Whose Faith?

Desiring God 1988 Conference for Pastors

By Grace Through Faith

I cannot say how much I feel at home here, not only with the staff of this church and the people of this church, but also with the people that are in this conference, with the things that have been spoken here — the points of view, the perspectives, the concerns, the sensitivities. These I feel very much at home with. I am a little bit embarrassed that unlike all the rest, I don’t have a manuscript before me, and I’m sorry for that reason. If I had been asked to bring a manuscript, I probably would’ve been unable to accept the invitation. The reason I say that is because the Baker lectures I gave last year at Reformed Bible College are still unpublished. I have a list of 11 things in my coat here that my secretary prepared for me, which I’m supposed to write, three of them already overdue. So it wouldn’t probably have been possible, but I do have a bunch of notes here that I’ll try to scamper through.

The Significance of Faith

I would also like to say by way of introduction that I hope that what I’m doing and what we’re doing today is not seen as a shifting of gears or of a transition away from the subject that we began with. I would hope it was part of a continuum. I was talking to Dr. Packer last night about the fact that faith in the Bible is not primarily the subject that has to do with the initiation of eternal life, but it is the major factor in the ongoing growth of the saint. Do you know what I mean by a light show down in Mexico City? You go out to the pyramids, they have a light show and they throw light around, and it illuminates this and that, and tells a story. Faith is the light show of God. It’s the most exciting word in the vocabulary of the New Testament. I can’t think of any other word that’s more exciting.

There are other words that are profoundly important, but “faith” is the most exciting word because it always has to do with revelation. It always has to do with surprise, in view of where it comes from. Faith, in a way, is life itself. It is the life of faith that is the only life worth living. Thus, maybe briefly a word about my own life would be fitting because I think of faith and growth and life almost in the same paragraph. Action and reflection, as has already been underscored here, is absolutely the way it works. I am sure that we have seen that exposited here. The famous phrase, “Too soon old, and too late smart,” will otherwise characterize our lives if we do not mix action and reflection.

It seems to me the scholar-activist is a pattern which in fact the PhD degree historically always implied, and now that we have our own university — the only university owned and operated by missionaries in the world — we are reactivating that older apprenticeship pattern of doctoral studies, and we have 32 candidates in 22 countries following this pattern of the scholar-activist. I don’t believe the scholar who is not also an activist — if not physically at least intellectually applying what he thinks to the problems at hand — will be the true scholar that he might be. I’m reminded of the fact that Karl Barth did much of his writing as a parish pastor in the early stages.

A Personal Narrative

Well, in any case, just to give you a quick glimpse of my own background out of which my own faith derives, I was brought up in a church which was pastored by a man who was trained in a Presbyterian seminary way back then called Pitt-Xenia, but before that he went to Moody Bible Institute. Our church was a Schoolfield Bible church, and it was an uneasy mixture of his Calvinism and that Bible and the tradition to which it belonged. I also was introduced in that church to the Navigators, and as a high school student was involved in bible study groups that demanded accountability with the Bible on a very highly personal level. This was a very significant experience in my early life. It was a highly mission minded church. Once a month, the evening service was a mission service.

I also heard for the first time in my life, from that pulpit, a man named Harold John Ockenga, who only once in his life apparently departed from expository preaching, and lucky that he did (that’s a Calvinistic term). His four-sermon series on church history was reprinted as a book entitled Our Protestant Heritage. Before the book was ever printed, however, I heard him give one of those sermons at the Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena, and it set my mind going in that direction, never to return. I remember going down to Colorado Street to the one Christian bookstore and asking the man about church history. His sermon happened to be on Luther, that particular time, it was one of four sermons, and the graphic detail with which he spoke just enthralled me and captured my imagination, so I bought a book called Church History.

It turned out many years later, I realized, by a very biased Lutheran. About a third of the whole book was about Luther, although that’s not what I asked for. It was only later that I realized that Luther may not have been quite so important as that Christian high school text on church history makes him out to be. But, that was my introduction, and by the time I was called at Fuller Seminary many years later, most of my study in my life had been in the area of history, although all of my qualifications were in other fields, and it is only by the grandfather clause that I ever became a full professor in the field of church history at Fuller.

This Freedom Whence

Well, now, let me move on to my twenties because this is still back prior to that point. I’m going to talk about four 10 year periods. I’m not far enough into my sixties for any profound observations to be possible. In my twenties, it was to discover at a Presbyterian seminary, John Wesley. This was not intended, but it was a used bookstore that allowed me to run into a book called This freedom Whence? which described England before Wesley, the work of Wesley, and England after Wesley, and I discovered that an evangelist could also have social concern and political involvement of a high order of influence, as well as, in view of my own scientific background, to be very much involved in science. He was the one who read so widely that he encountered the writings of an obscure American named Benjamin Franklin, and on the basis of what he read, introduced him to the Royal Society of England. There’s what you might call the normal work of a pastor or an evangelist.

