The Blood of the Martyrs
The famous observation of Tertullian that, â€œthe blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,â€ has a depth of insight which is all too often lost on believers today. We have no trouble thinking of persecution and martyrdom as a great obstacle to the spread of the gospel which will not, however, be successful in hindering Church growth. We would have no problem affirming that the blood of the martyrs is a hurdle which, by Godâ€™s grace, can be overcome. But to say that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church is an altogether different concept. If martyrdom is a surmountable obstacle to the growth of the Church, then the Church might advance just as well, even better, without it. But if the blood of the martyrs truly is the seed of the Church, then without it, the Church does not grow. Without martyrdom, the Church would never have taken root in the world of Tertullian. Without martyrdom, the Church would not have spread to the Auca Indians in South America, or to China or Burma or the islands of the South Seas. The blood of the martyrs is a necessary means for the worldwide application of Christâ€™s great redemptive accomplishment. This is the full force of Tertullianâ€™s insight; and understanding the full extent of his meaning must leave us confronted with two great questions: is this understanding scriptural? And if so, what practical effects ought this scriptural truth to have upon the actions, goals, and designs of the Church as she approaches her task of global evangelism in the twenty-first century? By Godâ€™s grace, we will address those two questions in the remainder of this post.
New Life Brought out of Death was Godâ€™s Plan for the Accomplishment of Redemption
The very heart of the Christian gospel is that, by Christâ€™s bloody death, the blessings of a new and incorruptible life were purchased for all who believe in him. â€œWithout the shedding of blood, there is no remission [of sins]â€ (Hebrews 9:22). And without the remission of sins, there is no life. â€œThe wages of sin is deathâ€ (Romans 6:23); and it is only when this requirement of death is fulfilled that eternal life can be freely given to Godâ€™s elect. Christ came to earth for no other purpose than to give his life for the sins of his people (Isaiah 53:10); and while he lived on this earth, he was ever mindful of the fact that it was only through his sacrificial death that he would win life for those whom the Father had given him. This is the intent of the parable that Christ spoke to his disciples, only days before he was to offer himself up for them all: â€œTruly, truly, I say unto you, Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone: but if it die, it brings forth much fruitâ€ (John 12:24). Just as a grain of wheat can only produce life in abundance if it first dies and is buried in the earth, so Christ could only accomplish the fruit of new life for his followers if he first died and was buried in the earth. By Godâ€™s design, new life was brought forth in great abundance by the willing death of the spotless, sacrificial Lamb of God. It is beyond controversy, then, that willing death was the necessary means for the accomplishment of the redemption which leads to life.
New Life Brought out of Death is Godâ€™s Plan for the Application of Redemption
It is incontrovertible that Christ had to suffer and die to accomplish redemption and life. But it is equally clear that, throughout the New Testament, Christians are commanded to follow in the example of Christ â€“ particularly in the realm of willing suffering. In his first epistle, Peter admonishes us, â€œFor even unto this were you called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judges righteously: Who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes you were healedâ€ (I Peter 2:21-24). And a little later on, he exhorts us, â€œInasmuch then as Christ has suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin; That he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God (I Peter 4:1-2). These and other similar passages ought to assure us that, just as Christâ€™s suffering and death very really accomplished our life and righteousness; so through our own suffering at the hands of the wicked, God has designed for this Christ-bought life to be worked out practically in our own souls. Christ alone effectually accomplished this incorruptible life-out-of-death; but the application of it in the lives of his followers is produced by an analogous suffering which is effective to work in us the death-conquering life of Christ. Just as the apostle Paul exhorted the early Christians: â€œwe must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of Godâ€ (Acts 14:22).
