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The Theology of Missions

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Date September 16, 2008

The sound of the gospel trumpet was first heard in the Garden of Eden when it fell on the ears of our first parents, who by then had lost that communion with God which they had previously enjoyed. With the entrance of sin into the world, they now were to face up to the reality of being under the curse of a broken covenant of works and thus exposed to death and the pains of hell for ever. And the one who sounded that trumpet, albeit in the act of pronouncing Satan’s doom, was none other that the Son of God, who would in the fulness of the time become man, and, as the predicted seed of the woman, bruise the head of the serpent.

That first promise may have been wrapped in mystery but, with the benefit of hindsight and of the complete canon of Scripture, it is now clear that the speaker was referring to himself and the work that had been given him to do. In fulfilling his engagements under the covenant of grace, he would succeed where the first Adam failed; and, more than that, he would by his sacrificial death make reconciliation for iniquity and bring in an everlasting righteousness. In short, by his obedience unto death he would glorify God on the earth; he would do all that was necessary for him to do in order that he might give eternal life to as many as the Father had given to him. What was announced in Eden and couched in such mysterious language is now fully revealed to us in the Scriptures and is the core of that gospel which is to be preached in all the world and to every creature. It is through the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word that God’s provision of redemption is to be made known, and it is he who has determined where and when and by whom this is to be done.

The Apostle Paul was the most outstanding of all Christian missionaries. By the grace of God, he laboured more abundantly than all the other apostles – and with such success that he could rejoice in prospect of the many souls who would be his crown of rejoicing in the presence of the Lord Jesus at his coming. ‘And all things are of God’, he wrote to the church in Corinth, ‘who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ.’ The biblical account makes it evident that Paul’s sojourning in Corinth would have been of short duration had not the Lord spoken to him in the night by a vision: ‘Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city’.

The purpose of preaching the gospel is to bring in an innumerable multitude of the human race, of every kindred and tongue and people and nation. Thus Paul’s experience in Corinth, and what is left on record in regard to it – having received the stamp of divine approval – encapsulates what we are to understand by evangelism and establishes the pattern that is to be followed in missionary work. Accordingly, all things being of God, it will perhaps be convenient and orderly for us to divide our subject along lines suggested by what Paul has left on record:

1. The institution of the ministry of reconciliation;
2. The provision of the word of reconciliation;
3. The appointment of ambassadors to proclaim reconciliation in God’s name;
4. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility in regard to reconciliation.

1. The institution of the ministry of reconciliation.

As already noted, it was after the fall of our first parents, now alienated and enemies in their minds, that another covenant was revealed. Veiled in mystery as that revelation was, it was made known that this other covenant made provision for the glorifying of God on the earth and the reconciling of God and man. The existence of the covenant of grace is, according to A A Hodge, virtually implied in the existence of an eternal plan of salvation mutually formed by the three persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, acting in their respective spheres, and to be executed by them:

the Father representing the Godhead in its indivisible sovereignty; and, on the other hand, God the Son, as Mediator, representing all his elect people, and as administrator of the covenant, standing their surety for their performance of all those duties which were involved on their part.

The terms of this covenant of grace were agreed, not only before the fall of man, but before the creation of the world. ‘In this covenant,’ as Jonathan Edwards puts it,

the Father had appointed the Son, and the Son had undertaken the work; and all things to be accomplished in the work were stipulated and agreed. There were things done at the creation of the world, in order to that work; for the world itself seems to have been created in order to it. . . . The creation of heaven was in order to the work of redemption, as a habitation for the redeemed. ‘Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’. . . . Even the angels were created to be employed in this work. And therefore the Apostle calls them ‘ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation’. . . . As to this lower world, it was doubtless created to be a stage upon which this great and wonderful work of redemption should be transacted.

Christ, the Son of God, as we now know in the full light of the gospel, undertook to act as the Mediator and Surety of that covenant. And in fulfilling the obligations which these offices placed him under, he was to make himself of no reputation and humble himself; he ‘became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross’. Thus was reconciliation effected and Paul would accordingly write to saints in Corinth and elsewhere: ‘God . . . hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself’.