I was very much impressed by this. I remember being jolted reading in a biography of Wesley that on his 77th birthday, a man came out to the gate as he was riding past on his horse and greeted him and asked what he was reading, and he was reading the first edition of Priestley’s Elements of Electricity. He was fascinated by that Sandemanian of whom we’ve heard earlier, named Michael Faraday, the greatest experimental scientist of the century, and following his lead, put little dynamos that you could turn with a little handle and would generate a small voltage in all of his connectional houses, thinking that the shock treatment might be of some value. That was the way his mind worked. He actually compiled a book on medicine that went through 39 editions, and while not all of its remedies would pass muster today, it was an absolutely phenomenal advance over what was then current in English society.

This gives you the kind of a man that I ran into and that provided the bond between my scientific background and the ministry. But, like I say, this was accidental. I went then to Fuller when Fuller opened, which dates me at that point. Fuller opened the following year, I transferred to Fuller, I studied at Wycliffe, I started teaching Greek, and I went back then for further linguistics at Cornell and got my PhD in anthropology and linguistics. Then I went back to Seminary, picked up with Wesley again, took a graduate course at Princeton on Wesley’s theology. The first time it was ever taught, I’m embarrassed to say, I found that their phenomenal Speer Library had virtually nothing on Wesley.

So I had to go up to Drew just to find his 50 volume Christian library that he had edited, and I did a study of the Calvinistic or the absence of Calvinistic theology in the writers of that library, and I found that, of the 71 authors, only one of them was not a Calvinist and he was only accused of not being a Calvinist, and he might actually have been. This shows you the folly of the easy opposition of Calvinism and Arminianism, or especially Calvinism and Wesleyanism. He actually employed the Westminster Confession and the Westminster Catechism. He did drop out two of the questions in his practical use of the catechism, which I suppose in this conference we would refer to as family secrets. But I’m not sure that he would not have considered himself a Calvinist, that I just threw out for fun.

Missions in Guatemala

In my thirties, having wasted half my life already wandering around in graduate schools, I got busy as a missionary in Guatemala, and we lived among a people that would be called primitive, although we discovered of course in anticipation in our anthropological studies that they were not exactly primitive at all. There was a well-developed church movement there. These were non-literate people, however, that is to say they had no use for paper. I don’t mean to say they couldn’t have used it, but their society, the way they were organized didn’t require the knowledge of writing or reading, so we had full-blown churches, elders, pastors, and everything else in a non-literate society where maybe only the pastor could read.

I suddenly began to realize that poverty of my own society, leaning as it does upon the crutch of the written word. Sitting there in church, I was never unembarrassed having to pick up the hymn book of course in the Indian language. After 40 years of missionary work preceded us, and realizing that everybody else was singing all eight verses by heart, they were fortunate enough not to be literate. They would lean forward with great care when the scriptures were read. Their knowledge of the Bible was far superior to those who carry the Bible. I only throw this out for fun.

It was in Guatemala that we discovered that the seminary is not the best place for pastors to be either discovered or prepared, and that probably the wrong people go to seminary. This is probably the greatest blight of the professionalization of our time that the people that the Spirit of God would choose are disenfranchised by a process intended to enhance, but it actually depreciates the ministry of the real church to itself. I thought a lot about the future of the rural man, the nature of society, and the nature of education. I began to realize along with a rather brilliant Catholic priest who became a fan of mine, although I never really met him in person, that schooling and education are not the same process. I also began to think about the family, but these are areas in which faith has grown which cannot all be covered.

Work at Fuller

That was my thirties. In my forties, I was asked to work at Fuller Theological Seminary, and I was there as a learner. I was paid to teach, but I was actually being paid to learn. I had a thousand different missionaries in my classes from all over creation, using the word derived from the Great Commission of Mark. The word is not “every creature” by the way. The more modern translations say, “In all creation,” which dispels the notion that we must buttonhole every person in order to complete the Great Commission. At least, we don’t need to do that as missionaries. We are sent to the creation, which is a creation of a mosaic of peoples apparently.

In understanding what those thousand missionaries had been up to, and the flourishing growth of the church everywhere from which they had come, I learned two things. I learned first of all what I could not have found in any book easily, and which was not common knowledge in the churches, and which I find hard to explain even to this day in any audience, namely the enormous vitality and scope of the work of God around the world. How do you explain this? If you say that there are more devout believing Christians in the Soviet Union than in the United States and the same would be true in China, people simply don’t believe you. So there’s not any great success in saying those things which are nevertheless probably true.

The second thing I learned is that I would never ever, if I stayed there a hundred years, be dealing with missionaries who were on the frontiers. The missionaries I was dealing with were from well-established mission fields, which were no longer mission fields in any Pauline sense of the term. They were not laboring where Christ was not named, but precisely where Christ was named. They were assisting the church to grow, a noble and valuable activity, not to be confused, however, with the call the Bible gives us to take the gospel where it is darkest. So that moved me out of the situation. I wouldn’t say it was an intellectual conviction, however, that moved me out. Here is where faith comes in the picture.

We began to learn, my wife and I, that faith is not something you conjure up. A fact that has been imminently testified to here. Faith is something which is a gift of God. It is so much a gift that those who receive it could, I suppose, by at least others, not by themselves surely, be referred to as the victims of faith. It would also be possible, I think, very honestly and accurately to say, faith will get you into trouble. Faith is the illumination of God in our lives, which is both the result of believing and the means of further believing. It is not something for those who have it that could ever possibly be boasted about. We felt like God was carrying us. We couldn’t possibly have said, “We’ve decided,” or, “We are going to do this,” however much others ascribe that kind of behavior to us.

