The Disciples Missionaries Made

A disciple-maker should know where he’s going. If he does, then he probably knows his end depends on starting in the right spot. He also won’t be surprised when he arrives at his goal.

John Piper wrote a concentrated post on missions two weeks ago pointing to the January/February cover story in Christianity Today, “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries”. The CT article describes the findings of sociologist Robert Woodberry who spent a decade researching “the effect of missionaries on the health of the nations.” Piper quotes Woodberry:

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.

When men “convert from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ” things start to change not only for them as individuals, but also in their community. That’s why a map showing First World, Second World, and Third World countries relates directly to the presence of the gospel in those places. Most of the First World knows, or at least once knew, gospel roots.

Woodberry observed, and Piper presses, that cultural change surprised the missionaries. Woodberry says, “Colonial reforms (came) through the back door” and “all these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended.” Piper concludes,

The implication is that the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life.

In other words, “Tree first, then fruit.”

But saying that we should “focus on…conversion” is similar to saying that farmers should “focus on planting.” Trees grow from seeds and seeds must first be sown. Sowing, however, is only the start. Farmers must also water, weed, fertilize, and cultivate the tree to health and strength. They expect and work for more than a successful plant. When buds turn into branches and branches bear fruit all across the field farmers don’t say “these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended.”

It is true that we won’t “achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation” without conversions but, brothers, we are not conversionists. Christ commissioned us to make disciples, not converts. Discipleship starts with conversion but it ends with “teaching them to observe all that [Christ] commanded.” We labor to present every man complete in Christ and that includes teaching them to think like Christ, to talk like Christ, to act like Christ. That kind of stuff gets out.

Why would we seek, and even expect, conversions by God’s sovereign grace but not also expect an entire culture to change as grace grows whole groups of men in their obedience to Christ? Why would we call men to repent and believe, then move on to other fields? Evangelism is only the opening stage of discipleship. What is surprising about believers obeying in obvious and coordinated ways? We don’t say that our arrival at the supermarket was unintended because we had to get out of the driveway first.

“The fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:11) only grows from new creations of the Spirit, but the fruit of transformation affects votes, vocation, parenting, medicine, schooling, economics, government, and every other lawful cultural activity on earth. If Christ cares about it, then image bearers can and should, too. If we’re supposed to make disciples of all men, but not all men are supposed to be teachers, then disciple-makers are responsible for knowing how to disciple Christians of every calling. That means we will need a plan for the many at some point down the road since, where two or three sheep are gathered together, they will need to learn how to get buy or sell car insurance from each other.

So, “missionaries that will do the most good for eternity and for time–for eternal salvation and temporal transformation–are the missionaries who focus on converting the nations to faith in Christ. And then on that basis and from that root teach them to bear fruit of all that Jesus commanded us.” But many missionaries and pastors want proselytes and then have nothing else for the proselytes to do except read their Bibles and make more proselytes while they wait for heaven. That’s why talking about our aim as making disciples helps us approach our work better than making converts. When we remember that conversion is the start, not the end, we won’t be surprised that God takes whole cultures to better places.

Before It Gets Worse

Last week marked the passing of 41 years since Roe v. Wade when the Supreme Court of the United States legalized the murder of children in womb. We usually reserve the term anniversary for events worth remembering and celebrating. Wednesday was an anniversary that requires remembering and mourning almost 55 million deaths.

Solomon wrote:

If you faint in the day of adversity,
your strength is small.
Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
and will he not repay man according to his work?
(Proverbs 24:10–12, ESV)

His urging, commanding, and warning applies to more than abortion but not less. We bear national guilt and we will not be able to tell God, “We didn’t know what was happening.”

If God continues to give us over to our lusts we will not be satisfied killing kids to honor “choice.” We will kill kids and call it compassion. This is already happening in Belgium. The Upper House approved a “bill [that] allows minors to ask for euthanasia on the grounds that their illness is terminal, that they are in great pain and that there is no treatment to alleviate their distress.” In his article, Shouldn’t They Know Better, John Knight wrote, “There are no age restrictions. Allegedly, the child has to be considered competent to make a decision about killing himself or herself, in addition to the doctors and child’s parents agreeing to it.”

How could a people–government officials, medical professionals, families themselves–get to the point of calling this kind of killing “compassionate”? A culture gets there by killing for convenience. The step before that is disregard or mistreatment of the vulnerable and weak, like our own kids. May God grant grace to turn the hearts of fathers to their children. May He grant sweeping repentance in our own country before it gets worse.

Near the Top of the Lists

Every Lord’s day morning we set aside specific time in our service to confess our sins. I’m no statistician nor do I listen to the confessions, so I have no data from which to make many conclusions. But what sin would you suppose needs to be confessed by the most people any given Sunday? In other words, what sin is most popular? What sin would you suppose needs to be confessed by any given person most frequently? In other words, what sin is most repeated? And what sin would you suppose needs to be confessed any given Sunday by any given person that is the worst? In other words, what sin does the most damage?

