I have two goals for this talk. One is I would like to awaken in you a deep, unshakable, holy ambition for your life that you can’t shake off. And two, I would like it to be so deeply rooted and so strong in you that it enables you to leap frog over adultolescence (I will explain that term momentarily).
What gives me a sense of seriousness about the moment is not only that I am going to deal with God’s word about holy things, but my own experience is that at every crucial point in my life where I made a turn that changed everything, people were involved in influencing me profoundly. And when I decided to move toward ministry instead of pre-med, it was a man preaching in the Wheaton chapel and I was listening on the radio because I was in the hospital and everything changed. I was madly in love with Noël and she thought she had just fallen in love with a pre-med student and I shocked her by saying, “What would you think if I just junked that whole dream and went to seminary?”
And she didn’t junk me. She hasn’t for these 43 years. What moved me was a man, a human being, speaking over the radio and my whole life never was the same again. So that is how serious I think moments like this are. So the text that we are going to look at is Romans 15:18–24:
I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ and, thus, I make it my ambition — and I underlined that — 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 and to be helped on my journey there by you once I have enjoyed your company for a while.
A Holy Ambition
So focus on verse 20 for just a moment: “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.” Paul was controlled by a holy ambition. And the reason I say controlled is because of what he says in verses 22–23. In verse 22 he says, “This is the reason why I have so often been hindered in coming to you.” So he wanted to go see them in Rome and he didn’t. And the reason is because he had this ambition that wasn’t fulfilled yet where he was. And so it kept him from doing what he wanted to do. That is the way an ambition controls you. There are some things you want to do, and then there is this ambition that holds you and guides you.
“Having a holy ambitions means that it aims at holy things and it springs out of holy motives.”
And verse 23: “I have longed for many years to come to you.” So he wants to go. And he doesn’t go, because he is controlled by this ambition and my desire is that something take you and grip you so that a lot of things that you want to do — which are good to do, like go to Rome and visit — you don’t do, because you are held and guided and controlled by this ambition. That is what an ambition does. It controls you. It is a good thing to have an ambition. And I am concluding that from his having one and I am calling it holy here. It is holy because the aim is holy. He is after the obedience of the Gentiles. And it is holy because its origin is holy. It is coming from God. So when I talk about your having a holy ambition, I mean it is aiming at holy things and it is springing out of holy motives.
You don’t all have the same ambition, but all of you should have a holy ambition. Each has his own gift, Paul said. Each stands or falls before his own master. One plants, another waters. I don’t presume that everybody in this room should have the holy ambition to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named, but my goal is that some of you would have that so awakened that twenty, thirty years from now you will write an email to one of these campus outreach guys and say, “It was that night when the whole thing came together and now I have been on the field for twenty-five, thirty years because of what God finished in that moment or maybe began in that moment.”
Now a word about your generation. You face peculiar challenges that are a little different, maybe a lot different than mine or the generation just before mine. And the one I have in mind, the challenge I have in mind is this thing called adultolescence. A whole raft of books have been published in the last five or six years on this phenomenon called adultolescence. A professor at Notre Dame named Christian Smith has written a review of six of these books and that is how I am aware. I haven’t read them all. But I am aware of what they are saying because of this essay. And here is what he writes, “Adultolescence means the postponement of adulthood into your 30s.”
So once upon a time, adulthood would have been entered in your late teens and kids would have been married at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. They would be working the farm. They would be responsible for everything by the time they were twenty and then there emerged this thing called adolescence, which put it off because of college and media and all kinds of reasons why we kept growing up for another five, six, seven years. And now this phenomenon has been called adultolescence. Let me just read what he wrote.
Teenager and adolescence, as representing distinct stage of life, were very much twentieth century inventions brought into being by changes in mass education, child labor laws, urbanization and suburbanization, mass consumerism, and media. Similarly, a new distinct and import stage in life situated between the teenage years and full-fledged adulthood has emerged in our culture in recent decades reshaping the meaning of self, youth, relationships and life commitments as well as variety of behaviors and dispositions among the young. What has emerged from this new situation has been variously called extended adolescence, youthhood, adultolescence, young adulthood, twenty-somethings, emerging adulthood. And one way of describing this group is to highlight the tendency to delay adulthood or stay in the youth mindset longer than we used to. So the characteristics of the eighteen to thirty year olds would include identity exploration instead of something settling, keep exporting, exploring, instability, focus on self, feeling in limbo, in transition, in between, sense of possibilities, opportunities, unparalleled hope. And these, of course, are also accompanied by big doses of transience, confusion, anxiety, self-obsession, melodrama, conflict and disappointment.
