Some years ago in Vancouver, B.C. I conducted a Bible class in a bookstore owned by a Mr. Don Robertson, an elder in the Free Presbyterian church there. One day as we were talking he told me how as a little boy in Scotland his father had taken him to the seashore when the tide was out. There before them stretched the great tide flats with little pools of water scattered here and there; and his father said, “Donald, my lad, do you see those pools of water? That is what the church of God is like today, like so many pools of water scattered about over the earth. But some day the tide will come in and then ‘the knowledge of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.’”
What this story reflects is the postmillennial view of the old Scotch Presbyterians; but it also serves to point out this text, Isaiah 11:9, with its great importance in the mission of the church, which again relates rather closely to our subject for tonight.
What Mission Work Is
To begin with, we are going to have to settle in some way on what we mean by mission work. I do this somewhat hesitantly because I realize that others will follow me, and they may have their own ideas as to just exactly what mission work is. Each of us, however, is going to have to have some idea as to what precisely we have in mind; and in fact, I would urge that you listen carefully to each of the speeches with this question in mind, what does this speaker consider mission work to be?
In my own personal life, few questions have concerned me more than this. When I first received the inner call to enter the ministry, it was as a missionary that I sought to serve. After I entered college the first term paper I wrote was on the subject of missions; and about all I remember of it is that when all my study and writing was through I was still uncertain what set mission work apart from the other ministries of the church. And then I entered seminary; but at that time the DeWolf controversy was preoccupying the churches, and all of our efforts were put into maintaining and reestablishing the churches. There was little opportunity for mission outreach of any kind.
But still the concern remains and always with it that elusive question; what is mission work, and how is it distinct from the work of an ordinary minister?
I have suggested this question hundreds of times to others, I think, usually to fellow ministers, but few if any have tried to answer it. For the most part, I suppose, they have not taken it seriously, assuming me to be facetious; after all, we all know what mission work is, and no seminary graduate should be unable to give the definition. And it is true, I can too; but just because one can give a formal definition doesn’t mean that he understands the essence of a thing or can delineate its proper extent. And so the question continues to endure: Do we really know what mission work is?
We are all agreed, of course, that mission work is the gathering of the elect church of God through the means of the official preaching of the Word from all the nations of the world; but how does the practice of it differ from the work of the ministry within the church and within the bounds of the already established covenant, how is the work of missions distinct from the ordinary function of the ordinary pastoral ministry of the word?
I can remember at the time Rev. DenHartog had received the call to Singapore, we had a farewell for him with the ministers in GR. That night I didn’t have a lot of time to talk to him personally, but I did find the opportunity to ask him this one question, Now that you are a missionary, how will this differ from being a pastor? He looked at me somewhat surprised, it seemed, and answered to the effect that he would give it some thought and write me about it later.
I suppose that in the flurry of following activities the question was forgotten. In any case, I never heard from him again on that; but a few weeks ago, when he was here on furlough, he did speak briefly for the ministers, and he gave one of the finest speeches on missions I have yet heard within our churches.
As I recall it from memory, he made three basic points:
- Mission work must arise out of the spiritual life of the church.
- Mission work must involve all the offices of the church, not just ministers, but also elders and deacons.
- Mission work must include preparing all the members of the church for Christian witness.
Which finally brings us back to that question of what mission work is. I’m still not ready to give a comprehensive definition of mission work, but there are several things which can be pointed out.
- Mission work must arise out of the working of the Holy Spirit in the organic life of the church, and that is more particularly, out of the spiritual desire of the church to be participant in the conversion of sinners. You know of how Jesus said that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over ninety and nine who need no repentance; that same joy and longing should lie in the heart of the church, and out of it mission work must proceed. A missionary is not something unto himself; he must be sent out of the commitment and prayers of the church.
