Because the heart of Christian missions, whether at home or abroad, is its message, it is inevitable that Satan will do everything possible to divert, distort, dilute, and deny that message, and in its place substitute anything that omits the Cross and the Resurrection.
Christian missions have ever been in a state of crisis because of opposition, ignorance, and indifference. There is always the wall of opposing forces, different and yet the same, forces that are totally opposed to the claims of Christ. The Apostle Paul confronted these forces on every hand. Many times there must have been those who looked on him and his work as a failure. Judging by worldly standards, his efforts must have seemed weak and pitiful in the face of established religions, cultures, and national alignments.
The things of God, eternal in their implications, are seen only with insight he gives. When the Church ignores the power and work of the Holy Spirit, it is always possible for the world to belittle its missionary efforts.
We may also err in looking for outward permanence as a token of evangelizing success. Dare we say that because today there probably are no more than 200 professing Christians in one area of Paul’s endeavors—the part of present-day Turkey where the “Seven Churches” of Revelation were located—his work was a failure?
Or dare we say that Christianity has failed because the simplicity of the early Church has been followed by accretions of ecclesiastical pretentions, shifting of emphasis from message to organization, and failures in every generation to follow faithfully the Great Commission?
Today world missions are in crisis while at the same time emerging churches in many lands bear active testimony to the power of the Gospel. The major point of crisis is not missionary methods and policies, as important as these always are, but the nature of the message being preached, taught, and lived.
Methods become meaningless without the basic message. Policies contribute to confusion unless based on a clear understanding and faithful proclaiming of the message itself.
It is always necessary to distinguish between corollaries to and developments proceeding from the gospel message, and the content of that message; between the fruits inherent in Christianity, and those rooted in Christian doctrine itself. To confuse the fruits of Christianity with the roots from which these fruits proceed is a grave error. The essential Christian message must at all times be kept in view as we face changing conditions, meet new diversions, and appropriate new methods of proclaiming the message itself.
For missionary endeavor to remain static in a changing world would be tragic. For changes in method, policies, and approach to bring about a change in the message itself would be more than tragic; it would be fatal.
The Apostle Paul was certainly the greatest missionary of the first Christian century. Fortunately for each succeeding generation, not only are the accounts of his missionary journeys preserved but through his letters to the young churches we know the message he preached, a message on which rested the power and blessing of the Holy Spirit.
In his letter to the Corinthian church Paul gives a thumbnail sketch of the heart of that message: “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if you keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1–4).
In this short space Paul affirms man’s need of salvation, Christ’s death for sinners, his burial and resurrection—all in accord with the Old Testament plan and prediction.
Paul’s message reveals his abiding conviction about the uniqueness and exclusiveness of Christ and his claims. He did not doubt that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that man’s only access to God is through his Son. He did not question Peter’s assertion that there is no other way of salvation other than in the name of Jesus Christ.
In every generation there have been “other gospels” that deny the unique Person and Work of Christ, and this generation is no exception. Probably outstanding among the various types of divergence from the Christian message today is the siren voice of universalism, so appealing and at the same time so deadening.
When what is proclaimed is not centered on the assertion that those who believe in the Son have everlasting life while those who reject him shall not see life but experience the wrath of God, then the heart of the Christian message has been removed.
Wherever the lost condition of the sinner is reduced to mere ignorance of the fact that he is saved, the whole thrust of preaching is changed. Paul never made that mistake; salvation was on a “whosoever” basis, but it was attained by faith and in no other way. Dealing with the Philippian jailer, Paul did not use nondirective counseling, or warn him to take care because he was confronted with an emotional crisis. To the jailer’s question about the means of salvation the answer was direct: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Furthermore, Paul held up both the integrity of the Old Testament record and its authority to the early Christian Church. The Berean Christians were “more honorable” because by the Scripture they evaluated the preaching they heard to see whether its message was true.
Humanitarianism, social progress, physical healing, educational advance, and new techniques have their definite place in Christian missions, but whether these serve the body and mind alone depends on the message behind them.
The preaching of the Cross is still foolishness to the world in general, but an occupied Cross and an empty Tomb are central to the Christian message.
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