Evangelism: The church's missionary task in the world (1) - Rev. J.L. Van Popta

Taken from the Clarion (1997) Vol.46, No 14-18

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1. Introduction

The various congregations in the federation have very uneven approaches to evangelism. Some do nothing; others are planning urban mission projects. Some members do not think they have a personal task in this matter. Others think their church should do more; or their committee should do more; or their brother or sister should do more. Some, on the other hand, think they should do less. "All this enthusiasm about evangelism lately!" Some in the church become suspicious of those who want to evangelize; they suspect those who are willing to engage others with the gospel of being less than Reformed. This series of articles is aimed at developing a clearer understanding of the church's, the congregation's, and individual Christian's role in this matter. [1]

This study will begin with some basic ideas, and from there attempt to develop some practical ideas for Reformed Evangelism. In this article, and in three more following it, we will attempt to:

1) define what evangelism is;

2) give some biblical justification for evangelism;

3) delineate some aspects of evangelism.

We will ask:

4) How effective are we?

5) What is missing?

Then we will,

6) examine what we as churches are doing in the area of evangelism; and finally

7) make some practical suggestions.[2] 

In this first article we will attempt to formulate a definition for evangelism. That will help us to focus on the other aspects in the following articles.

2. Distinctions

"What is evangelism?" In this context we need to ask, "What is mission?" We must also ask, "is there a difference, one from the other?" Intuitively we understand that there is a link between the two. Evangelism and mission are concerned with bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who are outside the church. Discussing the relationship between the two helps to define evangelism.

In this discussion some have made all sorts of distinctions. One distinction that has been made is this: Mission is when the church sends a minister/missionary (and maybe a missionary helper) overseas to preach to those who have never heard the gospel. In distinction to that, evangelism is when the church calls a minister into our inner cities and slums to preach to the people there.

A second distinction that has been made by some is this: Mission is when a minister preaches to those who have never heard of the Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel of salvation. Evangelism is when a minister preaches the gospel to those who have heard but have fallen away. Others say, "No, that is not right!" and make another distinction. Mission work is when the church calls a minister to preach to non- church members. Evangelism is when individual church members tell others about the gospel.

I can think of other distinctions that have been made. Some have spoken of intentional and unintentional evangelism. Others speak about organized or unorganized evangelism. We could go on. Perhaps you can think of some others. Many of these distinctions, however, have been used to limit the role of the individual church member in the work of spreading the gospel. I believe that all church members, young people, children even, young adults, men, women also, office bearers and ministers have a task in spreading the gospel of salvation. Their individual careers will make the shape of their task and the boundaries of their role different from each other. Their career or gender or age (well maybe age) does not exclude them from an evangelistic task.

2.1 Deadness

In Isaiah 2:3 the following words can be found:

Many people will come and say,
"Come, let us go up to the mountain

of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob."

A commentator writing on the passage wrote:

By these words (Isaiah the prophet) declares that the godly will be filled with such an ardent desire to spread the doctrine of religion, that every one not satisfied with his own calling and his personal knowledge will desire to draw others along with him. And indeed nothing could be more inconsistent with the nature of faith than that deadness which would lead a man to disregard his brethren, and keep the light of knowledge choked up within his own breast.

This commentator continues:

This points out to us also the ordinary method of collecting a Church, which is, by the outward voice of men; for though God might bring each person to Himself by a secret influence, yet He employs the agency of men, that He may awaken in them an anxiety about the salvation of each other. By this method He likewise strengthens their mutual attachment, and puts to the test their willingness to receive instruction, when every one permits himself to be taught by others.[3]

These words commenting on the prophet Isaiah were written by none other than John Calvin. We should look at Calvin's words for a moment that they sink deeply into our consciousness. When Calvin writes that they are not satisfied with their own calling, he does not mean to say that they are not satisfied with their career or occupation, or place within the church - say a laborer who wants to be a minister, or a woman who wants to be an elder. No, he means they are not satisfied with their own calling, their call to faith; they are not content with that. They do not say, "I'm saved, that's good enough!" No, they desire to draw others along to faith in Jesus Christ.

Later on in his commentary on these verses Calvin writes that in New Testament times the mountain to which the many are going is the Church of God. We should notice what Calvin writes about this. "Indeed nothing could be more inconsistent with the nature of faith than that deadness which would lead a man to disregard his brethren, and keep the light of knowledge choke up within his own breast." We must not be content with our own call to faith, but must desire with zeal to draw others with us.

In Calvin's thought, keeping silent about the gospel among unbelievers is a deadness incompatible with faith. Rather, we should speak out, each and every one, and so participate in the church gathering work of Jesus Christ. Lord's Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism says that Christ gathers His church. Calvin says that all believers are to participate in that work.

