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A Call to Reformed Evangelism

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"The more consistently Reformed a church is, the more active will it be in evangelism."

This is a simple, yet profound, statement from the former Westminster Seminary professor and president of Calvin Seminary, R.B. Kuiper. The connections between Reformed theology and evangelism are so strong that, according to Kuiper, no one has a greater incentive for engaging in evangelism. Why? Because for the Reformed, everything revolves around the glory of the Triune God, and this includes evangelism. 

As Kuiper puts it:

Reformed evangelism is God-centered. The danger is ever present that evangelism will become man-centered. In many instances that has occurred. The salvation of souls is often regarded as the one end of evangelism. It is most certainly an end of evangelism, and an important one, but it is by no means the ultimate end...[Evangelism] is a means to a more comprehensive end—the growth of the body of Christ, the church. That again is a means to a still more comprehensive end—the coming of Christ’s kingdom in every domain of life. And that is a means to the highest of all ends—the glory of God.

In his book, To Be or Not To Be Reformed, Kuiper begins by laying out the more common apologetic for Reformed evangelism: Election. In light of God's gracious choosing of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (people group), Reformed Christians should approach evangelism with confidence in both the universal gospel and universal church; a message of good news for all peoples and a church of those united to Christ from all peoples. The good news is that the good shepherds sheep hear his voice, they follow him, and no one can steal them away (John 10). 

However, it is his second argument--the glory of God--that I find particularly fascinating and compelling. In this argument, Kuiper cuts through the dualism that often marks evangelical approaches to evangelism (the saving of souls for heaven), while also challenging Kuyperian neo-calvinists (Christ's lordship over every sphere of life). And he does so, not by tearing anyone or anything down, but rather by building up, stacking telos upon telos until he reaches the chief end of humanity: to glorify God. Evangelism serves the building of the Church, and the building of the Church provides the foundation for witnessing to the Kingdom of God in all of life, and such witness fulfills our created purpose as image-bearers of God in His world. 

Notice, too, what is at the heart of this chain leading to the glory of God: the Church. As institute, the church fulfills her calling to proclaim the gospel and administer the sacraments, sending out the church, as organism, to fulfill her comprehensive calling as witnesses to Christ and the Kingdom. Below is an illustration that may articulate this point better:

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So if we are committed to being consistently Reformed, we must engage in evangelism: "But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? (Rom. 10:14, NLT)" It is not an option, nor is it a burden. Rather it is a serious responsibility and incredible opportunity. However, beyond this, we must engage in evangelism because it ultimately serves as a vital way to glorify God. Through the faithful word and deed proclamation of the gospel, we will see the body of Christ, the Church, grow, and the Kingdom advance in the lives of those who entrust themselves to the good and gracious king, Jesus Christ.  

 

*Next week, we will reflect on a brief warning Kuiper presents at the end of this chapter on evangelism in the CRC. 

 

 

 

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A Quote on the Areopagus

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"The gulf separating paganism and Christianity is clear even in Paul's Areopagus address. Paul appears extremely polite and appreciative in his references to Greek philosophy, but toward the end of his discourse he makes reference to 'repentance' and 'judgment,' and these two words place what he first said in a new light. Paul here issued to the proud and the wise a call to repentance. Their profound notions of the deity stand condemned, and their path leads to destruction, for the deity about whom they spoke such exalted things is not the true God who has shown his mercy in Christ Jesus, but is what Calvin referred to as the umbratile numen, the nebulous all-pervading being, fabricated by us to fill the emptiness caused by our unwillingness to recognize the true God."
-J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions

In the absence of the true God, a vacuum is created in which humanity will inevitably make something else to be god. The only question is what that god will be.  At the Areopagus, the philosophers and leaders of the people of Athens exalted gods reflecting their own image; gods emanating the wisdom and pride of the Greeks. The kingdom of humanity.  And yet, Bavinck, by way of Paul, reminds us that such fabricated gods are, instead, foolishness. Further, what they trusted to bring life and flourishing to the world was only another means of death and destruction. 

