Tag Archives: For the Cause of the Son of God

Another Nail in the Coffin of Some Wrong History

Luther, Calvin and the Mission of the Church: The Mission Theology and Practice of the Protestant Reformers, Thorsten Prill. GRIN Verlag, Open Publishing GmbH, 2017. 96 pp.

It used to be, and to a certain extent still is, an oft-repeated assertion in mission studies that the Protestant Reformation had little or nothing to do with mission.  The problem is that the historical evidence simply does not bear this out.  I argued the point at length in my 2011 book For the Cause of the Son of God: The Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession, a revision of my doctoral dissertation.  Since then much more research has been done into the Reformation and what it represented and accomplished in terms of Christian mission.  This small volume summarizes a great deal of that research and offers yet more.

Thorsten Prill is currently vice-principal and academic dean at Edinburgh Bible College in Scotland.  Previously he lectured in missiology and other subjects at the Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary.  He has experienced ministry in six churches, three countries, and two continents.  Prill is an ordained minister of the Rhenish Church in Namibia, a denomination with both Lutheran and Reformed origins.  He has written extensively on missions and mission history. 

As the title indicates, a substantial portion of this book is historical.  The first four chapters are focussed on describing the problem much of contemporary missiology has with properly understanding the Reformation as a missional movement.  Most of this would be well-known to Reformed mission scholars, although it is surprising how much the error has persisted.  Entirely new to me was the fourth chapter on “Wittenberg and the Reformation in Scandinavia.”  Prill describes how missionaries brought the Reformation and the true gospel to Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and even Iceland.        

The last chapter examines the theology of Luther and Calvin and how it relates to mission.  Prill distils eight principles which continue to bear relevance for contemporary missional thought and practice.  Among them, he rightly notes how the Reformers stressed “that mission is a church-based endeavour.  It is local communities of believers which the Holy Spirit uses to expand the universal Church until the return of Christ” (p.79).

My only criticism of this volume is its relative lack of attention to the confessions produced by the Reformation.  Prill does mention Luther’s Large Catechism a number of times, but other Reformation-era confessional documents would buttress the argument he wants to make.  I think especially of those that were strongly influenced by the theology of someone like Calvin.  Also, since many of these confessions were ecclesiastically produced and sanctioned, they could be regarded as of weightier value than the writings of individual Reformers.

Prill’s book is a valuable addition to the cause of historical accuracy.  I can only rejoice that more missiologists are doing justice to the Reformation.  I am hopeful that in time, with these corrections, the narrative will shift and most Protestant mission scholars will understand that what happened in sixteenth-century Europe was as much about getting the gospel out to unbelievers as it was about reforming the organization and beliefs of the Church.  Moreover, as we see the Reformation correctly, we find that not only are there inspiring missional stories from this period, but also abiding biblical truths of which we need to be reminded.

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.


Revisiting Boer and Bucer

In 2011, Reformation Media and Press published For the Cause of the Son of God, a revised form of my doctoral dissertation.  This book discussed at length the missionary significance of the Belgic Confession.  My main foils were voices within the Christian Reformed Church of North America who had argued that the Belgic Confession was not only irrelevant for mission, but even a liability to a missionary church.  Among the CRC scholars with whom I interacted was Harry R. Boer.

Early in his own revised doctoral dissertation Pentecost and Missions, Boer argued that Reformers like Calvin and Luther believed that the Great Commission (in Matthew 28:18-20 and parallels) was meant only for the apostles.  Then Boer gets to Martin Bucer and he has to admit that Bucer was different.  He had a missionary concern.  Yet, Boer detected an inconsistency in Bucer’s missionary outlook, one which allegedly lined him up with Calvin, Luther and others Reformers on the limited nature of the Great Commission.  Boer quoted from Bucer’s 1538 book Von der waren Seelsorge:

What Christians in general and the civil authorities neglect to do with respect to seeking the lost lambs, this the elders of the Church shall undertake to make good in every possible way.  And though they do not have an apostolic call and command to go to strange nations, yet they shall not in their several churches…permit anyone who is not associated with the congregation of Christ to be lost in error.

