Jonathan Edwards and Our Fall Missions Focus

Two Motives for Missions, or One?

As our fall Missions Focus approaches, Jonathan Edwards is still on my mind. One reason is that he helped me unite two motives for world missions that for years seemed at odds.

One motive for missions is "for the sake of the name" (3 John 1:7). We do missionary work "that the Gentiles might glorify God" (Romans 15:9). We say "Declare his glory among the nations . . . . For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised . . . . Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name" (Psalm 96:3-7). We grieve that "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles" (Romans 2:24). Jonathan Edwards never tired of reminding us that "All that is ever spoken of in the Scripture as an ultimate end of God's works, is included in that one phrase, the glory of God" (The End for Which God Created the World, p. 242).

But there is another motive for missions, namely, compassion. People without the gospel are perishing, and our hearts desire that they be saved. In his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Edwards pleaded for people to receive mercy while there was still time.

The fury of God! . . . O how dreadful must that be! Who can utter or conceive what such expressions carry in them? . . . Consider this, you who are here present, that yet remain in an unregenerate state . . . Now God stands ready to pity you; this is a day of mercy. (Works, Vol. 2, p. 10)

Edwards reminded his people that God uses people - missionaries - to bring others to Christ: "Persons may be the instruments of others' conversion, of bringing them home to Christ. We read in Daniel 12:3 of those that turn many to righteousness" (Charity and Its Fruits, p. 208).

So how do these two motives fit together - zeal for the glory of God and compassion for the perishing? Do we use one sometimes and the other at other times? Jonathan Edwards helped me see that they are, at root, one motive. Here's how.

Step One

Compassion pursues the rescue of perishing sinners. Love demands that we work to rescue people from the wrath of God.

Step Two

Fear of hell by itself saves nobody. Edwards never tired of warning people to flee from the wrath to come. But he knew that mere fear of the consequences of sin is not a saving fear. You can scare people toward heaven, but you can't scare anybody in. Saving faith means receiving Christ as your treasure, not just as a fire escape.

Step Three

Therefore compassion must not merely warn people about the pains of going to hell, but must lure people to the pleasures of knowing Christ. Wanting to be out of hell is not the same as wanting to be with Christ. And so it would not be compassionate merely to warn people about hell. We must display to them the beauties of Christ. Paul said, "If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed" (1 Corinthians 16:22).

Step Four

Now comes the unifying key from Jonathan Edwards: it is precisely this satisfaction in Christ himself that magnifies Christ and glorifies God. The key to the coherence between the motive of God's glory and the motive that desires eternal joy for the lost is this: joy in God glorifies God. Therefore the motive to glorify God and satisfy people forever in God are one motive. Here's the key quote from Edwards: "God is glorified . . . by his glory's . . . being rejoiced in" (Miscellany #448).

Step Five

Therefore, the aim of compassion to rescue sinners out of everlasting pain, and the aim of our passion to see God honored, are not distinct. Sinners escape hell and honor God with the same act: treasuring all that God is for them in Christ. If, by the mercy of God, Christ becomes the treasure of the nations, and God becomes their delight, then he is honored and they are saved.

So let us take up our cross, and, for the joy set before us be willing to lay down our lives to make the nations glad in God.

Let the peoples praise You, O God;
Let all the peoples praise You.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy."

(Psalm 67:3-4)

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