The proclamation of this is what was designed by Christ to draw to himself the ‘all men’ embraced in the covenant – a number which no man can number, ‘of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues’. It was to that end that he was lifted up and, over the centuries, the attractive power of the cross has been amply demonstrated, as in Corinth and other places where Christ’s heralds were determined to know nothing among men ‘save Jesus Christ and him crucified’. Paul then, speaking on behalf of such, could say, ‘He hath given to us’, in the exercise of his holy sovereignty, ‘the ministry of reconciliation’. Charles Bridges points out that the sacred ordinance of the ministry is to be traced to the footstool of the eternal throne, and therefore, he continues,

with what prostration of soul should we bind ourselves to its solemn obligations! ‘Mine eyes’, saith the evangelical prophet, ‘have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.’ ‘Here am I,’ was his answer to the sacred voice, ‘send me.’

It has been well said that ‘the reconciling of men to God by their laying aside their enmity is the consequence of God laying aside his just enmity against their sin’.

The authority and foundation of all missionary work is the commission given to the apostles by the great head of the Church after his resurrection and prior to his ascension: ‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing 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 alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.’ In Mark’s Gospel it is: ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.’

It is clear then that all to whom the ministry of reconciliation is given are to bear in mind that the evangelisation of the world – all the world – is the objective. It was this consideration that motivated Scotland’s missionaries, who, according to Iain H Murray,

displayed unwavering commitment to the belief that all their endeavours were towards the realisation in history of the kingdom of Christ filling the whole earth. This goal would be reached, not in their day, but before the Second Advent, and it was their privilege to draw constant energy and hope from the assurance which possessed them. ‘Never for a moment’, Alexander Duff charged his fellow missionaries, ‘lose sight of the grand ulterior object for which the Church was originally constituted, and spiritual rights and privileges conferred: namely, the conversion of the world.’

That, of course, applies to all ministers of the gospel whichever part of the field it pleases the Lord of the harvest to assign them as their sphere of labour.

2. The provision of the word of reconciliation.

In commissioning his disciples to go into all the world, the Saviour expressly laid down what they were to teach: it was: ‘all things whatsoever I have commanded you’. From his own example, it is clear that this embraced all that was already on record of the word of reconciliation in Moses and all the prophets or, in other words, the Old Testament Scriptures – as well as what was to be further placed on record after the Saviour’s ascension as the Holy Spirit moved holy men of God to write these books which now constitute the New Testament. Paul could assert in the presence of Agrippa that, from the time of his conversion, having obtained help of God, he had continued to that very day ‘witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should show light to the people and to the Gentiles’.

The mention of Moses and the prophets reminds us of the fact that the word of reconciliation was there from the beginning – proclaimed, as already noted, in Eden itself. It was what Abel responded to and it led to the offering up of his acceptable sacrifice. It was what was entrusted to Enoch, who walked with God and fearlessly denounced the ungodliness of his day and foretold the judgement that would overtake such conduct. The Spirit of Christ was present as Noah, a preacher of righteousness, besought ungodly anteÂdiluvian sinners to be reconciled to God, no more ashamed of that gospel committed to him than Paul – who was called to that work long after him – and wrote, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek; for therein is the righteousness of God revealed’.

Time would fail us were we to attempt to trace in detail the footsteps of the prophets as they faithfully endeavoured to persuade sinners that God’s thoughts towards them were thoughts of peace and not of evil – as they drew attention to the hand that was stretched out to them, together with the invitation extended to clasp it while the opportunity continued. ‘The Spirit of Christ which was in them’, we are told, ‘testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.’ In Isaiah 53 and in Psalm 22 we have wonderful examples of this. In the former, the Spirit reveals that Christ would see his seed and that the pleasure of the Lord would prosper in his hand; in the latter we have in its opening line the words uttered by Christ on the cross, and if we take the view that the rest of the Psalm reveals his unspoken thoughts in suffering and in conquering, then we have at its close the glorious outcome:

All ends of th’ earth remember shall,
and turn the Lord unto;
All kindreds of the nations
to him shall homage do.