True wisdom, fullness of life, and human flourishing come through the recognition--not the rejection or fabrication--of the one true God, who, rather than reflecting our image, creates us in his own. The true God who stoops down to reveal himself, in revelation and redemption, extending his mercy and grace to us most clearly in the person and work of Christ. Through Christ, the Kingdom of God breaks into our world in a way unlike any other, renewing hearts and minds to trust and obey the all-wise King, and beginning his work of making all things new. 

Whose vision and kingdom do you carry within you? The human kingdom, whose wisdom is foolishness and whose gods are impotent to bring the flourishing and life for which we yearn (ultimately leaving us disappointed and disillusioned)? Or the Kingdom of God, whose (perceived) foolishness is true wisdom and whose God is not only capable of bringing renewal to all things and everlasting life, but is already doing so in Christ by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit.  

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With Eyes That See, and Hearts of Love: Wisdom on Sharing the Gospel from J.H. Bavinck

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"A congregation is indeed gathered out of the nations, but it is obligated by God to send forth the gospel message to the nations."
-J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions

As a campus minister, I yearn to see students, faculty, and staff come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I desire to see them discover the wonders of God's grace, generally, in the world--from blooming flowers and athletic prowess to exquisite artwork and the intricacies of engineering--and, particularly, in the redemptive work of Christ--His life, death, resurrection and ascension.  I want them to know that the Kingdom of God has broken into this world, and, as a result, they are witnesses and ambassadors of its King, the Lord Jesus Christ, in their given vocations; in all that they say and do--wherever God leads them. 

This is, by no means, a unique desire.  In fact, it is one shared by many ministries on the university campus. While we may approach the kerygmatic task in different ways, we all desire to see the gospel go forth, and disciples made. And beyond the campus, this should be the heart of those who make up our churches. If a passion for proclaiming the gospel--the good news concerning Christ and the Kingdom--in both word and deed is lacking in the local church, serious questions must be asked. As J.H. Bavinck points out in his classic book, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, as a people graciously gathered out of the world by the Triune God, we are obligated to take this message forth to the nations. 

And while churches may do this differently, and (campus) ministries use various approaches[1], there are certain rules that Bavinck identifies that transcend all these differences; rules that we should take heed of today, all these years later, as we continue to walk in obedience to the calling given us by our God and King.

1. We must try to see the person with whom we are dealing. 
Bavinck's first point is that we cannot simply get caught up with the surface details of the person with whom we are dealing; their name, position, and arguments.  We need to remember that the person before us is not simply a man or woman (a family member, foreigner, neighbor, co-worker, friend, etc.), but is also a worshipping being and a bearer of culture[2], which is to say, their life is religiously oriented (it is just a matter of what it is oriented around). Beneath the surface are a complex network of fears, desires, hopes, dreams, worries, and, as Augustine so famously stated, a restlessness that only finds its rest in a right relationship with God. With this in mind, Bavinck reminds us: "Behind all such arguments and deliberations there lies hidden a personal meeting with God. [3]" 

2. The approach must be a meeting filled with love.
Oftentimes, we are guilty of approaching people as projects; simply identifying others as the lostblind, and/or foolish. As a result, our engagement with people regarding the good news of the Christ can be far from caring and compassionate, filled with loving patience and grace. I can recount numerous stories from non-Christians who, having not converted in a short period of time, watched their Christian "friends" disappear (presumably to find the sheep God was calling back to the fold).  Bavinck explains:  

Not until I see all things such as stupidity, primitiveness, and deceit as the elements constituting the structures of their flight from God and responsibility, can I begin to have room for love. For then I realize that apart from God's grace, this same flight from God is also the deepest motive of my own life. I try to flee in an infinitely more subtle manner, but I nevertheless flee, until Christ draws me out of my darkness and opens my eyes. [4]

Bavinck's words are oriented toward native peoples in foreign lands, but the same principle can be applied to our own context. We must remind ourselves that this person is a fellow image-bearer of God--one made in His image--and recognize, via our common guilt before God and equal need for His grace, ourselves in those with whom we engage. Meetings and relationships covered in love, care, and compassion are a crucial supplement to words we speak. Again, Bavinck writes:

Our meeting with others must be marked by a certain calm and patience, if we are to understand a person's manner of life, his basic presuppositions, and his secret defenses. In many instances we will have to take a person seriously, even though we sometimes have a mind to strike him abruptly with the sword of God's Word...Our own desire ought never to hinder our proceeding with caution and concern. [5]