The italics were added by Boer and I assume that the translation was his own (he does not indicate otherwise).  From this Boer concludes that “even Bucer did not free himself from the Reformation conception that the Great Commission was limited to the apostles” (Pentecost and Missions, 20).

When I came across this quote and conclusion in my doctoral research, I was perplexed.  Certainly a later book by Bucer (De Regno Christi) sang a different tune.  However, I was faced with two problems:  1) I did not have ready access to the German original of Von der waren Seelsorge (no Post-Reformation Digital Library yet) and 2) Bucer’s book had not yet been translated into English.  I had no way of verifying Boer’s conclusion, but yet I wanted to acknowledge the fact that this was in the literature and offer a possible explanation.  I decided to be charitable to Boer and posited that the difference between Von der waren Seelsorge and De Regno Christi might be chalked up to Bucer changing his mind over time, the former book preceding the latter by about 12 years.  Alternatively, I wrote, perhaps the difference is attributable to the fact that Bucer was writing about elders in Boer’s quote, whereas in De Regno Christi, he was writing about minister-evangelists.

I have recently had the opportunity to revisit this question and I think I have put it to rest.  In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be speaking at two conferences in Brazil about the Reformation and evangelism.  I decided to dig a little deeper into Martin Bucer.  Now I have the opportunity to do that with the help of Peter Beale’s English translation of Bucer’s earlier book, Concerning the True Care of Souls.  More than ever, I’m convinced that Boer got Bucer wrong.

Chapter 3 deals with the management of the church.  Specifically, it is about “how our Lord Jesus carries out his pastoral office and the work of our salvation through his ordained ministers.”  As he does in each chapter, Bucer begins with some relevant Scripture passages.  The very first one in this chapter is Matthew 28:18-20!  After a number of other passages, Bucer offers some explanation.  He says again that it is through his ordained ministers that Christ does his work on earth.  He says, “Through them he calls all nations to reformation and declares to them forgiveness of sins…” (page 21).  This, he writes, is shown by the first text mentioned.  The Great Commission is applied to the ministers of the church.

The most intriguing chapter is the seventh, “How the Lost Sheep Are To Be Sought.”  Again, one finds a number of Scripture texts at the beginning and among them is Mark’s version of the Great Commission in Mark 16:15.  Writes Bucer, “There are three things to learn from these texts.  The first is that those who exercise Christ’s ministry in the church are to seek to bring all people to the knowledge of Christ” (page 76).  In the first paragraph sub-heading, Bucer writes, “All people are to acknowledge Christ as their Lord, therefore his kingdom must be proclaimed and offered to all nations” (page 76).  In that paragraph he acknowledged that not all are elect.  But we have no access to “the secrets of his election.”  So “he commands us to go out into all the world and preach his gospel to every creature” (page 77).  He is paraphrasing Mark 16:15, the Great Commission, and says that it applies to “us.”

Bucer also has some advice for rulers in this chapter.  When rulers take their spiritual responsibilities towards their subjects seriously, “then our dear God will also surely entrust them with rightly seeking out and bringing to Christ those who by birth and breeding are estranged from Christ, such as Jews, Turks, and other heathen” (page 86).  Unfortunately, notes Bucer, many rulers have done a disservice to the gospel by invading and robbing foreign countries.  God judges this behaviour by returning the same upon the heads of oppressors:  “Thus the Jews have sucked dry the poor Christians to a remarkable extent by means of their usury, and the Turks day by day strip us of land and people with violence, making quite alarming advances” (page 87).

Now we come to the quote that Boer supplied in Pentecost and Missions.  This is Peter Beale’s translation:

Now, the elders of the church are always to see to the supply of those things which we have concluded in this article to be lacking in the seeking out of lost lambs by ordinary Christians and rulers.  And if they do not have the apostolic call and command to go to foreign people, they must still see that in the churches where the Holy Spirit has appointed them as bishops and overseers no-one anywhere who does not belong to the fellowship of Christ is left to wander, but seek in every case to do what God always entrusts to them, in order to bring such people to the full communion of Christ. (pages 88-89)

This translation is different from that of Boer in one key word.  In the second sentence, Boer had “And though they…”  Beale has “And if they…”  The German original says, “Und wo sie…”  I’m not a German expert, but from what I can tell, Beale’s translation is more accurate.  If that’s the case, then Bucer is making a concession to those who might argue that the Great Commission does not apply to church elders.  By the way, he is explicitly referring to elders — in German, Bucer uses the word “eltisten,” an older form of the modern German “ältesten.”

