I might as well tell you from the get-go: the five surprising motivations are the five points of Calvinism. As crazy as it may sound to some, I believe the strongest trust in God’s sovereignty spurs us on to make the most costly sacrifices in world missions.
Now before I go any further, I need to address three types of people.
Those who do not like Calvinism. Please keep reading. After a little systematic theology and a little history, most of this chapter will be straight from the Bible. Be like the noble Bereans in Acts 17. Examine for yourself whether the things I’m saying are true to God’s Word. Hang with me and have an open mind.
Those who know next to nothing about Calvinism. This describes a lot of people. You may be abundantly more familiar with Calvin and Hobbes than John Calvin (or Thomas Hobbes for that matter). You may have heard friends talking about Calvinism and Arminianism and wondered what all the fuss was about. “I don’t get it. What’s so bad about being from Armenia?”
Well, actually, Armenians come from Armenia; Arminians are those who stand in the tradition of Jacob Arminius and reject doctrines like unconditional election and irresistible grace. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s okay. Keep reading. You don’t have to have any background in any of these debates in order for God to use the Word to motivate you for missions.
Those who love Calvinism. Yes, it’s true, I’m a Calvinist. So are many of you. I’m glad, but listen: this chapter is not entitled “Five Surprising Motivations for Feeling Superior to People Who Are Not Calvinists.” Nothing is more inconsistent with the doctrines of grace than a haughty and ungracious spirit. I was a college student once too, and I went through the cage stage of Calvinism where you set people up with Romans 9 and make delicate saints weep and wail. That’s not my goal in this chapter. My hope is that by looking at the Bible, you will find motivations for mission that you did not know were there.
A Little History and a Little Theology (About a Big God)
The so-called “five points of Calvinism” did not come from John Calvin, and they don’t represent everything there is to know about the Reformed tradition (which has its roots in dozens of theologians, not just Calvin). The five points are found in the Canons of Dort — a series of theological statements issued from the church synod that met from November 13, 1618, to May 9, 1619, in the Dutch city of Dordrecht (or Dort for short).
The synod was convened in order to respond to the teachings put forward by the followers of Jacob Arminius. The Remonstrants, as the Arminians were called, issued their five points first. Dort, in ruling against the Remonstrants, issued five points of its own. These five points were never meant to be a comprehensive summary of Reformed theology, let alone everything you need to know about the Bible. It was a particular controversy resulting in a narrow (but important) set of doctrines responding to a series of dogmatic assertions.
Many Christians know the five points of Calvinism (or the five heads of doctrine of Dort) by the acronym TULIP. Although the acronym is only a hundred years old and does not reflect the specific language or order of Dort, it provides a useful starting place for understanding the Reformed view of salvation.
T: total depravity. We are born into this world sinners through and through, dead in our trespasses, at enmity with God, and hardwired for iniquity.
U: unconditional election. In eternity past, God chose some to be saved in Christ. This exercise of divine sovereignty was not based on foreseen faith nor conditioned by anything we do or anything God knew that we would do.
L: limited atonement (also called “particular redemption” or “definite atonement”). Christ died effectively, particularly, and intentionally, for those who would believe in him. Although his death was sufficient for all, Christ’s sacrifice was efficient only for the elect.
I: irresistible grace. Apart from human cooperation of any kind, the Spirit of God breathes new life into dry bones so that spiritually dead sinners can live. This act of grace is all of God and cannot be added to or resisted.
P: perseverance (or the preservation) of the saints. God keeps his own until the end, so that those who are justified will unfailingly be glorified. Once genuinely saved, always saved.
At first glance, it seems as if some of these points should work as de-motivators for missions. Why risk your neck for some unreached people group if Christ didn’t die for many (or most, or any) of them? Why give of your time and your treasure for world evangelization if the elect are already chosen and nothing we do or don’t do will change the number predetermined by God?
