Founders Journal

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Founders Journal · Spring 2003 · pp. 1-10,21

Reformation and Missions

Tom Ascol

This article is taken from the new Founders Press book, Reclaiming the Gospel and Reforming Churches, edited by the author. It is a compilation of sermons and papers presented over the first twenty years of the annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference. For ordering information see announcement in the "News Items."

Romans 2:17-24

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, an English Baptist pastor wrote a pamphlet in which he surveyed the state of Christianity in various countries. Although Europe was the obvious stronghold of the Christian faith at that time, this pastor said it was a "melancholy fact that the vices of Europeans have been communicated wherever they themselves have been; so that the religious state of even heathens has been rendered worse by intercourse with them" (64). He went on to observe in his pamphlet:

Of those who bear the Christian name, a very great degree of ignorance and immorality abounds amongst them. There are Christians, so called, of the Greek and Armenian churches in all the Mahometan [i.e., Muslim] countries; but they are, if possible, more ignorant and vicious than the Mahometans themselves. The Georgian Christians, who are near the Caspian Sea, maintain themselves by selling their neighbors, relations, and children, for slaves to the Turks and Persians. It is well known that most of the members of the Greek church are very ignorant. Papists also are in general ignorance of divine things and very vicious. Nor do the bulk of the church of England much exceed them, either in knowledge or holiness; and many errors, and much looseness of conduct, are to be found among dissenters of all denominations. The Lutherans of Denmark, are much on par with the ecclesiastics in England; and the face of most Christian countries presents a dreadful scene of ignorance, hypocrisy, and profligacy. Various baneful, and pernicious errors appear to gain ground, in almost every part of Christendom; the truths of the gospel, and even the gospel itself, are attacked, and every method that the enemy can invent is employed to undermine the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ (64-65).

This writer viewed the Christianity of his day as weak and ineffective. In fact, it was worse than ineffective because it worked at counter-purposes with the cause of Christ. In countries that were known as Christian the gospel had been forgotten and even attacked in the name of Christianity itself. Ignorance and immorality were rampant among those who called themselves followers of Christ. In their efforts to evangelize, Christians often left the unconverted people in a worse condition than they knew.

Who was this voice crying in the wilderness? Why was he so pessimistic? On what grounds was he compelled to put his thoughts in print?

The words belong to William Carey, and they come from the third chapter of his epic-making book published in 1792, entitled, An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. That book has been called the "charter of the Protestant missionary movement" and Carey wrote it to motivate the Christians of his day to preach the gospel to all nations.

What Carey observed was a bleak spiritual picture--not only among the unevangelized nations of the world, but also in those lands with a long and significant Christian witness. Churches were weak. Christians were untaught and unholy. The truths of the gospel were being undermined by the very churches that professed to know and preach the gospel. Listen to the conclusion that Carey drew after assessing this distressing condition in his day:

All these things are loud calls to Christians, and especially to ministers, to exert themselves to the utmost in their several spheres of action, and to try to enlarge them as much as possible.

Superficiality, ignorance, and immorality among the people of God, Carey says, are loud calls to Christians, especially to pastors, to exert themselves to the utmost in their churches and beyond. But for what purpose? To what end were they to give exertion? Carey knew the answer: For the reclamation of the gospel and the expansion of its work.

What William Carey recognized is something we need to see clearly in our day. The recovery of the gospel is reformation! The expansion of its work is missions! There is no incompatibility between the work of reformation at home and the work of missions abroad. In fact, there is a vital connection between the two. Passion for missions demands a commitment to reformation.

How much the gospel makes an impact abroad depends significantly upon the health of churches at home. Churches need to exemplify that which they would commend to others. This principle is established both positively and negatively throughout the Bible, especially in the New Testament.

In the positive sense, Jesus taught us that, as His followers, we are the light of the world. Collectively we are to regard ourselves as a city which is set upon a hill that cannot be hidden. Our light is to give light to the nations.

