by John S. Shaw
“With what lively hope does our gaze turn now to the future! At last true evangelism can go forward without the shackle of compromising associations. The fields are white to the harvest.” With these words, J. Gresham Machen on June 11, 1936, expressed the excitement that surrounded the formation of the denomination that would soon take the name Orthodox Presbyterian Church. These words are noteworthy for two particular reasons.
First of all, notice the optimism of these words—an optimism that in many ways stood in contrast to the circumstances in which they were uttered. Machen spoke to a small group of thirty-three ministers and seventeen elders. They formed a denomination of small congregations, few in number, most without buildings, and with meager financial resources. And they sought to form and grow a denomination in the middle of the Great Depression. Yet they approached such a daunting (some might say foolhardy) task with great optimism.
Second, notice the focus of Machen’s words—a focus on the opportunities for evangelism. Our denomination has a reputation for theological precision, intellectual vigor, and a commitment to biblical truth. Machen certainly reflects those commitments with his emphasis on “true” evangelism without compromising associations. Yet he also recognizes that a commitment to biblical truth necessarily means a zeal for evangelistic ministry undergirded by confidence in the Lord’s promise. “The fields are white to the harvest.” Therefore, we must send laborers out into the field to proclaim the truth of the gospel in the lively hope that the Lord will bless those labors by adding to his church.
That is our denominational heritage: a commitment to, and zeal for, the work of evangelism. You see the results of those commitments in the early history of our church. Though small and poor, we immediately sent missionaries to labor in foreign lands. Some of those same men, upon their return to the United States, carried on the same kind of missions work in their homeland, and new churches sprang up. Those early missionaries and pastors endured great hardship and financial difficulty with joy because they had the opportunity to participate in the spread of the gospel. Our early history shows a church committed to the work of evangelism as we harvested both in faraway lands and in our homeland.
Where Are We Today?
But what about today? Are we still a church committed to the work of evangelism? Are we filled with optimism as the Lord sends us into the fields to gather the harvest?
Certainly our denomination continues to send missionaries to other nations. It also continues to plant churches throughout the United States.
But what about our local congregations? As local congregations, we participate in these larger evangelistic ministries through prayer and giving. But do we live out such evangelistic optimism in the regular ministry and life of the local church?
There seem to be so many reasons for pessimism. We live in a secular culture that expresses open and aggressive rebellion against the one true God. Christians worry as our nation embraces unbiblical views of marriage, promotes the right to destroy human life, and defends the publication of pornographic images. The church and the Bible have been marginalized and face open ridicule in our communities. Many people in our nation see the church as a remnant of past cultures with little or no relevance in the twenty-first century.
In such a time, we sometimes lose confidence in the simple, faithful preaching of the true gospel. We face the temptation to hunker down in our local Christian communities to hide from the evils of the world around us. We find comfort in the fellowship of like-minded persons who have already embraced the gospel. And how wonderful it is if we find a community of Christians who embrace the Reformed faith! Yet we too quickly find comfort in our church community and leave behind the task of evangelism. The fields seem to be anything but white for harvest. So we rest quietly within our congregations.
What protects us from embracing the practices of this bunker mentality? Only the promises of God protect us from such a response—the same promises that Machen referred to in his hopeful statement above.
The Promise of a Great Harvest
In Matthew 9, Jesus and his disciples travel between cities and villages teaching, healing, and “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom” (v. 35). The Lord warns that wolves will persecute and attack them. Yet he sends his disciples with confidence in the promises of God. The Lord has promised a harvest, and the harvest is plentiful (Matt 9:37; Luke 10:2). In his instructions to the apostles, Jesus leans on the imagery of harvest and abundance that fills the Old Testament.
The Feast of Weeks celebrated the beginning of the wheat harvest, certainly a reason for rejoicing. This celebration often included the singing of Psalm 67. We refer to this psalm as a missionary psalm, for it describes the overflow of blessing from the people of God to all nations. May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!… The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, shall bless us. God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him! (Psalm 67:1–3, 6–7)
In this psalm, the connection between the physical harvest and the spiritual harvest is clear. The Lord blesses us as the earth yields its increase, but all of these blessings overflow, so that people, nations, and the entire earth might fear and praise the Lord!
