A Reformed and Confessional View of Missions
A Wonderful Motto
When I think of Reformed missions, an old motto comes to mind: For the glory of God and the salvation of our fellow-men. This wonderful summary of the call to mission stems from a letter the 1791 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States sent to the “churches under their care.” In this correspondence, they make an appeal for the funding of missionaries sent to minister on the edges of the new American nation. It is worth quoting in part:
We have made provision for the sending of missionaries to the frontiers of our country; you will also see that the effects of those missions in some places have been such as to open a pleasing prospect of advancing the Redeemer’s kingdom in the salvation of men, and of sending the light of the gospel to those who have hitherto been involved in the grossest darkness. To carry into effect so noble a design, we cannot doubt that all who have a supreme regard to the glory of God and the salvation of their fellow-men, will cheerfully contribute.”
If we asked, “Why does the church exist?” we could respond with the same motto: For the glory of God and the salvation of our fellow men. We have been called out of the world to be sent into the world as witnesses to the lost and perishing of the world. This upholds the two greatest commandments and is to dominate our thinking, willing, and acting. Fellow image bearers of the eternal God are, as the 1791 General Assembly said, trapped “in the grossest darkness.” The spiritual need proves great. What glory we ascribe to God and what love we show our fellow man, when we give, risk, and go to see souls brought from death to life. This mission is a ministry of spiritual necessity.
The fact that this is a spiritual need informs the means and framework by which we seek to accomplish this mission. If the need is spiritual, the answer is spiritual. First, this means that our mission’s endeavors must rely upon the work of the Spirit and that reliance demonstrates itself by the means of prayer. We cannot accomplish heavenly things without heavenly help. We cannot exercise power that does not belong to us. Thus, Reformed mission begins, continues, and ends in Spirit-filled prayer. If we can accomplish the work apart from prayer, it’s not worth doing. If we can’t accomplish the work apart from prayer, then we know it requires us to be upon our knees.
Second, Reformed mission emphasizes the priority of Word-based ministry. Our Lord sent the church out to proclaim the good news of the gospel in the Great Commission. We dare not engage purely in that which the secular world can offer and, at times, can even do better. It is true that we may be able to match or even supersede what the world accomplishes in certain mercy realms. But the world cannot and will not ever provide what only the church can provide in the spiritual realm. Therefore, our mission requires the Word to be preached. We long to see men, women, and children saved not only from the ravages of this life, but from the pains of the life to come. Does this mean that deed ministry remains absent from Reformed missions? No, our fellow man consists of both body and soul. We are concerned about temporal mercy needs, but understand the greatest need proves spiritual and eternal. Deed ministries often provide opportunity for the missionary to share the gospel and serve to adorn the gospel ministry engaged in.
How can people know the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ apart from hearing? “And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” (Rom. 10:14–15). The church fails our fellow man when she is not focused on sending out missionaries to proclaim—with boldness and fervency—the Word of God to a people, though ignorant of it, needing this truth more than anything else it could possibly offer. Prayer-saturated, Word-based, Christ-exalting, ministry is desperately needed.
Third, this is why the need for confessional missionaries maintaining confessional integrity proves crucial. The goal is not to be doctrinal purists, wielding the sword of division and arrogance. Rather, confessional integrity helps hold a missionary accountable to proclaim the truth of the gospel in the face of hostility and philosophical confusion on the mission field. Paul tells Timothy to “follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13). In essence, Paul tells Timothy, “You’ve been entrusted with this gospel; proclaim it, don’t be ashamed of it, but guard it and keep it unstained from error.” It’s hard enough to untangle biblical truth from the cultural movements in our own land. The task becomes all the more difficult in a foreign land, employing a second language, and battling the complexities of Islam, Hinduism, and a whole assortment of local animistic religions. As we prioritize the proclamation of the Word in our missions, we need missionaries who remain committed to the gospel and submit themselves to the accountability of our Reformed confessions.
Fourth, Reformed theology has always emphasized a church-oriented mission. The church must be organized to effectively send. It is the church in Antioch that sends out Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1–3). And when Paul and Barnabas go out in mission to fulfill the Great Commission, they seek not to simply win the lost to saving faith in Christ, but to establish churches as they go. “When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith…. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:21–23). They prayed and preached the Word to see their fellow man converted, they organized churches, and they appointed elders. Paul gives this same instruction to Titus, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). People had been converted in Crete and so churches needed to be organized.
Reformed mission is thoroughly church-oriented. Mission begins with the church (in sending) and ends with the church as disciples are gathered into local assemblies. While the church sends out its best to foreign lands—imagine Paul and Barnabas leaving your church!—conversions occur by God’s grace, and new churches are organized and established. These new churches then continue the cycle. They begin sending out their own to foreign lands, with conversions occurring by God’s grace, and new churches are organized and established. Mission endeavors separated from the church is foreign to the Scriptures. And a church separated from mission is equally foreign to the Scriptures.
 Acts and Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, A.D. 1790 and 1791 (Philadelphia: Printed by R. Aitken & Son), 1791.
 “Mission,” in the singular, is used here of that exclusive mission given to the church, as expressed in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20).