Missions & the Sovereignty of God
Why commitment to the doctrines of grace makes me more effective in “World A”
[Due to the sensitive nature of his work, the author of this article must remain anonymous. He is a long-time Southern Baptist and has had a very fruitful ministry among Muslims in Asia. "World A" consists of nations and peoples in the least evangelized parts of the world.]
“How can you be a missionary and a Calvinist at the same time? If you believe in predestination, you can’t possibly believe in missions as well!” This statement displays a stunning ignorance both of theology and of church history, but it is distressingly common in Southern Baptist circles to hear it. Even people with seminary training, who ought to know better, seem unaware that the founders of the modern missionary movement (including William Carey), and the founders of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, were all committed to the sovereignty of God in salvation. Worse, they understand Reformed theology so poorly that they really think that it explicitly precludes evangelism and missions. My response, therefore, usually comes as quite a shock: I couldn’t possibly be a missionary if I weren’t completely convinced of the doctrines of grace!
I am the Strategy Coordinator for an unreached people group in Asia. These people are Muslim, giving them a strong natural resistance to the gospel. They live in countries that forbid open Christian missionary activities. The vast majority of them have never met a Christian, never seen a Bible, and never heard the gospel. Their governments are doing everything they can to make sure they never have a chance to hear it, and their religious heritage gives them every reason to reject it even if they should. In many areas, the penalty for leaving Islam is death. From a human perspective, there is every reason to expect my work with these people to fail. The only thing that encourages me to persevere in the face of human impossibility is my certainty that God is sovereign in all things, including salvation. This conviction illuminates the task, empowers my work, and preserves its integrity.
First of all, understanding human depravity illuminates my task. It gives new insight into the concept of “resistant” people groups. From a human point of view, it is easier to reach some people with the gospel than others. Islam is the only major world religion to arise after the birth of Christ, and it therefore had the opportunity to develop a built-in apologetic against Christianity.
The ugly history of Muslim-Christian relations make matters even more difficult. Most of the Islamic world has not forgotten the medieval Crusades. More recently, colonial imperialism left behind the image of Christianity as the religion of the oppressor. Even in Soviet Central Asia, despite 70 years of official atheism, the local Muslim population thinks of their Russian oppressors as a “Christian” people group.
Perhaps worst of all, the identification of Christianity with Western culture has created the conviction that Christianity is an immoral, decadent religion. A Muslim religious leader who found out that I was a Christian pastor once asked me, in all sincerity, if I could have sex with anyone I wanted just like other Christians! To many Muslims of Central Asia, the view of America that is exported by Hollywood typifies the Christian life style. With that misperception it is easy to understand why they want nothing to do with “Christianity.”
From a human point of view, Muslims have more reason to resist the gospel than anyone else on earth. From God’s point of view, however, it really makes no difference. The problem is not history or anti-Christian polemic or modern Western decadence. The problem is that they are dead in their trespasses and sins. Sin has captivated every area of their lives, leaving them unable to please God, unable to understand the gospel, and unable to do anything at all about it. That means that a Muslim’s condition is no different than that of any other unregenerate person. It takes the same miracle to bring a spiritually dead American to life as it does an Asian Muslim. Thus, while I certainly need to focus on entry strategies for the gospel (God’s Word is the instrument He uses in this glorious work), and while I also need to develop cultural sensitivity in the way I present the message in order to overcome centuries of misunderstanding, it is ultimately just as impossible for me to convert a Muslim as it is for me to convert an American. In Asia no less than in America, the work cannot depend on my intelligence or my cleverness or my skill, because none of those will ever resurrect a spiritually dead person. I find enormous liberty in knowing that the task is the same everywhere, whether among “resistant” or “open” peoples. I am simply to be faithful as an instrument in God’s hands. The people I am trying to reach are not primarily confused, or misled, or ignorant, or isolated, or even spiritually sick. They are dead in their sin. God must save, and God alone.
