Should a Reformed Church Do Reformed Mission Work?

We could phrase the above question more forcefully and meaningfully. We could ask: “Can a truly Reformed Church refrain from doing Reformed mission work?” That formulation would imply that any Church which is truly Reformed would do violence to its convictions and impulses by not doing mission work which is distinctively Reformed? That is our position. We hold that it is impossible for a Church which is thoroughly Reformed to be satisfied with its mission work unless that work bears the Reformed stamp.

Let us state our reasons for the statement just made.

There are two propositions which we shall lay down and offer to our readers for reflection.

Our first proposition is that a truly Reformed Church wants to be ‘Reformed in all it does—in all its preaching, teaching, and all other activities.

The reason for this is that being Reformed does not consist merely in holding to certain doctrines. To be Reformed means to be a Calvinist, and Calvinism is not merely a comprehensive system of doctrine but a world and life view which puts its stamp on all our thought and activity.

It can be said that the term Christian. Reformed teachings are not special teachings which some have added to Christian truths believed by all true followers of Christ. Reformed doctrines are identical with Christian doctrines. Calvinism, as Warfield put it, is Christianity in its purest conception; also, we may add, in its widest implications. If it is true that we must be Christian in all we believe and do, it is also true that we should be Reformed in all our convictions and actions. A Reformed Church is truly Reformed only in the measure that it wants and seeks to be Reformed in all its teaching and in all its activities, not the least its mission activity.


When we stated that the term Reformed is just as wide as the name Christian, we did not imply that those who are not Reformed are not Christians. There are Christians who do not hold to our Reformed system of truth in its totality. But their type of Christianity is for that reason less consistently Christian. Moreover, every true Christian is Reformed, though not always consistently, in his basic attitudes and beliefs. All true Christians believe, for example, that God is sovereign, that sinners are saved only by grace through faith, that Christ is Lord as well as Savior, and that the Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God. One cannot really pray without realizing his complete dependence on God in all things.

Our second proposition is that there is a Reformed approach to mission work and that this determines both the nature of what is preached and taught and the methods that are employed in preaching and teaching.

First, The Message


To be Reformed means to stress the fact that the gospel is the message of salvation for lost sinners. The Church that is Reformed in its mission work seeks to save the souls of men from sin and eternal ruin. The true gospel is not a social gospel. This so-called social gospel teaches that the task of the Church is primarily to improve the world here and now through slum clearance, providing better housing for the underprivileged, fostering civic righteousness, and endeavoring to abolish war.

There is, of course, a social side to the gospel. That is, the gospel has social implications. The truly Reformed or Christian missionary will not be indifferent to the economic and social plight of those with whom he labors, but his primary purpose will be to save the souls of men. Some very telling things are said about the folly of overemphasis on social betterment by the Church of Christ in an article by Miss Viola Cameron in our next issue.

Let it not be said that our Church is in no danger of going in a liberal direction with its mission work. That danger is very real, even for missionaries of the most orthodox Churches. This is particularly true of those who labor as home missionaries among the poor and underprivileged. Foreign missionaries, too, who are called to bring the gospel to aborigines and all who live in more or less primitive surroundings are under daily and heavy temptation to spend a large share of their time and energy in the alleviation of physical distress and the improvement of social conditions. The missionary who is Reformed in heart and head will not fail to resist this temptation.


The truly Reformed missionary will eschew the Fundamentalistic as well as the Modernistic conception of the missionary message. He will not only stress the need of personal salvation; his presentation of what that salvation is and what it requires will also be distinctive. He will proclaim with all possible emphasis that salvation is from start to finish the work of God’s grace, not of man himself. He will preach the remission of sins through the atoning blood and the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and the need of regeneration through the work of the Holy Spirit.

All truly Christian missionaries, even those who are not Reformed in their theology, will preach this gospel of divine grace, but none will preach it as consistently as he who is Reformed. He will preach in season and out of season that sinners are hopelessly lost apart from Christ because they are the objects of God'” eternal wrath, and not only sick but dead in sin; that because of this desperate situation they cannot save themselves and have not the will to be saved by believing in Christ apart from the Holy Spirit. Such a missionary will not teach that it is “up to the sinner” to determine whether or not he will be saved; that God can do nothing for him unless he takes the first step by accepting Christ; and that he must believe before he can be regenerated. This is plain heresy. It conflicts with Scripture and robs God of his glory for our salvation. The truly Reformed missionary will teach that the sinner, to be saved, must pray-not only that he may be forgiven and cleansed but also that God may give him the faith that is needed to appropriate the blessings of salvation.


