One of the first challenges Reformed believers face when they address the subject of evangelism is the spirit of pragmatism. The spirit of pragmatism says that, “if it works, do it,” or, “if it works, it must be right.” Those who are familiar, for example, with many of the expressions of the modern church growth movement, are aware of the attitude that focuses upon the methods or strategies of evangelism, but gives short shrift to its biblical and confessional foundations.1
This pragmatic spirit is well illustrated by a story often told regarding the work of the evangelist Dwight L. Moody. Moody, when criticized for employing some doubtful measures or gimmicks in his evangelistic campaigns, responded to his critics by retorting: “I prefer the way I am doing it to the way you are not doing it!” Reformed believers, as I acknowledged in my previous article, are particularly vulnerable to this retort. The simple fact that a Reformed approach to evangelism insists upon beginning with questions of foundational biblical principle and teaching is enough to invite criticism. Indeed, isn’t that the problem? Reformed churches are long on principle, but short on action. They know why and how things ought to be done, but they are not very successful in practice.
Though there is no doubt some truth in this criticism — theory without practice is empty — this should not detract us from proceeding from the conviction that evangelism must be understood and practiced in a biblically responsible manner. Unless we begin with a consideration of the Bible’s teaching regarding evangelism, we will likely fall prey to an unbiblical activism that has the appearance of success, but has little to do with real evangelism. For, as I hope to demonstrate in this and subsequent articles, the Triune God is the Author of the evangel (the gospel), and He accomplishes His saving purposes so as to advance His glory and name. Evangelism that is careless about the nature of the gospel, the way the Triune God works salvation, and for what purpose, may not be termed “successful,” however many people may think it to be so. The evangelistic activity of the church may only be conceived as a response to the work of the Triune God who is the first and pre-eminent Missionary. The mission of the church is based upon and a response to the great mission of the Triune God (missio Dei) who glorifies Himself through the salvation of His people.
Consequently, we will begin our treatment of Reformed evangelism with a series of articles on biblical and confessional foundations. Only after this will we take up more directly questions of practice and strategy.
The Lord is King over All!
Any reflection upon biblical foundations for missions and evangelism has to consider the teaching of the Old Testament. Though it is often assumed that the Old Testament has little, if anything, to say about the subject of evangelism, this assumption is seriously mistaken. Only within the context of the Old Testament teaching regarding God’s mission to and among the nations is it possible to appreciate the teaching of the New Testament on the subject of evangelism. With respect to missions, as well as other subjects, the adage is true: “the old is in the new revealed; the new is in the old concealed.” We will begin, accordingly, with a survey of several key themes in the Old Testament that have a profound implication for an understanding of missions and evangelism.
The first great theme or motif of the Old Testament, which has a profound and far-reaching implication for missions and evangelism, is that the Lord God is King over all creation. The Lord who seeks and establishes fellowship with man, His image-bearer and representative, is the great Creator and King of all the nations and peoples of the earth. Perhaps it is the simplicity and obviousness of this truth — after all, the first book of the Bible, Genesis, begins with the familiar account of creation — that lead many to miss its significance for missions and evangelism. Just as “familiarity breeds contempt” in other areas, so the familiarity of the doctrine of creation causes us to overlook what it tells us about the true and living God in His relation to the creation and the peoples of the earth.
A brief look at the opening chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1–11, will show that the Old Testament story of God’s gracious dealings with Israel is not the fruit of a chauvinistic or narrowly nationalistic spirit. The covenant Lord of Israel is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, who created the first human beings, Adam and Eve, in His own image and likeness (Gen. 1). The unity of the human race is based upon God’s creation of Adam and Eve, the progenitors of the whole human family, and is expressed in terms of Adam’s ordination to the position of head and representative of all his posterity. The unity and diversity of all the peoples of the earth are, therefore, joined to the person of Adam. In the book of Genesis, the theme of the Lord’s blessing creation is especially linked to the filling of the earth with a multitude of peoples and nations — some seventy in number by the end of the opening chapters.
