Sailing to the Nations to Finish the Task

Part 2

Resolute Collegiate Conference | Louisville

Let's pick up where we left off last night. My heart's desire and prayer to God for you is that He would put your boat, the boat of your life, on a course toward the completion of the great commission and world evangelization, either as a sacrificial goer or a sacrificial sender. I'm adding the word sacrificial on those phrases, not for any particular effect, but because of Jesus' statement:

Whoever would come after me, let him deny himself and take up His cross (Matthew 16:24).

I think it belongs to the very essence of Christian life that we sacrifice; that we say no to numerous desires that we have for the sake of something greater. A life of sacrifice is not a life of unhappiness. We deny ourselves things that would diminish our delights in God, through serving people. There are thousands of things that would diminish our delights in God, and they are all pleasurable. And we deny ourselves those for greater pleasure.

So first, I'm eager that God would direct the boat of your life toward the remaining task of world evangelization, either as a sacrificial radical goer or a sacrificial radical sender, but not a coaster in this life — not a disobedient, indifferent person, just going about your business with no care for the task of world evangelization. That's my first goal.

My second goal is that I want to help you to lift up a mast on your boat. This is a sailboat, not a motorboat. The great tragedy is that people think the Christian life can be turned into a motorboat. It can't. You may be able to grow a church by putting an Evinrude on the back of your boat and making it happen, but it's not supernatural. It's not Christian.

It’s a sailboat. The mast is meant to put its yards out, drop the sails, be filled with the Spirit, and driven in His power across the sea of life for a good and holy purpose. And so, I'm trying to get you to have an ambition and a plan. You lift up this plan in your life; you stretch out your sails; you catch the wind of the Holy Spirit by faith in God, and He moves you across the ocean of life towards some valuable purpose. We'll come back to that.

My third goal is that I want there to be a ballast in your boat, because in so many conferences we get the sails up, the music is great, the Spirit is really blowing, but there's no ballast in the boat. When the crosswind comes your sail is in the water, and you are very disillusioned, maybe forever, about this thing called Christianity and world missions. And I just don't want that to happen.

Most of you are young. The storms have broken over a few of you. They will break over the rest of you too, and I just want your boat to float. So that's the reason for last night's ballast. The ballast was two blocks. First, God is passionate for his fame among the nations. God has an infinite regard for His glory. He's totally committed to the display of His greatness in this world.

And second, at the center of that eternal, God-glorifying purpose of God, there's the cross, where God found a way to save sinners while magnifying His glory — sinners who have spent all their lives belittling the glory of God by preferring other things over His glory and thus treating His glory as worthless. God has found a way to not damn people like that who deserve to be damned but to bring them into his family, all the while making it crystal clear, “I'm totally committed to the glory they've been trampling.”

And the answer of how He did it was that He put Jesus Christ forward as a propitiation to be received by faith and thus demonstrated in the perfect, infinite payment of Jesus that he hates the belittling of His glory that much (Romans 3:23–26). And you, who spent your life doing it, get saved. That's the center of the ballast. So then, the implication for world missions is when you hear Jesus, or God, say in Psalm 96:3, “Declare His glory among the nations.” And you hear the New Testament say, “Preach His gospel among the nations” (Matthew 18:19–20; Mark 16:15; Luke 14:23; Acts 1:7–8) Now you know, if you understood last night, that's the same command.

A Holy Ambition

Let's go back to the mast on the boat now. My goal in this message is to be used by God, if He would be pleased, to help you get a more specific holy ambition for your life. The ballast in the bottom of the boat is a kind of ambition. You want your life to count as a part of God's passion for His glory, so you want to have a passion for His glory. That's the big general ballast of your life. Now I want to help refine it.

Some of you come here, and you know the holy ambition of your life. You came to this conference to have your fire stoked. Others of you want one. You want it to be God-glorifying, but you don't have a clue yet what it is. And others of you, and I'm so glad you're here, are just drifting. You're just going from one video game to the next or one class to the next. And you don't even think in terms of, “I want an ambition for my life. I want my life to have some coherent point.”

