Evangelistic outreach and missions is of prime importance to the church. But neither the Westminster Confession (WCF) nor the Second London Baptist Confession (2LCF) gives much expression or emphasis to the church’s responsibility to take the gospel to all the nations. The chapter “Of the church” (WCF, ch. 25; 2LCF, ch. 26), is an exposition of the nature of the church universal and local, its authority, its institution, its membership, its government, its worship, and its fraternal relations. But the chapter offers no clear and comprehensive summary of the church’s duty to publish the gospel outside the four walls of its sanctuary.
The Great Commission mandate might be inferred from the affirmed need to translate the Scriptures into every language (1.8). Or, one might interpret the references to “the ministry of the word” (10.3, 4: 14.1, 26.10, 11) as inclusive of evangelistic and missionary outreach. Nevertheless, the focus of these references appears to be on preaching in the church, not on proclaiming the gospel outside the church in order to make disciples and plant new churches. The Savoy and 2LCF do add a chapter not contained in the WCF entitled, “Of the gospel and of the extent of the grace thereof” (cf. 20). Although this chapter focuses on the necessity and sufficiency of special revelation, it fails to give a clear and explicit emphasis on the church’s responsibility to propagate that revelation. So it seems to me that the Confession addresses evangelism and missions implicitly at best.
The Puritan Confessions in Context
Why this seeming lack of explicit emphasis on evangelistic and missionary outreach in the seventeenth century Puritan confessions? It certainly was not a lack of concern for the lost or a lack of conviction that God would ensure Christ’s gospel reached the ends of the earth.1 Perhaps the Puritans felt the need to give a higher priority to the church’s reformation than to its outreach to the world. Church polity and worship needed repair. Therefore, the Puritans had to focus inward before they could focus outward.
Another factor that may account for the lack of explicit emphasis on taking the gospel to the nations (i.e., foreign missions) is the fact that the Puritans lived prior to the time of colonial expansion, which facilitated access and travel to foreign lands. The limitations on seventeenth century communication and travel may have hindered to some degree a focus on and engagement in missions beyond more localized endeavors.
The cultural and political context in which the Puritans lived may also account for a lack of explicit emphasis on evangelism and missions in their creedal statements. They lived in a kind of Christian theocracy. In such a society, citizens, whether believers or not, were expected to attend and be members of a church. It was not as necessary for the church to “reach out”; the pastor did much evangelism from the pulpit. Not surprisingly, we have many excellent evangelistic sermons and books by the Puritans. This also may explain why there were sometimes mass conversions among the church members during periods of revival.2
Our Twenty-First Century Context
We no longer live in a sacral society. Our society is rapidly becoming pagan and pluralistic. It resembles the Rome of Paul’s day more than the Geneva of Calvin’s day. We shouldn’t expect, therefore, the Reformed or Puritan tradition to say everything we need to know about evangelism and missions today. But that doesn’t excuse us from saying more. As Reformed Baptists, we need to communicate loudly and clearly to our sister evangelical churches and to the world at large our commitment to evangelistic and missionary outreach.
Tom Nettles, Reformed Baptist historian, apparently concurs. He argues, “The church’s stewardship of the gospel world-wide should be a part of its confessional commitment.”3 Nettles also drafted a proposed revision to chapter twenty of the Confession, which underscores this commitment. An expansion of paragraph two underscores the necessity that “Christ’s Gospel be proclaimed to all fallen humanity.” To paragraph four is appended the following: “The substance of all missionary and evangelistic labors, therefore, must be the proclamation of the Gospel. Apart from this message we may not expect God’s Spirit to honor our efforts with the reclaiming of the lost. In the context of such labors one may always hope that the Spirit will lead the lost to Christ.”4 Nettles also cites Article XI of the Baptist Faith & Message (2000), which reads,
It is the duty and privilege of every follower of Christ and of every church of the Lord Jesus Christ to endeavor to make disciples of all nations. The new birth of man’s spirit by God’s Holy Spirit means that birth of love for others. Missionary effort on the part of all rests thus upon a spiritual necessity of the regenerate life, and is expressly commanded in the teachings of Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ has commanded the preaching of the gospel to all nations. It is the duty of every child of God to seek constantly to win the lost to Christ by verbal witness undergirded by a Christian lifestyle, and by other methods in harmony with the gospel of Christ.5
More recently, the Reformed Baptist Network has taken a step in the right direction. The network has included an entire article in their “Core Values” that not only underscores the church’s duty to take the gospel to the lost but also affirms common grace and the well-meant offer. “An Earnest Mission” not only places a greater emphasis on the church’s mission to the nations, but it also protects against the danger of hyper-Calvinism, an error that has affected some Reformed Baptist churches.6
Many of today’s so-called “New Calvinists” also underscore the church’s evangelistic and missional function in their creedal statements.7 In like manner, I believe the 2LCF needs to be augmented and strengthened in this area regardless of the way that is chosen to do it. While worship may be the church’s ultimate priority, evangelism and missions are two of her immediate and urgent priorities.8 Indeed, the church’s mission to the world is a vital part of the church’s very identity (1 Pet 2:9). If we believe this, why not confess it?