3. It must bear the character of an encounter. 
This is defined by Bavinck as "[Moments that take place] if two people permit the light of God's word to shine over their life." It is a moment of two people standing together before God. To put it another way, this rule pertains to the moment in which a person is ready and willing to hear, and we are faithful and prepared, to share the Word of God concerning Christ and His Kingdom. Such moments can arise in corporate settings, such as a church service or campus meeting, but most often occur in the intimate setting of a one-on-one conversation. And they can occur when we least expect them. I would argue this, of the three rules, is the trickiest to identify, and, at times, can even take place without our knowing it, as God works in and through us, the meeting, or the growing relationship. 

So take these three rules to heart as you engage in the task given us by our Lord Jesus Christ to make known the good news. See the person with whom you are meeting; fill that meeting with love; and submit yourself, the relationship, and your discussion, before the Lord God according to His Word. And may He bless us with an abundance of fruit, joy, and thanksgiving. 

 

[1] Bavinck, drawing on Kraemer, broadly identifies two approaches: the spontaneous and the cautious. The spontaneous would encompass what many campus ministries and church evangelistic programs do, in directly calling people to "give themselves to Christ." The cautious, on the other hand, is a longer, prolonged effort of addressing an individual's questions, defenses, and arguments, culminating with the final step: a call to repentance and faith.

[2] Bavinck, J.H., Introduction to the Science of Missions (Philadelphia, PA: P&R Publishing Co., 1960), 122.
[3] Bavinck126. 
[4] Bavinck, 127.
[5] Bavinck, 128.

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A Doubleshot of Bavinck(s): A Link to My Kuyperian Commentary Post

Last week, I was given the privilege of being a guest writer for the Kuyperian Commentary. You can find the full post here. Below is an excerpt:

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...At the heart of Herman Bavinck’s theology is the principle that “grace restores nature.” According to Bavinck, the religious antithesis should be between grace and sin, not between grace and nature, as posited by the dualistic approaches of both Roman Catholicism and the Anabaptists. Bavinck writes:

Grace restores nature and takes it to its highest pinnacle…The re-creation is not a second, new creation. It does not add to existence any new creatures or introduce any new substance into it, but it is truly “re-formation.” In this process the working of grace extends as far as the power of sin.

The implications of this are profound and all encompassing. Not only are fallen human beings reconciled to God and restored to fellowship with Him, but also enabled by the Holy Spirit to once again live out their created purpose (vocation). However, the re-forming effects of grace are also extended to the whole of nature, including the world of culture, society, and politics.d

As it relates to campus ministry, the blessing of this principle is twofold. First, it guards against the twin dangers of separatism and secularism. Much of what is encompassed under the banner of “campus ministry” is nothing more than an Anabaptist separatism that Bavinck describes as “[only] rescuing and snatching of individuals out of the world which lies in wickedness; never a methodical, organic reformation of the whole, of the cosmos, of the nation and country.” Thus, ministries engage primarily in evangelism, Bible study, and providing a sub-culture for Christian students (as opposed to a holistic approach to discipleship and working for reformation of the broader campus culture). On the other hand, the principle thwarts the efforts of secularism to relegate faith in general, and the work of Christ in particular, to private life and the heart. As a result of the way in which God is at work, faith cannot help but find expression in the public square, and do so in ongoing, relevant ways that point to Christ and the Kingdom.

The second blessing of Bavinck’s emphasis upon grace restoring nature is that it provides the foundation for a robust theology of vocation; no sphere of life and no field of study lie outside the scope of grace (or the lordship of Christ, a point on which Bavinck agreed with Kuyper). Therefore, students may faithfully fulfill the work God has called them to, whether it is as an engineer or educator, physicist or farmer, politician or pastor. Additionally, as it pertains to vocation, faculty and staff can be encouraged and empowered as they engage in culture-making on campus through their teaching and research...

Again, for the rest of the article, check out the Kuyperian Commentary here. And while you're there, check out some of their other interesting and thought-provoking work.