In every age since then, his truth and righteousness have been declared. From apostolic times to the present it is by the gospel – the word of reconciliation – that the frontiers of Christ’s kingdom have been extended. ‘The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.’ The trumpet which the prophets laid down, their day having come to an end, was that which was to be taken up by the Apostles when they began to preach the gospel with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven.

We are reminded by Iain H Murray that

revivals are the work of the Spirit of truth bringing home to the mind and conscience of large numbers the teaching of the Word of God with efficacious power. . . . For this reason the whole Puritan school of Christianity placed primary importance upon the need of its preachers and ministers to be men thoroughly grounded in the doctrines of Scripture. . . . This needs particular emphasis in connection with missionary endeavour, for the modern tendency has been to suppose that missionaries need little theological preparation and that such preparation might even militate against a zeal for souls.

In Thomas Scott’s day it would seem that many prospective missionaries applying to the Church Missionary Society, of which he was a prominent member, were ‘pious men, but superficial theologians’. He deemed them unsuitable. In Scotland, Alexander Duff

deplored the comparatively small instruction often given to missionaries and the allowance of a different standard in them to that of home ministers: ‘If any difference at all were to be tolerated, I have no hesitation in saying that it ought to be in favour of the enhanced standard of attainment indispensable for the foreign missionary’.

Paul, our model missionary, was able to command the attention of the reputedly wise and learned on Mars’ Hill because he was already aware of what the Stoics and Epicureans stood for. And he utilised that knowledge to lead his audience to consider the true God, who had ‘made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth’ and who was now calling on ‘all men everywhere’ to repent. Strange doctrine brought to heathen ears by one whom some of his hearers regarded as a babbler; others, ‘a setter forth of strange gods’. But, in reality, he was the servant of the most high God showing to men the way of salvation. Such opposition mounted by the kingdom of darkness did not deter Paul from continuing to preach Jesus and the resurrection. It was thus that he and those associated with him gained the sobriquet of ‘the men that have turned the world upside down’.

Well did Paul know that it was not he, but the gospel committed to him – and coming to men, not ‘in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance’ – that brought about the conversion of multitudes under his preaching. He reminded saints in Corinth that he had delivered to them that which he had also received: ‘how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again from the dead according to the Scriptures’. It was on that basis that he besought sinners to be reconciled to God.

3. The appointment of ambassadors to proclaim reconciliation in God’s name.

The Lord’s promise: ‘Lo, I am with you alway [all the days], even unto the end of the world’, implies that the apostles were to be succeeded by others who would faithfully teach and preach all that he had commanded. ‘This doctrine of the kingdom shall be preached . . . unto all nations,’ he said, ‘and then shall the end come.’ Since the canon of Scripture is complete and the ordinances of the Church have now been settled until Christ comes, men called to preach the gospel must not expect to be set apart by an audible voice or a vision or by any of these signs which followed the calling of the apostles. A call to this work is, however, necessary. Of the great head of the Church, Paul wrote: ‘He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers’. Such pastors and teachers do not have the authority and infallibility that the apostles had, but the substance of the commission and the work are the same. John saw the seven stars in the hand of him whose ‘countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength’.

‘Be sure you be ministers of Christ’s making,’ Thomas Manton wrote long ago. He continued,

There can be no true calling unless you see God in it as well as man. . . . God calleth us when he maketh us able and willing; the inclination and the ability are from God. . . . If men will be willing, but not fit, they are not called of God; or if fit, yet not willing, they have not warrant enough to undergo the difficulty; much more those that are neither fit nor willing, but only thrust themselves upon the office by the carnal importunities of friends, or corrupt aims at honour and secular advantage. . . . None are more apt to be led aside into errors, and those of the grossest nature, than those that venture upon this office without a call.

Paul, having been set apart as Christ’s chosen vessel was to bear his name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. His missionary call was clear: ‘I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles’. A dispensation or stewardship of the gospel was committed to him and, as a steward, he was to be faithful to that trust. ‘Necessity is laid upon me,’ he wrote to the Corinthians, ‘yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel.’