A suffering that is analogous to the suffering of Christ is necessary, therefore, to work out in each soul the life which Christ has won for his disciples â€“ but what of evangelism? Is the suffering of Christ necessary for the spread of the gospel throughout the world of unbelievers? In his epistle to the Colossians, Paul made a very remarkable statement: â€œAnd you, that were formerly alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now has he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight: If you continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which you have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; of which I Paul am made a minister; Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the churchâ€ (Colossians 1:21-24). This astounding assertion is nothing other than that, what the sufferings of Christ were lacking for the goal of bringing life to the nations, the analogous sufferings of the saints, as they proclaim the gospel, are sufficient to fulfill. What could Paul have meant? It is not as though the sacrificial death of Christ was insufficient to accomplish new life, and that the ministers of the gospel have to add their own sacrificial deaths to the purchasing power of Christâ€™s redemptive work. It would be blasphemous even to consider such a possibility. But Paulâ€™s statement must mean something: it would appear that the only option we have which would both do justice to this text and not devalue the infinite work of Christ is to understand that in this statement Paul is teaching us that, just as Christâ€™s death was necessary and sufficient to accomplish redemption; so the suffering and martyrdom of his witnesses is necessary and sufficient to carry out to the nations the application of that substitutionary, life-giving accomplishment of Christ. In other words, Christ had to suffer in order to purchase our eternal life; and now we as his witnesses have to suffer in order to spread the effects of that fully-accomplished redemption. Without suffering and martyrdom, the great effects of Christâ€™s great success will never be fully realized. We are graced with the ministry of a necessary, bloody witness to the nations, so that all of Godâ€™s children, from every people, tribe, tongue, and nation, might be gathered together to God. By Godâ€™s design, the blood of his Son is the only source of life for the Church; but the blood of the martyrs is the seed by which the Church grows. It is the blood of the martyrs that gives an undeniably powerful testimony of the truth of Christâ€™s life, joy, and peace, operative no matter how adverse the circumstances. It is the willing, joyful self-sacrifice of the martyrs that God uses as the primary means of evangelizing the lost and dying regions of a world opposed to him. By their suffering, which is a following in the footsteps of Christâ€™s suffering, God has chosen to apply what Christ accomplished. The blood of the martyrs truly is the seed of the Church.
If this is indeed the case, it must have a tremendous impact on our attitude towards the means by which we hope to spread the gospel to the nations. If one were to search the annals of the history of missions, he would find that rarely, if ever, has the gospel spread to an unreached people group when it had not first been planted and watered by the blood of the saints. God is intensely committed to making much of the work of Christâ€™s sacrifice of himself on the cross. One way in which he does that is to re-tell in picture form the story of what happened on Calvary. There, Christ willingly died an unjust death at the hands of the wicked. When his servants willingly die an unjust death, then the power of their word is joined to the power of their example, and the result is a living faith which turns the world upside down, and facilitates the mighty spread of the kingdom of God. In this century, it is more vital than ever that we be committed just as much to the bloody portrayal of the gospel as we are to the verbal proclamation of the gospel. Christ left us with a great commission which has thus far been two thousand years in fulfilling. The great delay must not harden our hearts, but rather spur us on to the final completion of our task. In such broad expanses of time, it is easy to lose sight of the truth that world history is moving definitely toward a goal which cannot be stopped: the goal that the Lamb will have the worshippers he deserves from every people group under heaven. The entire story of man is moving towards a certain conclusion. That conclusion of all of history, indeed, the goal for which the world was created in the first place, is the Christ-exalting joy of a great band of worshippers eternally pouring out their hearts before him in wonder and praise. Let us never lose sight of this certain end! Let us be laboring now as never before! The Church is poised and ready to fulfill by her blood the task left for us by Christ. Let us take heart and know that victory is certain! I leave us with two final admonitions.
Let us be ready to embrace suffering and death for the sake of the kingdom.
It is an unfortunate reality that the modern perspective on missions would encourage us only to labor where it is â€œsafeâ€. The gospel never spread to unreached areas by people committed to safety. It never will. Let us be eager and willing to lay down our lives for the sake of the One who gave up his own precious life for us. Let us be ready to give up our possessions, our safety, our families, and our lives to see the gospel spread and the Kingdom increased until the great commission is finally accomplished, and Christ comes in all his glory to reward us eternally for our light and momentary affliction!
Let us be earnest in partnering with the persecuted church across the world.
God never intended for every Christian to be martyred. It is no shame to live a life of radical commitment to the gospel which never ends in extreme persecution or martyrdom. We are a body, and have different functions and callings. But whether we are called to lay down our lives in martyrdom or to lay them down in a long, wearisome service that sees no bloody end, let us strive to be vitally connected to the worldwide Church. God has raised up a mighty band of believers in China, South Korea, Africa, and other places who are persecuted intensely and who desire intensely to be used of God to spread the gospel throughout the unreached regions of the world, no matter the cost. We may never face persecution of this sort in America: but let us be earnestly praying for our brothers who are chosen to spread the gospel through their martyrdom! Let us be partnering with them financially! Let us be learning of their needs and sacrificially contributing in any way that we can! Let us, as the worldwide church, embrace Godâ€™s call to suffering and spend our lives in the passionate pursuit of spreading the gospel throughout the world, for the sake of him who is worthy of all!