Outside of my study at church, my assistant has an inspiring poster hanging on the wall. Instead of one of those cheesy motivational scenes about hard work or teamwork, she has a “de-motivational” poster with a picture of a ship sinking. It’s entitled “Mistakes,” and the caption reads: “It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.” Real inspiring, isn’t it?
That’s how some of you may look at Calvinism and missions. Nothing seems like less of a motivation for missions than a firm belief in God’s sovereignty in election. “If God is the decisive reason why some people believe and others do not, then God can take care of missions just fine without me. If God plans everything including who gets saved and who does not, then what is the point in giving up my comfort to go tell people about Jesus when it’s already been determined whether they will believe or not?”
These are plausible sounding arguments. There is a kind of logic to them. The problem is they don’t reflect biblical logic. It is not the way God reasons. And it’s not what we’ve seen in church history. Believe it or not, Calvinists have been at the forefront of evangelical expansion and global missions (See Jason Helopolous’ article).
- John Calvin sent missionaries to Brazil. (Sadly, the team was betrayed by one of their own and died in South America.)
- John Elliott was sent to the native peoples in America in the 1600s.
- David Brainerd gave his life to evangelize the native peoples in America in the 1700s.
- Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Dutch Reformed pastor in New Jersey, was a fiery preacher who emphasized the need for conversion and served as a forerunner to the Great Awakening.
- William and Gilbert Tennent were Presbyterian pastors and prominent supporters of the Evangelical Awakening in the eighteenth century.
- Jonathan Edwards was the leading Calvinist theologian of the eighteenth century and was seen as the foremost defender and exporter of the revivals in the 1730s and 1740s.
- George Whitefield, a Reformed Anglican, was not only the most famous evangelist in the eighteenth century; he may have been the most famous person in the English-speaking world.
- William Carey, an English Calvinist and missionary to India, is considered the father of the missions movement as we know it today.
- Other Calvinists followed Carey in the next decades to bring the gospel to foreign lands: Robert Moffat and David Livingstone to Africa, Robert Morrison to China, Adoniram Judson to Burma, and Henry Martin to India and Persia.
- Samuel Zwemer, who grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church, served in Bahrain, Arabia, and Egypt. He is often known as the Apostle to Islam.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Calvinists birthed the modern missions movement in the Protestant church. History shows us that a high view of God’s all-determining sovereignty has not deterred Christians from going to hard places and giving their lives for the spread of the gospel.
Three Passages for Five Points
I’m a preacher and old habits die hard, so it’s hard not to organize everything into three points, even when there are five points to cover. I want to look at three sections in the Gospel of John in order that we might see what Jesus saw about the sovereignty of God and embrace what Jesus embraced — namely, that this glorious, necessary, risky, yet completely secure, beautiful, hopeful, and ultimately successful cause of global missions rests on the unerring, unalterable plan and purposes of God.
1. We Must Be Born Again (John 3:1–8)
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:1–8)
Many of you are familiar with this story. Here you have Nicodemus, a Pharisee. He’s a smart guy. He’s a leader. He’s a ruler of the Jews. He’s as religious as they come. And he appears to be a fairly good guy. Cowardly, sure, but unlike other Pharisees, he’s not overtly hostile to Jesus. In fact, he seems genuinely interested to be with Jesus and learn from him. There’s only one massive problem: Nicodemus is not born again. He recognizes Jesus as a teacher who has come from God. He affirms Jesus has done miracles. He affirms Jesus has power from on high. But that is not enough.
“Calvinists have been at the forefront of evangelical expansion and global missions.”
There’s hardly anyone anti-Jesus in this country. In other countries, there are. But in America, almost everyone is positive about Jesus. What’s not to like? He’s helpful, he’s loving, he’s inclusive. He’s a do-gooder in a bathrobe. There are plenty of people who don’t like Christians or can’t stand the church. But everyone likes Jesus. At least the Jesus they’ve made in their own image. And even if everything you know about Jesus is accurate, that’s still enough. You may be favorable toward Jesus and believe true things about Jesus and still not be saved by Jesus. Nicodemus liked Jesus. But he wasn’t saved, because he had not been born again.
