A mission policy for a local church
In last September’s ET we saw that ‘God is a missionary God’. This is the first and fundamental idea we must grasp if we want to establish biblical principles of mission and ensure that our practice as churches has clear purpose and direction.
We saw that the Bible reveals God’s purpose to ‘seek and save that which was lost’ (Matthew 18:11) and noted three implications: (a) Mission work is important; (b) God determines the principles and practices of mission; and (c) the missionary task will be successful.
Having established that God does save the lost, and that he is the author of mission, we must next be clear on how God saves sinners. The answer will shape our missionary endeavour, defining what is necessary for the task.
One of the best-known verses in the Bible tells us how God saves: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).
He saves sinners through the work of his Son, Jesus Christ, in whom people must believe. To believe they must hear, and if they are to hear someone must preach (Romans 10:14).
Conscious faith in Jesus Christ essential for salvation
The plain and simple message of the New Testament is that God has provided a wonderful salvation for sinners through Jesus Christ, and whoever believes in him will receive it (John 3:15, 16, 36; 20:30-31; Acts 16:30-31; Romans 3:21-22; 10:13-15; Ephesians 2:8).
The aim of all missionary work, then, is to ‘bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations’ (Romans 1:5). Scripture is clear that Jesus is the only Saviour and that faith in him is necessary for salvation.
This doctrine is being questioned today in three ways that have a direct bearing on the work of mission:
1. Will anyone experience eternal conscious torment under God’s wrath?
2. Is the work of Christ necessary?
3. Is conscious faith in Christ necessary for salvation?
As John Piper says: ‘Biblical answers to these questions are crucial because in each case a negative answer would seem to cut a nerve of urgency in the missionary cause … There is a felt difference in the urgency when one believes that hearing the gospel is the only hope that anyone has of escaping the penalty of sin and living for ever in happiness to the glory of God’s grace’.
So how does Scripture reply to these challenges?
Will anyone go to hell?
Many who see Christ as humanity’s only hope nevertheless deny that there is eternal punishment for not believing in him. Some say all will eventually be in heaven; others dismiss eternal punishment because they think the fires of hell annihilate those who reject Christ — unbelievers simply cease to exist and experience no conscious, everlasting punishment.
This, of course, has a direct bearing on the work of mission, because it affects how seriously we treat it. Is eternal punishment at stake or do unbelievers just face nothingness? What does Christ save people from?
The Bible’s answer is that ‘salvation’ means ‘deliverance from the eternal punishment of sin’. In this article we can only deal with the matter briefly, but just listen to the words of Jesus as he spoke on several different occasions: Matthew 13:49-50; 18:8-9; 22:13; 25:41; 25:46; Mark 9:43, 47-8.
Look also at the picture painted for us in Revelation 15 and 21:8. This is not about what ‘makes sense’ to us, or what is popularly believed or cleverly taught today — it is about what the glorious God has inalterably declared in his Word. He determines what is real. People’s lives hang by a thread over an endless hell — as a just, fair judgement upon sin.
But God in grace has provided a Saviour.
Is the work of Christ necessary?
Many today deny that Christ is humanity’s only hope. They acknowledge the work of Christ as useful for Christians but not necessary for non-Christians. The question may be put like this: ‘Is the work of Christ the only means provided by God for the eternal salvation of all types of people?’ or are there other bases on which the ‘lost’ can be sought and saved?
The Bible is emphatic that Jesus Christ, in his work and person, is absolutely necessary for salvation. There simply is no other way, truth or life, for no one can come to the Father except through him (John 14:6).
Christ’s work is unique, and he has done everything needed to provide salvation from sin. For example, Romans 5:17-21 shows the universal scope and unique saving capacity of Christ’s work.
Other passages such as Acts 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; and Revelation 5:9-10 insist upon this. This is the very foundation of mission according to Jesus himself (Luke 24:46-47).
Is conscious faith in Christ essential?
Some don’t deny hell or the necessity of Christ’s work, but question whether a person’s faith in Christ must be conscious. They suggest it might be possible never to hear of Jesus, but still be saved by him — it is possible to be a ‘pagan saint’! One advocate of this view is Peter Cotterell, the former principal of London Bible College and author of Mission and meaninglessness.
Such theories are not new and the Bible is very clear in its response (e.g. in Romans 10:12-18). The necessity of conscious faith in Christ was Paul’s conviction and it underpinned his own missionary labours (Acts 26:15-18).
Cornelius (Acts 10:1-43) is often cited as an example of a man who was ‘saved’ before he heard about Jesus (10:1, 35). But Acts 11:13-14 and 10:43 explain what Cornelius’ position really was.
God does indeed honour those who seek him — but he does so by sending gospel preachers to proclaim to them the person and work of Jesus Christ! Why did God bother to send Peter if they didn’t need the explicit gospel message to believe and be saved?
The undeniably biblical principal is that conscious faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ is necessary for anyone to be saved from hell and to gain heaven.
The implications for us
What, then, are the implications of this for us today?
Firstly,the need for gospel missionary work is real. People will perish in their sins and go to a lost, tormented eternity if they do not ‘believe on the name of the only Son of God’ (John 3:18).
The message of Jesus Christ is the only truly good news for sinners and the Lord has given us, his church, the responsibility to take it to the ‘unreached’ world. We must engage with the Lord of glory in his cause.
Charles Hodge was right to declare that, ‘the solemn question, implied in the language of the apostle, “how can they believe without a preacher?”, should sound day and night in the ears of the churches’.
The modern abandonment of this belief — the universal necessity of hearing the gospel for salvation — cuts a nerve in missionary motivation. It waters down the great commission. Those who carry the gospel message have beautiful feet because they ‘preach … the unsearchable riches of Christ’ without which no one will be saved!
Secondly, the church’s mission is to evangelise, that is, to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the lost. We must never lose sight of the fact that conscious faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation. And if that is so, the church’s primary concern must be to preach the gospel message knowing that ‘faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God’. We must keep focused on the task.
Today a much broader definition of the church’s mission is generally accepted, including — and giving the same level of priority to — stewarding the material resources of creation, practising humanitarianism and promoting social justice.
These things are not unimportant, and Christians have responsibilities in such areas, but they are not the primary mission of the church of Jesus Christ. People need the gospel more than anything else — that must always be the number-one issue for the church.
Thirdly,we have the privilege of being involved in God’s great purpose. It is our unspeakable privilege to be caught up with God in the greatest movement in history — the ingathering of the elect ‘from all tribes and languages and peoples and nations’.
This engagement will last until the full number of the Gentiles comes in, all Israel is saved, and the Son of Man descends with power and great glory as King of kings and Lord of lords.
God has chosen to save the lost through faith in his Son, so that in the end there will be a great multitude who worship him through Jesus Christ for all eternity. We must do all we can to declare him to the whole world.