The implications of the Lord’s creation of and rule over all things for the missionary calling of the church are patent. What we commonly call the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28 (“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations”) only makes sense within the framework of a worldview that teaches that the earth and all of its peoples are the Lord’s. Unlike many of the gods of the nations, who are tribal deities of restricted people groups, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ is the One in whom all peoples live and move and have their being (Acts 17:28). To think that the true and living God could be narrowly interested in only one people, to the exclusion of all others, is incompatible with the His status as Creator of all. Moreover, because human sin is an expression of a spirit of rebellion and idolatry, the true and living God, the Almighty Creator of all things, can neither tolerate nor fail to overrule such sinful rebellion. Consequently, the saving work of the Creator King not only embraces all peoples, but aims to realize a kingdom purpose, namely, that all things be subjected to His rule and blessed dominion.
Throughout the Old Testament, this theme of the Lord’s kingship over all creation is celebrated, often in striking ways on the occasion of the Lord’s mighty acts of salvation and judgment. When Moses and Israel celebrate the Lord’s deliverance of His people through the Red Sea, they announce that this feat of the Lord’s power and grace was witnessed by the peoples of the earth, and represents the Lord’s victory among the nations. Indeed, Israel’s deliverance is itself a sign that “the Lord shall reign forever and ever” (Ex. 15:18). The story of the conquest and entrance into the promised land that is told in the book of Joshua, accordingly, is one that declares the Lord’s sovereign power and right of disposal over the nations and the whole of creation. After Israel crosses the Jordan on dry land, Joshua reminds the people that this makes known to “all the peoples of the earth … that the hand of the Lord is mighty” (Josh. 4:24). Thus, when the people of the Lord rejoice in His saving works, one of the chief notes sounded in their psalms of praise is the note of the Lord’s eternal lordship and kingship (compare Pss. 93; 95–100; 102:12). “The Lord is King forever and ever; nations have perished from His land” (Ps. 10:16). The works of the Lord are “awesome” and confirm that He “rules by His might forever” and “His eyes keep watch on the nations; let not the rebellious exalt themselves” (Ps. 66:5–7). By means of His mighty acts of salvation, the Lord makes known to the sons of men “the glory of the majesty” of His kingdom, a kingdom that is everlasting, enduring throughout all generations (Ps. 145:8–13).2
The story told in the Old Testament, therefore, is not that of a tribal deity whose interests are narrowly fixed upon one people and its particular location in the earth. As the great Creator and Lord over all, God will settle for nothing less than the worship of all the peoples, and the praise of the whole of creation. No false gods, particularly the powerless and lifeless idols of the nations, can withstand His kingdom or rule. Every attempt to resist the Lord’s dominion will ultimately be vanquished. The Lord God aims to be acknowledged again as the lord of the nations. He is not satisfied with the worship of one nation, nor to dwell only among that nation in a small corner of the earth. Nothing less than the praise of all the nations, and the restoration of the creation as a creation-dwelling, will answer to the dictates of His lordship.
A Mission for the Nations Through One Nation
A second and closely related theme of the Old Testament is that God’s purpose of salvation, though realized through the calling of a special people into covenant with Himself, includes within its design all the families of the earth. One reason many people regard the Old Testament with suspicion, especially on the subject of missions and evangelism, is that they profoundly misinterpret the Lord’s concentration of His saving work upon the nation or people of Israel. Here the Old Testament is often viewed in an unfavorable light, and a sharp contrast is drawn with the international scope and vision of the New Testament with its emphasis upon the gospel going out to all the nations. What this approach misses is the realization that God’s purposes for Israel never terminated upon her alone, but always aimed at the salvation of all the families of the earth. Though the gospel may be “to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16), it was never a restricted gospel whose reach was bounded by the narrow borders of Israel.3
The story of God’s gracious purpose for the nations is announced already in Genesis 3:15, often called the protevangelium or the first announcement of the gospel promise. In the face of human sin and rebellion, the Lord God does not simply come to pronounce judgment and the curse upon the human race. Rather, He announces good news (He authors the evangel!): the seed of the woman will ultimately crush the head of the serpent. The Lord declares that He will place enmity between the woman and her seed on the one hand, and the serpent and his seed on the other. There will, therefore, be two lines in the story of the human family, the one being the line of promise leading to the birth of a Savior who will bring blessing to His people. Though the promise is terse, and its richness awaits the further progress of revelation and redemption, the heart of the gospel is already announced: God will come through the seed of promise to bring redemption for His people. The beginnings of the fulfillment of this promised blessing are recorded in the subsequent history of the emergence of the various peoples of the earth, the confusion of languages at Babel when God judges human pride and rebellion, and the great flood, which simultaneously represents God’s judgment upon human sinfulness and deliverance of believing Noah and his family (the nucleus of the people of God in the line of promise).