Fresh Insight on the Bible

As an unexpected blessing in this new period of my fifties, leaving Fuller and starting into the project in which we’re now still involved (the US center for World Missions), it was the Bible itself that became a new book. I won’t have time really to do very much with that thought, but suffice it to say that I have studied the Bible more in the last 10 years than in all of my previous life, and with electrifyingly different results.

Faith is a very marvelous and phenomenal thing. It is so much of God that it can hardly be called a thing. It is God himself in our lives, leading, guiding, and empowering. It is a marvelous reality. Faith, hope, and love are words that in different sequences are seen all throughout the Pauline epistles, and we do well to take heed of them. They’re not independent of each other altogether, by any means. Faith and hope are especially close together. Love as an action, of course as a verb, is not a noun like faith.

The Nature of Faith

But anyway, rather than go into my sixties, which I said, which have just really only begun, let me do a digression here then on the nature of faith. I’ll just name off a bunch of things quickly that you can ponder. Faith comes by hearing. You’ve read that. Do you realize that that means “obeying”? It’s “hearkening” in the King James. It does not mean being sprayed Sunday after Sunday with boring teachings. That’s not the way faith comes. Faith comes by obeying. That’s what that verse means in my understanding. Faith is a noun, not a verb. The action associated with it is the verbal form “to believe.”

In the Greek, of course, this is more obvious, since the two words are visually associable. Grammatically, though not in usage, a belief ought to be an action in faith, but we’ve tamed it in English to mean a tenet of orthodoxy. But faith is both the heavenly means of obedience and the heavenly result of obedience, but it is not itself a response. I’m speaking grammatically here, not in popular English.

The phenomenon of response to faith requires a different grammatical structure, like “to have faith,” or for example, as you see it in the book of Romans 1 and Romans 15, it’s “the obedience of faith.” Those words are well married. The one is the noun, the divine illumination and guidance and presence and power of God. The other is somehow the empowered response of the believer, which makes that light, that revelation grow. Faith is the evidence of things which others don’t see. For the person who’s acting in faith, he is not jumping in the dark. It is only what others suppose that gives credence to the suggestion that faith involves some kind of terrible risk or gambling or something of that sort.

He’ll Take Care of the Rest

Now, as we’ve already implied, faith comes from God. Here’s a phrase which came from one of our staff members, because in that straggling few people trying to buy a 35 acre campus worth over 10 million dollars, a good deal of faith would’ve had to have been necessary. It was not something that could have been conjured up, it would’ve been pure folly. And of course, to many others, the faith that we had for which we have no claim to merit, it was that we were the victims, as I’ve already said. That faith did of course look like folly, and we cannot blame the other people.

But, in those days, one of our staff members came up with this statement: “Faith is not the confidence that God will do what you want him to do for you. Rather, it is the conviction that you can do what God wants you to do for him, and let him take care of the consequences.” Faith is obviously part of God’s revelation. We talk so much about revelation. The word “reveal” is so exciting and wonderful that sometimes we forget that God also conceals. There is no noun like revelation that comes from reveal, it would be pronounced “concealation.” There is no such a word, so forget it, but there ought to be because that is one of the activities of God. Jesus told the parables so that some could see and so that others could not see. He did not believe in casting pearls before swine.

Much of the Bible, however intellectually appraisable, is spiritually unintelligible for these very reasons. It is a big enough book to confuse the most brilliant person without faith. It is a simple enough book to give increased faith to the simplest reader. The parables were meant to conceal. The veil before our faces is God’s veil that he puts there. The mystery in which the people of Paul’s time were enshrouded was not intended to be a mystery, that all the peoples of the world were to experience God’s grace, but it was a mystery because of their disobedience. God had confused them, hardened their hearts, dulled their hearts.

Jesus talked about shaking the dust off his feet, and in one or two cases, he did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief. Power, revelation, is a privilege that follows upon belief. It is not something we can grasp at intellectually alone.

Not Just the Beginning

Well, faith is not the beginning of the Christian life, I’ve already said this. Picture a book on marriage that only talked about the ceremony. It would be disappointing. What if all we did was go around winning people to the idea of getting married, but we didn’t help them get on with their marriage? What a shame if the marriage ceremony continued to be the high point of a marriage. That’s the way it is with faith. Faith is the phenomenon which describes, and allows for, and illuminates the initiation of the new life in Christ, but it is much more than that. The life of faith only begins in what we usually dote on in the pietist tradition, almost to the exclusion of where faith leads us. Then faith is not necessarily an individual experience.

Our life in Christ is described by the New Testament metaphor, “The new birth.” I agree with Dr. Packer that this is a secondary metaphor, but notice that, if we don’t push this too far, you don’t decide to be born. Now, this is Calvinistic talk, I guess, is the phrase. We can only push this so far, but birth is certainly not something over which we have a lot of control, least of all conception. Birth is not in fact even the beginning of life. I think of Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace here, which is very much of God. Birth is not when we become independent, furthermore. Becoming a believer, becoming a Christian, being born into new life does not mean that we are now independent of the other believers. Birth adds us to a family. It introduces us to a working father.

Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of my Father and to finish his work” (John 4:34). It introduces us to an inheritance. This is a very foundational biblical concept. When the Bible says, when God says to Abraham, “I will bless you,” the average American will never understand that phrase, not having grown up in a society where there is a formal ceremony in which inheritance is transmitted, and which was described actually in Genesis 12 as “the blessing” which Jacob received and Esau did not receive. We have not normally thought of evangelism in terms of conferring a family name, in that sense, where both privilege, authority, and obligation are all bound together.

If we did, we wouldn’t have the lordship phenomenon and so forth going around. It’s the recognition of the Father we now have — “Our Father, who art in heaven.” It’s this Father for whom all the peoples of the earth belong to him, is our new relationship, and that is why missions ought not to even be an extra word in our vocabulary. We really ought to be able to do without the word completely. I don’t like the word myself. I would prefer to talk about the work of our Father.

References to the Great Commission

Now, in Genesis 12:1–3, 18:18, 22:18, 26:4–5, and 28:14–15, you find the five references of Genesis to the Great Commission. The first three are those to Abraham reminding him and substantiating what God was saying. In all five cases, it speaks of all the peoples of the earth. When it comes to Isaac, and then to Jacob, who was also called “Israel,” and Jesus was talking to the self-designated people of Israel, it may have been that fifth passage that he was paraphrasing in Matthew 28:19–20.

The Greek Bible, which is the source of 80 percent of the quotations of the New Testament, gives Genesis 28:15 in precisely the same wording running for about nine words as you find in Matthew 28:20,:“Lo, I am with you always, even to the end.” Those words are identical, not in the Hebrew, but in the Greek. For that reason we may suppose a very close relationship between this commission to Israel repeated from Abraham’s day and the paraphrase of Jesus Christ.

Now, it’s a tragedy the way our seminaries are structured with the Septuagint falling between the cracks between the Hebrew Old Testament scholars and the Greek-reading New Testament scholars. The Septuagint was the Bible of the early church and was the most significant missionary translation ever made and apart from which you couldn’t possibly understand, the New Testament and the growth of the early church. It is nevertheless not studied in any normal aspect of our modern seminary tradition, for this paradoxical reason.

The Experience of a Group

Well, now, finally, faith is the experience of a group. The German princes whose faith became the religion of their territories. We could think of the Elector Frederick, who befriended Luther and protected him and so forth. This is very typical of mission experience. Germany wasn’t exactly a mission field still, but it was earlier. Luther’s translation of the Bible was a missionary translation. It’s rather surprising to realize that there were 14 other complete translations into German prior to Luther’s, but nevertheless this decentralization of the Christian faith into northern Europe, the breaking away of the Reformation territories, which were the non-Romanized cultures, as Latourette points out, implies that there are whole groups that share faith in at least some sense.

Now, missionaries ran into this in Sumatra when the Batak peoples numbering in the hundreds of thousands were pressured from the north by invading Muslim missionaries, and in the middle of the Sumatra, they ran into these German Reformed and Lutheran missionaries working together, mind you, and they decided that they were going to become Christians. The power structure of their society made that decision, and they went and informed the missionaries. The missionaries were pietists and threw them out on their ear, speaking figuratively. So, they said, “Well, we’ll be Muslims then.” The missionaries had second thoughts, and in one of the earliest occurrences in modern mission history, a whole group became “Christian” at the same time. It is “Christian” (in quotes) of course, after this conference, it would be difficult to make them out to all having saving faith.

But, it is also true that it is hard to believe that this was not the thing that those missionaries should have done. They immediately pursued this opening by pointing out that if these people are now Christians, they must study the Bible, and they did right down to the family level, and as McGavran observes, “It isn’t important how the people became Christian (this is a rather non-theological statement), but it is important what they did when they became Christians.

Well, in any case, this phenomenon of group conversion has dogged the tracks of the Western theologically trained missionaries for many, many years. It was a great deal of time later that on a nearby island — the largest island of the world, New Guinea — that American Protestant missionaries ran and got their shotguns and drove off a thousand mountain people who had descended upon them to inform them that they had become Christians or wanted to become Christians, and while the missionaries watched at a distance, these people were of course taken just a little aback by the shotgun. They were burning their fetishes in the distance, and the missionaries were confronted with this curious theological problem. This did not fit in with their pietist tradition.

Now, the first era missionaries discovered this, the second era missionaries had to rediscover it. There was no connection either between the German writers, people like Warneck, and the American missionaries going out. They didn’t read German, but neither did they read their own English writings. They didn’t read the great brilliant Missiologist of the 19th century being Henry Venn of the Church Missionary Society, and the writings of Rufus Anderson, a compatriot in the United States. Those writings were unavailable apparently either physically or emotionally to the student volunteers of the second era, and so it was not possible for any continuity of perspective or insight in this area.

Where Faith Leads Us

But now quickly, where does faith lead us? That’s an important question. We’ve talked a lot about how we begin in faith. The Reformation itself, strangely, was unable to follow the global faith of the Roman tradition. As a generalization, I think that has to stand. Although John Elliott very early in the game was able to take into account the Indian populations of the New World. It is as if these refugees had their noses rubbed in the reality of the peoples of the world, whether they wanted to or not. Most of them didn’t succumb to any great interest, or shall I say, faith, in God’s purposes for these peoples.

