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.