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Open Our Eyes To See

Jesus, coming in the fullness of time, proclaimed the good news of God, declaring, "The kingdom of God is near...and all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me (Mk. 1:15, Mt. 28:18)"

By virtue of this authority, and in the plan of redemption, Paul declares that through Christ, God is at work "to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven. (Col. 1:20)" Furthermore, the apostle writes that Christ shall reign at the right hand of God until "he has put all his enemies under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25)."

John Calvin presented this challenge to his hearers: "We are called to make the invisible Kingdom of God visible to the world."

In the Heidelberg Catechism, we are asked: What does it mean to say, "Your Kingdom Come?"
The answer:  Rule us by your Word and Spirit in such a way that more and more we submit to you. Preserve your church and make it grow. Destroy the devil's work; destroy every force which revolts against you and every conspiracy against your holy Word. Do this until your kingdom fully comes, when you will be all in all.

The next question further presses the point: What does it mean to say, "Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?"
The answer: Help us and all people to reject our own wills and to obey your will without any back talk. Your will alone is good. Help us one and all to carry out the work we are called to, as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven.

Herman Ridderbos explains, "The coming of the kingdom is first of all the display of divine glory, the reassertion and maintenance of God's rights on earth in their full sense...not only oriented to the redemption of God's people, but to the self-assertion of God in all his works. Not only does it place Israel, but also the heathen nations, the world, and even the whole creation, in the wide perspective of the realization of all God's rights and promises...the one great kingdom of the future penetrates into the present."

Likewise, J.H. Bavinck, with poetic prose, declares, "Wherever Jesus comes, the demons flee, the fever subsides, the sea becomes calm, and the storm obeys. The kingdom of God has come near, and leprosy retreats, the blind open their eyes in utter amazement, the lame start to leap in spontaneous enthusiasm, and the dead rise from their graves. Indeed, the kingdom of God is near. All those shattering, destructive, depressing, and disruptive forces now dominating the universe fly away in despair and anguish as soon as the king appears...[All these] serve as proof that God will not surrender this terrible world to the powers of decay at work in it, but that the great day in which he himself will gather up his world into a harmonious symphony of adoration has begun."

Our World Belongs to God, the contemporary testimony of the CRC, teaches: Made in God's image to live in loving communion with our Maker, we are appointed earthkeepers and caretakers to tend the earth, enjoy it, and love our neighbors. God uses our skills for the unfolding and well-being of his world so that creation and all who live in it may flourish...[And now] restored in Christ's presence, shaped by his life, this new community [the church] lives out the ongoing story of God's reconciling love, announces the new creation, and works for a world of justice and peace. Jesus Christ rules over all."

Even in our own day, J.I. Packer makes it clear: Christians must manifest the reality of Kingdom life" through the work of worldwide witness, disciple-making, and church-planting, as well as faithful Christian living that corresponds to the message of Christ and the Kingdom.  

"Because the kingdom, the time of God's rule, has been inaugurated with Jesus' own coming, we are called to life in the kingdom which means life under his lordship, freely accepted and forgiven," states Tim Keller, "But  we are also committed to Jesus' Kingdom priorities of the new age and seeing them worked out in our own lives and the world in this present age." 

And Joseph Boot writes, "The church as God's kingdom people must not only be concerned with personal salvation, or institutional church affairs, but with the reign of Christ over all things. The church (as such) represents the exalted Christ to the secular order."

If Henry Van Til was right when he said, "Culture is religion externalized," then the question is: What does our culture say about our religion?  What do our lives say about the content of our faith?

Is our culture (and our lives) reflective of the themes we find throughout the pages of Scripture? Does it (and do we) represent the kind of redemptive, reconciling, and renewing faith to which we've been called by the grace of God in Christ Jesus? Or does it (and do you and I) instead reflect a kind of civil religion, a moralistic-therapeutic faith, nationalism, or gnostic indifference?

Do we seek to find theological loopholes and convenient alternatives to our covenantal calling--marked by the Cultural Mandate and Great Commission--because it is easier than laboring for the Kingdom in the already-not yet?  

May God open our eyes, that we may see the drama of redemption, the beauty of the Kingdom, and the challenge given us as its citizens; a challenge that is not futile to give your life to, but rather, already assured of its success.  May the Lord help us to see how to live into this calling and glorify His name. So join me in reflection and contemplation, and pray along with me:

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