As a teacher of the law, Nicodemus should have known that Jesus was likely referring to Ezekiel 36. We need to be cleansed with water and given a new heart by the Holy Spirit. That’s called “regeneration” or “the new birth.” That’s what Jesus means by being born again. Titus 3:5 calls it “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” We all need a supernatural work in our sorry hearts from our sovereign God.
Jesus says, just like the wind. Just like the wind blows where it wishes, so it is with everyone born of the Spirit. The Greek word for wind and Spirit is the same: pneuma. The sovereign wind of God’s Spirit must invade your heart and awaken you to the vileness of your sin, the truthfulness of God’s Word, and the preciousness of Christ. When the Spirit causes us to be born again, we will be irrevocably changed. A profession of faith that makes no difference in us will make no difference to God either. There is no Christian life without the converting work of the Spirit. Because apart from this work, we’re lost in sin, dead in trespasses, spiritually lifeless, unable, incapable, defiled, and depraved.
The language of total depravity does not mean that we are absolutely as bad as we possibly could be. Praise God for common grace. If you meet a stranger walking into school, he’s more likely to hold the door for you than shove you to the ground. Non-Christians can be kind, decent people. But in an ultimate sense, we cannot do anything morally praiseworthy unless the Spirit of God gives us the right motivation and the right heart.
The word total refers to the extent of our depravity. We are not just bent toward evil in our appetites or base faculties. We are also depraved in mind and will. Every part of us — our reason, our intellect, our affections — is all inclined toward God-denying, idolatry-creating, truth-suppressing sin. “Are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil?” asks the Heidelberg Catechism. Answer: “Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God” (Q/A 8).
Isn’t that what Jesus is saying? That you will not see the kingdom of God, that will you not go to heaven, that you will not live forever unless you are born again supernaturally, sovereignly, by the Spirit of God? If you really believe we are inclined toward evil, if you really believe no one is righteous (Romans 3:10), if you really believe we are born in this world dead in our trespasses and by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1–4), then we are going to see this world and its plight in a very different way from many of our friends.
Every year around Christmas my wife likes to watch a film adaptation of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It’s a wonderful story in many ways, but like so many feel-good stories, the bad guy is only bad because he has a backstory. So Scrooge is the way he is because of a lonely childhood and relational failure. The Ghost of Christmas Past shows how Scrooge became Scrooge-ish. To be sure, he made bad decisions along the way, but the picture is of someone who was fundamentally good until life got in the way.
Obviously, the past is not irrelevant. History matters, including our own histories. But my greatest danger is my own heart. Your biggest threat is not what can happen to you but what is going on inside of you. Bad thoughts and bad behavior cannot be explained solely by bad education, bad parents, or bad hurts in our past. We are all more sinful than sinned against. We enter the world with inherited guilt and a propensity for sin.
This is really important for how we conceive of lostness and missions. Those who never hear of Christ are not condemned because they do not believe in him. True, they are lost without this saving faith. But the lost are condemned because they are sinners. Your friends may ask, “What happens to the innocent tribesman who has never heard of Jesus? Won’t he go to heaven?” Absolutely. But, of course, there are no innocent tribesmen. The wrath of God rests on those who do not believe in Christ because all of us are born into the world sinners with a sinful nature (John 3:36).
As important as it is to learn about unreached peoples and unengaged peoples, realize that these new terms are only helpful insofar as they highlight this biblical category of lost peoples. And lost doesn’t mean they are backward people who need to be more like Westerners. Lost means spiritually dead, without God and without hope in the world, just like we all are apart from Christ. If we are going to help people — really help them with their deepest problem — we need to realize that without Christ we are not just sick or weak or ignorant. A life preserver will not do the trick. We are not drowning. We are not struggling. We are spiritually dead. The calling of missions is to call dead people back to life though the good news of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
There was a movie when I was growing up called Weekend at Bernie’s. I never saw it, and I’m sure it’s not worth your time. The plot was pretty macabre: two guys find out their boss, Bernie, is dead, but in order to keep the mob from killing them, they have to convince everyone Bernie is alive and kicking. And so they bring him to parties and make him wave his hands around and all manner of silly business. The movie is a dark comedy where the living go to great lengths to make a dead person seem alive. Woe be unto us if our missions strategy amounts to the same thing: going into the world to help spiritually dead people look a little more alive.
