“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19b). As a child, I always loved this story of Jesus calling Peter and his brother Andrew to serve His ministry as disciples. In those years, it was not the message that I found delightful, but the image of two men with fishing-poles casting, hooking, and reeling-in all sorts of humans. I crafted this seemingly obvious metaphor as my Sunday School teacher explained the importance of this commission to spread the gospel. Over the years, I have also learned to appreciate the call, which the Lord initiates here, but it was not until this year that I have discovered a personal urgency in this text.
This past January I went on the German Interim Abroad, sponsored by Calvin College. The purpose of the interim was to experience the culture of Germany, to admire its architecture, and to make some foreign acquaintances, and thereby to have a better understanding and appreciation for the German language. There was a particular incident that made an impact on me that was stronger than I ever anticipated when embarking on my adventure.
One stop on our five-week journey was the small town of Wittenberg, which is located in the former East German Republic. This was the third of our house-stays. “It’s just for three days this time,” I assured my weakening nerves. Then I remembered the letter I received before I left home. Nicole, the 18-year-old girl in the family with whom I would stay, wrote that her family doesn’t even believe in God. The knot tightened in my stomach. “I guess this will be one of those cultural experiences,” I said to the student sitting next to me on the train.
I found the Hardings to be a very warm and sincere family. Nicole went out of her way to make my stay with her family an experience that I would treasure. On Sunday morning she took me to worship in the Stadt Kirche—the city church. As we approached this massive brick structure with two towers, she said, “This is the only time I have ever gone to a service here. I have toured the sanctuary before, but I have never come to listen to the preacher before.” I was shocked, but thought, “Well I hope he has a good message this morning.”
As the minister droned on in a German dialect that I could not understand, I began to imagine Martin Luther walking down these cobblestone streets meditating on the importance of faith and grace as a means of salvation. Soon the sermon was over, and Nicole and I drove home for Sunday dinner with her family.
The following day, Nicole took me for a tour of the Lutherstadt, as the residents there call it. In 1513 Martin Luther became a professor at the University of Wittenberg and also a preacher in the city’s Schloss Kirche—castle church. It was this church that was the final destination of our excursion. On the doors of this soaring architectural masterpiece Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses. Luther’s grave is also embedded in its concrete floor alongside that of Melanchthon, another great reformer in Germany, after whom Nicole’s school is named.
As I walked beneath the majestic heights of this Church and attempted to absorb its grandeur, Nicole sat in one of the pews as if anticipating a grand revelation. When I approached her place of meditation, she began our discussion by challenging my belief in God. “Yes, I do believe in Him,” I assured her. I thought I knew what her answer would be, nevertheless, I decided to ask, “What do you think about God?” Her response both startled and enlightened me. She said, “When God is in the church, He cannot be on the street to help the people.” My mind was racing. Here I was standing in the very church where Martin Luther proclaimed the good news of the gospel to the common people, and yet these people have lost His glorious message. For here was a girl who possessed no knowledge of God’s omnipotence nor His omnipresence. And alongside this German girl stood her American friend who was struggling with her limited German vocabulary to explain such profound theological truths as the tower of this church affirms, “Ein Feste Berg…” (A Mighty Fortress).
Since that experience, I have a deeper perception of the importance of witnessing. I never considered personal witnessing to be an important aspect of my Christian life; after all, the church employs missionaries, and ministers to proclaim the gospel. I reasoned that I was not capable of turning the hearts of humans to God. I excused myself by asserting that I am not an out-going person, “How could I proclaim sin, salvation, and sanctification to a stranger?” Now I realize that God often opens opportunities before us in which He summons us to His service. Matthew relays Jesus’ admonition to all Christians in His Sermon on the Mount:
“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).
Here Jesus is telling the early church that its purpose on this earth is to witness of God’s greatness and thereby to lead the unregenerated to Him. If they do not actively shine forth the message which Christ has brought, they are as meaningless to God’s purpose as salt that has no flavor.
Often members of the Christian Church see this institution as a means to sustain the regenerate while they must wait for the Lord to return. Joined with this notion is an apathy toward mission work. A belief in the general revelation of God, through His creation, leads many to assume that they are not held accountable to heed the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19: “Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” What these Christians fail to recognize, however, is that without the message of God’s special revelation—the actual Word of God—one cannot receive salvation (Confession of Faith, Art. II).
There are still some for whom this realization of others’ eternal damnation is not motivation enough to cause them to engage in active witnessing. These stubborn Christians, like the children of Israel, should heed the warning of God, as prophesied by Ezekiel:
“When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thy hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul” (Ezekiel 3:18-19).
This admonition calls the Christian to proclaim God’s justice, truth, and righteousness to those with whom we are acquainted; those whom we know are walking in sin.
Positively, Psalm 96 teaches us to “Sing unto the Lord, bless his name; show forth his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the heathen, his wonders among all people” (Psalm 96:2- 3). Certainly, God does not call all His people to work as missionaries on a foreign field, but He does require that we each bare witness. Have we too, like many of the residents of Wittenberg, forgotten the message of the gospel? Have we become as salt that has no flavor?
Betsy is a senior at Calvin College and a member of First Protestant Reformed Church.