When, in 1906, Ernst Troeltsch wrote about the place of missions in the changed and changing world of his day, he came to the conclusion that “sympathy and salvation” should no longer be motivations for Christian missions. This, he concluded, was a natural outcome of his denial of the absoluteness of Christianity in the orthodox sense of the word. Still, he did not suggest that missions be abandoned. A moral and religious conviction, he said, must always seek to make propaganda for itself; furthermore, missions are necessary for Christianity’s own development. It was evident even then that Troeltsch’s motion created a crisis in the Church’s mission consciousness, a crisis in the relationship between its confession of Christ and its calling to proclaim the one Name in all the world. For the motivation for missions never was a pharisaical superiority of morals, but a motivation that arose from the power of the kingdom of God and the conviction that Christ was the way and the truth and the life. Where this conviction was watered down, it was inevitable that the flame of missionary zeal would also die.

Today, more than fifty years after Troeltsch troubled the missionary conscience of the Church, the world is undergoing far more radical changes than those in his day. It is natural that we should be hearing questions about the Church’s strenuous efforts to plant the banner of the Cross in all the world. But the question is now not so much about the motivations of missions as it is about the possibility of missions. World religions are experiencing a revival of self-consciousness and are becoming less and less hospitable to Christian missions. Shall the doors remain open to us? We read in the New Testament that God opens doors for the Word. At present this promise has become a very pressing and actual historical problem. Voices from the fields are often pessimistic these days. From the East we hear that missions from the West can scarcely be tolerated any longer, and that the West is being looked upon as mission territory for the Eastern religions.

It is surely unwarranted to prognosticate the future of missions from the perspective of human historical factors. I am reminded in this connection of William Carey’s motto: “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” The two parts of this motto are inseparable. He who no longer expects great things from God and falls into a kind of historical fatalism will not likely be the man who throws himself intensely into the service of God. A fatalism that refuses to reckon with the future acts of God leads to defeatism and indolence. The element of anticipation is gone; the surprising works of God are no longer expected; the aspect of hope in God is changed for the hopelessness of history. Defeatism and fatalism no longer look for unexpected turns in history because they no longer count on the God of whom the Old Testament speaks as the God who alone does marvelous things. One wants to be realistic, one wants to take the reality of the situation seriously. One wants to believe in the laws of history in which prayer and in which God himself have no influence.

This historical pessimism kills the Old Testament faith that looked expectantly to the future, that counted on the works of God, that trusted in the might of God that went far above all that man could ask or think. It is possible for man to live without expectation of great things from God, to live in obeisance to what seems to be the fatalistic course of history. One can be fatalistic about the division of the Church and about the future of missions. But the Word of God denounces this kind of fatalism. Carey’s motto is an arrow from the quiver of the Word: attempt great things for God because you expect great things from God. This is not to say that we should despise the days of small events. Small things that happen in God’s work look very large when seen in their total perspective. But the point is that we must live in expectation of surprising works of God, the works that God will yet do. When we live in this expectation, we shall rise to great deeds, great sacrifices, great consecration.

Fatalism is without doubt one of the most subtle dangers in the Christian life. In the last century fatalism arose from an exaggerated and distorted view of natural science. In our time fatalism rises more often from the inexorable course of history which nothing seems able to change. We shall personally have to withstand the temptation to suppose that we live in a world in which things will go on, one thing after another, closed to the influence of faith and prayer. We shall have to understand and live into the meaning of Israel’s most precious name for God: the Hearer of Prayer. If we understand and live into this ruling theme of the Bible, we shall be expecting great things from God. We shall not fall into pessimism. Neither shall we fall into the defeatism that accompanies pessimism. Living in the consciousness of who God is, we shall expect great things from him and be ready to attempt great things for him. This is, of course, not to say we are called on to give God a hand in the government of his world, nor that we must think that the future of the kingdom of God lies in our hands. We should overestimate our powers if we thought this. What is demanded of us is the faith that overcomes the world. God is able to do more than we ask or think, is able, that is, to do exceedingly more than we ask or think. Let the Church of our time look forward into history with this expectation. Let our expectation in God be a witness to future generations that we did not fall prey to fatalism, but believed in the Hearer of Prayer.

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