Of course, if we follow the story of the Scriptures, we see the imagery of the Feast of Weeks realized on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. On that great day, the Lord Jesus Christ pours out the Spirit on the church, and the great harvest begins. The harvest is broad and expansive. People are gathered without distinction: sons and daughters, young and old, masters and servants, Jews and Gentiles. Three thousand souls are added to the church in a single day. The harvest is plentiful! The fields are white! The Lord Jesus encourages his disciples with the promise of a harvest, a promise from God to his people. Though the history of the church has been filled with persecution and suffering, the promise remains. The fields continue white for the harvest, and we are called to labor in those fields with expectation. Jesus points his church to the promise of a great harvest, and that gives cause for optimism. But he also points us to the Lord of the harvest. Jesus roots the promise in the One who gives the promise: “Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38).
These subtle reminders provide the reason for confidence. We know that the harvest is plentiful, and that the gathering will be successful, because we know the Lord of the harvest. Isn’t that what we mean when we refer to the Lord as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? He is the faithful one. He made promises to our fathers that he has fulfilled and continues to fulfill. He always does what he promises. In fact, the promise of a rich harvest flows from the promises of God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Remember his word to Abram: “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2–3). This promise finds fulfillment in the great evangelistic harvest of the new covenant. Nations are gathered into the rebuilt tent of David (Amos 9:11–12; Acts 15:13–21) and become children of Abraham.
Does the world oppose God? Yes. Do we face opposition from the fallen, rebellious world in which we live? Certainly, and the Lord Jesus warned us of such things. But there is no reason for pessimism. The Lord of the harvest continues to reign, and he promises great success in the gathering. So we go forth with his blessing, confident in his promise. The harvest is plentiful! The fields are white!
How We Participate in the Harvest
So how do we get in on this harvest? How can we participate in it? Most directly, Jesus calls us to pray: “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38). This instruction makes sense because we know the Lord of the harvest to be faithful and powerful. The history of the church shows that times of great evangelistic harvest are accompanied by times of fervent prayer. This is the pattern of history, and it is also the pattern of the Scriptures. Faced with persecution, the apostolic church responded with times of prayer. They asked the Lord for diligence to speak the word with all boldness (Acts 4:29). They sent off missionaries after fasting and praying (Acts 13:3). Paul recognized the importance of a praying church. He concluded his instructions regarding Christian armor with a plea for prayer “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel … that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph. 6:19–20).
An evangelistic church must be a praying church, because we recognize God to be the Lord of the harvest. He gathers his church through the perfect work of Christ and the filling of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). Therefore, he calls us to pray with confidence that the Lord would give us boldness in the ministry of the gospel. And he promises to answer that prayer. When we lack confidence in the work of evangelism, the answer is often found in prayer. For in prayer, the Lord gives boldness to his church to speak the word.
Indirectly, in Matthew 9, the Lord also calls us to love. He doesn’t direct us by words, but rather by his example. Notice how the Lord Jesus responds to the crowds: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). The American church in the twenty-first century struggles to be a compassionate church. The language of conservative, evangelical Christianity has been too often influenced by the politicizing of our culture and especially the “Religious Right.” We too easily embrace the language of culture wars as we fight against gay marriage or the secularization of schools.
We are called to battle as the church militant, but we are also called to show love and compassion for a world filled with dying sinners, the harassed and the helpless. How often do we respond like Jonah, sitting outside the city and waiting to see the Lord’s judgment poured out on the wicked? How often do we need the same gentle instruction from the Lord that ends the book of Jonah: “And should not I pity Nineveh [or the United States], that great city [or nation], in which there are more than 120,000 persons [or more] who do not know their right hand from their left …?” We should follow the example of the apostle Paul, who mirrored the compassion of his Savior. He had many reasons to hate his own countrymen as they followed him from city to city to persecute and threaten him. Yet the apostle could say with all sincerity, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:2–3).The love of Christ, for his church and for us, should drive us to compassion for others that overflows into evangelistic ministry. Maybe when we lack zeal for evangelism, we simply lack memory of the great love of God for us. The Lord of the harvest set his love on us before the foundation of the world. The Lord Jesus demonstrated that love for us by laying down his life for us. That love serves as the great impetus for evangelistic zeal.
J. Gresham Machen encouraged this new denomination with the lively hope of a future filled with true evangelism. He understood that the only effective source of evangelistic zeal is the constraining love of Christ. He preached about that constraining love from 2 Corinthians 5:14 during the service that opened the Second General Assembly. To paraphrase: only the love of Christ, by which he died and rose again, restrains us from sin and sends us out rejoicing and witnessing.
May the Lord continue to give the congregations of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church an optimistic confidence in the Lord of the harvest, so that we might go into the harvest with love and prayer, proclaiming the true gospel of the constraining love of Christ until he returns.
John Shaw is the general secretary for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension (CHMCE).