Mission: The Fourth Mark of the Church

by James M. Boice

A number of years ago, when the well-known conference speaker Ralph L. Keiper was preaching at a missions conference in Deerfield Street, New Jersey, he told about a little girl who had come to see him early in his ministry. She was about eight years old.  She had been to the church’s daily vacation Bible school. And when she came into his study she asked, “Mr. Keiper, is it all right if I commit suicide?” 

 The young pastor was startled. But he had learned never to give a quick Yes or No answer to a child’s question without first discovering why the child is asking the question. So he countered,“Mary, why would you ever want to commit suicide?” 

 “Well,” Mary said, “it’s because of what I learned in Bible school this morning.” 

 Keiper wondered to himself, “What was this child told?” 

She said, “We were taught that heaven is a wonderful place – no fear, no crying, no fighting, just to be with the Lord. Won’t that be wonderful! We were taught that when we die we will be with Jesus. Did I hear it right, Mr. Keiper?” 

“Yes, you did, Mary. But why would you want to commit suicide?” 

“Well,” she said, “you have been in my home. You know my mother and daddy. They don’t know Jesus. Many times they are drunk. So we have to get ourselves up in the morning, get our own breakfast and go to school with dirty clothes. The children make fun of us, and when we come home again we hear fighting and things that make us afraid. Why couldn’t I commit suicide?” 

It is clear that Mary did not believe in theoretical theology; she believed in practical theology, and she was facing a very practical problem. What she was really asking is why are we in this world anyway. If this world is such a sin-cursed place and heaven is such a blessed place, why do we have to stay here? Why does God not take us to heaven immediately upon our conversion? Or, failing that, why do we not all take our own life and so speed up what is an inevitable ending anyway?

Keiper answered by saying, “Mary, there is only one reason in God’s world why we are here. And that is that through our testimony, by life and by word, we might have the privilege of bringing people to the saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus.” He then indicated that, as Mary did this, it might be in the Lord’s providence that her parents would come to know the Lord as their Savior. Later, her mother did. 

Keiper’s story is important in light of the fourth mark of the church.

Up to this point we have been talking about those things which concern the church itself or which concern individual Christians personally. We have looked at joy, holiness and truth. But while these are important and undoubtedly attainable to a large degree in this life, nevertheless it does not take much thinking to figure out that all three of them would be more quickly attained if we could only be transported to heaven. Here we have joy; that is true. But what is this joy compared to the joy we will have when we see the source of our joy face to face? The Bible acknowledges this when it speaks of the blessedness of the redeemed saints, from whose eyes all tears shall be wiped away (Rev. 7:17; 21:4). Again, in this world we undoubtedly know a degree of sanctification. But what of that day when we shall be completely like him (1 John 3:2)? Or again, here we are able to assimilate some aspects of God’s truth and know truly. But in the day of our final redemption we shall know fully. “Now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then, face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). If this is true, why should we not go to heaven immediately? 

The answer is in the mark of the church to which we come now. For the church is not only to look inward and find joy, to look Christ-ward and find sanctification, to look to the Scriptures and find truth. The church is also to look outward to the world and there find the object of her God-given mission. 

The word “mission” comes from the Latin verb mitto, mittere, misi, missum, which means “to send” or “dispatch.” A mission is a sending forth. “But to whom is the church sent? Where are we sent as Christian missionaries?” The answer is, into the world. Jesus says quite clearly, “As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world” (v. 18). 

Here is why the evangelical church in the U.S. is not as much of a missionary church as it claims to be. It is not that the evangelical church does not support foreign missions. Rather it lies at the point of the evangelicals’ personal withdrawal from the culture. Many seem afraid of their culture. Hence, they try to keep as far from the world as possible lest they be contaminated or polluted by it. Thus they have developed their own subculture. As some Bible teachers have pointed out, it is possible, for example, to be born of Christian parents, grow up in that Christian family, have Christian friends, go to Christian schools and colleges, read Christian books, attend a Christian country club (known as a church), watch Christian movies, get Christian employment, be attended by a Christian doctor, and finally, one may suppose, die and be buried by a Christian undertaker on holy ground. But this is certainly not what Jesus meant when he spoke of his followers being “in the world.” 

What does it mean to be in the world as a Christian? It does not mean to be like the world; the marks of the church are to make the church different. It does not mean that we are to abandon Christian fellowship or our other basic Christian orientations. All it means is that we are to know non-Christians, befriend them, and enter into their own lives in such a way that we begin to infect them with the gospel, rather than their infecting us with their worldliness, which is the wrong way around. 

The second thing the text talks about is the character of the ones who are to conduct this mission. The point here is that we are to be as Christ in the world. This is made clear both in verse 18 and 19, for Jesus compares the disciples to himself both in the area of his having been sent into the world by the Father and of his being sanctified or set apart totally to that work. He says, “As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself that they also might be sanctified through the truth.” In other words, we are to be in our mission as Jesus was in his mission. We are to be like the One whom we are presenting. 

Perhaps you are saying, “I do not know if I am like Jesus or not. In what areas should I be like him?” Obviously we are to be like him in every way. In other words; as his life was characterized by joy, so is our life to be characterized by joy. As he was sanctified, so are we to be sanctified. As he was characterized by truth, so are we to be. 

We are also to be like the Lord Jesus Christ in our unity. The world is fractured in a million ways. It is the logical outcome of the work of Satan, one of whose most revealing names is the disrupter (diabolos). If Christians would win the world, they must show a genuine unity which is in itself desirable and winsome and which at the same time points to the great unity within the Godhead, which is its source. 

Finally, the church must be marked by love, if it is to be as Christ in the world. Jesus loved the world; he really did. It was out of love for it that he died. Consequently, if we would win the world, we must love the world too – not the world’s system or sin, of course, but rather those who are in it. 

Once my family was eating in a restaurant, and my youngest daughter knocked over her glass of coke for about the thousandth time. I was visibly annoyed, as I always am (since we never seem to get through a meal without the identical accident). But we cleaned up and shortly after that left the restaurant. My daughter walked along in silence for awhile; but then she said, “You really hate it when we spill our cokes, don’t you?” I replied that I certainly did. She looked serious, but then she brightened up as if a particularly happy thought had just passed through her mind. She threw her arms around me in a big hug and added, “But you love me!” 

She knew the difference between love of the sinner and hatred of sin. And so will we if we look to Jesus. We must be like him in love, knowing that if we are, the world will see it and be drawn to him.  


This is the fourth in a series of six posts by Dr James M. Boice concerning the characteristics of a healthy church.

2 thoughts on “Mission: The Fourth Mark of the Church

  1. Dennis:
    Greetings from a fellow Tennessean. Very timely piece – I was just putting the final touches on the introduction of my RTS MA thesis, which has the title “Mission: A Mark of the Church? Toward a Missional Ecclesiology.” The point of the introductory chapter is that despite its notable absence from most traditional confessional formulations, the idea of mission as a mark of the church is no innovation, but has long and widespread support from many voices in the Reformed, evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox communities, to name just a few.
    Thanks very much for this timely post, which allows me to add the late Dr. J.M. Boice to my bibliography. Even though this series was not part of a scholarly publication, surely Dr. Boice’s voice adds scholarly weight to the argument.
    Thanks very much for this timely post, and all the very best to you in your endeavors at Walnut Hill
    Grace and peace from Memphis,
    Middle aged husband, dad, systems engineer, member at 2PC (EPC), RTS student and soon grad, Deo Volens.

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