- Mission work is the unconditional proclamation of the unconditional gospel. We all know, being Reformed in our conviction, that the gospel is the proclamation of the unconditional promise of salvation to God’s elect people in Jesus Christ; but do we understand this to mean also that this gospel must then be unconditional in its proclamation, that is, when we go forth to preach the gospel, we are not to be asking beforehand whether those to whom we preach are the kind we think will make good Christians or good church members before we are willing to bring the gospel to them? This judgment is God’s and not ours to make. Whenever a person enters our life, and that is not just into our church services of worship, but also into the life of any one of us who are members of the church, he is put there by the providence of God. And it thereby becomes our duty to witness to that person of God, and of the responsibility of sin and repentance, both in word and in the example of our deeds, always with the hope and prayer that that person may be brought to repentance and into living fellowship with the body of Christ.
- The chief and only means of mission work is the preaching of the word, only we must realize that when it comes to mission work this preaching is not always, and maybe not usually, the formal preaching of sermons in services of worship. Back in my seminary days, Rev. Ophoff often would make the point that preaching is much broader than delivering sermons in Sunday worship, it is also to be found in the ministry of teaching catechism classes, sick visits and family visitation, in pastoral counseling, discipline calls, etc. And if we examine the life of Jesus and the apostles, it would seem that the greater part of their ministry was conducted on that level. Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, Lydia, the Philippian jailer, etc., had to be dealt with individually in light of their individual needs in life. In fact, when it comes down to it, there are very few formal sermons recorded in the New Testament Scriptures, exactly because the church of that day was very much involved with missions. And I think it was the point of Rev. DenHartog that all of our church office bearers should be ready and available to do this work when contact is made by members in the church. In turn, this should be the chief area of activity for every missionary, he should be busy providing individual and often informal instruction in the teachings of Scripture, recognizing that it is the word purely taught which is the power of God unto salvation.
- The organizing of churches is the result and not the means of mission work. It is in this area particularly, I think, that we need to do some hard thinking. We tend to think, it seems, that mission work is the gathering of a group of people into little worship services with the hope and prayer that they will grow into a church. Now there is nothing wrong with those on the mission field doing this, it would seem that Paul did so too, but that is not mission work; the mission work is the going out and contacting new people, calling them to repentance and life. It is from this that the organizing of a church will be the result.
The Scope Of Missions
But what has this to do with missions abroad? What do we mean with that? And with this we may well go back to the text in Isaiah 11, to that beautiful promise that “the knowledge of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea,” for in this we have the heart of New Testament missions.
The old Scottish gentleman of whom we spoke was reflecting the classical Presbyterian concept of postmillennialism. These people were firm believers in the sovereignty of God and the principles of the Reformation. They believed in the power of the word of God as the means by which God gathers his elect people as firmly as we do. They also believed, however, on the basis of this text and others, that as time went on more and more people would be saved until this world would be dominated by a majority of Christians and thus for an extended length of time would live on earth in that beautiful state described in verses 6-9. What they failed to note was the parallel teaching of Scripture that, as the church develops through history, the powers of sin are to develop also until the final conflict in the days of the Antichrist.
Nevertheless, what we must not fail to note and appreciate is the great wonder which is pointed out by this text and by other similar prophecies—this was the wonder that came about by the coming of the rod out of the stem of Jesse.
In Old Testament times there was no such thing as mission work, that is, the sending of the church to gather people of God out of the realms of darkness. In those days God kept his covenant only in the narrow line of Abraham’s descendants, all of the rest of the world was held in darkness by the deceit of Satan. But now this power is broken and the knowledge of God goes forth into all the nations of the world.
This is the great wonder that always rejoices the people of God. There is something about the subject of missions that ever captivates Christians; and it should, for it is this, the turning of sinners to repentance, the gathering of men out of darkness into light, in which the hosts of heaven ever rejoice. It is the pleasure of God and certainly must be also of his people with him.
And we in the Protestant Reformed churches during recent years have had some great and wonderful opportunities to be participant in this.