What has just been said implies that no Church which is truly Reformed will seek to dictate to the Lord how many should be saved through the preaching of the gospel. Advance estimates of the number of converts in an evangelistic campaign are to be abhorred. But there is another implication; namely, that we should not seek to gauge the success of our mission work by the number of converts which the Lord is pleased to add to the church.

We hold that it is an error to conclude that we have been derelict in our mission zeal from the fact that only 552 persons were added to the membership rolls of our Christian Reformed churches in 1957 through our evangelistic work at home. It is hardly Scriptural-Reformed, let us say to judge our faithfulness in evangelism by the number of converts we have made. Do we judge the faithfulness of a pastor by the number of annual professions of faith in his church? Perhaps some of us do; but is this proper? After all, it is God, the sovereign God, who determines how many or how few will be saved by the preaching of the gospel. If our numberers were right, we could also be justified in pronouncing our Church very faithful in its mission work if, let us say, 8000 had been added to our churches in one year through evangelistic work—regardless of how they were taken in, regardless of the methods used. Such a large figure would not be proof positive of our mission zeal. In fact, it might indicate that we had been letting down the bars. Let us not be charmed by the fallacy that the success of our mission work and the strength of the Church are to be measured by the number of those whom we receive as members.

Please remember, we do not claim that we should be indifferent to the results of our preaching and teaching. Nor do we assert that our churches are as diligent as they should be to win the unsaved for Christ. It may very well be that if we had been more diligent, more would have been won for the Kingdom. But we protest against drawing conclusions concerning the degree of our evangelistic zeal from available statistics.


The Reformed missionary preaches Christ but he also preaches the need of faith in Christ. More than that, he also explains what that faith really is.

True faith is not merely the acceptance of Christ “as our personal Savior.” It is to be deplored that this formula is sometimes used by Reformed people. True enough, all who sincerely believe accept Christ as their personal Savior. But we do not find this formula in the Bible; it does not state fully what saving faith realIy is. This faith is not only acceptance but surrender and commitment. The true believer accepts Christ as his Savior and surrenders to him as his Lord. We must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved. This is the biblical formula used scores of times in the New Testament. It means that we must believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord. What that signifies is explained beautifully in Lord’s Day 13 of our Catechism: “Why do you call him our Lord? Because he has redeemed us, body and soul, not with gold or silver, but with his precious blood, and has delivered us from all the power of the devil and has made us his own possession.” “Lord” means Savior, but it also means Master and King. The truly saved have this comfort, not that Christ belongs to them, but that they belong to him, with body and soul, in life and death, and are no longer their own (Lord’s Day 1).

Every pastor, missionary, and personal worker knows that there are some who want to be saved from the guilt and the penalty of sin but not from its allurements and power; who want the assurance of eternal safety without the surrender of their souls and bodies to the control of Christ the Lord. The number of those who want Christ only as their “personaI Savior” is larger than of those who are ready to receive him as Lord. For that reason we fail to preach a full and a true gospel if we define true faith as being merely the acceptance of Christ as our personal Savior.

A truly Reformed Church and a truly Reformed missionary preach the Lordship of Christ, not merely his Saviorhood. That Lordship, according to Scripture and our Catechism, includes his Saviorhood. If we say that Jesus Christ is Lord we have said it all. For as Paul says, no man can say that Jesus is Lord except through the Holy Spirit.

Reformed Mission Methods

According to our second proposition, there is not only a Reformed presentation of the gospel message; there are also Reformed methods of doing mission work.

There is much to be said on this score. Let us confine ourselves to three matters that fall under this head.


First, the missionary who believes in the irresistibility of saving grace, who holds that salvation is from beginning to end the work of God, will not feel constrained to exert undue pressure on those to whom he brings the gospel. That this is done in Arminian circles is common knowledge. The missionary is indeed under divine obligation to be urgent in his preaching and to plead with the unsaved to believe and be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20). However, he will not feel the need of an altar call or any other emotional device to persuade men to accept Christ on the spot. He holds suspect the methods used by modern organized evangelism which, under the glare of newspaper publicity, is often more concerned about “results” than about genuine conversions.