What we are called to do is impossible in our own strength but entirely possible for God. Men, women, and children can be born again through the living and abiding Word of God (1 Peter 1:23). And Peter says this word is the good news that was preached to you. Dead people come to life through words.
We cannot be saved apart from the work of the Spirit. And the work of the Spirit is never to be separated from the Word of God. The Word of God and the work of the Spirit are inextricably linked. And because of that, the work of the Spirit and the manifestation of Christ’s glory are inextricably linked.
“A profession of faith that makes no difference in us will make no difference to God either.”
Now why is this important? In John 16, Jesus said the Spirit who comes will speak only what he hears. He will declare what he has been given. His mission is to glorify another (John 16:12–15). In other words, the Spirit acts as a spotlight to shine a brilliant light upon Christ so that people may see him, savor him, believe in him and live. The Spirit never works independently of making Christ known, which is why any notion of “anonymous Christians” is utterly mistaken and fundamentally anti-Trinitarian.
When I was in college, my world religion professor was a winsome, popular teacher. He was also very liberal and undermined a lot of the evangelical convictions of the students. I remember him saying, “Look, I believe in the sovereignty of God. And because God can do whatever he wants and the Spirit blows wherever he wills, I believe the Spirit of God can regenerate the hearts of Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus whether they know of Christ or not.” The notion is quite popular among some evangelicals. It allows Christians to affirm that only Christ saves, but then gives them the leeway of thinking that people can be saved without explicitly believing in Christ. So there may be people in other religions who don’t know that they belong to Christ, and yet the Spirit has caused them to become born again and joined them to Christ, even though they’ve never heard of him and have never put their trust in him.
This view is called inclusivism, and some of you may hold to the view, not so much because it was taught to you, but because it seems good and feels good. In fact, even the great C.S. Lewis was mistaken on this account. He says in Mere Christianity, “There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by him that they are his in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it” (Lewis, Mere Christianity [Touchstone, 1996 ], 178). You see the same idea in The Chronicles of Narnia where one of the worshippers of Tash is saved because it turns out he was really following Aslan without knowing it.
There are many reasons why inclusivism does not work biblically, but one of the chief reasons has to do with the Trinity. To talk about the Spirit’s work in the way my professor did, or even the way C.S. Lewis does in the passage above, is to fundamentally misunderstand the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s work is always to reveal and glorify the Son. We cannot worship Christ apart from the work of the Spirit, and the Spirit does not want to be magnified except insofar as he points to Christ — which is why the symbolism of the early church was not the dove but the cross.
The Spirit works to throw a spotlight on the glory of Christ. The Spirit is not just working indiscriminately in sort of a secret “don’t tell anybody, but wow, you’re born again and you don’t know it” kind of way. The Spirit longs to bring glory to a Christ who is known and revealed and seen and worshiped. Which is why we must go, and why we must speak. The doctrine of human inability — total depravity, the lostness of man, the sinfulness of sin, whatever you want to call it — is one of the great motivators for missions. There are billions of dead people in the world who need to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and be born again to a living hope.
2. No One Can Come Unless the Father Draws (John 6:35–48, 60–65)
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 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. 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.” So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me — not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.” (John 6:35–48)
And then picking up at verse 60, where Jesus finds the disciples perplexed by his statements that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood:
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:60–65)
It would be hard for Jesus to articulate a higher view of divine sovereignty in salvation than he does in this passage. • You see it in verse 37: “All that the Father gives me will come to me; whoever comes to me I will not cast out.” • In verse 44: “No one can come unless the Father who sent me draws him.” • And in verse 65: “This is why I told you no one can come unless it is granted to him by the Father.” If we pay attention to these staggering claims, they have the potential to change everything about our redemption. We see in these verses that the Father has a people chosen for Christ and chosen in Christ. We see that this number is fixed by divine determination — all that the Father gives will come to Christ, and none will come except those who are enabled to come. And we see that those who do come will in no way be cast out.