That certainly happened in the first century. A church was planted in Ephesus. We read in the book of Acts how Ephesus became a strategic foothold for the gospel through the work of that church. Through its members the message rapidly spread throughout all Asia (Acts 19). Also the church planted in Thessalonica was commended by Paul because of its spiritual health and vitality which spilled over into other regions of that land. He wrote in 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10:

For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything. For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

This church, which Paul earlier had characterized as being filled with faith, hope and love, sounded forth the gospel, by their reputation of how they lived and by their actions. Their living of the Word became the foundation of their proclamation of the Word throughout the world. The Thessalonian church was a healthy church and it had a broad impact. Its members followed a key principle: When spiritual vitality characterizes the home base, the gospel witness which goes out is strengthened.

But this principle also works in the other direction. Where there is a lack of spiritual health at home there will be a hindrance to the work of the gospel abroad. It is this negative aspect of the principle that I want to call to our attention by specifically looking to Paul's letter to the church at Rome.

Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast in God and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law. You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You say, 'Do not commit adultery,' do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? For 'the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,' as it is written (Romans 2:17-24).

Verses 17 through 20 could be constructed as rhetorical questions, or, as the New King James Version seems to suggest, they could be statements--not completely accusatory ones, but somewhat critical in tone. Either way, the point is the same. Paul writes these words in the midst of building an argument for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. He is showing both Jews and Gentiles that they are all sinners before God, condemned by God's law, and in need of a salvation that comes only through grace and that will bring them into a right relationship with Jesus Christ, God's Son. Paul's argument in verses 17-24 demonstrates in a negative way the relationship between the advance of God's kingdom abroad and the spiritual health of God's people at home. Paul takes the Jews to task for failing to live up to the responsibilities and privileges which had been afforded them.

In verses 17-20 we see the great privileges of divine blessing that are set forth by the Apostle (albeit in an edgy way), but they are genuine privileges of God's blessing. We see first of all, in the first part of verse 17, that they are the people who bear the name of God. They have the distinction of being known as God's people, the Jews. This was a self-designation which, in the Jewish mind, encapsulated all of the prerogatives and all of the privileges which went with being God's chosen people.

Paul went on to speak of them "resting on the law." They took comfort in having God's law. They derived a sense of security from the fact that they were the ones to whom the law had been given. After all, doesn't Psalm 147 say that God "declares His Word to Jacob, His statutes and His judgments to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation."

Paul then reminded them that they regarded their relationship with God as so wonderful that it was something to "boast about" at the very end of verse 17. I like the way the New International Version renders it "you brag about your relationship with God," as if they thought they themselves were responsible for it.

In verse 18, he showed how they claimed to have divine insight and knowledge which others did not have, thus making them rather self-assured regarding their calling in the world to be guides to the spiritually blind; light to those in spiritual darkness; teachers of the spiritually foolish and immature.

In other words, Paul described the Jews of his day in language which they themselves would have used, but there is what one writer calls a "latent irony" in the way that Paul addressed them. The Jews were indeed, called to be God's people. As such they were certainly blessed with many spiritual blessings. They enjoyed a special relationship with God. They had God's law. They possessed the covenant. To them the promises had been entrusted. They had a mission to the rest of the world. It was to the Jews that God gave the commandment to "proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day, to declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all people." They were the ones that were to "say to the nations, 'The Lord reigns'" (Psalm 96).

The Jews acknowledged all this, at least to some degree. In fact, the way that Paul addressed them in verses 17-20 suggests that they had a measure of pride and self-importance about this responsibility. They knew the true God. They possessed the only law of God. They were able to discern God's will, so naturally it rested upon them to be the teachers, the instructors, of others.

But what Paul said to the Jews in verses 17-20 was designed to set them up for the scathing indictment that followed. Beginning in verse 21 he laid out the devastating consequences of their spiritual hypocrisy. In verses 21-23 he exposed that hypocrisy by turning to a more accusatory tone and quizzing the Jews about their spiritual and moral conduct. It is as if he was saying to them in these verses, "You who have been so favored of God and who are so self-consciously in the position of being the stewards of His Word, declaring His Word to the world, how do you measure up to the things that you teach? Do you practice what you preach to others?"