I am greatly encouraged, therefore, by the glorious truths of unconditional election and irresistible grace. If it is true that God must save, and God alone, my only hope as a missionary lies in the fact that God does save, and He does so in spite of every effort on the part of unregenerate man to stay unsaved. He has sovereign power. Despite all appearances of resistance in my target people group, God has a chosen people among them. They were not chosen on the basis of their openness to the gospel, or their own desire to seek after God or to respond to Him, nor indeed on the basis of any other virtue which I know full well none of them possesses. Like me, they were chosen simply because God, by His grace alone and for His glory alone, decided to save individuals who don’t deserve it and who would never choose Him if left to themselves.
And those whom the Father chose unconditionally, the Son redeemed individually and infallibly through His death and resurrection. And those whom the Son redeemed, the Spirit powerfully calls into salvation. It doesn’t matter how hostile the government may be. It doesn’t matter how resistant the religious heritage may be. It doesn’t matter how wicked and corrupt the culture may be. If the Father has chosen, and the Son has redeemed, the outward call of the proclamation of the Word will be accompanied by the irresistible inward call of the Spirit, and there will be fruit.
In this context, I see a particularly rich connection between the nature of the atonement and the task of missions. The focus of contemporary missiology is on unreached people groups. It is a biblical focus. When Jesus referred to “all nations” in Mt. 24:14 and 28:18-20, He was not referring to modern geo-political states. He was referring to ethno-linguistic groups. The task of the church in missions is to make disciples from among every people group, and the one condition Jesus gives for His return is precisely that every people group has heard the message.
The great news is that Jesus accomplished in His atoning work what He commanded in His Great Commission. Rev. 5:9 says of Jesus: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” Because Jesus actually accomplished a complete and irrevocable redemption for those for whom He died, and because Scripture tells me that He died specifically for men and women from every people group, I know that people will be saved even from my “resistant” people group living in “closed” countries. It comes as no surprise, then, when I read in Rev. 7:9, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: `Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’.” God’s purpose in the atoning work of His Son will be fulfilled. And His purpose has a fundamental missiological element in it. Jesus died to redeem a people for Himself from every people group on earth. Therefore, missionary work among unreached people groups cannot fail.
In addition to all this, God’s intention to preserve His saints is the foundation of my hope for the emerging church in the Muslim world. In his marvelous grace, people are coming to know Jesus. The pressures on them are enormous, however. In one country where I work, every believer who has become publicly known as such has either fled the country or been martyred. In a society where family means everything, it is the responsibility of the family either to pressure an apostate from Islam back into the fold, or if that fails, to kill him. In the face of such opposition, what enables the church to survive? Only the sovereign grace of God preserving His people. It is the sovereign faithfulness of God, not the ephemeral faithfulness of man, that keeps the persecuted church alive.
Confidence in the sovereignty of God is thus the only sure foundation for hope and encouragement in missions. God has appointed an end: the salvation of a multitude no one can number from every people group on earth. He has infallibly accomplished their redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is at work sovereignly calling them to salvation by His Holy Spirit. He has appointed the proclamation of His Word as the instrument He will use in thus calling people to Himself. And He has chosen us as the ambassadors who carry that Word to the nations.
Understanding missions in this way preserves the purity of the work. Gone is the temptation to rely on human cleverness, deceit or manipulation, since only the Spirit of God wielding the Word of God can really save anyone. Understanding missions in this way fuels missionary prayer. There is no point in praying for the salvation of the unreached unless God actually intends to do something about it. And finally, understanding missions in this way produces a foundation strong enough for a missionary to build his or her life upon, no matter how humanly impossible the work may be.
People are starving for the greatness of God.
But most of them would not give this diagnosis of their troubled lives. The majesty of God is an unknown cure. There are far more popular prescriptions on the market, but the benefit of any other remedy is brief and shallow. Preaching that does not have the aroma of God’s greatness may entertain for a season, but it will not touch the hidden cry of the soul: “Show me thy glory!”
…So I am persuaded that the vision of a great God is the linchpin in the life of the church, both in pastoral care and missionary outreach. Our people need to hear God-entranced preaching. They need someone, at least once a week, to lift up his voice and magnify the supremacy of God.
–John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990), 9, 11.