After six humid summers in Burma (now Myanmar), where temperatures topped 100 degrees, Adoniram Judson (1788–1850) hadn’t seen a single convert. Malaria, dysentery, and other diseases threatened the weary American and eventually took the lives of several members of his beloved family. Excruciating trials on top of terrible disappointments punctuated his 38 years of gospel labor.
What kept Judson going as he ran into hard circumstances and hard hearts? Judson explained to his dear friend Luther Rice, “An almighty and faithful God will perform his promises.” Judson rooted his hope in God’s ability and commitment to save sinners.
While the global landscape has changed dramatically since Judson’s day, the human heart has not. Today’s mission field requires men and women who, like Judson, stake everything on the fact that God alone can and will perform his saving promises.
Missionaries as Midwives
Only God can enliven dead hearts. The biblical doctrine of regeneration teaches that, in connection with hearing the gospel proclaimed (Romans 10:14), the Holy Spirit brings a sinner’s spiritually dead soul to life (Ephesians 2:1, 8–9). His quickening alone enables a sinner to repent and believe. In other words, regeneration by the Holy Spirit leads to saving faith. The Holy Spirit’s work does not merely make faith possible; it makes faith certain. No one whom the Holy Spirit regenerates fails to come to faith in Christ (Romans 8:30), and no one comes to faith in Christ apart from the Spirit first remaking his rebel heart.
Grasping this doctrine gives a missionary the privilege of proclaiming the gospel that brings new birth. It also relieves him of the burden of believing it’s up to him to produce conversions. A faithful missionary is like a midwife who supports the mother as she ushers her child into the world. While the missionary’s job is not to resurrect the dead, he does play a God-ordained role in a sinner’s rebirth. God graciously uses means to accomplish his salvation plan; therefore, missionaries help the helpless on their path to new and everlasting life by declaring the gospel.
On the mission field, knowing this difference between what a missionary does and doesn’t accomplish among the lost is essential — and the implications may be eternal.
Guarding the Gospel
Just as a missionary headed to a foreign land vaccinates against potential diseases, adopting a midwife mentality inoculates the missionary from both distorting the gospel message and deploying dangerous means toward noble ends. Missionaries long to see unreached people turn “from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10), but good intentions can go awry if left unguarded by sound doctrine.
It was the apostle Paul’s conviction that God alone can shine gospel light into dark hearts that kept him from surrendering to discouragement, tampering with God’s word, or doing ministry in “underhanded ways” (2 Corinthians 4:1–6). Because Paul understood that only God authors life, he committed himself to declaring the truth openly — no matter the cost (2 Corinthians 4:2). Paul didn’t distort the gospel message or use methods that dilute its truth because he was confident in God’s ability to revive dead hearts through his own word.
Today’s missionaries face threats of both gospel dilution and gospel distortion because an anemic doctrine of regeneration threatens gospel clarity. Some missionaries insist on rapid, contrived methods for converting people and for measuring that growth. Others baptize “converts” from Muslim backgrounds who do not confess or understand Jesus to be the Son of God. Syncretism fundamentally refuses to rely on the power of God for conversion. Rather than accept their role as midwives who have a front-row seat to God’s resurrection power, too many missionaries try to take over his position.
“The work of converting souls is God’s from beginning to end.”
A biblical view of regeneration also defends missionaries against pride. It frees us to labor in the humility that Jonah found only in the belly of the great fish, where he finally accepted that “salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9) — not to us. Though our enemy would have us think otherwise, we are God’s servants by grace, not by necessity. Midwives may be helpful, but they are not primary. Missionaries may walk alongside the person God saves, but missionaries don’t produce anyone’s salvation. The work of converting souls is God’s from beginning to end. Embracing this truth destroys pride.
A biblical perspective on regeneration does more than protect. It empowers missionaries to walk in faithfulness for the long haul. The midwife doesn’t run when the labor becomes difficult. When the birth pains intensify, her presence is most strategic and needed.
Rightly understanding regeneration equips missionaries with the discipline to be prayerfully patient — to persevere when persecution, or monotony, intensifies. What kept the great missionaries of history — like Amy Carmichael, David Livingstone, and William Carey — laboring in the hardest fields with patience? They knew that one person plants and another waters, but God gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). His growing power encourages missionaries to play their part over months and years, trusting God will supply the advance in his time. Missionaries are not in charge of when God delivers on his promises any more than a midwife decides when a child will be born. Both balance expectation and patience as they wait.
Pragmatism is a great temptation on the field. A missionary’s dreams of converting the unreached can quickly melt into disappointments. God often makes his choice laborers more aware of setbacks than successes. In those times, missionaries must lean on what was true for Paul and Judson, because it’s still true for us. Despite his suffering, Paul knew that no disappointment, discouragement, or dark heart has ever prevented God’s power to shine forth “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). The supernatural reality that God authors life in deserts of death redirects our focus from the seen to the unseen.
In God’s kindness, a missionary’s hope isn’t denied; it’s just sometimes deferred. What we can’t see today will become clear in eternity. God’s sovereign work means that he alone determines the depth and breadth of a missionary’s ministry. Who knows if God has called you to till very hard soil today so that he might produce enduring, unimaginable fruit after many tomorrows? The biblical view of regeneration showers the missionary with the confidence to labor expectantly, knowing we serve a God who will vindicate himself and his servants by melting hearts of stone. We will see that vindication fully in the next life.
“Our responsibility is simply to proclaim the life that God alone can give.”
If the New Testament shows us that the normal Christian life is costly, how much more costly might the mission field prove? And yet, the same New Testament reveals that missionaries can persevere for the long haul — even when we sacrifice the comforts of our homes only to meet disappointments and dead hearts. For missionaries, God’s power to give life means that whether Jonah is caught in the belly of a fish or Paul is clinging to a plank in the sea (Acts 27:43–44), no circumstance or human heart lies beyond his sovereign directing.
If you feel alone on the mission field, or if the hard soil seems to mock your efforts, lean into your role as a spiritual midwife: as a missionary who comes alongside the work God is doing, knowing that he has been doing that work since long before you arrived on the scene. We can’t manufacture conversions, and we shouldn’t try — because the outcome is not on our shoulders. Our responsibility is simply to proclaim the life that God alone can give.