In verses 21 and 22 he said, "You therefore, who teach another, do you teach yourself? You who preach the demands about stealing, do you steal? You who say you do not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?"

The Apostle Paul used these four rhetorical questions to expose the specific hypocrisy among the Jews of his day. There is clear evidence that each one of these sins was being committed. He shows the inconsistency between that which they understood about themselves and proclaimed to others, and the reality of how they conducted themselves.

Then in verse 23 he turned to a sweeping accusation that categorically condemned the hypocrisy he had exposed in the immediately prior verses--that the Jews boasted of their possession and commitment to the law of God. They prided themselves in their unhesitating affirmation of the law being the very Word of God. They didn't wince at affirming the full authority of the Word of God. No doubt they would have affirmed its inerrancy and infallibility. They conscientiously embraced their own responsibility to make this Word known to the nations. Yet Paul castigated them in verse 23, "You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law?" The very God whose law they extolled with their lips was dishonored by their lives.

They were scrupulous in their devotion to His Word, zealous in their efforts to spread the Word of God to others, but grievously neglectful of applying that Word to themselves. In this instance Paul is following in the footsteps of the Old Testament prophet Nathan who stood before a slumbering, spiritually sick King David and said, "You are the man." That which you would do to others and have others do to you, you yourself are unwilling to do. The Jews, entrusted with God's Word, called to spread that Word, were living in ongoing disobedience to the Word.

Finally, in verse 24 Paul came to the conclusion of the point and described the consequences of their hypocrisy as devastating. "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you. You who boast of God, who take pride in your favored position as the people of God, who affirm the Word of God entrusted to you, do you not see that the ethnesin--the nations--blaspheme the name of your God because of the way you conduct yourselves!" In this verse Paul alludes to Isaiah 52:5, and also several passages in Ezekiel where God accused His Old Testament people of conducting themselves in a way that brought reproach upon His name that He had placed upon His people. The Jews were responsible for leading the nations to blaspheme God. The nations of the world were judging God on the basis of what they saw in the Jews. You can't blame them. The Jews claimed to be God's own people, the very children of God, the representatives of God, on the earth. They were His messengers and His family. The Gentiles judged God by their conduct and no doubt must have reasoned that if the family members, the children, are like this, the head of the family must also be like this. They tell us not to steal. They say we must not commit adultery. Yet they rob our temples and steal themselves and commit adultery. The God they worship must not be much of a God. They tell us that we must look to this law that they profess to honor, yet look at the consequences of this law in their own lives. There must not be much in this law that God has given to them.

John Murray comments on this verse: "The tragic irony is apparent. The Jews who claimed to be the leaders of the nation for the worship of the true God had become the instruments of provoking the nations to blasphemy." That wasn't their intention. Indeed, I think it's not too much to conclude that their intention was the exact opposite. They wanted, worked for and desired to have the nations come to know their God. They even went to some effort to convert the Gentiles. They accepted the responsibility to be the stewards of God's Word, the instructors of it, even missionaries, to go out and make it known. Yet the work of spreading God's Word abroad was seriously hindered. Paul even suggests that it was overturned by the neglecting of spiritual lives at home. Instead of the nations being soundly converted, they were provoked into blasphemous thoughts of God.

Paul doesn't speak against their zeal. In later chapters he commends their zeal, but zeal to declare God's Word is never enough. Zeal must be based upon knowledge, truth, and a proper understanding of that Word. It must be matched with an ongoing application of that Word to our own lives.

Doesn't Jesus make the same point when He castigates the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23? He says, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves." It is an immeasurable tragedy when our evangelistic and missionary efforts leave the very people that we go to in a spiritually worse condition than we found them! That's precisely what happened in Jesus' day. It's what happened in Paul's day. It happened in William Carey's day. Brothers and sisters, it's happening in our day! The name of God is being blasphemed today among the nations because of the Christian church in America. Our great God of wonders, our Lord Jesus Christ, who bled for us, who came and revealed God's incredible love and grace for rebels, is being blasphemed among the nations.