Dolls and Trucks
So one of my goals is to wave a flag over you in the hope that God might so grant you a holy ambition that would enable you to skip adultolescence, to grow you up into a productive adult much quicker. I don't think God is pleased by putting adulthood off till mid-thirties, girls and then guys.
Most little girls really want to play with dolls. At least I am generalizing from one. I only have one daughter and she came real late, but I am watching her and learning a lot. So most little girls want to play with dolls and that is a good thing. But the day is going to come when little girls will put away the fun of playing with dolls and grow up.
And one of the marks of a Christian is to get this holy ambition that you don’t any longer just play with dolls, you embrace a greater, bigger, stronger, more mature joy of caring for real babies in the nursery. That may happen at about twelve or so. And then later you may lead a ministry of caring for hungry babies far away or lonely babies who have been abandoned by mommy and daddy or babies with AIDS. And for some of you this may become a holy ambition and for others a holy ambition may be something else.
I am just illustrating that there is a season for dolls. It is just absolutely totally appropriate for three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, whatever-year-old girl to love her dolls. But if she were playing with dolls at eighteen, everybody would say this is strange. Something has gone wrong here. And that something was deeply rooted, perhaps. And now it gets applied in a mature, holy, passionate way.
Yes, I love babies, but I love them so differently than I love them now. I hate it that there are so many orphan babies. My wife is right now in Phoenix at the Together for Adoption conference. She is doing a round table and she is doing two panels and Talitha is with her and they are just totally into that. And to watch my sixteen-year-old, who just turned sixteen last week, go from dolls and then to nursery and then to babysitting all by herself and then to work together for adoption, I am just watching the maturing of things that were there from the beginning. And they are different in different women, but there is the illustration.
Boys, little boys. I was one of those. So I know this better. We didn’t want to play with dolls. We wanted a ball, a truck, and a gun and somebody to play with. I never had a real gun except a pellet rifle. But I shot a lot of bad guys with my Matt Dillon pistol and my Lucas McCain round circle handled rifle that you could twirl. I loved Lucas McCain.
I love playing football and every other kind of sport. I wasn’t good at any of them, but loved to play them and I loved digging roads for trucks. Sonny Paul, my neighbor and I, we had a whole hill we turned into roads with trucks and carried things. And we built roads for them. And it was all very good. I even believe in having kids play with guns. If they kill the right people, that is ok. That is controversial.
And it is good to play with trucks and it is good to play with balls, but then little boys begin to grow up, right? If you are pushing your truck around at age 15 or 16 or 18 — and there are guys who really do this (though they are a little more sophisticated) — then something has gone wrong. But you get a holy ambition and that means that your guns and your trucks and your balls change. You begin to fight for justice and mercy and salvation and you wield a sword of the Spirit and you drive a truck-load of love to needy people and you kick Satan’s rear end in the name of Jesus. Little boys need to grow up and get a holy ambition and stop playing games.
You know, the whole phenomenon of video games and games on your phone and games on your iPad and games on your computer and games everywhere is an unbelievable temptation to live an alternative life as your default life. And it is a mark of adultolescence that I hope you will simply become too serious and too mature to give into.
How Do We Acquire a Holy Ambition?
So where does a holy ambition come from? Verses 20 and 21 are key for this question: “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” and then he quotes Isaiah 52:15, “Those who have never been told of him will see and those who have never hear will understand.”
Damascus or Isaiah?
Now the connection between verse 21 and 20 is amazing. We know from Acts 9:22 and 26 (where Paul narrates his conversion story on the Damascus road), that he was called by the risen Christ to take the gospel to Gentiles. That is where he got his calling on the Damascus road, a light so bright it blinded him for three days and he fell off his horse and it was dramatic, totally turned around his life.
Here is Acts 26:18: “I am sending you to the Gentiles to the nations.” This is what Jesus says to Paul in his calling: “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
So he got his calling verbally, directly from the risen Christ and that would be great, wouldn’t it? We would just love it if in the middle of the night Jesus would show up in our bedroom and just speak to us exactly what we should do with the rest of our lives. Don’t count on it.