Again, I have no hard facts to support a definitive answer to those questions. However, I suspect that bitterness is a sin that nears the top of all three lists. The author of Hebrews exhorted his readers to “see to it…that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many are defiled” (Hebrews 12:15).

Bitterness corrodes. Bitterness comes from stinging hurts–real or imagined, biting slights–purposeful or perceived, and burning jealously–how unfair for him to get what everyone knows you deserve. Bitterness grows roots in the soil of self-absorption fertilized by the empathy of others. Bitterness is hard to pull up once planted.

Bitterness “springs up and causes trouble.” Misery loves company even if just to make the company miserable. Bitterness lost any sense of proportion and, if the root system has spread, neither smiles nor logic will stem the festering.

By bitterness “many are defiled.” Either that means that many persons are bitterly defiled or many others are defiled by one person’s bitterness. Even though bitterness is often unmovable, it really branches out. It is easy to find reasons to be bitter. Many do, many times. See to it that you nip it in the bud. Confess and repent from any seed no matter how small.

Blood That Speaks

On the night He was betrayed Jesus told His disciples that they were drinking the cup of the covenant. “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). The author of Hebrews described Jesus as “the mediator of a new covenant” with “sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24). We still drink and His blood still speaks.

Jesus’ blood speaks the cost of sin. Those who sin deserve death (Romans 6:23). Only a blood sacrifice will suffice to satisfy the just requirements of God. “Not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood” (Hebrews 9:18) because blood is the price for our rebellion.

His blood speak’s God’s promise and God’s faithfulness. The law could not forgive anyone. God gave the law to show disobedience and He also gave His word to deal with men’s sin. So by “the blood of the eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20), a covenant intended to cleanse from uncleanness (Ezekiel 36:25-27), God fulfills His Word.

His blood speaks forgiveness and sanctification. God’s promise was to pay the cost of sin Himself so that we would not have to die. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). So “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12). Jesus’ death purchased our justification and purification.

So His blood speaks heavenly life. The Son enables us to come into His Father’s presence, to enjoy heavenly fellowship with the festive angels, heaven’s members, the spirits of the righteous made perfect (Hebrews 12:22-24). That is our hope as well, and it is due to the power in Jesus’ blood.

Saved from Righteousness

We have many things to confess and God forgives us from them all in Christ. We confess wandering, when we neglect His Word and fail to follow His directions. We confess wickedness, when we know His commands and consciously disobey. We also confess our good works, when we try to please Him with self-produced righteousness.

The writer of Hebrews describes the blood of Christ that secured eternal redemption. Under the old sacrificial system, God used the blood of goats and bulls as part of the purification process. The greater sacrifice was made by Christ. “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience.” But note what soiled our conscience. It wasn’t lies and hatred and envy and thievery and bitterness and gossip. The blood of Christ will “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Dead works are good works done by dead men.

Because of our sin, we need to be saved from our righteousness. Our best, most sacrificial, highest cost acts blacken our consciences apart from Christ. Every deed dead men do is dead. They cannot please God. In fact, they demand God’s judgment. Jesus died for our good works apart from Him, not just our evil ones. Even as believers, we boast in someone else’s righteousness applied to our account and active in our behavior.

Augustus Toplady summarizes it well in his hymn, “Rock of Ages.”

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

Why Work?

I recommend this article by Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?” She wrote it in 1942 in the middle of WWII. She touches on war, economics, advertising, vocation, contentment, dualism, and the church. Though I think she misses the disciple-making opportunities and obligations of every Christian worker, she punches much of our selfish and shoddy labor in the throat. She also puts worship at the head of every production line.  

The end of our work will be decided by our religious outlook: as we are so we make

I especially appreciate Sayers’ questions that blame the Church’s moral-gnostic message for much of the confusion and careless work among Christians.

How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life? The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly – but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry?

If you have half an hour and if you’re interested in further developing the full-orbed, Kuyperian-Calvinist, image-bearing worldview (for yourself or for your kids and grandkids), then these pages will be well worth your reading work.

We Win in Him

Near the end of his first letter the apostle John utilized the overcoming language that he had heard Jesus use.

For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:4–5, ESV)

Verse 4 is one of the first phrases I memorized in Greek: ἡ νίκη ἡ νικήσασα τὸν κόσμον, ἡ πίστις ἡμῶν. The nike that niked, the victory that victoried, the triumph that triumphed, the overcoming that overcame is our faith. When we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, we win in Him.

The Lord’s Supper is a meal of overcoming. We eat and drink by faith as Jesus overcomes our hunger and thirst. He is true food and true drink, eternally filling (John 6:35, 51). We come to this table because He overcomes our sinful distance. We commune with God the Father through His Son. We eat this supper because He overcomes death. Dead men don’t eat, but resurrected men have quite an appetite.

In Jesus we have victory. He invites us to share together the symbols of His triumph, His body and blood. What we have here cannot be taken from us; we cannot be defeated. Even if they lead us like lambs to the slaughter, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us and gave Himself for us. This is the power of the cross.