A few years ago a missionary who works with Muslims told me about a conversation he had with an Afghani Mullah. When the Mullah discovered that the missionary was a Christian pastor, he asked him this question, "Is it true that you can have as many women as you want--like other Christians?" This Muslim leader's vision of moral decadence in "Christian America" and his awareness of immorality by American ministers (who expressed sorrow only after they were caught) led him to believe that this Christian pastor must be able to be as immoral as he would want and with as many women as he would want.

If Christians are like a city set upon a hill, could it be that we who are part of the church of Jesus Christ in America should see ourselves as the highest peak in the range of modern nations? Whether we like it or not, we are highly visible to the world. A large percentage of the rest of the world, for good and for evil, judges Christianity and the Christian God by what it sees in America. Who is responsible for the moral degradation in America? We can all say "Amen" to criticism of the education system and how rotten it has become. We can all decry the politics of our land and how degenerate it is. But at least a very large, significant portion of the responsibility must be laid at the feet of the churches in America. We decry the immorality in our society, yet we wink at the same immorality within our churches. We declaim the loss of truth in our world, yet we do not guard the truth that has been entrusted to us in our churches.

If this is true, that the church in America bears incredible responsibility to the rest of the world because in God's providence we have a high profile before that world, then our concern for the work of the gospel among the nations must make us concerned for the reformation of the gospel here in America.

In a book entitled The Call of the South written in 1920 on the work of the gospel in the southern portion of the United States, the author, Victor Masters, records an incident that I find chilling. He says that in the year 1900 the Mikado, emperor of Japan, publicly stated his willingness to issue a decree which would make Christianity the state religion of his kingdom. He observed the work of Christian missionaries and he told his council that in observing the missionaries he had seen that their religion had been more helpful than any of the other religions that were being propagated in Japan. Some of his councilors suggested that before the decree was issued a deputation should be sent to the United States and Great Britain to measure how Christianity worked itself out within the borders of these sending countries. So the deputation traveled to Canada, the United States and Great Britain. They made notes of observations in the courts of law where they found justice often defeated. They noted that in the markets of trade and industry often reputed Christians were destroying each other in competitive business. They said they noticed something of a stench in American municipal government. They returned to Japan and wrote this report, "That while it may be true that the lives of the Christian missionaries among us is the purest of any of the advocates of religion in Japan, and the principles of Christianity taught by them are right and most helpful to our citizens, the people of the United States and Great Britain do not believe and practice the doctrines taught us by their Christian missionaries." Victor Masters, who recorded this incident, says, "Their deliberate refusal to adopt Christianity, after inspecting American and English life, is a severe arraignment on the effectiveness of our Christian teachings in our own land" (Victor I. Masters, The Call of the South, p. 213-214).

What if there had been more vital godliness in America and Great Britain at the turn of the century? While the Mikado's decree would not have made Japan a Christian nation, it would have opened up doors of opportunity for thousands of Christian teachers and missionaries to go in and to influence millions of Japanese.

John Stott has said, "No church can spread the gospel with any degree of integrity, let alone credibility, unless it has been visibly changed by the gospel it preaches. We need to look like what we are talking about. It is not enough to receive the gospel and pass it on; we must embody it in our common life of faith, love, joy, peace, righteousness and hope" (John Stott, The Gospel and the End of Time, p. 44).

Brothers and sisters, do our churches look like what we are preaching about? Does the state of our own congregations commend the message of God's grace and love? Can we honestly stand before the world and declare the holiness of our God in light of the character in our own lives?

How can we expect the world to believe that our trinitarian God is Himself love when we can't even get along with one another? How can we call upon people to believe that God is holy if we are not holy? What makes us think that we can convince people that the God we know in Jesus Christ is blessed forever if our lives are not marked by genuine joy? Why should anyone believe that our Lord spiritually and morally transforms people if we who make that claim are no different from the world?