Such as would follow in the footsteps of Paul are not only to be ‘stewards of the mysteries of God’, but also heralds and ambassadors. When he makes the assertion, ‘We preach Christ crucified’, the Greek verb he uses is kerusso,

which denotes the herald’s appointed activity of blazoning abroad what he had been told to make known. . . . His royal master had given him a message to proclaim; his whole business, therefore, was to deliver that message with exact and studious faithfulness, adding nothing, altering nothing, and omitting nothing.

An ambassador is the authorised representative of a sovereign, and they who are Christ’s ambassadors are, as Manton expresses it,

sent from the greatest monarch that ever was, the King of kings and Lord of lords; and they are sent to miserable and wretched men, to rebels to the crown of heaven; and their message is not to announce war, but to propose terms of friendship, to tell you that God is willing to be reconciled to his creatures, to be at peace with them. O how beautiful upon the mountains should their feet be that publish such glad tidings.

There is no doubt that our King, in choosing his heralds and ambassadors, bears in mind that he is sending them into a hostile world and has undertaken to be present with them. In the face of opposition and difficulties they are under the obligation of continuing to discharge the duties laid upon them. This is particularly the case when men are sent into places where the gospel has been unknown and the god of this world does his utmost, using every weapon in his armoury, to prevent his kingdom sustaining damage. If we trace the footsteps of Paul, in all the perils and dangers and sufferings to which he was exposed in the path of duty, we will see how subtle and malicious a foe Satan is in situations where his total lordship of men comes under threat. Missionaries such as Henry Martyn, David Brainerd and John G Paton showed their mettle when found in circumstances where their very lives were in jeopardy. With a levelled spear pointed at his head, the thought that occupied Paton’s mind was that he was immortal until his work was done.

4. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility in regard to reconciliation.

As the appointment and sending forth of heralds or ambassadors is entirely at the disposal of the Most High, so is the degree to which they are successful in persuading sinners to be reconciled to God. Paul’s planting and Apollos’s watering in Corinth would have been to no avail had it not pleased God to give the increase. In this connection, the commentator A R Fausset notes:

Ministers are nothing, and God is all in all; yet God works by instruments, and promises the Spirit in the faithful use of means. This is the dispensation of the Spirit; ours is the ministry of the Spirit.

In other words, divine sovereignty and human responsibility stand together. We know that as many as are ordained unto eternal life will believe, that all chosen in Christ from the foundation of the world will finally be presented holy and without blame before him, but we also know that God has appointed the means by which this is to be achieved.

We are workers together with him, Paul asserted, as he attended to the duty of beseeching sinners not to receive the grace of God in vain. ‘We must realise,’ J I Packer wrote,

that when God sends us to evangelise, he sends us to act as vital links in the chain of his purpose for the salvation of his elect. The fact that he has such a purpose, and that it is (so we believe) a sovereign purpose that cannot be thwarted, does not imply that, after all, our evangelising is not needed for its fulfilment. In our Lord’s parable, the way in which the wedding was furnished with guests was through the action of the king’s servants, who went out as they were bidden into the highways and invited in all whom they found there. Hearing the invitation, the passers-by came. It is in the same way, and through similar action by the servants of God, that the elect come into the salvation that the Redeemer has won for them.

On every hand and throughout this sinful world, men are perishing, unaware of the unspeakably awful fact that they are the children of wrath and as such are exposed to eternal death. Love to such perishing sinners ought to move us – whether they be near or far from us – to do all within our power to awaken them to a sense of their plight and to urge them to flee from the wrath to come. Regarding themselves as placed under this obligation, many missionaries left the shores of this country in the past having this in view, and they endured hardships untold as they sought, in the footsteps of the apostle, to open the eyes of their fellow-creatures and to turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.

Far from being insular and indisposed to think of the multitudes who were living and dying in heathen darkness, the founding fathers of the Free Presbyterian Church established, with limited means, mission stations in Africa. And they were not forgetful either of God’s ancient people the Jews. In this – in common with the true Christian church in every age – they were following the pattern established in Antioch when Paul and Barnabas were set apart by the church there to begin the evangelisation of the Gentile world. And they were following the example set by the Thessalonians who, when the gospel came to them, sounded out the Word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia but also in every place. The Church was then under instruction: ‘Enlarge the place of thy tent . . . for thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left . . . and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles and make the desolate cities to be inhabited’.

