Read, watch, or listen to the companion message, “Gospel Depths.”
Before we look at the nature of gospel worship and focus in on Paul’s unstoppable ambition to see Christ worshiped among the peoples of the world, I want to link up with Zane Pratt’s message from this afternoon and press into your consciousness four realities about the current situation in global Christian missions. I am assuming that almost everybody in this room, at least theoretically, agrees that the Christian church should seek the glory of Christ and the salvation of sinners among all the peoples of the world. And I hope that this message will be used by God to turn that theoretical agreement into a joyful and fruitful engagement in missions for the sake of the worship of the risen Christ among all peoples.
Four Realities for Global Missions
So four realities about the current situation in global missions.
1. God Is Up to Something Unprecedented
To quote historian Mark Noll, “The Christian church has experienced a larger geographical redistribution in the last fifty years than in any comparable period in its history, with the exception of the very earliest years of church history.”
“In 1900, Africa had ten million Christians, which was about ten percent of the population. By 2000, the number of Christians was 360 million, about half the population of the continent. This is probably the largest shift in religious affiliation that has ever occurred, anywhere.
There are 17 million baptized members of the Anglican church in Nigeria, compared with 2.8 million in the United States.
Last Sunday . . . more Christian believers attended church in China than in all of so-called ‘Christian Europe.’
Kenya has more people in Christian churches on Sunday than Canada.
More Christian workers from Brazil are active in cross cultural ministry outside their homeland than from Britain or from Canada.”
The point is that God is up to something in our day that is unprecedented in world history. And we should be standing on tiptoes of expectation and engagement, believing that “God who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).
2. Unfinished, but Finishable
Nevertheless, our excitement is chastened by the centuries-long failure of the church to finish the missionary task. We have always known that by his blood Christ “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). And we have known the words of Jesus that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). But whole centuries have gone by — and decades in our own lives — when our hands have hung limp at our side in world evangelization.
“God is up to something in our day that is unprecedented in world history.”
So today, of the 11,749 people groups in the world (according to the IMB and PeopleGroups.org, or 16,547 according to The Joshua Project, if you count the same people groups more than once in different parts of the world) about 3,235 are unengaged — that is, not being pursued in missions by any evangelical group.
There is no justifiable explanation for this. Think of the size of the global evangelical church — the churches that believe in the Great Commission. There are about three hundred million evangelicals in the world. That’s 92,000 evangelicals for every unengaged people group. Or let’s just bring it home. According to City Vision there are 2,150 evangelical churches in the greater Twin Cities. That’s more churches in just this metroplex than there are missionaries to all the Buddhists in the world (about 2,000 for 500 million people).
So reality #2 is that the job is not finished, but is finishable.
3. Joyful, Self-Sacrificing Courage
Every Christian has some gift that is needed in the cause of world evangelization. And the great need of the hour is a joyful, self-sacrificing courage in the cause.
In World War II, the Merchant Marines lost more men in proportion to the size of the force than any branch of the armed services. One out of every 24 perished as 1,554 ships were sunk by German U-boats. But nothing stopped them. They carried supplies and troops to the European theater of combat, and the war could not have been won without them.
Today an example of that kind of essential supply lines in missions is a service like MAF — Missionary Aviation Fellowship. Every ten minutes an MAF plane takes off providing essential links between the front lines and the necessary resources of people and supplies.
What’s the need? Pilots, mechanics, courage. Especially courage. Why? John Boyd, the CEO, put it like this:
But what will not change…is the centrality of Christ in MAF’s ministry and how we need to position ourselves in many countries . . . where there’s . . . a hostility towards Christianity. . . . . One of the biggest challenges in Christian ministry and mission, particularly those who go to serve overseas in very difficult countries, is . . . to have the courage to stay the course when the going gets tough — and the going is tough.
So reality #3 is that every Christian has some gift that is needed in the cause of world evangelization, and the great need of the hour is a joyful, self-sacrificing courage in the cause.