You haven't even gotten there yet, and I hope I can be a help to you to just get you on board in the quest for such a holy ambition. So whether you're here already knowing it, getting your fire stoked, or whether you want it desperately and you'd like some help right now for clarity, or whether you're just drifting and you need to be brought on board, I'm here for you.

I'm inviting you now to go to Romans 15:18–24, because we're going to base the rest of our thoughts on this amazing passage, where Paul talks about His ambition. I hope God speaks to you very personally from this text.

Romans 15:18–24 says:

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 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.

So go back to verse 20.

Thus, I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named.

Paul was controlled by a holy ambition. Why do I say controlled? Look at verse 22.

This [holy ambition] is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you

Then look at the end of verse 23.

I have longed for many years to come to you.

Now, if you long, for years, to do something and you don't do it, you're being controlled by something else. So you have that desire: “I want to be there with you. For years I've wanted to be there with you. And I haven't come.” Why? “Because I've got an ambition and I'm not done with the ambition where I am. But when I'm done with the ambition where I am, you're going to be a part of that ambition.”

Do you see how it’s controlling him? He had an ambition to preach the gospel where Christ had not been named. He's doing it from Jerusalem to Albania and he's not done there yet. That's why he can't leave.

He's controlled by a holy ambition. When you're controlled by a holy ambition there are a thousand things, even good things, you cannot do and you dare not do. My life has been one long life of selective neglect, because I have ambitions in my life about how I want it to count — things I want to say, things I want to do for a specific focus and a specific message — which means there are a thousand good things I don't do.

That's the way an ambition works. A holy ambition controls what you do and what you do and what you don't do. So he's controlled by a holy ambition. And I want to just say to you, it is a good thing to be controlled by holy ambition. You should want one. You should, right now as I'm preaching, be praying, “Oh God, give me one. Make it clear. I really want to live that way.”

I want to have a holy ambition. I don't want to be a drifter, a coaster, just getting up and doing stuff. I want to have a point. I want it to go somewhere. I want my life to go somewhere like Paul's. I want to be able to use the term, I have an ambition. I'm controlled by an ambition. There are many things I’m not doing because of this ambition. It's a good thing. And you should want one.

I'm calling it a holy ambition, because it's got holy ends of preaching the gospel to people who don't know it, and it's got holy origins that come from God's word. But I'm just asking right now, do you have a holy ambition? And do you want one? And may God grant you one.

Please don't assume that I'm asking you to have Paul's holy ambition. Paul's holy ambition was to preach the gospel where Christ had not been named. I am not trying to get all of you to do that. I have said, “Passionate, sacrificial goers or passionate, sacrificial senders.” It's the goers who are called to get to the unreached peoples, where the Name is not even known. I don't think every Christian should do that. You know why I don't think every Christian should? Because when Paul wrote this letter, he asked them to send him to Spain and not to go with him.

And that's what you should say to churches. You shouldn't make them feel guilty that they're not going. Come on, go with me in your prayers. Go with me in your visits. Go with me in your passion. Go with me in your sacrificial lifestyles that enable you to help me stay there, but just plow into your salt and light place where you are. So, when I say every one of you should have a holy ambition, I don't mean Paul's. I mean yours. It'll be unique to you, tailor-made by the living God, who calls you into His family — a holy ambition tailor-made for you.

An Obstacle to Ambition

But here's one of the problems. Your generation, the younger people now among us at the end of their teens, or the beginning of their twenties, has a huge obstacle to getting a holy ambition. And the reason is because you're growing up so slow.

Books are being written about you. Christian Smith, a professor at Notre Dame, reviewed six of his books about your tribe. Here is a quote:

Teenagers and adolescents, as representing a distinct stage in life, were very much 20th century inventions.

The word teenager didn't exist 100 years ago, and adolescence didn't exist. Those are realities that didn't technically exist. Nobody would have recognized them 200 years ago. Jonathan Edwards would not have even known what you were talking about if you said, “Well, the young people in our church are adolescents.” He wouldn't have had a clue what you meant. Smith continues:

They were created in the 20th century, brought into being by changes in mass education, child labor laws, urbanization, suburbanization, mass consumerism, and the media.