We are not any less under the obligation of doing all within our power to hasten the coming of his kingdom when we are assured that ahead of us is an outpouring of the Spirit of grace and of supplications which will issue in the fall of antichrist, the conversion of the Jews and the fullness of the Gentiles. ‘There will come a time,’ Thomas Goodwin preached, ‘when the generality of mankind, both Jew and Gentile, shall come to Jesus Christ. He hath had but little takings of the world yet, but he will have before he hath done’

William Jay was equally confident:

We also rejoice in hope. We have many and express assurances in the Scriptures, which cannot be broken, of the general, the universal spread and reign of Christianity, which are not yet accomplished. Nothing has yet taken place in the history of divine grace, wide enough in extent, durable enough in continuance, powerful enough in energy, blessed enough in enjoyment, magnificent enough in glory, to do anything like justice to these predictions and promises. Better days, therefore, are before us, notwithstanding the foreboding of many.

In commenting on the words, ‘All nations whom thou hast made shall come and worship before thee, O Lord; and shall glorify thy name,’ C H Spurgeon wrote,

Earth’s sun is to go down amid twofold night if some of our prophetic brethren are to be believed. Not so do we expect, but we look for a day when the dwellers in all lands shall learn righteousness, shall trust in the Saviour, shall worship thee alone, O God, and ‘shall glorify thy name’. The modern notion [of the earth continuing to grow worse and worse] has greatly dampened the zeal of the Church for missions and, the sooner it is shown to be unscriptural, the better for the cause of God. It neither consorts with prophecy, honours God, nor inspires the Church with ardour. Far hence be it driven.

Some take the view that, since the elect are going to be saved in any case, there is no need for evangelisation or missionary work. God, it is true, is sovereign in grace, but that does not affect the genuineness of the gospel invitations, or the truth of the gospel promises. It still remains the case that ‘whosoever will’ is invited to take of ‘the water of life freely.’ Because secret things belong to the Lord our God, it would be impious and futile for any preacher to distinguish between the elect and non-elect in the company whom he addresses. Paul, ‘warning every man’ and ‘teaching every man’, was not selective, and neither should any Christian minister or missionary worthy of the name be. Sinners under the gospel, whatever their skin colour, must be made aware of the fact that, having heard of him, they are inescapably under the obligation of believing in the Lord Jesus Christ and that failure to do so will issue in their everlasting destruction.

Man’s responsibility and obligation is expressed as follows by Charles Calder Mackintosh:

It is plain that, if any of us shall perish for ever, it is not through want of mercy in God, or through want of merit in Christ to save us, and it is not through want of the fullest, freest and most gratuitous tender of both to every soul that hears the gospel, that we perish, but it is through our own wilful and most criminal contempt of the mercy of God and the Saviour of a lost world.

It is in faithfully setting life and death before his hearers that Christ’s herald discharges his duty. ‘It is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful’; so that it would appear that faithfulness counts for more than success in seeing souls converted.

Missionaries like William Carey and Robert Moffat laboured for years on end without seeing one convert. After enduring many hardships, Moffat and his family were allowed to settle in a valley in Inyathi, in what is now Zimbabwe. ‘There,’ Jean Nicolson tells us, ‘they suffered incredible hardships for over 20 years without a single convert.’ Later, however, they had many fine Christians there. Success was not apparently Henry Martyn’s criterion: ‘If we labour,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘to the end of our days without seeing one convert, it shall not be worse for us in time, and our reward is the same in eternity.’

Brainerd laboured on, in the face of adversity, fully believing that all who had been chosen to salvation would be saved. We are told that closely associated with his Calvinistic convictions was his belief that God had called him not to be successful but faithful. Accordingly, we find the following entry in his Diary:

I felt peace in my own soul and was satisfied that, if not one of the Indians should be profited by my preaching but should all be damned, yet I should be accepted and rewarded as faithful; for I am persuaded God enabled me to be so.

Taken with permission from The Free Presbyterian Magazine, September 2008.

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