4. Gospel Change Leads to Social Change
During the modern missionary movement of the last three hundred years, the missionaries who focused least on political transformation and most on personal conversion through the preaching of the gospel have brought about the greatest democratic reforms and the greatest social welfare. This is a fact that should be noted now and then (like now), but not focused on, because, as a focus, it backfires.
Robert Woodberry, Professor at Baylor, published his research about five years ago in which he defends this thesis: “The work of missionaries . . . turns out to be the single largest factor in insuring the health of nations.” But here’s the bombshell:
The positive effect of missionaries on democracy applies only to ‘conversionary protestants.’ Protestant clergy financed by the state, as well as Catholic missionaries prior to the 1960s, had no comparable effect in areas where they worked.
To be more specific, Woodberry’s research supported this sweeping claim:
Areas where (conversionist) Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.
Of course Woodberry admits that “there were and are racist missionaries . . . and missionaries who do self-centered things.” But then he adds: “If that were the average effect, we would expect that the places where missionaries had influence to be worse, than places where missionaries weren’t allowed or were restricted in action. We find exactly the opposite on all kinds of outcomes.”
He concludes: “Most missionaries didn’t set out to be political activists. . . [but] came to colonial reform through the back door. . . . All these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended.”
Here’s the lesson I draw from Reality #4: The way for missionaries to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the gospel “conversion” of individuals from false religions to the worship of the crucified and risen Christ. Or to put it another way: Missionaries will lose their culturally transforming power if they make cultural transformation their energizing focus.
There are reasons for this. One reason is that conversion to faith in Christ by the Spirit through faith accomplishes two things: (1) rescue from the wrath of God into a life of gospel worship, and (2) practical, moral, transformation of life. Neither of those effects is authentic without the other. And it’s the heartfelt worship of Christ that animates the transformation. As Greg Beale says, “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or for restoration.” Therefore, those who pour their energy into “restoration” with no root in reverence, ultimately fail.
Gospel-preaching missionaries with a passion to rescue people from eternal suffering have changed the world because that was not their focus. This is why I said we should take note of this political effect now and then (like now), but not focus on, because, as a focus, it backfires.
Those are four introductory realities that I hope will awaken you to the importance and relevance of Paul’s ambition to see the unreached nations join him in gospel worship.
Six Biblical Truths for Missions
No passage from Paul’s writings is more laden with practical implications for missions like Romans 15. You could preach a year on the implications for world missions in this chapter.
I’m going to limit myself to six important truths that move from (1) the gospel of God’s mercy in Christ, to (2) the worship of God for that mercy, to (3) the importance of seeing peoples and not just people, to (4) the gospel ambition of Paul the pioneer, to (5) the sending of a gospel church, to (6) the praying of a gospel people.
1. The gospel of God’s mercy in Christ. (Romans 15:8–9)
For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
Here is the gospel, that is, Christ becoming a servant to the people of Israel. What kind of servant? Here’s what he said, “Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The heart of his service was his death. Here is the way Paul put it:
He emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:7–8) .“The great need of the hour is joyful, self-sacrificing courage for the cause of world-evangelization.”
In Romans 15:8–9 Paul said the aim of this servanthood was twofold, one purpose for Israel, one for the Gentiles. (1) “To show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,” and (2) “in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”
When the Jewish builders rejected the stone, Jesus said,
Have you never read in the Scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes”? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. (Matthew 21:42–43)
And so the mercy of God in Christ spilled over for the Gentiles. And the earthly servant life of Jesus ended with the words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). And what was the aim of God in this overflow of mercy for the nations?
2. The worship of God for his mercy (Romans 15:9).
The aim was worship. Romans 15:9: “In order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Notice: It’s not just that the Gentiles might receive God’s mercy or simply experience God’s mercy, but that they glorify God for his mercy. The aim of the gospel among the nations is not man-centered. Paul does not say, “Christ became a servant in order that the Gentiles might receive mercy.” He says, “Christ became a servant in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for receiving mercy.”