That last sentence, which is simply a restatement of verse 37, is absolutely crucial. Here’s what I’ve heard before: “I can never believe this doctrine of election because it means that if I — or my sister, or grandmother, or my best friend, or whomever — come to Christ, in faith and sincerity, for grace and forgiveness, that Jesus could push me away because I’m not elect. There is no guarantee Christ will accept us. There can be no free offer of the gospel if election is true.” But of course such logic is patently not true, not according to Jesus’ words in John 6. All who come to Christ come because God has drawn them.
So if you come to Christ, he will never cast you away. A broken and contrite heart — gifts of his Spirit — he will not deny. The offer of the gospel is full and free, and because of God’s electing and irresistible grace, it is possible for some to respond to this offer with faith and repentance. Human logic may say, “Why come if you may not have been chosen?” The Bible’s logic says, “Come, because if you have been chosen by God, in time you will.”
It is our confidence in the electing love of God and his irresistible grace that gives us any hope of success in preaching the gospel. We were dead in our sins and trespasses. We had no life, no hope, no ability for self-deliverance. And how were we saved? By the supernatural call of God. Maybe your parents told you, or a preacher told you, or you read it in a book, or you opened your Bible; but through whatever secondary means, the Spirit of God spoke to you through the word of God. He gave you a new heart. He caused you to be born again when you were completely dead. You weren’t like Wesley from The Princess Bride — not just mostly dead, all dead.
Don’t think that God only works miracles in people like you, with your skin color, or your background, or your education. Sinners are sinners everywhere, and God is the same everywhere. What he did for you, he can do for the unreached peoples of the world. God has elect from every nation, and his call is as irresistible in Africa and Asia as it is in America and Australia. Of course there are obstacles.
There are generational issues and language issues and cultural issues that can make for rocky soil. But a dead person is a dead person. It’s a miracle to raise any of them. And God can do it. Anytime, anywhere, by the same gospel call through which you were saved. Why go to the nations unless you believe in this kind of God with this kind of sovereign power?
In John 5, Jesus says a time is coming when he will call forth the dead from their tombs, some to everlasting life and some to everlasting death (John 5:29). There is no uncertainty as to the efficacy of this call. Jesus will speak, and the dead will be raised. It’s a good thing Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43), because if he had not prefaced the command with the name of his friend, all the tombs would have been emptied. Such is the power of the divine word.
You may say, “Why go share the gospel if God has chosen just some to believe?” The Bible’s logic would have you ask, “Why go share the gospel unless God has chosen some to believe?” John Newton, the slave-trader-turned-pastor and hymn-writer once said, “If I were not a Calvinist, I think I should have no more hope of success in preaching to men than in preaching to horses and cows” (Newton, Works of John Newton, vol. 2 [London: 1824] 52).
As many as were appointed for eternal life believed. That’s why we preach. That’s why we share. That’s why we go. And that line is not found in John Calvin or John Owen or John Piper, but in the Bible — Acts 13:48. God is the only one who can make light shine in our darkness. He’s the only one who can give new life to the dead. He’s the only one who can justify. He’s the only one who can quicken the heart, the only one to renew the mind. Unless the Father draws, no one can come. We are born again, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:13). Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord (Zechariah 4:6).
Belief in an electing, sovereign, all-powerful God does not discourage us from missions and evangelism. It is the only thing that gives us freedom and hope in missions and evangelism. You don’t have to give them the hard sell. You don’t have to be the infomercial ShamWow guy throwing in a free mop. The gospel is no limited-time offer. You don’t have to put Jesus forward, “Now, with 50 percent more blessing!”
