A Theology for Missions

I would like to begin by mentioning the impact that Patrick Johnstone's book, Operation World has been having on me. Two facts have been seared into my mind as I have been praying through this book. They will lead into the theology for missions that I will try to develop this morning.

1. One fact is the tremendous unfinished task before the church of Christ. Depending on how you define an ethnic people, there are between 1,000 (Barrett, in World Christian Encyclopedia, p.19) and 17,000 (Ralph Winter, USCWM) unreached peoples on the earth. Johnstone himself suggests about 3,000 unreached peoples (Operation World, p. 32). In any of these cases it is still true that about half of the world's 5.2 billion people live in those people groups where the church is either nonexistent or so small and weak as to need outside help in evangelizing its people. That means that about half of the world's individuals are culturally cut off from the witness of the gospel. Thus the need for cross-cultural missionaries is still extraordinarily great. That is one fact made clear in this book. The missionary task is unfinished!

2. The other fact is the incredible nominalism and leadership void in the national churches around the world as well as at home. We often get the idea that in the third world the faith is simple and vibrant and uncluttered by western materialism. Not true. Of course there are such churches in almost every country (not people group!) in the world. But again and again you read things like this (taken from page 92 on Argentina):

  • "Superficiality in conversions and inadequate follow up of those who profess faith in Christ."
  • "Insufficient leaders for the churches to be able both to teach the believers and mobilize them for evangelism."

It seems to me that these two world-wide facts are related. The greatness of the unfinished task on the one hand, and the superficiality of the faith of professing Christians and the absence of strong leaders on the other. The weakness of professing Christians and the poverty of leadership in the churches around the world is a major cause of why the task of world evangelism is not finished.

Why is there such weakness? Why is there world-wide nominalism? Why are there so few leaders who can feed and fire the churches?

One crucial part of the answer is this:

The doctrinal basis of faith and missions is too narrow.

The depth and breadth of doctrinal understanding thought to be important for Christians and missionaries has been too shallow and too narrow. This low standard of biblical understanding is then passed on to the younger churches. The result is that the initial enthusiasm has no deep roots, and leadership in biblical study is not prized, and nominalism sets in.

The erroneous notion prevails that a broad and deep understanding of biblical doctrine is for the advanced saints or, perhaps, just for scholars, but not for simple missionaries and certainly not for their converts. But this is not true.

Paul says in Ephesians 4:13-14 that the only way ordinary people will cease to be children tossed to and fro by winds of false teaching and by the cunning of men is if they come to full manhood in knowledge—the knowledge of the Son of God. This is not the goal of an elite, educated few! It is the biblical mandate for every believer! You!

The Value of Biblical Truth

  • Biblical truth frees from Satan (John 8:32; 2 Timothy 2:24-26).
  • Biblical truth mediates grace and peace (2 Peter 1:2).
  • Biblical truth sanctifies (John 17:17; 2 Peter 1:3, 5, 12; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
  • Biblical truth serves love (Philippians 1:9).
  • Biblical truth protects from error (Ephesians 4:11-15; 2 Peter 3:17-18).
  • Biblical truth saves (1 Timothy 4:16; Acts 20:26-27; 2 Thessalonians 2:10).
  • Biblical truth is the ideal of heaven (1 Corinthians 13:12).
  • Biblical truth will be resisted by some (2 Timothy 4:1-5).
  • Biblical truth is the duty of elders (Titus 1:9).
  • Biblical truth is approved by God (2 Timothy 2:15).
  • Biblical truth should continually increase (2 Peter 3:18; Colossians 1:10; Hebrews 5:12).

And how much more ought missionaries to increase! One of the most moving books I have read about the history of modern missions is The St. Andrews Seven, by Stuart Piggin and John Roxborogh (Banner of Truth, 1985). It tells the story of how the life and teaching of Thomas Chalmers at the University of St. Andrews inspired six of his best students in the 1820's to radical missionary commitment which resulted in 141 years of combined service on the missions field. One of the most brilliant of these young students died while he was still 18. His memoires filled two volumes. He said in one of his adresses to the mission society at the university: "We know of no office in the Church of God where the very highest mental attainments can be more beneficially employed, than in the office, all despised as it is, of the Christian missionary" (p.53).

The most basic questions that people around the world have about life and God require remarkable thoughtfulness and understanding if missionaries are to answer them with biblical integrity and helpfulness.

I could illustrate with my own brief experience in Cameroon where I was immediately confronted with the hardest of questions regarding election and predestination. But let me give an even more interesting illustration from the life of William Carey, the father of modern missions, who gave 40 years of his life in India and never went home on furlough. (taken from p. 13 of A Vison for Missions by Tom Wells.)