Says Reed Sanderlin, in words recently quoted in The Banner, on the futility of such mission methods: “We employ any method which might add another name to the church roll with the idea that the end justifies the means, and after we have reaped the results of the shallow living and thinking on the part of those whom we have added to our number, we then complain about the lack of concern, the indifference, and all the other evils of the ‘enlisted’ but ‘missing in action.’” How true!


Second, the truly Reformed missionary believes that God is interested in saving families, not merely individuals. He cannot forget the oft forgotten conclusion of Paul’s challenge to the penitent jailer at Philippi: “…and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house.” Our God is a covenant God. He wants to add families as well as individuals to his Church. The missionary who is deeply convinced of this truth and its implications will labor as much as possible with families. He will repeatedly enter non-Christian homes and seek to win them for Christ. If he finds that the door to the hearts of the parents remains closed he will seek permission to labor with the children, knowing that God often works covenantwise in reverse, so to speak, using the child to reach the parent, and not only the parents to gain the children. In both cases the Lord employs the family tie to break down the heart’s resistance to his Word.

It is erroneous, therefore, to condemn “child evangelism” on the ground of the covenant doctrine, or on any other basis. Yet no missionary does his full duty by assuming that the parents of the children under his care in the Sunday school and the catechism class can be neglected because of their apparent indifference and hardness of heart. No Reformed missionary in any field will fail to spend much time in visiting non-Christian homes, especially those whose children he is already able to reach.


Another very important and typically Reformed method of approach for the missionary is teaching. Jesus charged his disciples to preach the gospel but at the same time to teach them to “observe all things whatsoever I commanded you.” A number of times we read in the book of Acts that Paul “reasoned” with Jews and Greeks concerning the way of salvation. His appeal was to the intellect as well as to the emotions and the will.

Actual experience in mission chapels and home mission fields in general is that those who have become interested in the gospel are eager for instruction in the doctrines of Scripture. Yet modern evangelism is sadly remiss in this matter. It wants quick results, statistics. It herds the weak-willed into inquiry rooms and from there hurries them into church membership. Converts receive scant instruction or none at all in the fundamentals of the gospel, unless perchance the churches with which they affiliate insist that a certain amount of catechetical training must precede full membership in the church.

The Reformed missionary is a teacher as well as a preacher and personal worker. He begins to teach as soon as he begins to preach. For it is impossible really to preach the gospel without teaching, in a very simple and elementary way to be sure, those doctrines which are the substance, the skeleton, of that gospel. He cannot preach Christ without explaining who Christ is and who God is—the One who sent his Son. He cannot preach Jesus without explaining what “Jesus” means. He cannot explain salvation without teaching what salvation is and includes. He cannot preach the Cross without explaining the meaning of the Cross. He must explain the atonement and its nature, without necessarily using all the theological terminology which the Church uses to shed light on this doctrine.

The Reformed missionary believes that there is no gospel without doctrine. He also understands that Reformed doctrine does not consist of certain profound or disputed teachings added to the simple gospel. Reformed doctrine is that gospel in its undiluted purity. It is impossible to preach the gospel, no matter how simply, unless it has a doctrinal strain and substratum. Every gospel message is certain to have a doctrinal flavor, whether that flavor be Reformed, Arminian, Lutheran, or something else.

A Mystery

All that we have written so far has a bearing on the issue that confronts our Church in connection with the proposed Theological College of Northern Nigeria.

We have tried to find a satisfactory explanation of the reasons why the congregations in our Nigerian field whom our Synod has recognized as a sister-Church seem so intent on being co-sponsors of that proposed school. We have not found an answer that satisfies us. We are still mystified.

There would be no mystery here if, on the one hand, we could assume that our missionaries in Nigeria are not really concerned about being Reformed in their message and methods and about helping to establish churches which bear a Reformed stamp. But we may not assume this. We ought to take for granted that the men and women whom our Church has sent to that field love our Reformed doctrine and teach it, be it ever so simply. But this leads to our puzzlement. For it has been our observation over the years that mission converts who were brought to Christ and instructed in the Bible by Reformed missionaries love the Reformed faith in so far as they understand it; and let us add that sometimes they have a clearer comprehension of our doctrines and a deeper appreciation for them than many of our own people. Yet we are told that the members or officers of the churches in our Nigerian field insist that their future ministers shall be trained in a seminary, or theological college, as it is called, where the teachers will be of various Christian persuasions: Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Reformed, etc. This mystifies us.

One possible explanation is that our missionaries on that field, for the sake of not putting a confessional stamp on their converts and the churches organized among them, have refrained from being distinctive in their message, soft-pedaling the Reformed interpretation of the gospel. We hesitate to accept this explanation. For it would really mean that the gospel has not been proclaimed faithfully in that field.

Another explanation is that Rev. Edgar H. Smith, with his peculiar inter-denominational background he served the United Sudan Mission before Our Church took over part of its field—and Dr. Harry R. Boer, with his known lack of interest in confessional and denominational distinctiveness, have persuaded the leaders of the native Church that a united seminary is demanded by their close contact and fellowship with the other Christian groups around them. The fact that the Rev. Mr. Smith was elected chairman of the board of governors of the proposed school and that Dr. Boer is to be its principal shows how prominently they have been identified with the movement for an inter-faith seminary.

We do not know whether this is the proper explanation. But if it is we are still mystified and perplexed. We must assume that both men mentioned above are Reformed in their doctrinal convictions. How then can they think with composure of the future of our Nigerian sister-churches, knowing that their future ministers will receive their training at the feet of Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal teachers, as well as one Reformed teacher? Do they not believe that the Reformed character of any Church whose leaders receive their training at such a school is jeopardized, in fact doomed? How can they justify any course of action which is bound to have this consequence?

Perhaps there are other possible explanations. The mystery remains, as far as we are concerned. The Christian Reformed Church has the right to know why it is that Reformed missionaries, whom it sent out with the mandate to teach and to promote the Reformed creed, can plead and work and even seek the support of our Church for an institution which is sure to undermine the Reformed faith.

Rev. Edgar H. Smith writes in his “Postscript” (The Banner, July 25 ) that our brethren in Nigeria are unwilling to be cut off from fellowship with other Christians in their land with whom they have had close association in the past—unwilling to withdraw from those “with whom they have enjoyed so much blessing” as being “no longer fit to be consorted with.” But how in the world could their refusal to participate in a united seminary be regarded as implying: “Now you are no longer fit to be consorted with?” That might be the case if a united seminary had already existed and our group had already cooperated with the other groups in the matter. But so far there has been no cooperation with the other groups in the training of future ministers; in fact, so far our Mission has had its own school at Lupwe where native pastors have been trained in the vernacular. Rev. Edgar Smith has been the teacher in this school and Dr. Boer stated at Synod that he had spent 9 months of his two-year stay in Africa teaching at this same school. This institution was not in any sense a united or ecumenical venture. And now we are told that if our Church refuses to participate in an entirely new venture, of an inter-denominational character, our native churches there will be turning their backs on their Christian brethren in the other groups! How strange!

There is one other significant circumstance, concerning which we have just received first-hand information, which makes us wonder still more why some of our missionaries on the field axe so insistent that a new, inter-faith school shall be started at Bukuru for the training of native pastors in the English language. There is already a training school for future pastors in the Tiv field at Zaki-Biam, where Rev. Peter Ipema is giving instruction in the Tiv language. Three or four students are completing a two-year course. In 1959 the school will introduce a four-year course which, it is hoped, will be taken by 15 young men. This school will be a truly indigenous institution, supported by the Tiv churches. We all remember how ardently Dr. Boer defended the indigenous principle in his pamphlet on our Indian field. The Tiv school therefore should have his wholehearted support. But why establish another non-indigenous school of an inter-denominational character when it will not be needed by the largest of our fields in Nigeria, the Tiv area?

We could go on and ask more questions. The mystery mentioned above is not solved. We have no satisfying answer to the question why the brethren Smith and Boer are so passionately determined to enlist the support of our Church for the proposed Theological College of Northern Nigeria unless it is this, they have once identified themselves with the cause and dread to lose face before the other Christian groups in their fellowship. We can, of course, understand that if our Church withdraws altogether, this will be embarrassing for them. For this, our Church (Synod) will be partly to blame. We leaped before we looked. But it is also true that a larger measure of devotion on the part of these men to our Reformed heritage and more concern about the future Reformed character of the native churches would have prevented them from making commitment to an institution which in the end will cause the blackout of our Reformed witness in our Nigerian mission field.