here is, if you have no training in the original languages, don’t study with just one Bible translation.  By using two or three together, you may be able to compensate for the blind spots of each one.  Bible Gateway has a great tool where you can easily add parallel translations to a passage you’re studying.  I’ve highlighted (in red) the button for this function in the screenshot below – it’s in the upper left hand corner of the tool bar. 


Every Believer Evangelism

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”  Acts 8:4

Reformed Christians have sometimes been accused of being the “frozen chosen.”  Chosen by God’s sovereign grace, we’re frozen when it comes to evangelism.  We have cold hearts that don’t care about the lost and therefore do nothing about the plight of the lost in our lives.  Unfortunately, I think we have to admit that there’s been some truth to this.  To be sure, it’s not because of the doctrine of election.  There are other factors at work, some of them cultural, some personal, and some doctrinal.

One doctrinal factor I’ve encountered is a mistaken understanding of how evangelism is described in the Scriptures.  According to this view, evangelism is limited to special office bearers like ministers or missionaries.  Whenever the Bible speaks about evangelism, it’s speaking only about the official proclamation of God’s Word by one of these special office bearers.  Scripture gives no evidence or example of regular believers evangelizing.

At first glance, it may appear that Acts 8:4 supports this contention.  After all, it speaks about “preaching” and isn’t preaching something limited to special office bearers?  There’s a long tradition in English Bible translation of translating the Greek word used there as “preaching.”  It’s a tradition that extends to even before the King James Version, found with Wycliffe, Tyndale and the Geneva Bible.  Despite the tradition however, it’s arguably not the best translation for this word. 

The word in Greek is a form of the verb euangelizo  — the English word “evangelism” is derived from this word.  In general, it means to “bring or announce good news.”  Oftentimes it does have the sense of official preaching or proclamation, but not always.  Sometimes it simply refers to someone (anyone) speaking a message of good news.

What does it mean in Acts 8:4?  Here we need to look at the context.  Who were those scattered?  That’s referring to the believers in Jerusalem.  Acts 8:3 speaks of Saul ravaging the church, entering houses, and “dragging off men and women” and putting them in prison.  This was the great persecution of the church in Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 8:1, which results in all the believers being scattered except the apostles.  So the apostles were not among those referred to in Acts 8:4.  In fact, it appears that this is just referring to ordinary believers from the church at Jerusalem.

In Acts 8:5, Luke draws attention to Philip, who has also departed Jerusalem, and preaches Christ in Samaria.  There are two important things to note here.  One is that Philip was a deacon, not an apostle, not a minister, and not an officially ordained missionary.  He was a special office bearer, but not one normally entrusted with the task of official proclamation.  The second important thing to note isn’t evident from the ESV Bible translation.  In the original Greek, there is a grammatical construction (the correlative conjunctions men…de) used in verses 4 and 5 which contrasts the two parties.  In simple terms, the grammar prevents one from arguing that Philip is meant as an example of the individuals mentioned in verse 4.  He is set apart from them by this grammatical construction.  The Holy Spirit still highlights Philip’s special role.

It’s only natural to conclude that verse 4 speaks of ordinary Christians spreading the message of the gospel.  In fact, I haven’t been able to find a commentary which asserts otherwise.  This is a clear example of believers evangelizing apart from the special offices.

But is the description of Acts 8:4 prescriptive for Christians today?  There are two angles we should explore.  One has to do with what the book of Acts is really about.  Our English Bibles label the book the Acts of the Apostles.  But Luke didn’t give it that title, or any title for that matter.  In Acts 1:1 he says that his first book was about what “Jesus began to do and teach.”  When Luke writes that, he intimates that his second book (Acts) is about what Jesus continued to do and teach.  We need to read Acts 8:4 in that light.  We may just see ordinary Christians spreading the good news, but the Holy Spirit wants us to see Jesus.  This is what Jesus continued to do – he worked through these believers who were united to him.  As Christians, we’re also united to Christ.  What we see him doing through these Christians, we ought to be doing in union with him too.

The second angle is closely related.  One can hardly imagine that these ordinary believers in Acts needed to be told to evangelize.  Because they were united to Christ, they wanted to.  They couldn’t help themselves.  They were compelled by love to spread the good news of salvation – compelled by love for their Lord Jesus, but also by love for the people around them.  When you experience the reality of life in Jesus Christ, you’ll want to speak about him every opportunity you get.  And you’ll be praying earnestly for those opportunities.  If we don’t have that attitude towards evangelism, we might very well question whether we’re even Christians at all.