What must we do? Should we cool our hearts for the work of missions around the world and turn all of our efforts to the work of reformation at home? No! Never! What we must do is increase our passion to see the gospel carried to all peoples of the earth, and out of that passion--as an integral part of that passion--we must fully embrace the call of reformation here at home! Passion for missions demands a commitment to reformation.

There are many areas of reformation that are desperately needed among American evangelicals in general and Southern Baptist churches in particular. Much could be said about the sufficiency of Scripture; worship; or the doctrine of the church, its polity, its practices, its order and discipline. All of these and many others are worthy subjects for us to zero in on to refine our thoughts about the need of reformation, but in the interest of time and order of priority, let me limit myself to simply one area.

Where do we desperately need a reformation as evangelicals in America and as Southern Baptists? We need it in our understanding of conversion; what it means to be a Christian; how one becomes a Christian. We can no longer assume that all evangelicals agree on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ or how a person becomes one. The Scripture is not ambiguous on this point. The Scripture says, "If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old is passed away, all things become new" (2 Corinthians 5:17). John says, "Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:4). Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15).

We might have various nuances and differences of opinion in precisely what conversion means, but can we not all agree that being a Christian means something? Is there a difference between one who is a child of God and one who is simply of the world? It is a significant event when a person becomes a disciple of Christ. There is a difference between a converted man or woman and an unconverted person. They have different loves. They have different orientations of life. They have different objects of devotion. The notion that a person can be genuinely converted and yet have no discernible difference in inner or outer life has no biblical warrant. Yet there are countless millions of people on the rolls of our Baptist churches who have no discernible difference in their lives from the world. They are counted as converted though they don't have enough spiritual impulse to even show up among the people of God in worship once a year. Our understanding of what it means to be a Christian needs to be biblically re-formed. We need a reformation of how a person becomes a Christian.

Related to that is our practice of evangelism. Walking an aisle, raising a hand, praying a prayer, taking a dip in a baptistry, does not effect conversion. We need to rediscover the doctrine of the new birth and look again to the Word of God to see what is meant by repentance and faith. If we are wrong regarding what it means to be right with God, and what is required for a person to get right with God, then we are poised not only to propagate spiritual confusion and disease at home, but also abroad as we send out confused people from our churches. And indeed, it is happening now.

Three years ago a well-known American Baptist preacher traveled to one of Russia's larger cities and conducted a two-week long crusade. He came home reporting that two thousand people had been converted at his campaign. Two people, a husband and a wife, who heard the reports were so overwhelmed with a sense of what God had done in this city that they took leave of absence from their jobs, got contact information for these two thousand converts, and traveled there intending to spend several months in the city following up with these converts and helping them get organized into churches. They were devastated by what they found, or rather, what they did not find. After weeks of searching, they could not locate even one of the supposed converts.

Five years ago a summer-long evangelistic emphasis in Albania was sponsored by American evangelical organizations. It was recorded back in the United States that two thousand three hundred converts were made. The missionaries whose job it was to follow up on those converts in the northern region of Albania said that they could find only six people of the hundreds whose names they had been given who had even a slight interest in spiritual things. They heard of only a few more from the southern region of the country.

When severe doctrinal error regarding conversion is wedded to practical zeal in evangelistic and missionary emphasis the results are disastrous. Isn't this precisely the folly of the scribes and Pharisees? With zeal they traveled over their land and over their seas to make converts, yet Jesus said that when they did make a convert, they made him twice the child of hell as they themselves were. Why? Weren't the Pharisees sincere? Weren't they devoted to the cause. Absolutely! But at the same time they were dangerously wrong about the crucial issue of what makes a person right with God and how a person gets that way.