It doesn’t happen that way. God doesn’t mean it to happen that way typically. And I think Paul wrote Romans 15 to help us because after saying that he had this holy ambition to preach the gospel where Christ had never been named, he did not say, “I have this ambition to be a light to the nations because Jesus called me on the Damascus road.” He doesn’t even mention the Damascus road. Why? Because that would be so natural to connect verse 20 with a statement of how he got called and he doesn't do it. He connects his holy ambition with the Bible, with the Old Testament, with a text.
Those who have never been told of him will see and those who have never heard. In other words, if you asked Paul: Where is my call rooted, where is my conviction rooted, where is my confidence rooted? He would say, “Isaiah.” He wouldn’t say the Damascus road.
Gripped by the Word
I think that is amazing. I find this tremendously helpful in my own discerning of God’s leading in my life and my explanation for where you get a holy ambition is related to the connection between verses 20 and 21. So where does your holy ambition come from? It comes from a personal encounter with the living Christ shaped and informed and empowered by the written word of God.
“A holy ambition comes from Christ and is informed and empowered by the written word of God.”
You meet the risen living Christ in and through meditating on the word of God. And this is basically the take away that I have for you is that if you want tonight to meet Jesus and have him clarify for you what to do with your life and what your holy ambition should be. I am telling you: immerse yourself in the Scriptures, because it is while you are meditating on the Scriptures, day and night, that passages take you. They grip you. They hold you. This has certainly happened for me over the years. There are certain central things that have shaped the way I live my life, the way I write, the way I preach, what I focus on, what I choose not to do with my life. And there are cluster of texts that have simply held me.
I will just mention one: “Hallowed be thy name.” Every time I look at the Lord’s Prayer I simply marvel. The first concern of Jesus in what we ask the Father to do is that the Father would act in and through us to make his name holy in the world. That just holds me. If you do an analysis of everything I write, everything I preach, there is a theme to it. There is a kind of controlling ambition to it. I want to make God seem great to people, holy to people, powerful to people, real to people, central to people. I want his majesty to take people.
And why do I do that? Why don’t I focus on a hundred other things that are totally legitimate? And the answer is: certain texts hold me. I don’t have any explanation for why they do. And I don’t fault anybody else for whom another emphasis is prominent in their lives. This is going to happen to you, I believe. Over time in the word God is going to grip you with something. You will just come back to it again and again. You will see it where you didn’t see it before. And it will become a kind of calling for you.
So that is my basic answer to the question: Where does a holy ambition come from? It doesn’t come, mainly, from a Damascus road experience. It comes mainly from meditating on the word of God and the Holy Spirit over time causes a text or a drift of the text or a conviction in your heart from the text to just grip you and hold you and it doesn’t let you go.
Christians Care About All Suffering
Now God does not call anybody to waste their lives. Your holy ambition will never be an ambition for something that the world doesn’t need. You will always be given an ambition that is according to the world’s need.
Verse 20: “Thus, I make it my ambition to preach the gospel not where Christ has already been named.” That means Paul set his face like flint to go to the unreached peoples of the world, because there is no greater need in the world than that people hear about that gospel. And this is a controversial at this moment and I hope you get this right.
I spoke at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization October a year ago and I want to Lausanne with one goal, that I would be able to articulate in front of those four thousand delegates from around the world the lostness of humanity without the gospel and the need to hear the gospel. And the sentence I chose to use in my twenty-eight minute message was: Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.
It was a very controversial sentence. It created huge buzz around the little discussion tables, because there are some more conservative types who are a little bit nervous with saying Christians care about all suffering, because then you might get diverted from your central task. And there are others, I would say more of these today, who are so bent on caring for all suffering — namely human trafficking, AIDS, orphans, you name it. There is a hundred heartbreaking needs in the world that they are threatened that, this is one of those right wing gospel only people who don't think Christians should be involved in any kind of social justice. Social justice issues and that is what that sentence means.
And so you have got these polarizations and the whole point of the sentence is to say: Christians won’t choose between these. This is what I am hoping. I am hoping your holy ambition will get this balance right. Christians care about all suffering. Christians are the kind of people who can’t walk by on the other side of the road when any kind of suffering is just over here within our reach. You can’t. That is what a heart of Christ is like.
And yet if you put wine and oil on these wounds, set him on your donkey and take him to the inn and pay for his next night’s lodging and don’t care about his everlasting salvation, you don’t love him, I don’t care how much you paid the motel or how much of your precious wine you poured out on him, you don’t love him. The greatest need of the world is human lostness. And the only way people escape from human lostness is hearing the gospel. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.