But, some did, and it was those praying villages that actually turned the tide in King Philip’s War, which would’ve otherwise extinguished that colonial experiment in what we call the northeast of America today. We probably have no idea how close they came to extinction, even then, without those praying Indians helping them track the forests, they would’ve certainly have lost the battle. The irony and the tragedy is that after the war was over, the European settlers were so shaken that they turned against the Indians that had saved them, and burned their villages down and drove them into the wilderness as well.

It was at Stockbridge of course, as we’ve already heard, that at least some people, those at least who had worn out their welcome with the Anglos. Those Stockbridge Indians were encouraged no longer to fend for themselves in the forest but to grow and plant things systematically, and it was only when they had tilled the fields and cut down the forest and transformed that wilderness into European style territory that they were invited to leave and go someplace else, and then they were pushed off again and pushed off again, and those Stockbridge Indians today, after 29 forcible removals, are now refugees in Northern Michigan.

It shows you the curious interplay between those few who shared God’s vision for all mankind, and those majority members of the church who, to this day, vote down that mission, maybe not with quite the same violence that they treated those Moravian villages of Pennsylvania, or that Stockbridge community of Massachusetts. But, in other ways, very politely, we avoid and evade the glory which God has for us. I’m paraphrasing Luke 2, where the glory of Israel would’ve been the revelation to the Gentiles, and it is now to us who have that revelation, our glory that we, again, share it.

Possessions Packed in Coffins

Well, nevermind, we got beyond that, we’ve heard about Andrew Fuller this morning, and how imperceptibly this new and of course old biblical perspective was able to conquer in the Protestant tradition. Maybe not exactly conquer, but conquer a minority, what you might refer to as the winning minority. So, it was with Edwards, Wesley, the haystack permitting, Carey, the tears of the first era, they sent missionaries to the West Coast of Africa. Over a 35 year period, the Methodist Society, which finally crawled into existence much later than Carey, sent 35 missionaries in 35 years. Not a single one of them lived more than two years because of the tropical fevers of that territory. I think young people today who are considering missions would, for the most part, be unprepared for that kind of a mission. Those missionaries from that point on, for a long, long time going to Africa, packed their belongings in coffins.

In those days, the frontiers were not defined because everywhere was the frontier, but eventually another young man of similar social background as William Carey, not the Cambridge or the Oxford product, which we would’ve hoped for, pointed out that China was more than a coastland, and to make a long story short, God gave faith to many, many people at his time, and a new enterprise began, a new hopefulness about what God wanted to do.

Women in this country, especially, began to move by the middle of the last century. The Civil War slaughtered so many American men. I’ve heard it said it was a higher proportion of our society than has occurred in any other civil war of its same proportion. There were probably seven women per man following the Civil War, an astonishing situation, which meant the women had to run the farms, the banks, the businesses, set up colleges, and this produced a period of about 40 years in which women actually founded their own societies and went all over the world on their own. The world’s largest women’s university is thus in the mission field today. It has 18,000 students in Seoul, Korea. It could never happen again. The women are no longer in missions today. They have been admitted into the rest of society. They don’t have to pick the only vocation open to them.

Young people began to move, The Christian Endeavor Movement was a powerful movement before the Student Volunteer Movement ever began. When the student volunteers had their first quadrennial in 1891, it was only 12 months later that some of their leaders, Robert E. Speer to be specific, were asked to address not a thousand students, but 25,000 in the Young People’s movement, which was not a college level movement because very few people were in college in those days. This young people’s movement called Christian Endeavor is to this day the world’s largest student movement, or I should say young people’s movement, although we don’t know much about it in our urbanized churches today. It was inherently a student-led movement. Professional pastors can’t allow for that.

Moody and a Student Movement

Then the college students finally clicked in, but more important than the college students alone was the context within which that last plank in the platform clicked in. D.L. Moody, a great man, in physical bulk, challenged Spurgeon asking him when he was going to stop smoking. Spurgeon said, “When are you going to stop eating?” He was a fidgety, restless, all-out man. Moody, the most unqualified person ever to address the Cambridge student body, failed completely, until somehow God broke through. A student leader got too near to him, and wilted, and then testified the next night, and that began a movement which was much more spectacular in England than the Student Volunteer Movement was in the United States, although Americans are unfamiliar with the fact that the Cambridge Seven was that much of an explosion rocking the high levels of English society. Nothing like that has ever happened in the United States.

But Moody was present that day in western Massachusetts in his own hometown. In order to rest, he would sometimes go home to that little town comparable, culturally and geographically, to the Paulerspury of William Carey, or the Nazareth of Jesus Christ. God has apparently often chosen the weak things that confound the mighty. But he was trailed when he went home to rest, and an auditorium was built so that he would be able to rest more effectively, and the Northfield Conference came into being.