Recently the North American Mission Board's "specialist in evangelistic follow-up" stated that, based upon his observations, less than 1 in 10 people who make decisions as a result of Southern Baptist evangelism are active in Bible study one year later. He cited this observation as a part of his argument that we need to do a better job at "follow up." I appreciate his concern. I genuinely do. But might it be possible that follow up is not the issue but that we need to do a better job at evangelism?

If General Motors discovered that ninety percent of all of their automobiles that were manufactured weren't running a year later, what do you think they would do? Would they claim we must build better repair shops? Let us increase production so that we have more automobiles this year than we had last year? Let's open up plants in Africa and South America and China? Now all of these efforts are okay in their place, but none of them can justify ignoring the fundamental problem of needing to retool the manufacturing plant. Call out the engineers! Re-examine the schematics. Something's gone wrong. If we genuinely want to expand overseas, if we are genuinely concerned to see that productions increase, then we must retool at home.

In 1792, William Carey preached his deathless sermon before a group of pastors as he called upon them to move forward in the missionary work. He said, "Expect great things and attempt great things." His text for that sermon was Isaiah 54:2-3. In that passage God says to His people:

Enlarge the place of your tent, And let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings; Do not spare; Lengthen your cords, And strengthen your stakes. For you shall expand to the right and to the left, And your descendants will inherit the nations, And make the desolate cities inhabited.

Lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes! Expand and deepen. Missions and reformation. Both are essential and neglect of either will result in unbalanced, unhealthy Christianity.

Some people charge us with the accusation that our concern for reformation is merely academic. You've heard the charges: "All these guys who like to engage in theological debate just like we did in seminary around the tables. They're just concerned in seeing if they can figure out precisely all the knotty, weighty theological questions that have plagued mankind throughout history. It's merely theological debate." They say that these kinds of discussions can be a distraction from the more important work of missions and evangelism. This kind of accusation betrays a false dichotomy. God Himself has joined together missions and reformation. What God has joined together, let no man put asunder. Passion for missions and commitment to reformation are not competing interests. Genuine passion for missions demands commitment to reformation.

In the last century Austin Phelps of Andover Seminary said, "If I were a missionary in Canton, China, my first prayer every morning would be for the success of American Home Missions, for the sake of Canton, China" (Call of the South, p. 217).

Reformation and missions go hand-in-hand. If we do not strengthen our churches at home, we will ultimately undermine the efforts of the gospel abroad. Do not shrink back from the hard work of reformation. Do not let others around you ignore its importance. Don't let anyone intimidate you into thinking that if you are concerned to order your life and see churches ordered by the Word of God, that somehow undermines the evangelistic missionary impulse that the gospel is to have in the world. Don't be so selfish with your time, Pastors. There are other pastors who need to think about the things you're thinking about. If you simply order your own life and your own church and you're not winsomely trying to come along your brother pastors to challenge them and encourage them to start thinking about these things, then you are not engaged enough in the work of reformation.

We must commit ourselves to a reordering of our personal lives by God's Word. Encourage this reordering in your church and in other churches among other brothers and sisters of the faith. We must work for reformation.

Can you imagine the accusation that God will make against those Jews on that great Day of Judgment, "My Name was blasphemed among the nations because of you"? The Name we love, the Name that God Himself is jealous of--it is for the sake of the Name that we send out our loved ones to the outer edges to live and die for Christ. It is for the sake of the Name that we have given our energies and our efforts to make Christ known. What a tragedy, what a travesty, it would be if it is said of us that because of our unwillingness to do the hard work of reformation, the nations blasphemed the Name of God.

Work for reformation. Do it for your own soul's sake. Do it for your children's sake. Do it for your children's children's sake. Do it for the people of China and South America and Africa and Asia, all of the peoples of the world. But do it first and foremost for the honor and glory of our God and of His Son Jesus Christ who bled for us to redeem us to God. It is His glory which unifies the great works of reformation and missions.

Lengthen your cords as never before! Go and call upon others to go. Send your best overseas. But don't forget to strengthen your stakes--that through you the name of God might be revered and not blasphemed among the nations.

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