To me it is clear that Boer was mistaken about Bucer.  Not only in his later book De Regno Christi, but also in his earlier book Von der waren Seelsorge, Bucer viewed the Great Commission having continuing application in the church of Christ.  Bucer never changed his mind; rather Boer misunderstood him.  How and why did Boer get this wrong?   I could only speculate.  What I know for sure is that my own published doctoral work contains errors too (though nothing that negates my overall thesis).  In some instances, I too misunderstood someone or something, in others I had incomplete information.  All of us are merely human and not only prone to sin, but also to mistakes in our research and reasoning.  This is why advancing scholarship in a field has to be a joint venture.  As we study together and check our work, we can detect the mistakes, correct them, and move forward.        



For the Cause of the Son of God — Excerpt from Chapter 5

My new book on the Belgic Confession is now available for purchase from the publisher for $20.99 US.   If you live somewhere other than the US, it’s available from numerous other online retailers around the world, so shop around and I’m sure you’ll find it.

The following is an excerpt from chapter 5:


5.1  Missiological Strengths

The Belgic Confession is regarded by its adherents as a faithful summary of the teachings of Holy Scripture.  This is something which cannot be taken for granted and which is to be regarded as the foremost strength of this Confession, also when we consider its missiological relevance.  From the perspective of its adherents, a confession cannot be relevant to the mission of the church if it does not take the Bible as its infallible basis.  However, it falls outside the purview of this study to detail the biblical basis of each article in the Confession.  Someone wanting to do that could refer to the commentaries or to Lepusculus Vallensis’ helpful reference manual, The Belgic Confession and Its Biblical Basis.[1]  In this section, we want to explore the missiological strengths of the confession on a broader level.

5.1.1  Confession of a Church Under the Cross

In chapter 3 (3.1.4), we considered the Confession under the rubric of the metanarrative of martyrdom and concluded that, in this regard, the Confession is missiologically relevant.  It was formulated on the foundation of martyrdom and suffering, a theology of the cross.  It communicates the missionary message of martyrdom and suffering.  We saw that a rich missionary harvest resulted from the martyrdom and suffering directly associated with this confession.  Among our conclusions (3.3) was that any church which gives up this Confession is impoverishing itself.  We will now build further on that conclusion.

The precise extent of persecution and martyrdom today is notoriously difficult to measure.  According to the most recent statistics of Barrett et al., 160,000 people were martyred for the Christian faith in 2000.[2]  However, a number of things need to be considered.  First, these numbers are rather elastic on several levels.  Barrett’s figures include 100,000 Roman Catholics, 14,000 Orthodox, 5,000 Marginal Protestants, and 1,000 Anglicans and Old Catholics.  Also, as Schirrmacher notes, there are serious questions about the reliability of this data.  Barrett is unwilling to discuss the data and “fails to give sufficient information on his statistic [sic] methods.”  There is no validity to Barrett’s claims to offer only facts without interpretation.  For instance, included in the figure are countless thousands who have died in civil wars such as those in recent times in African countries like Sudan.[3]  Finally, if these numbers are close to being correct, Schirrmacher observes that, in proportion to the world’s population, the overall number of martyrs has actually decreased since 1970.[4]

Nevertheless, both statistical and anecdotal evidence portrays a world in which many Christians continue to live under the specter of persecution.[5]  While communism has fallen in eastern Europe, it continues to be a political reality in North Korea, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, and the most populous nation on earth, China.  Even as some of these countries just mentioned adapt themselves to a free(r) market economy, active repression of Christians continues, especially in more remote regions, away from Western eyes and ears.  In other countries such as Burma/Myanmar, oppressive dictatorships or military juntas persecute believers.  In many nations in the Middle East, Islam is the official national religion, and Christianity is barely tolerated, if at all.  In those countries where Shari’a law is in place, it is a capital offence for a Muslim to convert to Christianity.  In India and other south Asian countries, militant Hinduism and Buddhism has accounted for a significant proportion of martyrdoms of Christian believers.  In some regions of Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, Roman Catholic persecution of Christians continues to be a reality, though martyrdom appears to be comparatively rare.  Of course, all of that is just scratching the surface.  No one who has given it any serious consideration will deny that suffering for the faith is an ongoing reality – and we expect it to continue this way until the return of the Lord Jesus.