In 1885, a young Englishman who was a little later to become the mayor of London, one of the brothers and C. T. Studd’s family, and one of Moody’s people, was the man who actually brought Moody to Cambridge. He was brought over by Moody to this country and he stumped the American colleges. It was his efforts, actually, more than any Americans, that brought in the Student Volunteer Movement. Whether you read the American accounts, the Student Volunteer Movement went to England and got the English interested.

But, at that meeting in 1885, in the fall, A.T. Pearson was asked one evening to present the challenge of the world, and Moody didn’t consider himself qualified. I don’t think he should have been qualified. I don’t think God wants all ministries to be the same. He turned to Pearson, and Pearson was up there pouring out his heart. Pearson said something to that vast multitude in the middle of his talk. There were 1.4 billion people in the world in 1885, and about 400 million were nominal Christians. Pearson said, “If only 10 million, the evangelicals of our world, whose theology involves them in missions (unlike the Westminster Confession, which has not the slightest reference to the Great Commission), between now and the year 1900 win a hundred people to Christ, it’ll be possible to win everyone in the world to Christ.”

Now, that’s good arithmetic. We may smile at the thought of them winning everyone in the world by the year 1900. That was their faith, or maybe it was false faith. We have to contend with false faith. There is such a thing. It doesn’t deserve the name of course, but there are people who believe what is not true. I have carefully thought this through. I don’t believe that what they thought could happen was impossible. I think it was a realistic projection. But there were distractions and american imperialism.

Distractions Keeping Us from the Great Commission

We were out to found an empire. As we look back, our school teachers tell us, “Oh no, the Americans have never wanted to found an empire.” Well, I’m sorry, but that’s not the case. We savagely pushed to the Pacific and cut Canada out of the Oregon territories. We’ve put four states into existence in one month, more so than at any time since the colonial era ended. We reached out across the Pacific and grabbed half of Samoa, the half that the French hadn’t already occupied. We took the Philippines over the moment the Spanish were being expelled by a powerful indigenous movement, which then we ourselves had to quell in a war far more ugly and far more devastating than the Vietnam War, which we slate in our books. The Battleship Maine exploded in the harbor of Cuba. We were expecting to take over Cuba and we were expecting to take over most of Central America.

That’s why, embarrassingly, to this day, many denominational mission boards which don’t shift gears very rapidly, apparently, have that territory under their home mission board. It’s very embarrassing that Cuba and Central America are the home mission board rather than the foreign mission board. But, the Battleship Maine, who knows who blew it up. We may have blown it up ourselves in order to ferment the jingoistic cause of our compatriots. Eleven days later than that explosion which catapulted us into the invasion of Cuba, with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and all of that distraction filled our minds, 11 days later, John R. Mott of the Student Volunteer Movement stood up at the final moment of one of the quadrennials in Cleveland, and he said, “We are at war.” In the most spectacular prose he painted a global contest which was totally different from the imperialist vision.

But, we weren’t just distracted, we were dissipating in those days. This period, following upon these great hopes of A.T Pearson and the great 1888 London Missionary Conference, is called “The Gay Nineties.” We spent a hundred million dollars in one day on parties, and all kinds of parties characterized the affluent spirit of that time. Many of these were evangelical parties. We didn’t put our money where our mouth was. The roaring twenties came a little later, then the Great Depression and the Second World War. We rediscovered the world the hard way. We exported, at great cost, 11 million Americans to go out and rub their noses in the reality of the tribal peoples of South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Our university sprouted departments where there were no before. Latourette, for 22 years, in this century, taught the only courses at Yale that were offered, on China or the far east. God took the Second World War to remind us of the nation, and then of course the influx of peoples into this country is another reminder if we can see it in mission terms. There are 137 languages spoken in the city of Los Angeles, and are spoken in the homes of school children.

The Final Era

Well, anyway, we’re now in the final era. What is this final era teaching us in terms of faith? Can we honestly look back and revere those men who believed back then, and be unwilling to believe today? The facts are different, of course, today. There are 3.68 times as many human beings in the world, so it’s more hopeless, right? There are four times as many people, but there are 40 times as many evangelicals, 400 million, and they’re scattered all over the earth. They’re stationed in all the right parts of the world. If only their vision and their faith can be reborn.

It is being reborn in a way. In 1980, the phrase was coined, “A church for every people by the year 2000.” The year 1980 was safely far from the year 2000 so that no one really worried about the phrase, and no one really thought much about it, but there was a man who was there from Korea named David Cho. It was only two years ago that that man in subsequent years, and in an earlier missionary vision, staged a conference which was held in Pasadena, but to which no one from the Western world was invited, except for a tiny little cadre of observers. It was a meeting of Third World mission societies, the first such meeting in history initiated by those societies.

Another man who was there was Thomas Wong, and he is now the international director of The Lausanne Committee. Last year he wrote an article, “By the Year 2000.” Is God Trying to Tell Us Something?” He sent it all over the world. Everybody said, “Oh yes, this is nice,” and so forth. He talked about the Big Ear telescope that’s trained out with hundreds of millions of dollars behind it, listening, listening, listening to outer space, hoping to hear some intelligible word from outer space, and yet the church is not listening to the living God today, as to what he wants to do by the year 2000. This is the thesis of his article.