You don’t have to trick people or manipulate. You don’t have to be afraid. You can be humble when you see results and hopeful when you see nothing at all. The doctrine of election gives us assurance that God will save, and the doctrine of irresistible grace gives us confidence that he can save. We will not go, we will not send, we will not suffer, without a firm conviction that our God is mighty to save and will not lose any of those appointed for eternal life.
I already mentioned Zechariah 4:6. Most Christians know and love that verse. But if you look ahead four more verses, you see what this divine power enable us to do. It doesn’t mean we will walk on clouds and climb every mountain. It means we can press on through all the ordinary stuff of life, not despising the day of small things (Zechariah 4:10). Zechariah 4 is about rebuilding the temple, which was going to take decades. It was going to take weeks and months and years of hard work with little to show for it. God wanted to remind his people that their labors would not be in vain. One day they would hold up the plumb line — the square, the level — and see the last brick in the last corner of the temple come into place. Do not despise the days and decades and lives of small things.
One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity by Richard Fletcher. It’s about the evangelization of Europe, which took the better part of a millennium. The point Fletcher emphasizes over and over is that the conversion and Christianization of Europe was very slow business. I don’t know if the author is a Christian, but we can learn a lot from his historical assessment. He argues that Christianity eventually won over the West because of three factors: the demonstration of power, the faithful preaching, and dogged persistence. If we are ever going to make a difference for Christ — especially in the difficult work of the Great Commission — we have to become not just senders or goers, but stayers. And the only way we’ll stay for the long haul is if we trust in the never failing, always timely providence of God.
That’s what we see in Acts 18. Paul is facing opposition and wants to leave Corinth when Jesus appears to him in a dream, saying, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9–10). Without the doctrine of election, Paul wouldn’t have pressed on in evangelism. You may say, “Well, that was nice for Paul. I’m glad he got a vision. But I’m not Paul, and I’m not in Corinth. Those promises aren’t really for me.”
But in a very real way they are. Everything God promised to Paul he promises to you. His presence: I am with you (Matthew 28:20). His protection: not a hair can fall from your head apart from God willing it to be so (Matthew 10:29–30). And he promises you his providential oversight so that the word of God will not return empty (Isaiah 55:10–11). He promises to every missionary and every evangelist that there will be people in heaven from every tribe and tongue and language and nation.
So if you go and labor among unreached peoples and labor for years with little or no visible fruit, you should remember the promise that there are some among that people group who are appointed for eternal life. That’s how you can stay. That’s how you can go. Samuel Zwemer, the Apostle to Islam, probably saw less than a dozen converts in his forty years as a missionary. God’s sovereignty is our best fuel for ministry faithfulness.
“Dead people come to life through words.”
God can motivate you to go from here to there in dozens of different ways. He gets you to see the plight of earthly suffering. He gets you to feel the peril of eternal suffering. We need to understand the great need that exists in the world. But in addition to peril and plight, we need lots of promises — promises so you’ll go, promises so you’ll stay, promises so you’ll last. What I’ve learned from our missionaries is that serving overseas is less glamorous and more mundane than most people think. It’s like living a normal life, except less convenient and farther from your family. What will keep you there? A steady faith in God’s sovereignty gives you the confidence to stick around, trusting the word of God is more than enough to do the work of God.
3.The Sheep Hear the Shepherd’s Voice (John 10:7–15, 27–30)
So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. . . .
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will 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.” (John 10:7–15, 27–30)
Jesus is a good shepherd. Isn’t that good news? In the Vulgate, the old Latin translation, Jesus says in verse 14, “ego sum pastor bonus.” The word bonus here means good, not extra special or additional. But knowing the Latin can help us remember that as much as we love our earthly pastors, we have a bonus pastor in heaven, a good shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd; he’s our best shepherd. He knows the sheep. He cares for the sheep. He didn’t pursue a career in messiahship because carpentry was difficult. He’s not just trying to make a living. He’s not a hired hand. He laid down his life because that’s how good a shepherd he is.