Now Acts 8:4 definitely doesn’t exhaust everything the Bible teaches about every believer’s evangelistic calling.  There’s far more, not only in the New Testament, but also in the Old.  But this one passage does prove that speaking the good news of Jesus Christ (evangelism) was something done by ordinary believers in the apostolic church.  Certainly no one can credibly claim on the basis of Scripture that God intends for this task today to be limited to men with seminary educations and titles before their name.


Can Prophets Be Mimes?

What if I told you Christians don’t have a personal responsibility to spread the gospel?  Amongst most Christians such a statement would be met with a raised eyebrow.  But in my little corner of the Reformed world, there are some who hold to this view.  They argue that God has only called ordained ministers and missionaries to evangelize.  Only a minuscule minority of Reformed Christians have ever held such a view.  Of course, the number of people holding to a position doesn’t say anything about whether it’s true.  It’s of far more significance to examine the faithful summary of Scripture we have in our Reformed confessions.  As we do that, such a view of evangelism becomes demonstrably not Reformed.  This view actually runs contrary to what we confess from the Bible.

I’m not going to exposit everything the Three Forms of Unity contain on this point – readers interested in a more fulsome explanation can see my 2015 book, To Win Our Neighbors for Christ.  I’m just going to focus on the Heidelberg Catechism and specifically Lord’s Day 12, QA 32.  As part of what it means to be a Christian, we hold that it involves as a prophet confessing the name of Christ.  This statement has three important features. 

First, Christian prophets confess the name of Christ, the one whose anointing they share.  Christian prophets are not here confessing the name of God as the Triune God, but specifically the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.  This is important because we are specifically united to Christ – “I am a member of Christ by faith.”  Thus, when considering what our prophetic calling involves, we should first think of what it involved for Christ.  If we refer back to Answer 31, we find that he was anointed “to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption.”  Christ’s prophetic calling therefore involves revelation about redemption.  That revelation involved his actions, especially on the cross, but also in his healings and miracles.  Yet it was his words which provided the necessary context to interpret all of these actions.  His words revealed how he was working out our redemption.  His actions meant nothing without words.  If we are members of Christ by faith (united to him), doesn’t our prophetic calling reflect his?  Aren’t we called to use words to reveal redemption through what Christ has done?

Second, Christians confessing the name of Christ are prophets.  If we survey prophecy in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, we soon discover that prophecy is unimaginable apart from words.  It would be unthinkable to have a mime as a prophet.  All the prophets in Scripture used words.  Yes, sometimes prophets also used symbolic actions.  However, just like with Christ’s prophetic calling, those actions only had their full meaning in connection with the verbal ministry of that prophet.  No prophet in Scripture was called to communicate merely by his actions.  Prophecy always involves words.      

Third, we need to think closely about that key word “confessing.”  In normal English usage, to confess something is to communicate something with words.  If I confess a crime to the police, I’m telling them with my words that I did it.  In the original German of the Catechism, the same holds for the word used there: bekenne.  Of even more significance here is the footnoted reference in our edition to Matthew 10:32, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.”  The Greek word for “acknowledge” there is also sometimes translated as “confess” (e.g. in the NKJV).  Homologeo is a word that involves verbal communication.  Sometimes this word can include actions, but it never excludes words.  Thus, to confess the name of Christ necessarily involves the use of our mouths.

When it comes to the original intent and meaning of the Heidelberg Catechism, we’re helped out by the fact that the main author, Zacharias Ursinus, produced a commentary.  On this particular phrase from Answer 32, Ursinus wrote the following:

The prophetical dignity which is in Christians, is an understanding, acknowledgement and confession of the true doctrine of God necessary for our salvation.  Or, our prophetical office is:  1. Rightly to know God and his will.  2.  That everyone in his place and degree profess the same, correctly understood, faithfully, boldly, and constantly, that God may thereby be celebrated, and his truth revealed in its living force and power.  ‘Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father which is in heaven’ (Matt. 10:32).       

Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p.179.