For several decades now we have had opportunity to work in missions in Jamaica. Although there has been much discouragement in this work, and we have often failed to pursue it with the dedication we should, nevertheless, it holds, I am convinced, a great deal of interest and support from the people in our churches. In turn, in recent years we have had the wonderful opportunity to work with the saints of Singapore. Here is a new and different thing for us, a group of over 100 young people pursuing the spread of the gospel with a joy and dedication which we can only covet and admire. And now, in more recent time yet, there has come the work in New Zealand, North Ireland, England, and also the possibility of work in Ghana.
Take just the last few months. In April, we had with us Rev. Rawson of Bransley, England telling us of his battle to defend and maintain the truth in one of the great historical bastions of the Reformation—where today less than 10% of the people can be called Christians in any sense of the word. In June, Rev. Hutton was here from North Ireland, a land which fights very much the same battle, to meet with us and to establish sister-church relations between his church and ours; and we have Deane Wassink back from Ireland where he has worked now for a year in Christian education. And then we had Rev. DenHartog in our midst giving his report on the work in Singapore and helping in establishing a sister-church relation with the young congregation there.
In turn, all of this seems to make peculiar demands upon us as Protestant Reformed churches. Although small and in many ways insignificant in the place we fill, there is one particular heritage God has given us, an unusual grasp of the scope of Christian doctrine based directly upon the word of God. And it is this particularly which all of these call upon us to share with them; certainly a unique opportunity for service in gathering the church of God.
All of which leaves us with a peculiar responsibility before God. Stop to look once at the striking contrast between those contacts which are laid before us—between the working of the gospel in Europe and in Singapore. In England, the battle is with a smug spiritual deadness that has settled over the land. There in that land of rich Christian history the churches are small and struggling; everything is cold and indifferent. One can hardly get people to listen or to bother. One can walk through streets where great saints of history walked and were used in great ways for the gospel, but few care any more. One can visit libraries where great volumes of some of the richest writings of spiritual truths are stored; but few care to read them now.
And over against this there is the work in Singapore with those young people going out in zealous pursuit of spreading the gospel amidst heathen people, who meet them with concern, sometimes of open opposition, often, as Jesus promised, from their own families.
And in the middle of this we stand, a small unrecognized group of churches with an unusual responsibility. God has given to us this heritage with its riches of a sound biblical truth, and with it comes the responsibility to use it to build his church.
But what can we expect from this? We have noted the old Presbyterian view that the day would come when the whole of the world would be Christian. The problem, as we have noted, is that it is a view which did not allow for the development of sin in the world as Scripture indicates also. In turn, as we look about us we do not see sin giving way to righteousness; but rather the world is becoming ever more exceedingly sinful.
But there is also another phenomenon taking place around us, before our eyes. On the one hand there are those like Rev. Hutton and Rev. Rawson which tell how Christianity is waning in those very lands where once it showed its strength and promise. But at the same time there is what may well be the opening up of a whole new area of possible growth and development in Singapore with the possibility of a whole new era of development in China, generally, and maybe even Africa.
And how are we to understand it? Maybe Rev. Hoeksema brings it out as well as any in his Reformed Dogmatics (p. 784), concerning the white horse of Revelation,
He did not travel at random, but had his course mapped out, from Jerusalem to Antioch, from Antioch to Macedonia and Greece and Asia Minor, from there into the very heart of the Roman world, where he hastened on over the mountains and plains of Europe, and when the time was ripe, crossing over into the Western Hemisphere. In general, therefore, the white horse ran in a westerly direction.
It may well be that we stand at a point of juncture today at which the gospel is about to make a great leap across the Pacific to a great last stand in the heart of Asia. And in it we are called to serve, to take the heritage we have and to use it both in strengthening that which remains in the land of our fathers and in promoting as we can the future hopes and promises which we see unfolding before us.
How we may best do so individually I leave to your further speakers; only remember this, “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few; pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth laborers into his harvest.”