The ultimate aim of the gospel is God — God glorified for his mercy. Don’t fall short of the ultimate aim when you preach the gospel. Don’t just offer people mercy. Offer them the greatest gift: a merciful God, and that God glorified for his mercy. Human beings were made finally for God, not mercy. Mercy is a means not an end. Savoring mercy is not the end, savoring God for his mercy is the end.
How does Paul unpack the word “glorify” from verse 9? He does it with four Old Testament quotations in verses 9–12.
As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.”
And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”
And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.”
And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” (Romans 15:9–12)
Praise, sing, rejoice, praise, extol, hope.
Glorifying God for his mercy starts with the emotions of joy (verse 10) and hope (verse 12) in the God of mercy. Joy as you savor the merciful God now, and hope as you happily expect to savor him even more in the future. Then that joy and hope overflow in praise (verse 9, 11) and song (verse 9).
This is the essence of gospel worship: Heartfelt, hope-filled joy in the God of mercy overflowing in fitting outward expressions. The reason I say this is the essence of worship is because I know there are other emotions that are part of worship besides joy. Like the sorrows of confession. But these sorrows are not true worship, unless, at root, they are sorrows for our failures to experience joy in the God of mercy. Therefore, joy in the God of mercy remains the essence of gospel worship. And that is really good news, because in God’s design, we get the mercy, God gets the glory. We get the joy, God gets the praise. We revel in hope, God receives the honor. When we call the nations to worship the true God in Christ, that is what we call them to.
And that worship is for all the peoples.
3. The importance of seeing peoples and not just people (Romans 15:9–12).
There is little doubt that Paul sometimes uses the word “Gentiles” in the sense of individual non-Jews. But here he does more than that. In verse 11 he quotes Psalm 117:1, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.” Here the parallel with “Gentiles” is “peoples” (laoi in Greek).
The idea is that God cares about ethnic and cultural differences being represented among the redeemed. He is more glorified when his power and mercy are seen and savored among many different peoples than if he were only attractive to one group. In the book of Revelation, the worthiness of Christ is sung precisely because it ransomed not just lots of different individuals, but ransomed individuals from lots of different peoples:
Worthy are you . . . for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Revelation 5:9)
“Every tribe, language, people, nation” is vastly more diverse than the 196 countries that we often call nations. When the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization gathered in Switzerland in 1974, the global participants congratulated themselves that the Christian church was now in every country of the world — until Ralph Winter stood up and popped our balloon with the statistic that there are, in fact, 17,000 peoples in those countries (a round number used in those days). And what’s worse, he said ninety percent of the missionary force is working among the ten percent of those people who are already reached.
The landscape of world missions has never been the same, as more and more missions and churches grasped the biblical significance of peoples.
Let all the peoples extol him. (Romans 15:11)
Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! (Psalm 67:3)
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! (Psalm 96:3)
The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the peoples see his glory. (Psalm 97:6)
The LORD is exalted over all the peoples. (Psalm 99:2)
God means to be worshiped and glorified for his mercy by people from all the peoples. This leads to the fourth truth from Romans 15.
4. The gospel ambition of Paul the pioneer missionary (Romans 15:19–24).
Without an understanding of the difference between pioneer missions among the unreached peoples, and evangelism among unreached people, the following words are unintelligible. They are in fact astonishing.
From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum [roughly where the Balkan states are today] I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ [!]; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain.
From Jerusalem to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ . . . I no longer have any room for work in these regions . . .
Incredible! Because we know that there were thousands of lost people who needed to be evangelized in those regions. We know that because Paul left Timothy and other church leaders there and told them, “Do the work of an evangelist!” (2 Timothy 4:5).
But Paul’s work was done! What does that mean? It means that God calls some people to be missionaries. Frontier missionaries. Pioneer missionaries. Missionaries whose calling to reach places and peoples where there is no Christian presence. He is not named there.
“The ultimate aim of the gospel is God — God glorified for his mercy.”
I know Paul’s focus here is geographical. He is talking about “regions” and “where Christ has already been named.” Paul knew Greek, the lingua franca, and he would do what he could do with all his might with that language. He didn’t have all the sophisticated ethnolinguistic research we have today. His aim was to go to a region with no Christian witness and plant a church, make it as strong as he could, and then move on.