In 1797, four years after he came to India Carey tells us of being confronted by a Brahman. Carey had preached on Acts 14:16 and 17:30 and said that God formerly allowed all men every where to go their own way, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent.

The Brahman responded, "Indeed I think God ought to repent for not sending the gospel sooner to us."

Here is a crucial need for deep Biblical doctrine. It is not an easy objection to answer. Listen to the kind of answer Carey gave and see if you would have thought of such a thing.

To this I added, suppose a kingdom had been long overrun by the enemies of its true king, and he though possessed of sufficient power to conquer them, should yet suffer them to prevail, and establish themselves as much as they could desire, would not the valor and wisdom of that king be far more conspicuous in exterminating them, than it would have been if he had opposed them at first, and prevented their entering the country? Thus by the diffusion of gospel light, the wisdom, power, and grace of God will be more conspicuous in overcoming such deep-rooted idolatries, and in destroying all that darkness and vice which have so universally prevailed in this country, than they would have been if all had not been suffered to walk in their own ways for so many ages past.

What an answer! The sovereign God rules the nations in such a way that even the ages of unbelief will redound to his glory in the most pagan of countries when the gospel victory comes! Carey did not say that God was unable to get the gospel to India sooner because of his stubborn and disobedient people. He knew that such impotence is simply not worthy of the name of the name of God.

Carey had a deep and broad Biblical basis for his missionary work. He did not share the idea that mature doctrinal knowledge is unimportant for ordinary people or for missionaries.

So the modern missionary movement got its start in an atmosphere of strong doctrinal commitments. They were the commitments of the great American pastor and theologian, Jonathan Edwards. Edwards wrote the Life of David Brainerd, the young New England missionary—a biography that deeply influenced Carey. And on the boat to India Carey said he comforted his mind by reading sermons of Jonathan Edwards who had died forty years earlier. For example: June 24, 1793, "Saw a number of flying-fish. Have begun to write Bengali, and read Edwards' Sermons and Cowper's Poems. Mind tranquil and serene..."

The keynote of Edwards' and Carey's theology was the centrality of God and the glory of his sovereign grace. The origin of Baptist missions sprang up among pastors in England who were decidedly doctrinal in their life and preaching. Andrew Fuller, Samuel Pearce, John Sutcliffe and William Carey were all of this sort. Their majestic view of God moved them to lay claim to the nations on his behalf and the modern missionary movement was born. Later on such names as David Livingstone, Adoniram Judson, Alexander Duff, John Paton, etc. were driven by the same vision. They were what some people call Calvinists though none of them cared for labels. They loved the historic doctrines of Biblical Christianity, and if Calvin taught them so be it.

The God of John's Gospel

So what I want to do tonight is to note that your conference verse is taken from the Gospel of John 4:35 (“Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest”) and then challenge you not only to open your eyes to the great harvest, but to open your eyes to the God of the harvest and to the great foundation for missions in his glorious and gracious sovereignty. This is the expanded biblical basis for missions that I want you to see tonight; and it is found in this very gospel.

I invite you to turn with me to the tenth chapter of John’s gospel. My text is taken from verse 16. Jesus says,

I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.

But in order to understand this missionary promise of Christ we have to take notice of at least six things in the context of John 10.

1) Jesus calls himself a shepherd. Verse 11: “I am the good shepherd.” Verse 14: “I am the good shepherd.” Jesus is probably thinking of himself here as the fulfillment of Ezekiel 34:22-24, where God says about his people Israel,

I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.

The flock of God is the people of Israel. God promises to put his servant David over them to be their shepherd, and he speaks of having to judge between sheep and sheep.

2) This leads to the second observation, namely, that in John 10 some sheep are Christ’s and some are not. Verses 3b-4: “… He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them.” Verse 14: “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me.” In other words, not all the people in the flock of Israel truly belonged to Christ. Some were his sheep. Some weren't.

3) A third observation: The reason some sheep belonged to Jesus so that he could call them his own is that God the Father had given them to the Son. Verse 29: “My Father who has given them to me, is greater than all and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”

This is Jesus’ way of talking about the doctrine of election. God has chosen a people for his own. These are his sheep. He then gives them to his Son so that they can be saved by faith in him. You can see this clearly in 17:6, where Jesus says to his Father:

I have manifested thy name to the men whom you gave me out of the world; thine they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept thy word.

And you can see it in John 6:37,

All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out.