I read a story one time about a family in the Florida Everglades. The family was in the backyard playing when the husband and wife saw an alligator come out of the bush, grab their small child, and head back toward the water. The parents were understandably horrified. The husband began immediately looking for a weapon — a stone, a bat, a gun, something he could use to attack the gator. But while he was looking for the right tool, the mother launched into a dead sprint.
She ran full speed toward the alligator, jumped on his back and started kicking, hitting, biting, and screaming. The alligator, probably more disoriented than hurt, let go of the child and slinked back into the water. The mom grabbed the child and ran for safety. Then she fainted. She was no hired hand. She was the momma, and nobody messes with momma bear’s little cub. She was like a good shepherd laying down her life for the sheep.
And I want you to notice that Jesus’ death is explicitly for the sheep — not the wolves, not the goats, not the pigs, but for the ones who hear his voice and come. This doctrine is sometimes called “limited atonement,” meaning the atoning death of Christ was limited to the elect. Limited, however, is not the best term. It makes it sound like we have some interest constricting the power or God or narrowing the love of God. It would be better to say the death of Christ purchased a particular redemption.
In one sense, it’s certainly true that Jesus died for everyone, if you mean that his death was sufficient for all or that Christ’s death should be proclaimed to all. But Jesus did not die a substitutionary atoning death for every individual who would ever live. If that were the case, then everyone’s sins would be forgiven, and we would be left with an unbiblical universalism. Scripture tells us that Christ’s death was intended to be for his sheep and savingly effective only for them.
That’s why in John 6, Jesus says he came to save those the Father had given to him.
And why Matthew 1:21 says Jesus will save “his people from their sins.”
And why John 15:13 says he laid down his life for his friends. And why Acts 20:28 says Christ died for the church.
And why Ephesians 5:25 says he gave his life for his bride.
Christ’s death was, by divine design, an atoning sacrifice for the sins of those who by election already died and, by faith, would belong to God. The atonement is limited in the sense that the redemption is particularly for those upon whom God set his affections from eternity past. The doctrine reminds us that we are God’s treasured possession and that he loves his own in a way that is utterly unique. Do you fully grasp what it means that God loves you in Christ?
I saw a T-shirt one time that said, “Smile Jesus Loves You.” And underneath this headline were the words, “But Then Again He Loves Everybody.” We sometimes imagine God’s love to be like this: “He loves everyone. I’m a part of the ‘everyone,’ so I guess he loves me too.” But that’s not how the Bible describes the love of God. His love for you — if you are a believer — is a specific, unique, particular, effective, redeeming, electing love. That’s good news.
The stunning implication of John 10 (and dozens of other passages) is that Christ didn’t die to make a way for you to be saved; he died in your place to save you. Do you see the difference? The view that says Christ’s death only made us save-able is the view that actually limits the atonement. Christ died so that he might infallibly secure our salvation. As Charles Spurgeon put it, “Through Christ’s death [we] not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved” (As quoted by J.I. Packer in “Introductory Essay” to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ [Banner of Truth Trust, 1995], 14). That’s the better news and the bigger glory of particular redemption.
If the atonement is not particularly and only for the sheep, then either we have universalism (Christ died in everyone’s place) or we have something less than full substitutionary atonement. For universal atonement to be true, Christ must not have died in our place so that we died in his death and live through his resurrection. Instead, he must have died to make a way for people to believe and be saved. The question is this: Did Jesus die to remove the final obstacle for our salvation, or did he die so that in his death we would have salvation?
