It’s a myth that every abortion is freely chosen by the woman. Many women are pressured into having abortions, including by doctors. My wife experienced this with our youngest, and many others have too. They make it sound like it’s your duty to have an abortion if there’s the slightest indication of an abnormality.
Samuel Sey: “God isn’t ashamed of the gospel. He isn’t embarrassed by his word. He isn’t anxious about telling people good things that might offend them. God isn’t afraid to tell the truth about sexual sin. God isn’t tempted to lie about pornography, fornication, adultery—and especially, homosexuality and transgenderism.”
This is really insightful, especially this: “It may surprise you, but from my perspective the main suffering for Chinese Christians is not physical persecution or lack of religious liberty but bad theology, though the reason behind bad theology is the lack of freedom.”
Jonathon Van Maren: “In short, we’ve gone from: How dare you accuse us of wanting to influence kids? to Of course kids should see sex acts at Pride Parades!”
From Devastation to Deliverance
“Once constantly drunk and suicidal, William shares the story of how his sister, Danica, was influential in his coming to Christ. Despite a heart-breaking loss in their family, William and Danica share about the joys of being children of the only true God and testify to the importance of the local church in this evangelism story.”
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?
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.
Samuel Green’s Where to Start With Islam: A New Approach to Engaging with Muslim Friends (Sydney: Matthias Media, 2019) is a great resource for Christians wanting to share the gospel with followers of Islam. He proposes that Christians not only start with a better grasp of their own beliefs, but also with an understanding of common assumptions and misconceptions held by Muslims. The chapter titles give you an idea of the ground covered:
One of the endorsements is from J. Mack Stiles, a pastor in Iraq:
I have lived in the Middle East for 20 years. I don’t know of anyone who has done better work in understanding and answering the challenges of Islam than Samuel Green. Any Christian who wants to respond to Muslims with love and truth needs this book.
Whether you have Muslim friends with whom you might be able to share the gospel, or if you’re just interested in learning more about Islam, this one will be worth your while.
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.
“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.