I am going to quote it in a message tomorrow. I just quoted it a half an hour ago. “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. How shall they call upon him whom they have not believed and how shall they believe in him whom they haven’t heard and how shall they hear without a preacher and how shall they preach unless they be sent? How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.” That is the way God has designed it to be done.
The Need of the Church for Addressing Social Woes Abroad
And here is just one more thing and I almost hesitate to use this argument, because it could make the ultimate serve the penultimate. But we will risk it. The penultimate is, say, a dozen justice issues and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. If you care right now in the twin cities about homelessness or about the disparity racially in who graduates from high school or who gets jobs or orphans of alcoholism or abortion or unexpected pregnancies or you name it.
Whatever social breakdown and heart wrenching, agonizing reality is taking you and making you want to stay up late and get up early and work, if you care about that here, wouldn’t authenticity say: What about people groups who have no church where the gospel of Christ takes root in people like you to drive them to care for issues like that?
In other words, how would all those issues be addressed when there is no church awakening people to the glories of Christ who transforms them to be the need meter of that kind of thing? In other words, foreign missions, global missions in one sense is the exportation of issues that you care about here. I find it inauthentic if a person somehow resists the importance of reaching unreached peoples because the agonies of American culture, as great as they are.
And that is because here the church exists and the church is stirring you up to care about those issues. Who is stirring up the people in those peoples to care about those issues, which are probably even greater over there? So I personally don’t feel the kind of tension that some feel between caring about winning lost people to Christ and caring about meeting the needs of people at the level of their physical, psychological, relational suffering. I don’t think we should choose between those.
So I will say it again: Paul’s holy ambition was to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named. And I would commend to you that for some of you that that be your calling, that you take the gospel to where it has never been named.
Now let me point out one more thing in the text. There is a global strategy here that it want you to fit into biblically. And I don’t know another text in the Bible that makes the reality of frontier missions clearer. Look at verse 19. “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel,” or, literally, “I have fulfilled the gospel of Christ.”
What on earth does that mean? I mean here is a picture of the Mediterranean, so, I guess from your standpoint this would be the eastern half over here. And here is Jerusalem down here. And he says: From Jerusalem and then up through Lebanon and Jordan and Syria and now over through Turkey and up through the Bosporus here and then down Greece here to Corinth and Athens and then up the western side of Greece. And here is Albania, which is Illyricum.
Now that is huge: all of Greece, all of Turkey and Asia Minor, all of the near eastern countries there. And he says: I have fulfilled the gospel of Christ. And then he underlines it in verse 23. I no longer have any room for work in these regions. That is the wildest thing I have ever read.
But think what the implication of that is. I, Paul, have no room for work from Jerusalem to northern Italy. What could that possibly mean? We know from Paul’s word to Timothy whom he left behind in Ephesus — you know where Ephesus is. It is right there on the western coast of Asia Minor, Turkey. It is right in the middle of Jerusalem to Illyricum. There is Ephesus. And Timothy was left behind as a pastor in Ephesus. And what was the command he gave to Timothy? Do the work of an evangelist. Well, there is no work to do. Well, of course there is. There is hundreds of thousands of people who don’t know Jesus.
So what did he mean: I have no room here anymore; I am done; I am finished? And the answer, I think, is pretty clear: his ambition was to preach the gospel in peoples and places that had no access. Paul had so completely planted the church in the urban areas or the key places that he looked at the region. He said: They can do it. They can do it. I am gone. And the next place he thought was: Ok, Spain. There is nothing happening in Spain. I am going to Spain. That is an absolutely amazing thing.
And what it says to me for your calling and for our calling as a people, as a church is this: There will always be the need for local evangelists. Do the work of an evangelist, Timothy. Even though you don’t live in your home town of Lystra, you uprooted and went to Ephesus would be like maybe us uprooting and going to the Philippines or something. Do the work of an evangelist where the church is already planted. You never finish that job. But me, I have got a calling. My holy ambition is to preach the gospel among unengaged, unreached peoples.
“There will always be the need for local evangelists.”
So this would be the text where I would go if you said: Where is your biblical basis for saying there should be a cluster of people in the Church that are called uniquely to go to unreached peoples, unengaged peoples? And I would say right here in chapter 15 of Romans, because he said, “I have no room for work in this place,” which means there is a calling on his life that says, “Your work is done here.” You are gone.