Notice how Ursinus speaks of the “true doctrine of God necessary for our salvation.”  You cannot communicate that with a wordless lifestyle.  Clearly the main author of the Catechism believed that being a Christian prophet involves speaking about salvation in Christ to others.

This has also been widely recognized in the Liberated Reformed tradition of which I’m a part.  I would simply refer to Professor Benne Holwerda’s 1942 sermon on Lord’s Day 12, published in volume 1 of De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn.  He first says that he’s not talking about mission or evangelism, by which he means mission or evangelism in an organized ecclesiastical way.  Then he says:    

But now I’m thinking about our regular conversations.  The best evangelism is not a tract or brochure, but daily conversations.  We believe in Christ.  But that means, says the second answer, that through faith we share in his anointing of the Holy One and now know all things [pertaining to salvation].  Therefore whoever speaks, let him speak like the words of God.  Not just if it is convenient, not just if you are doing it deliberately, but let every word you say be a word from God.          

De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn (vol. 1), p.175 (translation mine)

Holwerda was clear that the prophetic calling mentioned in Lord’s Day 12 couldn’t be isolated from words.  It involved “the best evangelism” – using our everyday conversations to speak about the Lord. 

There’s a sense in which we shouldn’t even have to be told of our calling to evangelize.  When you’re a Christian and you know lost people, you care for them, and it should be a natural thing that you think about their eternal destiny and want to tell them about Christ.  It should be the natural outgrowth of our love for people and our love for the Lord.  Yet Scripture still lays out this calling for us – and our confessions reflect it.  Why?  Because even as Christians we’re weak and sinful.  We can be inclined not to love our neighbour and not to think about the eternal destiny of the lost apart from Christ.  When we’re told that we don’t have a personal responsibility for evangelism, all that does is reinforce these sinful and weak remnants of our old nature.  Such an attitude proves right those who say Reformed believers are the “frozen chosen.”  Worst of all, this approach dishonours our Saviour because it gives the impression that the good news about him isn’t worth sharing.  Therefore, it’s not only un-Reformed, it’s un-Christian and ungodly.          


Mission and Reformed Covenant Theology

I don’t normally review multi-author collections of essays and this isn’t going to be an exception to that. I just want to draw your attention to this volume published in 2020 by P & R and Westminster Seminary Press, A Covenantal Vision for Global Mission. It’s a collection of academic papers that were delivered at a Reformed missions conference in South Africa in 2015. According to the Foreword, the papers “seek to ground the growing interest in the missional character of Christian outreach in the classic biblical and historic Reformed theological understanding of God’s covenantal relationship with mankind.”

The reason I don’t write reviews of multi-author volumes is because they tend to be a mixed bag. This one is no different. Some of the contributions are stellar. Chapter 7, “Christ’s Dominion over Creation and Spiritual Warfare in Mission” by Henk Stoker stands out — it’s a great critique of ideas like territorial spirits and spiritual mapping. Flip Buys contributed two papers that are also worthwhile, “Mission and Gathering God’s New Covenant People” (ch. 4), and “Missions in the Fear of God’ (ch.6). Some of the other contributions are good, some mediocre, and a couple are disappointing. But overall, I do think the book is worth a read if you’ve got an interest in mission and missiology. There’s a lot of thought-provoking missiological reflection related to covenant theology — and I’m not sure anything like it has yet been published in English (in Dutch there is Barend Wielenga’s dissertation Verbond en zending).

I end with a few choice quotes to pique your interest:

“The Reformed faith is missional, or it is not Reformed.” (from A Missions Declaration, p.xi)

“I believe that a revitalization of our understanding of the concepts of the covenant of redemption…and the covenant of grace is vital for developing a Reformed approach to global missions…” (Flip Buys, quoted on pp.14-15)

“When a missionary does not really do his work in the fear of God, converts are trained to depend on him, rather than becoming responsible to Christ.” (Flip Buys, p.142)

“The new-wave thinking concerning territorial spirits and their power over areas takes the focus away from the victory of Christ…” (Henk Stoker, p.157)

“Reformed theology has tended to have the best product, but the worst sales technique, and it is too often pushed by intellectually arrogant representatives.” (Paul Wells, p.291)

“The source and origin of world missions is the pactum salutis, God’s own covenant with himself.” (Kent Hughes, p.307)

“To be Reformed was, and is, to have a missionary heart.” (Kent Hughes, p.315)