When the gospel goes out into the world, there will inevitably be opposition.  When the Lord Jesus sent out the disciples in Matthew 10, he sent them out “as sheep in the midst of wolves” (10:16).  He warned them that they would be delivered up to councils and scourged in synagogues.  They would be brought before governors and kings.  They could expect opposition from family, even to the point of death.  The disciples were to expect to be hated by all for the sake of Christ’s name and being persecuted, to flee from one city to another.  In John 16, the Lord Jesus spoke in a similar vein, though he added that “the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” (16:2).  Those who do those things, according to Christ, do them because they know neither the Father nor him.

The metanarrative of martyrdom embedded in the Belgic Confession awakens the church to these realities, and this is one of its greatest strengths.  This happens in at least four distinct ways.

First, the Belgic Confession awakens sending churches to the reality that when they send out missionaries, those missionaries may not return alive or in the same condition as they left.  Missionary work can be dangerous, even life-threatening.  The Confession reminds churches to count the cost.  At the same time, it also encourages churches to know that if the highest price is paid by its missionaries, this too is in God’s hands and he often uses it to build his church.

Second, the Belgic Confession speaks to individual missionaries and other mission personnel.  Missionaries can be encouraged to know that, while their work may be dangerous and even frightening, it will never be in vain.  The Confession continues to witness that even in the darkest hours, God is present and guiding the “cause of the Son of God.”  He did so during the troubles in the Lowlands in the sixteenth century and he will still do so today.

Next, this Confession testifies to the newer believers and younger churches on the mission fields themselves.  They can read this Confession and take heart that the church has often appeared to be in dire straits, but that this was only the appearance of things.  They can know that, because of their union with Christ, they are part of a greater story or metanarrative, and they are not alone in their experiences of suffering, persecution, and even martyrdom.  Confessing the Belgic gives a depth of perspective to younger churches, and this encourages growth in grace and knowledge.

Finally, the Confession engages all its confessors on the reality of persecution, both historically and in the present.  Of course, it is possible to superficially hold the Belgic and never have any conscious awareness of persecution and martyrdom at any point in history.  It may even be possible to thoughtfully subscribe and confess the Belgic without that awareness – the lack of serious attention to this aspect in the commentaries certainly suggests that!  However, this is an essential element of the Confession’s (biblical) message and it deserves more attention.  This is especially so for Reformed believers in the West, who tend to live very comfortably and who may have little awareness of persecution elsewhere in the world, let alone any sense of a theology of the cross.  We need the Belgic Confession to remind us that our brothers and sisters elsewhere suffer for the faith, so that we may pray for them – and in so praying, we are in fact praying “for the cause of the Son of God.”

[1] Lepusculus Vallensis, The Belgic Confession and Its Biblical Basis (Neerlandia: Inheritance, 1993).

[2] Barrett et al., World Christian Encyclopedia (Vol. 1), 11.

[3] Schirrmacher, The Persecution of Christians, 12.

[4] Schirrmacher, The Persecution of Christians, 11.

[5] For some of the anecdotal evidence, see Paul Marshall, Their Blood Cries Out: The Worldwide Tragedy of Modern Christians Who Are Dying for Their Faith (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1997).


Now Available: For the Cause of the Son of God

“We have never really recovered from the ideals of Friedrich Schleiermacher who believed that the creeds and confessions of the church are a hindrance to true spiritual enlightenment.    No place has this been assumed more than in the practice of mission.  Wes Bredenhof offers us a fresh challenge to this separation in this historic, detailed, and robust study on the missiological relevance of the Belgic Confession for the church of Jesus Christ.  The timely study is welcomed as a great contribution in demonstrating that what we confess drives the study and practice of mission.  Reformed pastors, students, or laymen cannot afford to set aside this excellent work.”

Christopher J. Gordon

For the Cause of the Son of God can be purchased online here.