God will call some of you to do that. There will be something inside of you that feels like there is so much gospel here in the twin cities. There are so many churches. There is so much access. Yes, there may be 50,000 Somalis here who are Muslim and have no access to the gospel in any culturally effective way, but the church right across the street from Bethlehem. I have got to go to a place where there is no access like that. That will be a calling on your life.
It is not the only holy calling. It is not the only holy ambition, but it is one that I recommend.
The Need for Western Missionaries
Let me close by reading you an email. I wish you could have met this fellow. His code name is Eugene. His real name is Ben. I don’t think he would mind saying that. I won’t give his last name. Back in December of 2009 he posted this email. Since then he has been to two Desiring God conferences. He has been in our home. I met him. I didn’t know him at all when I read this. I read this and I quoted it in a sermon and he got wind that I quoted it and so many people came to his website because of it that he was blown away and wanted to meet us and so we got together and this is a guy probably ten years older than you are now. He has got a wife and a couple of kids and they are in China. And I will give you his website so you can check it out: www.China.myadventures.org.
And here is what he wrote and I say this to you for a couple of reasons. Here is the main one. You are going to run into people who say: Look, you are American. You are rich. You are western and you are far away from these unreached peoples by and large and there are better people to reach these people than you. You are just not well equipped to do the work of missions. You should let people from third world countries, people from countries that once were receiving countries but now are sending countries like Brazil.
Brazil is the twelfth largest sending country in the world and could easily move to number one, like Korea. And here is what they were telling me. They were saying that the experience of Brazilians in the Muslim world, for example, in the Middle East is unique, because of soccer. Everybody all over the world who is into soccer loves Brazil. I guess unless you are from Argentina. But if you are in a non-soccer premier country, Pele, Brazil represents the best soccer in the world and Brazilians don’t carry any of the political baggage that Americans do and, therefore, the relationships are so much easier with Arab Muslims, for example.
And I was just listening to the potential of this country and so my preaching down there was just to say: “Don’t think of yourself as a receiving country anymore. Think of yourself as a sending country around the world because of the unique cultural possibility.” So that kind of talk could make us Americans feel like: oh, well I guess our day is over, because we are bad people around the world. The ugly American was written when I was a teenager and it is still true today in many ways.
An Email from China
But I want you to hear this email to set the record straight. Yes, there are places where we may not be as welcome as another culture who is also Christian, but that is not to say we may not be tailor made in certain places around the world among certain unengaged and unreached peoples and God alone judges who and when and how those connections are made. So here is the email I will close with. This is Eugene, December 17, 2009:
After spending my first three years as a Christian in the United States involved in tons of personal evangelism and now after having spent nearly seven years living in some of the most gospel deprived regions in the world, I am very frustrated by the amount of gospel preaching that takes place in the West compared to the complete ignorance of the gospel that exists all around me over here. Let me explain myself a little better. Although it seems that the laborers are so very few even in America, it is impossible to compare the amount of gospel knowledge available to the average American with the utter lack of gospel found in certain areas around the world.
I happen to live in one of those places, in brief, within a few hundred miles of where I am sitting right now there are millions of Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese Muslims scattered throughout tens of thousands of towns and villages. The vast majority of those people have never heard anything true about Christianity. And with the exception of just a handful, the villages have never in the history of mankind been graced by the presence of a minister of the gospel. The lack of the gospel in this place is overwhelming and I truly believe that God will call more people out into these far flung corners of the world if only they have a chance to hear about the need and are shown how they can do something about it. I simply want to encourage the western church to wake up and realize that dozens of regions around the world are still completely devoid of the gospel and most of these places are difficult places even for native missionaries to work.
[Now he is referring here to the argument that local, native missionaries nearby would be better suited than western missionaries.]
It is going to take people like you and me, that is western cross cultural missionaries to be sent and go and learn these languages and share the gospel with these people. For instance, the large number of Christians in China are primarily located in the eastern half of the country and their culture is radically different from the Tibetans and the Chinese Muslims. Much of the time western missionaries do a better job of reaching to these minorities than do the Chinese, especially with the racism that exists in China and the recent wars and the minorities have often fought against the ruling Chinese. I hope I have explained my burden clearly enough. Please let me know if anybody has any thoughts, comments or questions. For God’s glory we want to see more laborers raised up to reach these millions with the gospel.