It was the godly Richard Baxter who wisely said, ‘In essential things unity, in doubtful things liberty, but in all things charity’.
Here I want to focus on essential things. And I want to ask why so many Reformed churches and denominations are, generally speaking, failing miserably to focus on the essentials.
While I hesitate to use the expression (given what happened to John Major and his government in the 1990s) I believe that we need to ‘get back to basics’ – the biblical basics!
We need to focus on the essentials, which sadly appear to have been obscured and subordinated to traditions and other concerns at the present time. What are these essentials?
The authority of Christ
In a somewhat simplistic fashion I want to suggest that Christ’s church has an external and an internal function, and these are the essentials I plan to focus on. Firstly, the church has an external function.
We read at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.
‘And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen”‘ (Matthew 28:16-20).
Note who is addressing the church – the Lord Jesus Christ himself. He is not merely suggesting that if his church has some spare time on its hands, and feels inclined, it might engage in a little missionary and evangelistic work.
Instead he issues a direct command. He doesn’t say that some power (i.e. authority; NKJV) has been given to him. He says, ‘All power is given unto me, in heaven and in earth’. And because of that, we are to go and preach the gospel to every nation!
Jesus is the one of whom God spoke through the psalmist:
‘Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession’ (Psalm 2:7-8).
And how is Christ going to ‘inherit’ the heathen and ‘possess’ the earth? Through the proclamation of his gospel and the ingathering of his elect!
The psalm continues: ‘Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him’ (Psalm 2:10-12).
Therefore the apostle Paul could write in the power of the Holy Spirit: ‘Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:9-11).
Jesus Christ goes forth ‘conquering and to conquer’ (Revelation 6:2). He is King of kings and Lord of lords – now and for all eternity.
But do we recognise his Kingship? Do we submit to his rule and obey his commands? He demands our whole-hearted allegiance. Like the Covenanters in their day, we must contend earnestly for Christ’s crown and covenant!
And what is it that Christ commands his church to do? Matthew 28:19 is clear – we are to go. This takes resolve, determination, action and commitment.
We are not invited to wait, as if people will automatically attend our services once they know there is a Reformed witness in their locale. They won’t.
Rather, we are to go and teach them, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. I like the NKJV, which reads, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations’.
But doesn’t that sound dreadfully Arminian? Not at all, for we must never forget that the Lord uses means to call his elect out of the world.
Sharing the gospel
How, then, are we to go about teaching the nations or making disciples? Quite simply, by preaching, teaching, proclaiming and sharing the gospel. Christ says, ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature’ (Mark 16:15).
Not all are called to preach and teach in Christ’s church but surely all can point men and women to the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world! Surely most are capable of handing a Bible, book or tract to someone?
Surely each of us can invite someone along to church. Like Andrew or Philip, we must all be ready to say to the unconverted, ‘come and see’. Taste and see that the Lord is good! Church leaders should be encouraging their congregations to share their faith with family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues and the like.
Why then, in so many Reformed churches, are these things almost alien concepts today? Why are a growing number of so-called Reformed churches against preaching the gospel freely to all?
There are too many who, tortoise-like, keep their heads inside their shells, fearing contamination from the world.
Many churches act like hedgehogs, who roll themselves into a ball when confronted with the unknown. They are inward-looking, parochial – and very prickly when confronted by the truth about biblical evangelism!
Where has it come from – the separatism and exclusivism that is altogether too common in parts of the Reformed constituency? Such tendencies were certainly unknown to Luther and Calvin and the sixteenth-century reformers – and to all who are true to Reformed and biblical Christianity.
We need to follow the example of men like George Wishart, John Knox, Robert Murray McCheyne, George Whitefield, Charles Haddon Spurgeon and many others who, looking to their Lord, administered grace and truth in equal measure.
White for harvest
We need to remind ourselves that Jesus says the fields are white for harvest. How often we pray for revival without acting on our prayers.
We need to remember that God puts the treasure of his gospel in earthen vessels. He uses weak and beggarly things like you and me so that the glory might redound to him alone.
We need to recall the conversation our Lord had with Gideon: ‘Gideon said … if the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of…? but now the Lord hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites.
‘And the Lord looked upon him, and said, “Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites: have not I sent thee?”‘ (Judges 6:13-14).
We must obey the Great Commission, acknowledging and trusting in the sovereign authority and power of the one who sends his church into the world with that glorious message of reconciliation. We preach not ourselves but Christ and him crucified!
Obeying the Lord
Matthew 28:20 says that we are to baptise in the name of the triune God and teach all things concerning Christ, and I will say more about this next month when we look at essential internal things on which the church must focus.
But for now I ask that you fix your eyes and hearts on the promise given by our Lord, that if we are true to him, he is with us always even to the end of the age. Christ is our Emmanuel – God with us for now and all eternity.
Nevertheless we must heed his warning to the church in Ephesus: ‘Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent’ (Revelation 2:4-5).
Let us obey our Lord and his Great Commission. The church that does not evangelise must surely fossilise! Let us boldly proclaim and share the gospel – to the praise and glory of God alone.