Everybody thought it was nice until he made it the theme of the magazine he edited, and suggested it as the theme of the 1989 Lausanne conference, and then a few weeks ago the executive committee said, “Now wait a minute,” and one observer under his breath at the thought of winning the world by the year 2000 simply said, “Rubbish.” So the theme has been changed against the international director’s will. It is now, “The Year 2000 and Beyond.” They would be embarrassed to subtract the wording from the earlier issues of the magazine, but they’ve added the word beyond so that there can be no clear cut challenge, there’s no real worry then about anything. We can’t fail so long as we don’t have a precise target.

I don’t want you to go away quoting me as saying that Jesus is coming in the year 2000, but stop and think. We’re not even talking about Jesus coming anymore. In China, there’s a list of five cardinal Christian doctrines which it is against the law to preach. The one that heads the list is the second coming of Christ. Why do they have to oppose it by law? They wouldn’t have to in this country. It wouldn’t be necessary. We don’t believe that he’s coming back. We’re living as though he’s delaying his coming. There is that hymn, “Jesus may come today. Glad day, glad day.” How many of you’ve ever sung that hymn? But, how many of you have sung it in the last five years?

I asked this question at Viola University at a confluence of their three graduate schools, 400 students, only six students could raise their hand. Our faith is thin. In New Orleans last year, 35,000 people gathered around the subject of world evangelization by the year 2000, although they hardly mentioned the subject in the meeting. At Singapore 1987, it was mentioned only. In Dallas, last August, there was a meeting convened by the Southern Baptists, in which they officially announced, “We cannot do this by ourselves, but together we can do this by the year 2000.” Another meetings in 1987, the largest meeting ever held in the non-Western world, was composed of non-Western delegates and talking about Third World mission field Christians forming their own mission societies to get on with this job and to finish it. That group alone could do the job by the year 2000. I wish I had an hour to tell you about that conference only a few days ago.

The Initiatives of God

Our own project in Pasadena, pathetic and hopeless, suddenly took on new life, and as I could have said in November, we can hardly believe that we will make it by the end of the year, and looking back in February of this year, I can hardly believe that we did make it. So, on both sides of the great event of our completion of our program, we are held in unbelief. We can’t quite figure it out, but the clues are there. Our faith should be nourished by the initiatives of God that are beyond our control. Do we have a right to be ignorant of what God is doing in the world today?

In Portland, May 9 to 13 will be another meeting on a world level of these Third World mission agencies. Los Angeles 1988 was already printed up without the slightest reference to the Global Commission, but now has a tiny little rivulet of nuance in its program. In Washington for Jesus, I have three minutes in which to say something about the Global Commission. Leadership 1988 in Washington again is a somewhat pathetic attempt to tempt a large number of younger leaders to go to Washington to hear about world evangelization without telling them that’s the subject or they wouldn’t come, but maybe it’ll work. Let’s pray for leadership 1988, the last week of June. In September, the Lausanne committee will convene a world level meeting on this subject: “What can be done by the year 2000?”

Let me go back to A.T Pearson. 10 million can win a hundred million people by the year 1900, he said, if only a hundred people are one per person. Today, 400 million evangelicals are 40 times as strong as that. It would only be two people to win, not a hundred, by that comparison. There are 17,000 peoples to be reached, but there are an average of over 300 evangelical Bible believing congregations to do the reaching if only they can awaken in time to do something about it. Well, as with some of the other speakers, my time is already over, so I’ll just screech to a stop here, and see what comments or questions you might have.

Question and Answer

Could you summarize in a sentence or two the future direction we ought to be taking in missions?

Well, next week in this same city we’ll have one of our 12 Regional Mobilizer’s conferences, and that’s the whole burden of that whole conference, and I having gone through two of these, I would hesitate to try to put all of that in a single sentence or two, but essentially we just need to wake up. This is a spiritual, not an intellectual problem. The facts I’m quoting about the Soviet Union and China are not things being done in a corner. The fact that there are more believers publicly known to be so in the Soviet Union than in the time of the revolution is a stubborn reality that the Soviet government just cannot avoid. I mean it was Billy Graham coming back from the Soviet Union who was widely criticized for the first time in “Christianity Today” and perhaps the last time, because obviously he had been brainwashed by the reality of the power of God, which we could not believe.

Now, I think you as pastors don’t have to be statisticians or experts on missions. The information that I’m talking about is available. It’s just that we are unprepared for the truth, just as unprepared as those people who were praying upstairs for Peter’s release, and when Peter came to the door, they couldn’t believe it. I never thought much about that until I realized that Peter had been released twice before, miraculously, and this was the third time. This was the situation where Jesus turned to the disciples in confronting the 4,000 in total disarray and dismay, and up prayed at them because they could not remember that he had fed all of them.

We’re in a similar situation. We stand at the end of history looking back on all kinds of miracles, and you as a pastor have just as much access to that reality as anybody does. It’s printed, go to the nearest public library. Look in the World Christian Encyclopedia on page 662, and you’ll find that whole display of God’s irreducible power in the Soviet Union. But, who’s looking at page 662? I was in a congregation maybe twice this size in Austin, Texas, and I’ve been told that there are a number of the members who own that book, World Christian Encyclopedia. It’s not published by some offbeat publisher, but it’s published by the Oxford University Press. I asked the people, “How many of you own a copy?” and 57 people raised their hands. Some congregations have reached out for faith. It’s easy, the whole thing is so easy it is almost ridiculous. This is not a tough job anymore. The toughness has to do with the spiritual blindness that blankets this nation.