However, it is especially in the calling of Abram that the Lord’s saving purpose is revealed, and the covenant of grace commences in its more particular administration. After each of the preceding events of the fall into sin, the incident of the Tower of Babel, and the great flood, the Lord had come in grace to bless and to save. Now in the calling of Abram He comes with a Word of grace to Abram, promising to bless him, his seed, and (through him) all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:13). Abram is not blessed simply that he alone might enjoy God’s favor and grace. No, he is blessed in order that he might be a blessing to the nations! What is especially noteworthy is the explicit way in which the promise of blessing includes all the peoples: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (v. 3). This promise, which is repeated and elaborated upon in Genesis 18:18, 22:18, 26:4, and 28:14, means that the Lord’s saving purpose is not a narrow and constricted one. He is not interested only in Abram and his descendants. Rather, He wishes through Abram to bless all the nations and peoples.4 Thus, Abram will be known henceforth as “Abraham, for I will make you the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:5).
It is this promise of blessing to all the families and peoples of the earth that undergirds the subsequent history of the Lord’s dealings with Israel, and that constitutes the larger background to the New Testament fulfillment in Christ. It is also confirmed throughout the history of the Lord’s dealings with Israel. In this history, the people of Israel are never defined solely in ethnic or racial terms. Among the number of the children of Israel, there are always strangers and sojourners, people from other families and nations. Explicit provision in the law is made for their inclusion among the people of God (Ex. 12:48; 22:21; Lev. 19:33; Num. 9:14; 1 Kings 8:41-43). Thus, when the apostle Paul describes the blessings that come to all believers in Christ, Jew as well as Gentile, he is at pains to emphasize that this represents the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. All who through faith are members of Christ’s church are children of Abraham, heirs with him of the covenant promises and blessings.5
The Promise for the Nations in the Prophets
In addition to the two themes we have considered — that the Lord is King over all creation, and that His redemptive blessing includes all the nations of the earth — there is a third and final theme in the Old Testament of special importance to the subject of missions and evangelism. And that theme is the promise of future salvation for the nations, a promise that is particularly prominent in the testimony of some of the Old Testament prophets. Not only is this theme prominent in their preaching, but in one noteworthy instance, the preaching of Jonah to the Ninevites, it comes to expression in what might almost be termed a “missionary journey” to them. There emerges throughout the preaching of the prophets, before and after the exile to Babylon, a message of a future age in which the Lord will come in blessing and judgment. This coming of the Lord is associated with the advent of the promised Messiah, the Son of David, who will inherit the throne of His father and receive the nations as His rightful inheritance (compare Psalm 2).
Some of the most well-known instances of this promise are found in the prophecy of Isaiah. For example, in Isaiah 2 we read:
Now it will come about that in the last days, the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us concerning His ways, and that we may walk in His paths, for the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Vv. 2–3)
When the Prince of Peace, the shoot from the stem of Jesse, comes, He will reign in righteousness so that “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (11:9). When Israel is redeemed, she will be a “witness” among the nations that the Lord alone is God and there is no Savior besides Him (Isa. 43:9, 10). The glory and joy of Jerusalem in the future will include the gathering of the nations to her, a gathering which will issue in the nations declaring the Lord’s glory and bowing down before Him (Isa. 66:18–24).