Note these powerful words from J.I. Packer:
It cannot be over emphasized that we have not seen the full meaning of the cross until we have seen it as the center of the gospel. Flanked on the one hand by total inability and unconditional election and on the other by irresistible grace and final preservation. For the full meaning of the cross only appears when the atonement is defined in terms of these four truths. Christ died to save a certain company of helpless sinners upon whom God has set his free saving love. Christ’s death insured the calling and keeping of all whose sins he bore. That is what Calvary means and what it meant. The cross saved, the cross saves. (Ibid., 15)
I belabor this point, not to belittle anyone who holds to a different theology, but to give Jesus Christ his full glory as one who fully saves. The Son of God doesn’t come to us saying, “Well, I’ve done my part. I’ve laid down my life. Now, if you would just accept me and ask me into your heart.” There used to be an old evangelistic tract set up like an election ballot. The ballot had Jesus voting for heaven, the devil voting for hell, and a blank spot for you to break the tie. That’s not the gospel. The New Testament gives us a choice to make, but it is not a choice to break some cosmic tie between God and Satan. Our God is not that small!
With this doctrine of particular redemption, we can go and can tell people that in Christ, through faith, God not only made a way for his people to be saved, but he saved his people to the uttermost. Christ was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:5). He purchased with his blood people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:9). He bore our sins in his body on the tree so that we might infallibly die to sin and assuredly live for righteousness, for his wounds did not merely make healing available, they healed us (1 Peter 2:24).
God Preserves His Saints
All of this theology leads naturally, biblically, and joyfully to the last of the so-called Five Points: the perseverance, or preservation, of the saints. Jesus says in John 10:28, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Those who belong to Christ are promised eternal life because in a real way they have already been given eternal life. When we are joined to Christ in faith we are made participants in his triumphant, never-failing, never-faltering, eternal life. While our sense of communion with Christ may ebb and flow, our union with Christ is fixed and firm.
This is far different from easy-believism. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is no excuse for the cheap grace of decisionistic Christianity. You know: raise your hand, walk the aisle, sign a card, throw your pinecone into the fire, make a one-time decision, and then enjoy eternal fire insurance the rest of your life, no matter how you live. The Bible has no place for a Christianity without repentance, without obedience, without fighting the good fight, without running the race to completion. At the same time, we see from Jesus — and from Romans 8 and from 1 John and from Jude — that truly regenerate, born-again, justified, grace-filled disciples cannot alternately fall away. In one sense, we come into possession of eternal life when we believe, and eternal life can never be temporary.
There is no security like gospel security. All over the world, all the time, we hear geopolitical security issues. People talk about food security and the need to increase crop yields. People talk about water security and the need for new wells and drinkable water. People talk about national security and wars and rumors of war. No matter how wise you are, no matter how talented your group of volunteers, no matter how accomplished your NGO, you will not be able to fix any of these problems with ultimate, lasting security.
But you can go, and you can promise, in the name of Jesus, eternal security. You can tell the nations that there is one, and only one, who can save, one who can keep, one who can forgive your sins and give you life that never ends.
Know, Go, and Stay
We have a big God. That’s what this chapter has been about. I’m not interested in affixing labels or signing you up for the right club. I am very interested in seeing God get all his glory and getting his people to the ends of the earth. We can risk everything because God risks nothing. We can be willing to be surprised because God is never surprised. We can give up our security because in Christ we have all the security we really need.
The purpose of all of this theology is not only for us to know, but that we might go. If you are going to tell others about Jesus, you need to know who this Jesus is. You need to know what he has accomplished. You need to know for whom he died. You need to know what sort of promises he has made and what sort of promises you get to proclaim. You need to know that if you give your life for the hope of the nations, and if your parents don’t understand, and if your friends think you’re nuts, and if you have to sleep with mosquito nets or ride a mini-bus two hours a day, that your labors will not be in vain.
“We can risk everything because God risks nothing.”
This glorious Big-God theology tells us what to say and provides the best reasons for going out there to say it. Why give everything you have for a message that is not necessary, a plan that is not fixed, a cross that does not save, a grace that cannot conquer, and a promise that may not hold?
Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus! Praise God for the robust glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ with all of its particularity and all of its angles and all of its doctrinal comprehensiveness. This is a message worth living for and a message worth dying for. The peoples of the earth need to hear it, and those whom God has chosen, and for whom Christ savingly died, will irresistibly believe it, receive it, and live forever. That’s why we send. That’s why we go. That’s why we stay.