Similarly, a new distinct and important 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, life commitments, as well as a variety of behaviors and dispositions among the young. What has emerged from this new situation has been variously labeled extended adolescence, youthhood, Adultolescence, young adulthood, twenty-somethings, and emergent adulthood.

And then he says,

One of the ways of describing this group is the tendency to delay full-fledged adulthood.

So the characteristics of these 18 to 30 year-olds go like this:

(1) Identity exploration, (2) instability, (3) focus on self, (4) feeling in limbo, in transition, in between, (5) a sense of possibilities and opportunities and unparalleled hope. These of course are also often accompanied by big doses of transience, confusion, anxiety, self-obsession, melodrama, conflict, and disappointment.

So there's an obstacle for you. You're part of a culture that is not growing up nearly as fast as 300 years ago. People married when they were 16. You shouldn't. You're not ready to marry that young. They were, because they became adults at about 12 or 13. There were rights. There was work. There was training. There was expectation. Everything about the culture made it work.

Today, there’s no way that would work because it's all against you. Churches don't work that way. They keep you playing until you go to college. Youth ministries are built around play. The whole thing, the culture, the media, the TV, the internet, the churches, they're all designed to keep you from growing up. So I'm aware of that, and I'm not making light of it. It's just a reality. I wish it weren't, but it is.

Let me talk to the women for a minute. Most little girls play with dolls when they're little, and that's a good thing. I've got one little girl of four sons. I learned a little bit about girls in the last 17 years. I raised four sons and then along came Talitha. The day's going to come, you all know this, when she doesn't play with dolls anymore. She's now about 11, and she can work in the real nursery at church, and she can hold real babies. And then she's about 14 and gets her first babysitting job. She’s all by herself at somebody's house with a cell phone number for mom, and she feels responsible. This baby is totally helpless, and she knows she has to take care of her.

And then the day comes when she's done with her schooling, and perhaps now she's got a whole ministry to AIDS babies or orphans, and she's grown up and the weight of an Amy Carmichael is on her. Women should read A Chance to Die by Elizabeth Elliott, which is about Amy Carmichael. You see what I mean? It's a good thing to play with dolls, but not at 20.

The Mark of adulthood is that play is replaced with a sense of responsibility — an ambition in this world for your life to count, for real babies that are out there or a thousand other things. I'm just using dolls and babies as an example. Let's talk about boys. I'm one of those. So I remember this better. Boys liked balls and trucks and guns, like my Lucas McCain circle handle rifle. I just killed so many bad guys when I was a kid. I think that's a really good thing. I'm not against killing bad guys at all.

But the day's going to come, guys, when you don't even do that anymore with a video game. This is what guys are doing when they're 25 and 28. Rather, instead of a real gun, now they have the sword of the Holy Spirit, and they’re driving truckloads of mercy into hard places. They're doing athletic ministries on the streets of Mumbai or Mexico City. Now it's becoming an ambition. The difference between being a child and being an adult is that you get an ambition to take everything that you once played with and make it go somewhere for a high and holy purpose.

So, I'm simply saying that when Paul says He had a holy ambition, it’s a good thing. And I would like to encourage you to go ahead and grow up and just be counter-cultural enough to say, “I don't need to be like that. I don't need to wait until I'm 35 to get a job. I don't need to wait until I'm 35 to figure out what life is about. I can do this now when I'm 19. I'm going to get an ambition for my life, and it's going to help me decide what I do and what I don’t do.”

The Source of a Holy Ambition

And here's my next question. Where does that come from? More specifically, where do you get it? Let's go back to Romans 15:20–21, and notice the connection between the verses, which I think is just stunningly helpful and practical for your life.

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.

That's His ambition. Where did He get it? Where did that come from? He quotes Isaiah 52:15 in verse 21:

But as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.”

Here's what's amazing about this. Jesus, the risen Christ, knocked Paul off His horse on the Damascus road and told him what he's going to do. He just told him:

I am sending you to the Gentiles 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 (Acts 26:27–18).

You're probably not going to have an experience like that. Paul did. He told him, “You're mine. I chose you before you were born. You're my apostle to the Gentiles. You're going to speak to people who've never heard of me. Get moving. You've got your ambition and your orders. You're on.” And when he told you in verse 21, where his ambition came from, he never referred to that.

Why? Why didn't He say, “Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named, because Jesus told me to,” instead of quoting the Bible. He goes to the Bible to warrant His mission, and I think he did it for you, so that I could preach this sermon. I really do. I think he was doing it for the Romans and for the succeeding generations with us as the offshoot. We're not going to get a Damascus road experience like that. But you can read Isaiah.

Isn't that amazing? Here's the way it works. I’ll testify for my own life. If you asked me right now, “So what are you saying is the specific way I discern my holy ambition?” My answer is: immerse yourself in the Bible, pleading with God to make some verse, some strategy, some trajectory, or some truth burn so continuously, firmly, deeply, and unshakably that you know it’s about you.

I was lying in the hospital of Wheaton college in 1966, as a 20 year-old who was madly in love with Noel Henry, and I was planning to be a doctor and needed to take organic chemistry to catch up with my pre-med stuff. John Harold Ockenga was preaching 200 yards to the West as I was listening to it on the W-E-T-N campus radio station, and as he preached, that happened to me.

Everything changed. I don't even remember the texts. All I know is that everything in me burned with Bible. And when that four day series of messages was over, I said to my girlfriend, “I know you were falling in love with a doctor, but please, I'm not going to be a doctor. I'm going to go to seminary because all I know is after hearing that, I love the Bible. I’ve got to study Bible, but I don't know the details right now. I'm just going to be a Bible guy.” And she said, as she has a hundred times, “I'm falling in love with you not your calling.” So she went with me and she's been with me for 44 years, or 46 years if you count that as the start.

I want you to have a holy ambition. I want you to pursue it by reading your Bible and asking God to make something burn in your heart. I think that's the way it comes. As you're reading the Bible, you're pleading, “Oh God, speak. God, speak to me.” He did a lot more calling and refining of that ambition after the initial calling as the months and years went by. It got clearer and clearer. I didn't enter the pastorate until I was 34. That's 14 years later. As the ambition was getting clearer and narrower, I was following. It began with broad Bible, and then it became Bethlehem Baptist church.

The Aim of a Holy Ambition

There is an immeasurable need that every ambition should care about. I know the word ambition is a dangerous word. It's usually associated with vanity and ego, so I'm pleading that it could be holy. Every holy ambition is an expression of love for people.

So what was the need that Paul was trying to meet as he preached the gospel where Christ had not been named? Here's the theological problem. Paul, do you think people are responsible to believe in a name they've never heard? And I think he would have said, “No.” So on Judgment Day, they won't be condemned for not believing in Jesus if they've never heard of him? “That's right.” Well, then why are you telling them? Because if they reject what you say, they're going to go to hell, and you said that they're not responsible to believe in Jesus if they've never heard of Jesus. Paul’sanswer would have been Romans 1:18–19, which says:

The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them.

So everybody knows God. They may not know Jesus, but they know God, as verse 20 says:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

That's why I'm going. They'll have no excuse on Judgment Day. They will all perish. And why? He continues:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man...

They suppressed the truth. That's why everybody is under the wrath of God. It’s because the truth that they do know they suppress. There's one escape. They must be born again. How are people born again? They are born again through the living and abiding word, that is, the gospel we preach (1 Peter 1:23–25). Or as Romans 10:17 says:

Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.

Nobody is saved without calling upon the name of the Lord.

And how should they call on him whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they’ve never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach, unless they are sent? (Romans 10:14–15).

Faith comes through preaching, and that's why he was going. So, in general, my point is that every holy ambition is trying to meet an immeasurable need. There's a thousand of them. I'm not trying to make anybody a copy of anybody else. There's a thousand ways to meet immeasurable needs. Paul was going to do by preaching where nobody had preached before.

Fulfill Your Ministry

Let me draw this to a close by pointing out one more thing in the text. Verse 19. Second half of the verse.

From Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum to Albania, Northern Italy, I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.

What in the world did that mean? In fact, he said in verse 23,

I no longer have any room for work in these regions.

That's crazy because he said to Timothy in 1 Timothy,

Do the work of an evangelist.

Now where's Timothy located? He is in Ephesus. Ephesus is smack dab in the middle of Jerusalem and Illyricum. And Paul says to him, “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). Why? He already said the ministry of the gospel is fulfilled and completed from Jerusalem to Illyricum. And to that, Paul would look at him and say, “That's my job that's finished, not yours.”

What does that mean? It means pastors and missionaries aren't the same. Pastors are responsible to mobilize their churches to do the evangelism of their districts and their regions and their cities. Missionaries are not. Missionaries plant churches where they don't exist and raise up pastors to do that. A missionary is a real thing. I don't like it when pastors say, “We're all missionaries.” That's not true. It ruins people's understanding of this radical, unique thing that some of you came to this conference to get called to do; namely, to be a cross-cultural, frontier, pioneer, church-planting missionary among the unreached peoples of the world.

So when Paul said, “I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum.” He meant, “The missionary work here is over.” That's amazing. Tens of thousands of people still needed to be converted in Turkey, then and now, but Paul finished his work. Some of you are called to do that, but not all of you. It's a pretty unusual group, but if you are coming to a mission's conference there is something rumbling in your hearts. I'm just trying to clarify who you are. Some of you are a Paul type missionary. Timothy is another type of minister.

I am not a missionary. I labored over this for years. Every time our missionary conference rolls around, I say, “Should I be in Minneapolis?” There's 1,200 evangelical churches in Minneapolis. I'm one of them. There aren't churches like that in Mumbai, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, or Chad. Why aren't I there? Now I'm 67 years old and I’m not going to be a pastor anymore. Maybe I should be there. I do wrestle with those things. What should I do with the next chapter of my life? I sure don't want to waste it. I don’t want to just go play golf in Arizona. If you catch me doing that, don't read another book that I’ve written. It would all be totally undermined.

So the aim of your holy ambition is to meet immeasurable needs, and the strategy some of you are called to is to be Paul type missionaries.

The Need for Workers

Let me close like this. I want to read you an email and I'll be done. This comes from a man in his 30s, because he's been in China or Tibet so long. He wrote this three years ago because I had raised the issue about young people feeling like Western missionaries are not needed in a place like China, for example, because it's hard to get in and there's 60 million Chinese Christians now that can surely do the job.

Here's his response to that. Now, I know that not all of you are American, but most of you are white, Western, middle class Americans, and I want to give this as a clarification so that you can see there's a place for you. That's the point of this. I'll read it and then we'll pray.

After spending the first three years as a Christian in the States, involved in tons of personal evangelism, I have now 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 few, even in America, it is impossible to even 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 through tens of thousands of towns and villages.

The vast majority of these 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 gospel, and most of these places are difficult places for even native missionaries, so called, to work. It is going to take people like you and me, Western cross-cultural missionaries, to be sent; to go to 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 that of the Tibetans and the Chinese Muslims. Much of the time, Western missionaries do a better job of reaching out to these minorities than do the Chinese, especially with the racism that exists in China and the recent wars that 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.

His website is, and he means it that he'd like to hear from you.

My prayer, as I finish my part in this and hand you over now to the seminars, is that you will have your boat, the boat of your life, on a course towards helping with the cause of global evangelization as a radical, sacrificial goer or a sacrificial sender. To that end, I pray that the mast of your holy ambition will be lifted high; that you'll drop sails of faith; that you will catch the wind of the Holy Spirit, and He will drive you freely without any motor on the back. And I pray that there will be a weighty ballast of gospel truth in your boats so that when the crosswinds come you will not sink, but make it to the end.