Similar prophecies of salvation for the nations, however, are also found in the other prophets (compare Amos 9:11–15; Mic. 4:1–4; Hab. 2:14; Jer. 16:19–21; Dan. 2:44; Zech. 8:18–23; Mal. 3:12). Among these the prophecy of Jonah is particularly striking. For the prophecy of Jonah reveals not only that God’s mercy extends to the nations, including one of Israel’s most despised enemies, the Ninevites, but also that He is terribly displeased with Israel’s sinfully constricted and chauvinistic attitude toward the nations. The prophet Jonah embodies something of Israel’s unwillingness that the Lord should show to other nations the kind of covenant blessing and grace He has extended to her. By means of the book of Jonah, the Lord makes known that He is a God who is “gracious and compassionate …, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness,” and that He wishes to show mercy, not only to Israel, but also to the great city Nineveh with its many inhabitants (Jon. 4:2, 11).
So much more could be written about each of these several themes of the Old Testament, which have far-reaching implications for the subject of missions and evangelism. We will have occasion to explore further some of these implications in forthcoming articles, especially when we consider the doctrines of election and the covenant of grace. However, this brief survey will have to suffice at this point.
Nonetheless, one thing should be clear from this survey, and that is the Old Testament’s teaching that the living God, who is the Creator of all the peoples and families of the earth, seeks to redeem and gather the nations to Himself. His gracious deeds toward Israel have, as their larger focus and interest, the bringing of the blessings of salvation and favor to all the families of the earth. The New Testament fulfillment of this Old Testament story is, therefore, one that is in substantial continuity with what went before it. Indeed, the coming of Christ in the fullness of time is for the express purpose of realizing the promise of God’s blessing to all the nations, which He originally revealed to Abraham, the father of all believers.
Admittedly, the Old Testament views the role of Israel in bringing God’s blessing to the nations, not so much in an “active” missionary way, but rather as a “passive” witness among the nations. There is no “Great Commission” mandate to “go” with the gospel to the nations in the Old Testament. Israel lives as a light among the nations, reminding them of God’s kingdom and grace, but she does not actively go out to reach the nations. Typically, the language of the Old Testament suggests that the nations must and will come to Israel in response to the Lord’s saving acts on her behalf. For this reason, some missiologists speak of the “centripetal” emphasis of the Old Testament, in contrast with the “centrifugal” emphasis of the New.6 This contrast must not be overstated, however. For the Old Testament makes it quite clear that it is God’s saving design and purpose to restore the nations to fellowship with Himself, to bring the peoples once more into subjection under His feet. That He should subsequently come in the Person of His Son, the great Apostle or Sent One of the Father, to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10; Heb. 3:1) — this not only fits with the message of the Old Testament, but also realizes its promise.
1For a critical evaluation of this pragmatic spirit and its consequences, see John E. MacArthur, Jr., Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1993).
2For a summary of the role of the Old Testament Psalms in revealing God’s missionary purpose for the nations, see Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Mission in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), pp. 29–38. Kaiser’s study is an excellent survey of the subject of mission in the Old Testament. In addition to Kaiser’s study, the following offer fine surveys of this subject: J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1960), pp. 11–24; and Johannes Blauw, The Missionary Nature of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), pp. 15–54.
3See Kaiser, Mission in the Old Testament, pp. 75–82, for a chapter-length defense of the thesis that “God’s Call to the Missionary Paul [was] Based on the Old Testament.”
4There is some debate regarding the meaning of the Hebrew term translated in these passages as “families” or “nations.” It can be used to refer to smaller people groups like “households” (e.g. Josh. 7:14), or larger groupings like “tribes” or even nations. It is not equivalent in meaning to our English term, “nation,” at least not to the extent that it has come to be used almost exclusively for modern nation-states. See Kaiser, Mission in the Old Testament, p. 19.
5This inclusion of Gentiles among the people of God in the Old Testament is remarkably attested in the genealogy of the gospel of Matthew (Matt. 1:1–17).
6Blauw, The Missionary Nature of the Church, pp. 40–41, uses this language to distinguish the theme of the nations coming to Israel, in response to the Lord’s saving acts (centripetal), and Israels going through the Messiah to the nations to bring them the message of salvation (centrifugal).
Dr. Cornel Venema is a contributing editor of The Outlook. He serves as President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies.