In the Centennial Year of the Christian Reformed Church much has been written about missions. Much of what was written was critical. Much of it claimed to bring new ideas. The critical approach need not be accepted, or rejected, just because it is critical. Neither need the new ideas be adopted, or ignored, just because they are new. A careful consideration of Jesus’ warning to his disciples when they were returning from their mission journey. “Nevertheless in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20), a word more often by-passed than considered in our day–may help much to straighten out our basic concepts.
One of the basic concepts in the Scriptures connected with the work of the gospel is joy. It is true, there is weeping as we sow. But joy is one of the most prominent ideas of our Lord in connection with his work. There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents. It is both the joy of being found and of finding that sends the believers on in an endless stream to carry forward the work of the Lord. Joy is a powerful motive; it is likewise one of the most rewarding of rewards.
Not all mission joy is true, or Scriptural. An outstanding example of wrong mission joy is seen in the life of Jonah. He rejoiced in the pouring out of divine wrath upon that which was not Israel. He refused to go to Nineveh to preach only wrath because he was sure it would mean mercy. When his proclamation of wrath wrought repentance on the part of the people and revealed an attitude of mercy on the part of God it meant only grief for Jonah. Jonah knew no greater joy than to see God pour out wrath and fury upon the heathen to their destruction.
Justification for this Jonah-type joy is sought in the Scriptures. Reference is made to the imprecatory psalmsSpirit-inspired prayers uttered by God’s troubled children. Reference is made to the assurances of God’s vengeance on those who lay hands on God’s anointed. The blood of God’s servants, from the blood of Abel to that of Zacharias, to that of Jesus the Christ, to that of the last saint laying down his life for his faith, is all to be required of the generation of Cain. Jesus tells those whom He sends forth to shake off the dust from their feet as a testimony against them, adding the assurance that it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city. Do not even the saints in heaven cry out: “How long, O Lord, how long? wilt Thou not avenge?”
There is joy in our hearts in all the revelation of God, joy in its every fulfillment. Yet it surely may not be overlooked that the preeminent joy of this day of grace is the joy of repentance which we seek; which drives us ever on. We are grateful that the Church has quite well freed itself from the Jonah-type joy; that it has learned God’s lesson to Jonah.
The New Testament brings another type of mission joy to our attention, far removed from the Jonah-type. It was a joy which Jesus found commonly among the religious leaders of Israel. In many respects it was the exact opposite of the Jonah type. This undoubtedly gives it a certain appeal, also today.
These religious leaders longed to make proselytes. They spared no efforts. Jesus compliments them on their zeal, acknowledging that they moved heaven and earth to make one proselyte. This was to their honor, and it gave them joy. What it might eventually do to them and to the proselytes seemed to be of no concern to anyone. The fact that the proselyte was made was sufficient reward in itself.
Those Jewish leaders and Jesus were troubled, the one by the other. The Jews were troubled, even to anger, that Jesus could not rejoice in their joy. They reviled Him when He dared rebuke them for it. Jesus was troubled when they could see no cause for joy in the things which Jesus maintained were the greatest cause for joy. The Jews could not rejoice with the Finder nor with the found, with the seeking Shepherd nor with the found sheep, with the restoring Father nor with the restored son.
Are we entirely free from this proselyte type joy? One of the things which characterizes all life in America is a mania for numbers. Numbers, big numbers, make an impression. Nothing else counts. Numbers make headlines in evangelistic campaigns. Numbers determine the success or failure of a movement or a church. A church or classis that cannot point to increased numbers is regarded as having failed in its mission.
Articles and books about missions are being multiplied in Christian Reformed circles. Almost all of them express a certain joy at a so-called mission awakening within the Church, a greater sense of mission responsibility. In such expressions of joy there is certainly implied, and often openly stated, a criticism of our fathers, of former generations. Occasionally attempts are made to smooth over this criticism. But basically unfavorable reflections on the mission zeal of our churches arc quite generally expressed.
Such reflections and implications are quite out of order. In the light of the noisy, narrow, number-counting 20th century standards of missions, perhaps we might judge our churches to have been neglectful It may be well to remind ourselves that no generation ever measures up to its own standards. But when we compare standards with standards, the position of our fathers is seen to have been far from wrong; in fact, in some respects, far more Scriptural than today’s. Are we today really free from all proselyte-type joy?
Even further removed from the Jonah-type of joy than the joy of proselytizing, is the joy of haVing accomplished great things through the gospel. The disciples of Jesus knew that joy. On the return from their trial run the seventy came to Jesus with glowing reports. They were overflowing with joy as they reported to the Lord: “Even the demons are subject unto us through Thy name.” Seemingly their joy was entirely proper. The Lord had given them these special powers; had instructed them to use these powers. Now they report success. Can you blame them for their amazement and joy?
We, too, in our day reveal much of this kind of joy. In fact, eighty percent—or is it ninety percent? -of our mission articles, reports, and books speak of success along these lines. Ignorance is dispelled. Diseases arc conquered. The power of demons is overcome. Why shouldn’t we be happy when hospitals and doctors, schools and teachers, houses and builders bring about such great changes in the lives of the heathen? Then to think that the Lord gave us those means, the know-how to use them, and the readiness to administer them! It gives a thrill beyond words.
The strange thing is that Jesus says: Rejoice not at all in this! Don’t even let the joy over this get started in your hearts! Not rejoice when babies’ lives are saved? when lepers are cleansed? when fetish-power is broken? We can well understand that churches are quite ready to forget this instruction of the Lord. Judging by published reports, we hardly know any other joy.
The strict admonition of the Lord is not as inexplicable as it sounds. He knows the human heart. He knows that as soon as we begin to experience a feeling of joy at agricultural success, civilization improvements, fetish displacement, medical conquests, educational triumphs, the urge to press on to the one thing needful is killed off.
Sovereign Grace-type Joy
Rejoice because your names are written in heaven! (Luke 10:20). This word of Jesus is startling. He makes the choice deliberate: Rather rejoice in this! He presents two types of joy. The one we totally reject, deliberately. Deliberately we take the other. Deliberately we refuse to rejoice in any
earthly, temporal, physical, or intellectual success. Deliberately we set the popular, non-antagonizing joy completely aside. Choose what makes front-page headlines on earth? No. What then? That which makes the pages of heaven.
The choice which Jesus insists we shall make seems a bit absurd. Choose to rejoice only in this that your names are written in heaven? Was it not true of Israel that when once the notion was fixed in their hearts that they were the chosen people of God they had no concern for others anymore? Has it not been proved in the New Testament dispensation that people and churches, deeply possessed of the idea that their names were written in heaven, became self-centered, proud, with a “Iet-the-world-go-to-the-dogs” attitude? Page after page of church history seems to prove that conviction of election and mission zeal just do not go together. In fact, examples might be found to show that the one has sometimes killed the other.
But there it stands: the great word of correction by our Lord to returning missionaries who have substituted a lesser, a failing, joy for the true mission joy. This, and this alone must be in their hearts and minds. This is a matter of sovereign grace. If distinguishing grace cannot make you happy, what can? If sovereign grace cannot drive you on, what can? If electing grace, with its joys for time and eternity, does not make you debtors to all men, as much as in you lies, what will?