So Jesus can speak with confidence about some sheep among the flock of Israel that are definitely his, because they first belonged to the Father before they ever believed on Jesus. The Father had chosen them for himself—“thine they were”—and then he had given them to the Son—“and thou has given them to me.” (See John 6:39, 44, 65; 17:9, 24; 18:9)

4) A fourth observation follows: Since Jesus knows those who are his, he can call them by name; and because they are already his, they follow. We see this in verses 3b-4:

The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own he goes before them and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.

And we see it in verse 27:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

Be sure you see the thrust of these verses: being one of Christ’s sheep enables you to respond to his call. It is not the other way around in these verses: responding to his call does not make you one of his sheep. If you hear and recognize his voice it is because you already are one of his sheep, chosen by the Father. You come to the Son because the Father is giving you to the Son (John 6:44, 65).

That is the startling thing about this chapter. And it can be very offensive to a self-sufficient, unbelieving heart. It reveals to us the presumption of thinking that the final determination of our life lies in our own power. Listen carefully to verse 26:

You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.

The final boast of unbelief is destroyed by the doctrine of election. Those whom God chose he also gave to the Son, and those whom he gave to the Son the Son also called by name, and those whom he called hear his voice and believe.

5) But that is not all that Jesus does for his sheep. Verse 11:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Verses 14-15:

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.

In other words, to echo the words of Paul again,

  • those whom the Father has made his own, he also gave to the Son,
  • and those whom he gave to the Son the Son also called,
  • and those whom he called he also justified by laying down his life for the sheep.

6) And on the basis of this sacrifice Jesus gives eternal life to his sheep and it can never be taken away. Verses 27-30:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one.

In other words,

  • those whom the Father chose for himself he also gave to the Son,
  • and those whom he gave to the Son the Son also called by name,
  • and for those whom he called, he also laid down his life,
  • and to those for whom he died he gave eternal life, and it can never be taken away.

The picture we have in John 10 is of a great shepherd who sovereignly saves his sheep. The Father gives them to him. He dies for them. He calls them by name. He gives them eternal life. And he keeps them safe forever.

What a great salvation we have! What a great Savior!

No Room for Complacency

And now a great danger arises for us. Satan takes every great truth and throws up a plausible distortion of it. He had done that in William Carey’s day. Some Christians had taken this pride-shattering doctrine of salvation through sovereign grace and twisted it into an in-house, elitist doctrine for the private comfort of the chosen few, with no burden to reach the nations of the world.

But God in his mercy has again and again made clear to his servants that his salvation is not the prerogative of any one group on earth.

Just when the Jewish disciples begin to feel like they are the real select heirs of Abraham, Jesus strikes in John 10:16: “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold—among the Gentiles."

Just when early American Puritans were settling into their “chosen” status as the New Israel in the New England, Jesus said to John Eliot, “I have other sheep that are not of this Puritan fold—among the Algonquin Indians." And 100 years later to David Brainerd, “I have other sheep that are not of this Congregational fold—among the Susquehanna.”

Just when the Particular Baptists of England were being frozen in the unbiblical ice of hyper-Calvinism, Jesus spoke to William Carey: “I have other sheep that are not of this English fold—in India.”

Just when the mission agencies and churches were growing content with the coastland success around the world, Jesus stirred up Hudson Taylor: “I have other sheep that are not of this coastal fold—inland, in the middle of China.” And to David Livingstone, “inland, in the middle of Africa.”

And when all of Western Christendom began to feel content in this century that every country of the world had been penetrated with the gospel, Jesus came to Cameron Townsend and said, “I have other sheep that are not of this visible worldwide fold—among the hidden tribal peoples, thousands of them with not even a Scripture portion in their language.”

John 10:16 is the great missionary text in the Gospel of John: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold!” Every time we start to get comfortable with just us, it is like a thorn in the cushion on the pew. Every time our board of world missions begins to get comfortable with ten or eleven fields where we are planting churches, this word is like a bugle call: “I have other sheep in thousands of peoples yet unreached by the gospel.”

Reasons to Take Courage and Go

But this verse is far more than a mere goad. It is full of hope and power. It is a deep and broad foundation for great mission efforts.

In our Baptist General Conference Board of World Missions, 1985 marked the beginning of a “Decade of Vision.” The goals are

  • To double the number of our 606 churches overseas,
  • To triple the membership in those churches to 95,000,
  • And to double the missionary force to 200.

I am glad to be a part of a dreaming conference, and I want to be the pastor of a dreaming church. But to turn dreams into plans and plans into labor and labor into fruit for eternity, you need confidence and hope for the long haul and the valleys of despondency.

So I want to close this evening by looking at four things in John 10:16 that should fill us to overflowing with confidence in our missions dreaming and planning and labor:

1) Christ has people besides those already converted—other people besides us. “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.” In that context he meant the nations beyond Israel. And that is what he means today. There will always be people who argue that the doctrine of election and predestination makes missions unnecessary. But they are wrong. It does not make missions unnecessary; it makes missions hopeful.