What would you say the distinction between pastors and missionaries is?

It’s like what we have in our own Western tradition. It’s like the medical doctors who are specialists of the human being, let’s say, compared to the veterinarians who have had to look at other created beings besides human beings. They have to know that you don’t treat a crocodile with the same medicine you treat a parakeet, and a missionary is like a veterinarian compared to a doctor. There are a lot of parallels. First of all, the patients aren’t important. The theological complexity is almost infinite compared to what the Westminster Confession is dealing with. Missionaries have to completely rewrite those confessions. I remember when I was taken into the faculty at Fuller, they were very upset when I said — in response to the question, “What do you think of the Fuller statement of faith?” — “Well, it’s a very good statement in terms of its provincial setting.” It caused all kinds of difficulty.

How do you get the figure of 17,000 remaining people groups, and what do you think our priority should be in terms of missions work?

The number 17,000 is a result of a bunch of estimates. Very, very technical scholars in the Wycliffe tradition have pointed out that you cannot tell how many languages there are until you learn those languages, and you cannot tell how many groups there are until those groups become Christian or until you become inside the group. It’s only inside that you can see the boundaries. And so it is that we’ll never know for sure until we’re finished with the job. But I hasten to say that of the 17,000 groups, over half of them have been engaged or are selected for engagement. Now, I’m using technical terms, “engagement” means you’ve actually begun work physically in the situation. Over half of those 17,000 groups today have either been engaged or are selected for soon engagement. We are very, very much further, but at the other end, we don’t know for sure when we’re finished.

The most important thing is not to argue endlessly over whether France needs missionaries or the inner cities need missionaries. Why argue? Obviously, we need more exponents of the gospel everywhere. The question is, “Is there anyone who has less of a chance?” To go to the places that have the least chance would seem to be a priority in view of the parable of the lost sheep. I would not spend one minute arguing about whether we need to send missionaries to France, but I think it would be unfortunate if we had no priorities, because those people have the Bible in their language, or at least they could get one if they wanted one. So there is a difference.

Do you think there could be a danger in so many people moving out to the unreached places and leaving a weakness in the churches that are already established?

I think this is a common question. Let me just say this. I don’t think you can figure it out. I don’t think you can grapple with that intellectually. If every pastor in this room, in the congregation, we shall spend not one penny of money on any community of people within whose midst there is a strong church movement. We’ll spend all of our money on the darkest places on the earth. You could easily make out a case for this producing havoc in one extreme. But, go ahead and try it, it won’t work. There’s never been the threat that we would tempt too many people to go where it’s darkest. Therefore, in my situation, from my point of view, you don’t have to resolve the question theoretically because no one will accept the answer anyway.

All you can do is to persuade as many people to go to the hardest, most difficult places that they’re able to go effectively. There is no use sending people who are unable, and you can be sure that, at least so far, no one has ever been able to overdo it. Now, if one congregation becomes a specialist in inner city work, another congregation becomes a specialist in something else, I don’t mind, it’s just that the denomination gets unhappy when the divine budget of the denomination is not encountered in the heart of every church, and in fact in the heart of every person. I think this is unrealistic.

Do you think a kind of depression can come onto the church when we make these claims about world evangelization and then see that it fails to come about?

It would be similar to the depression that engulfed the people of Israel after they refused Caleb and Joshua’s admonition. Now, when we look back at A.T Pearson, or back to Kadesh Barnea, I think they are similar situations. We can’t say, I don’t believe, “They obviously made a terrible mistake. God really was a little bit ahead of himself. He really needed those people to go off and die in the wilderness and start afresh and so forth of people who weren’t even circumcised.” No, the fact is that there are many times in human history when what God wanted to happen simply did not happen.

Now, this is the difference between the thelema and the boulēma of God. I’m not infringing on God’s sovereignty when I say that, but this is exactly what happened a hundred years ago. They talked about winning the world by the year 1900. By 1895, they gave up. Pearson himself adopted the phrase, “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” And that’s the only phrase we’ve ever heard. We haven’t heard that other earlier embarrassing phrase. Now, in my opinion, we have 24 to 36 months, a window of opportunity in which a global revival of missionary concern, which is already happening before our eyes, will come into great power, or it won’t. And following that period people will say, “Hey, it can’t be done.” We will have to say, with Pearson then, “That’s right, it can’t be done.” But, that does not mean it couldn’t have been done, anymore than we can say that Caleb and Joshua were wrong.

Pearson was right in 1885. He was right in 1895. He came out with completely different conclusions, and we will too. I myself will stand in this same place a few years from now and say, “It can’t be done,” unless we’re willing to do it now. I don’t think we can go on and on talking about faith without recognizing the time element in faith, the kairos. Jesus said, “You did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:44) with tears running down his cheeks. That same statement has been applicable in many subsequent moments of history, and it would be applicable today.

(1924–2009) was a missionary who founded the interdenominational U.S. Center for World Mission (now known as Frontier Ventures).