Reposted from It Is Written.
1 See, for example, Michael Haykin and Jeffrey Robinson, To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy (Crossway, 2014); Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (Banner of Truth, 1971).
2 The WCF was drafted at a time when the Puritans enjoyed political favor. Consequently, I’m not sure persecution can be urged as a factor that distracted them from evangelism and missions. The 1689 was published during a time when non-conformists like the Particular Baptists were persecuted. It might be argued that they did not emphasize evangelism and missions because they were focused on “survival” rather than outreach and multiplication. Of course, even if persecution were a factor in curbing the practice of evangelism and missions, it should not be a reason for failing to affirm these ministries as central to the church’s task. After all, Christ and his apostles affirmed the church’s “Great Commission” while living in a climate of persecution.
3 “A Suggested Addition to the Second London Confession,” The Founders Journal 62 (2005): 23.
4 Ibid., 24, 26. In a more recent article, Nettles says the same with slight different wording: His secret will and good pleasure in this wise providence, however, is not the rule of our action; but rather his church must be governed by his commission of the gospel to all nations as the means of their calling and the consequent apostolic action of evangelization of both the circumcision and the uncircumcision.” “Chapter 20 Expanded,” The Founders Journal 116 (2019).
5 The article in the BF&M doesn’t carefully qualify the individual layperson’s responsibility in accordance with each one’s level of maturity, gift, and opportunity. Such a qualification is important as is affirming the responsibility of every disciple to promote the gospel. I address this in a two part series entitled, “Giving Proper Due to the People in the Pew: A Biblical Defense of Lay-Ministry and Lay-Evangelism,” which was published in The Founders Journal, issues 79 and 83. These articles have been republished here and here.
6 See “An Earnest Mission” in The Reformed Baptist Network Statement of Core Values (Oct 11, 2017), accessed July 23, 2019: https://reformedbaptistnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/RBNet-Core….
7 The Bethlehem Baptist Church Elders Affirmation of Faith reads, “We believe it is God’s will that the universal Church find expression in local churches in which believers agree together to … engage in local and world evangelization” (12.2). Then follows an entire article focusing on evangelism and missions: “We believe that the commission given by the Lord Jesus to make disciples of all nations is binding on His Church to the end of the age. This task is to proclaim the Gospel to every tribe and tongue and people and nation, baptizing them, teaching them the words and ways of the Lord, and gathering them into churches able to fulfill their Christian calling among their own people. The ultimate aim of world missions is that God would create, by His Word, worshippers who glorify His name through glad- hearted faith and obedience. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. When the time of ingathering is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever. Worship, therefore, is the fuel and the goal of missions” (13). The churches of Sovereign Grace Ministries confess, “[The church] exists to serve [God] by faithfully doing his will in the earth. This involves a commitment to see the gospel preached and churches planted in all the world for a testimony. The ultimate mission of the Church is the making of disciples through the preaching of the gospel.” Acts 29 churches define their mission as follows: “We believe that our mission is to bring people into church so that they can be trained to go out into their culture as effective missionaries.” Part of The Gospel Coalition’s “Theological Vision for Ministry” includes the following affirmation related to Gospel-centered ministry: “Because the gospel (unlike religious moralism) produces people who do not disdain those who disagree with them, a truly gospel–centered church should be filled with members who winsomely address people’s hopes and aspirations with Christ and his saving work. We have a vision for a church that sees conversions of rich and poor, highly educated and less educated, men and women, old and young, married and single, and all races. We hope to draw highly secular and postmodern people, as well as reaching religious and traditional people. Because of the attractiveness of its community and the humility of its people, a gospel–centered church should find people in its midst who are exploring and trying to understand Christianity. It must welcome them in hundreds of ways. It will do little to make them ‘comfortable’ but will do much to make its message understandable. In addition to all this, gospel–centered churches will have a bias toward church planting as one of the most effective means of evangelism there is.”
8 I agree with John Piper when he writes, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.” Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 11. Yet, as Piper’s observation implies, missions is the means by which the church pursues and promotes the ultimate goal of worship. Accordingly, while worship remains the church militant’s ultimate priority, evangelism and missions are her immediate and urgent priorities in a not-yet-fully-redeemed world.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.