The ordinary way, according to Calvin, of Christ gathering His church, is through the outward voice of believers. This voice can come through the offices of the church, the ministers and elders - yes of course! But it can also come through the voice of the body of Christ, the congregation, and through each Christian.

3. Canons of Dort

The Canons of Dort can help us here. Many Reformed people think that the Canons are a difficult and dusty document. You study it once while you are in catechism. Then perhaps you study it once or twice more in your life at Men's or Women's Societies. There some keener will beat you over the head with it: "It says 'such and such' in Chapter 2 Article so and so of the Canons of Dort and therefore you are Arminian!" Then you tremble in your Sunday shoes and think, "Oh no, not me, I'm Reformed!" And you are cowed into silence.

But the Canons of Dort, though the least known, are not a difficult nor dry theological treatise. In fact the Canons in their presentation of Election in Chapter 1 and Redemption in Chapter 2 lay a ground-work for all evangelistic and missionary efforts. The doctrine of election should cause Reformed confessors and Reformed Churches, of all confessors and churches, to have the greatest zeal for evangelism. A truly Reformed church is an evangelizing Church.

The Canons of Dort 1 .1 -3 read:

Since all men have sinned in Adam, lie under the curse, and deserve eternal death, God would have done no one an injustice if it had 314 been His will to leave the whole human race in sin and under the curse, and to condemn it on account of its sin, according to these words of the apostle: that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; and, the wages of sin is death.

But then the gospel message!

But in this the love of God was made manifest, that He sent His only-begotten Son into the world, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16.)

So that men may be brought to faith, God mercifully sends heralds of this most joyful message to whom He will and when He wills. By their ministry men are called to repentance and to faith in Christ crucified. For how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?

And here you see the role of the church in mission and evangelism. As Calvin says, God uses the human voice to collect His church.

The wrath of God remains upon those who do not believe this gospel. But those who receive it and embrace Jesus the Saviour with a true and living faith are delivered by Him from the wrath of God and from destruction, and are given eternal life.

So then the only way to eternal life is through faith in Jesus Christ presented in the gospel.

Chapter 2 Article 5 reads:

The promise of the gospel is that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise ought to be announced and proclaimed universally and without discrimination to all peoples and to all men, to whom God in His good pleasure sends the gospel, together with the command to repent and believe.

The promise of the gospel is to be announced and proclaimed universally to all peoples and to all men. To nations and races - all peoples. To individuals all men. The promise comes: those who believe shall not perish. The command comes: you must repent from sin and believe. That is the bottom line of the gospel. A promise and demand that must go out to all and everyone, collectively and individually, without discrimination. The Canons of Dort highlight this evangelistic calling of the church and the task of God's people.

Calvin points out that it is a deadness which would cause believers to be silent about the gospel. The Canons of Dort set out the biblical doctrine that the gospel must be proclaimed universally to all men. As Reformed confessors we note that it is Christ who gathers his church, but we then with the Canons and Calvin remember that Christ uses first of all, the human voice and the agency of men to do that gathering work.


We will now attempt a definition. In the following articles I hope to work out some of the implications of this definition as well as demonstrate its validity.

Evangelism is the activity of Christ Jesus, exercised through the church, by which the church, officially, corporately and individually, calls all nations of the earth, and all persons, without discrimination, to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, so that being His disciples and being baptized, they be brought into the fellowship of the church.[4]

Foot Notes

1   In the Spring of 1996 the Evangelism Committee of the Canadian Reformed Church of Winnipeg, together with the Committee of the Church of Carman invited me to speak on any subject I chose concerning evangelism. The following is the result of my study. It also incorporates ideas that were generated by the discussions that followed on consecutive evenings in November 1996. I will always remember the warm hospitality, even as we dealt with the worst blizzard that struck the area in 30 years. I will never forget how many came to Carman church even as the weatherman posted the required "blizzard warnings." I also delivered this talk in Burlington in December 1996 (with a second invitation for Jan 1997), in Ottawa April 1997, as well as in Coaldale in May 1997. "Thank you!" to those who thought to ask me to speak on this subject. It caused me to organize some ideas into a more coherent whole. I do not suggest that this is a definitive work on evangelism but I hope that it will spur us on to greater faithfulness in this matter. May it serve to build up the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
2 These articles, being born out of a speech, do not have extensive footnotes. I acknowledge that many of my ideas were derived from reading various books on evangelism. I am unable now to give credit where it is due. C. John Miller's Out Growing the Ingrown Church served as the impetus for much of what I write.
3Calvin, John. Commentary on Isaiah 2:3
4  Adapted and modified from J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions. Pg. 62.

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