The Missionary Theology of Adoniram Judson

The Missionary Theology of Adoniram Judson

The story of Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) is legendary among Baptists who have any interest in the evangelistic and missionary exploits of our heritage. He is widely recognized as the first missionary sent from the United States overseas to take the gospel across cultural and linguistic divides. On February 19, 1812, Judson left America with his wife of two weeks, Ann, in hopes of serving as a missionary in India.

He left the shores of the USA as a convinced paedobaptist Congregationalist. Because he knew that he would meet the famous Baptist, William Carey, upon his arrival in India, he determined to make a fresh study of Scriptural baptism on the voyage. By the time the ship arrived in India, he was a convinced Baptist, thus giving American Baptists their first missionary even before there was any established board or agency to service their support. After a year he sailed to Burma (today’s Myanmar) where he spent his life serving the Burmese people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

To call Judson a faithful missionary is an understatement of immeasurable proportions. His life reads like an adventure novel. The losses, persecutions, discouragements, injustices and obstacles that he endured would have crushed lesser men or, to put it better, men who had a lesser grasp on the grace of God that had gripped him through the power of the gospel.

Insights into Judson’s understanding of the grace of God in the gospel can be found in the valuable two volume Memoir compiled by Francis Wayland. In volume 2 of that work is found the “Burman Liturgy” that Judson drew up in 1829 for the purpose of assisting missionaries and their assistants as they led new churches in congregational worship. A regular part of their worship was to hear a summary of the faith–a creed–read aloud. As the following extract demonstrates, Judson not only drank deeply from the wells of God’s grace himself, he believed that the newest of believers should be instructed in that grace, as well.

A Creed, in Twelve Articles; or, A Summary of the Doctrine of the Lord Jesus Christ.
  1. ART. I. There is one only permanent God, possessed of all incomprehensible perfections, eternal, almighty, omniscient, the Creator of all worlds and all things.
  2. ART. II. There are two volumes of the Scriptures of truth,–the Scriptures of the old dispensation, in thirty-nine books, and the Scriptures of the new dispensation, in twenty-seven books,–written under the inspiration of God, by prophets and apostles, the recipients of divine communications.
  3. ART. III. According to the Scriptures, man, at the beginning, was made upright and holy; but listening to the devil, he transgressed the divine commands, and fell from his good estate; in consequence of which, the original pair, with all their posterity, contracted a depraved, sinful nature, and became deserving of hell.
  4. ART. IV. God, originally knowing that mankind would fall and be ruined, did, of his mercy, select some of the race and give them to his Son, to save from sin and hell.
  5. ART. V. The Son of God, according to his engagement to save the elect, was in the fulness of time, conceived by power of God, in the womb of the virgin Mary, in the country of Judea and land of Israel, and thus uniting the divine and human natures, he was born as man; and being the Saviour Messiah, (Jesus Christ,) he perfectly obeyed the law of God, and then laid down his life for man, in the severest agonies of crucifixion, by which he made an atonement for all who are willing to believe.
  6. ART. VI. The Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day, and having continued on earth forty days, he ascended to heaven, bodily and visibly, before his disciples and there he remains in the presence of God the Father.
  7. ART. VII. In order to obtain salvation, we must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and become his disciples, receiving a change of nature, through regeneration, by the power of the Spirit.
  8. ART. VIII. Those who become disciples obtain the pardon of their sins through the cross of Christ; and being united to him by faith, his righteousness is imputed to them, and they become entitled to the eternal happiness of heaven.
  9.  ART. IX. Disciples, therefore, though they may not in this world be perfectly free from the old nature, do not completely fall away; but through the sustaining grace of the Spirit, they persevere until death in spiritual advancement, and in endeavors to keep the divine commands.
  10.  ART. X. At death, the souls of disciples go to the Lord Jesus Christ, and remain happy till the end of this world, at which period he will descend bodily from heaven, all the dead will be raised by his power, and assembled before him to receive his judgment.
  11. ART. XI. At the day of judgment, he will publicly pronounce the pardon and justification of his disciples; and they will then be invested with perpetual life in the presence of God, and enter on the enjoyment of the interminable happiness of heaven.
  12.  ART. XII. As to those who are not disciples, since they believe not in the Lord who saves from sin, they will not, on that day, find any refuge, but, according to their deserts, be cast, body and soul, into hell, and come to perpetual destruction.

A few observations in light of some current conversations within the contemporary theological scene:

First,  in Article III, Judson describes Adam’s original sin in terms that recognize the union that Adam had to all his posterity. Through that sin all of Adam’s race “contracted a depraved, sinful nature, and became deserving of hell.” This perfectly reflects Paul’s teaching in Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned….” Judson saw the whole fallen human race as deserving of hell because of Adam’s original sin.

Second, in Article IV, Judson believed and taught unconditional election. God, he said, “out of his mercy, [did] select some of the race and give them to his Son, to save from sin and hell.” This phrase echoes the covenantal language that Jesus uses in John 6:37-40, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” The Before the foundation of the world the Father chose particular sinners to be saved and gave them to His Son–not because of any merit in them but of His own grace and mercy. Or, as Article V of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 puts it, “Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners.”

Third, according to Article V, Judson believed and taught particular redemption. With logic that parallels Anselm’s 11th century classic, Cur Deus Homo, the reason for the incarnation is rooted in the Son of God’s “engagement to save the elect.” This again reflects Judson’s understanding of the pre temporal covenant within the Godhead wherein the Father chose a people from Adam’s race and gave them to the Son and the Son pledged to enter into the human race in order to save those chosen ones by his life, death and resurrection, making atonement “for all who are
willing to believe.” Jesus’ death atoned for “the elect” and for “all who are willing to believe.” These are not two groups of people, but one. The elect will be willing to believe and those who are willing to believe are the elect.

These doctrines of grace undergird the missionary theology that led Adoniram Judson to the unreached people of Burma and kept him on the field despite extreme opposition and suffering. As one who had learned these lessons from the Word of God and felt their power in his own conversion and missionary calling, Judson laid the foundation for their continual propagation among the churches of Burma that emerged from his life’s work.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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