John Alexander, former president of Inter-Varsity said in a message at Urbana 67, “At the beginning of my missionary career I said that if predestination were true I could not be a missionary. Now after 20 years of struggling with the hardness of the human heart, I say I could never be a missionary unless I believed the doctrine of predestination."

It gives hope that Christ most certainly has a people among the nations. "I have other sheep."

It was precisely this truth that encouraged the apostle Paul when he was downcast at Corinth. Acts 18:9-10:

And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, "Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man shall attack you to harm you; for I have many people in this city."

“I have other sheep that are not of this fold.” It is a promise full of hope for those who dream about new fields of missionary labor.

2) The verse implies that the “other sheep” that Christ has are scattered outside the present fold. This is made explicit in John 11:51-52, where John explains a word of prophecy spoken by Caiaphas, the high priest:

He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

World evangelization, for the apostle John, is the ingathering of the children of God—those sheep that God has chosen and intends to give to the Son.

And the point for our encouragement in missionary strategy is that they are scattered. They are not all pocketed in one or two places. They are scattered everywhere. The way John put it when he wrote the book of Revelation (5:9) was this:

Thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.

The ransomed children of God will be found in every people reached by the gospel. Patrick Johnstone says (p. 36 of Operation World),

All the distinct races, tribes, peoples and tongues of the world must be so discipled that there are at a minimum some representatives of every one of them among the redeemed before the Throne of the Lamb (Revelation 7:9-10).

So we may be sure on the authority of God’s Word that among all the peoples of the world we will find people who belong to God's flock. That is a great encouragement to get on with the task of frontier missions and to reach the hidden peoples.

3) The third encouragement in John 10:16 is that the Lord has committed himself to bring his lost sheep home. He promises to do it. “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also.” He will bring them.

This does not mean, as some of the hyper-Calvinists thought it did in Carey’s day, that Christ will gather in his sheep without asking us! In John 17:18 and 20:21 Jesus says,

As the Father has sent me, even so send I you.

We continue the mission of Christ. So Jesus prays in 17:20,

I do not pray for these [his disciples] only but also for those who believe in me through their word.

In other words, just as Jesus called his sheep with his own lips in Palestine, so he still calls them today with our lips, and they hear his voice and follow him (cf. 1 John 4:6). He does it. But not without us!

This is the wonder of the gospel. When it is preached truthfully in the power of the Spirit it is not merely the word of man, It is the Word of God! (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

In other words, even today it is just as true as it was in Jesus’ day: “My sheep hear MY voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). It is Christ who calls in the gospel. Christ gathers. We are only ambassadors speaking in his stead. That is why Paul said in Romans 15:18,

I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed.

So we can take heart: all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to the Son of God and he declares, “I must bring in my other sheep.” He will do it.

4) Which implies the final word of hope from the text: If he brings them, they will come! “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice.”

None of Christ’s sheep finally reject his word. What else can keep you going in a hard and unresponsive place of ministry except the confidence that God reigns and that those whom the Father has chosen will heed the voice of the Son?

Overcoming Every Obstacle

I close with a story about Peter Cameron Scott, who was born in 1867 and founded the African Inland Mission. He had tried twice to serve in Africa but had to come home both times with malaria. The third attempt was especially joyful because he was joined by his brother John. But the joy evaporated as John fell victim to the fever. Scott buried his brother all by himself, and at the grave rededicated himself to preach the gospel. But again his health broke and he had to return to England, utterly discouraged.

But in London something wonderful happened. We read about it in Ruth Tucker’s From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, p. 301—a book that I hope all of you will read:

He needed a fresh source of inspiration and he found it at a tomb in Westminster Abbey that held the remains of a man who had inspired so many others in their missionary service to Africa. The spirit of David Livingstone seemed to be prodding Scott onward as he knelt reverently and read the inscription,

OTHER SHEEP I HAVE WHICH ARE NOT OF THIS FOLD;
THEM ALSO I MUST BRING.

He would return to Africa and lay down his life, if need be, for the cause for which this great man had lived and died.

My prayer for you now at the beginning of your missions conference is that God might deepen and broaden the biblical foundation of your vision for the world. May he open our eyes not only to the fields that are white to harvest, but also to the majesty and splendor and glory of his sovereign grace. And may we be carried over all the obstacles and discouragements by the great confidence that the Lord himself will gather the ransomed from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. And the end will come and the kingdoms of this earth shall be the kingdoms of our God. Amen.

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