This was his ambition. Verse 20: “Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named.” The only way I see God finishing the Great Commission in our day is the pouring out on his church thousands of such gospel ambitions. Do you have one? It does not need to be Paul’s — though many of you may be given such an ambition. But you should have a great ambition. Otherwise you are going to waste your life. The unambitious life inevitably becomes a drifting life. We drift through our days, keeping our noses out of trouble. That is not the Christian life. When Paul said to all of us, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15–16), he did not mean drift. He meant, be clear about your ambition and buy up every opportunity to live it.
5. The sending of a gospel church (Romans 15:24, 28)
What makes it clear that Paul does not intend for everyone to share his ambition is that he wants them to be his senders, not to go with him.
I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while. (Romans 15:24)
When therefore I have completed this [ministry to the poor in Jerusalem] and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you. (Romans 15:28)
What did “helping him on his journey” mean? It meant doing whatever it took to get him there and keep him there. We see this kind of sending and support in action in the church at Philippi. Here’s how Paul celebrates his partnership with them — and this is no doubt what he is asking for from the Roman church.
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. (Philippians 4:10)
Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. (Philippians 4:14–16)
And who was it that had brought their gifts to Paul? Not Federal Express — or whatever the Roman Empire had. It was a personal visit by Epaphroditus. Paul calls him “your messenger and minister to my need” (Philippians 2:25). And he sends him back with these words (Philippians 2:29–30):
Receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
Who would dare say that Epaphroditus did not have a gospel ambition? He was not a Paul. He was not a missionary. He just risked his life to keep Paul doing what he was doing. This too is a great ambition. The Merchant Marines have always been essential! That calling, in some measure, is on all of us. The final truth from Romans 15 brings out one essential aspect of sending.
6. The praying of a gospel people (Romans 15:30–32).
I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.
If Paul is going to make it to Spain, he must not be killed in Jerusalem. He does not assume that this protection is automatic. He asks them to pray that “I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea.” If we take him seriously, he is saying: the entire mission to Spain hangs on your prayers.
In fact, we have no evidence that Paul ever did get to Spain. And in one sense he was not delivered from the unbelievers in Jerusalem. They arrested him. He came back to Rome all right, but not as a free missionary — as a prisoner who would eventually be martyred there.
Did they pray as Paul asked them to? We don’t know. But we know this: We have not because we ask not (James 4:2). Real things happen in the cause of missions in answer to prayer that would not happen if we did not pray. Most of those you will not know about until you get to heaven. But you have never prayed a believing prayer for missions in vain.
The greatest missionary who ever lived pleaded for prayer. “Strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf.” This too is a great gospel ambition.
A Place for Everyone
The Gospel of God’s mercy, in the coming of Christ as a servant, has this ultimate aim: that the Gentiles glorify God for his mercy. This means that the aim of the gospel is worship. This worship is for all the peoples of the world. To that end God raises up pioneer missionaries — missionaries whose ambition is to join God in showing mercy to the peoples of the world that have no access to the gospel, and winning their worship of the risen Christ. And in support of those missionaries God calls his church — all of us — he calls you to find your own gospel ambition. There are the front-line soldiers. And there is the vast network of Merchant Marines. Both are celebrated in the Bible.
God is doing amazing things in our day. But the mission is not finished. And there is a place for every person in the mission.
If it turns out that the U.S. government settles on a refugee policy based on fear and callousness to the most vulnerable people, the gospel-believing church in America is not constrained to embrace that mindset or those fears, or be limited by that action. We march to a different drum. We have a different king. Our citizenship belongs elsewhere.
And in response, we should say to the world by our action: If our government fears and excludes you, we will come to you. We will increase our age-long commitment to send and support a steady stream of missionaries and support workers out of America who carry the best news in the world, and who care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering, and thus bear witness that we are not governed by fear or hardness of heart, but by Jesus Christ, who became a servant unto death that all the peoples might glorify God for his mercy.
Read, watch, or listen to the companion message: