A Theology of Missions

Introduction

Immediately after Christ issued His Great Commission and ascended into heaven, missions have been at the forefront of Christianity.  In addition, in issuing His charge to every believer, Christ spoke of the Holy Spirit that would fully empower and enable each Christian to accomplish this charge, or mission, effectively.[1]  In accordance with Scripture and the nature of God, the theologies of Bibliology and pneumatology, reinforced by the motifs of the Holy Spirit and eschatology, ensure a unified theology of missions for the missionary, church leaders, and ordinary lay people .

Biblical Support for Missions

First and foremost, all theology must be rooted in Scripture as a justification of absolute authority and truth.  While the Bible as a whole fully supports missions throughout, this discussion will focus on two passages from both the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Even though each Testament may have a different theme or audience, their support for missions are fully congruent.

Despite what many would think, the Old Testament is just as missions-focused as the New Testament.  While the majority of the Old Testament deals with the drama of God and His people, God’s special revelations through His chosen prophets provide many prominent missionary messages, with Isaiah topping them all.  A. Scott Moreau et al. states that “the most significant missionary message in the Old Testament prophets comes from Isaiah; he declares God’s servant will be a light for the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6) and be full of the knowledge of Him (Isaiah 11:6-9).”[2]

In one of Isaiah’s more popular missionary passages, Isaiah 6:8, the prophet is quick to answer God’s call to missions.  According to Finis Jennings Dake, “never did a man answer the call of God more quickly than Isaiah.”[3]  This passage provides a great example of how Christians should be willing to promptly obey God’s calling into the field of missions.  Isaiah was spiritually prepared to hear God’s call and obey with no hesitation or reservation .

For the New Testament, missions become a primary focus immediately following Christ’s issuing of the Great Commission and His ascension.  The first reference to this Great Commission, Matthew 28:16-20, is the most well-known and widely accepted version, and includes such missionary commands as ‘go’, ‘teach’, and ‘baptize’.[4]  There is little room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding regarding these commands, and they apply to all believers.

Another reference to the Great Commission is found in Acts 1:8, which speaks of the Holy Spirit and the power that He generates when He comes upon believers.  In turn, this power enables believers to be witnesses “unto the uttermost part of the earth.”[5]  This reference supplements the Commission in Matthew, and it includes this additional reference to the Holy Spirit.  In addition, a more controversial reference located in Mark 16:15-18 addresses specific capabilities associated with the Spirit’s power referenced in Acts 1:8.

The Nature of God in Relation to Mission

In addition to the absolute truth of Scripture, a theology of missions must also align with the nature of God instead of human nature.  According to Gailyn Van Rheenan, “mission does not originate with human sources, for ultimately it is not a human enterprise; mission is rooted in the nature of God, who sends and saves.”[6]

A crucial part of understanding the relationship between missions and the nature of God is knowing the role of the Holy Spirit .  In essence, the Holy Spirit is the One who works to reveal God’s nature for each Christian.  According to Henry and Richard Blackaby, “the Holy Spirit will be your personal Teacher; He will guide you to apply truths according to God’s will; He will work to reveal God, His purposes, and His ways to you.”[7]  Through Him, one can fully understand and fulfill their role in missions according to the nature and will of God.

The Relation of Mission Theology to Other Theologies

As with all aspects of theology, theology of missions must have a solid foundation in Scripture and be aligned with the nature of God, as discussed above.  These two elements are strong enough to support the theological basis of mission theology.  As Moreau et al. states, “Choosing a foundation that is strong and stable enough to support the theological superstructure is a crucial step in encountering mission theology.”[8]  Once a solid foundation is established, the relationship between mission theology and other Christian theologies based solely on Scripture should be one of mutual supportiveness, and aids in further solidifying its foundation.

One such Christian theology is Bibliology, which is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the study of the theological doctrine of the Bible .”  As discussed earlier, the Bible helps form the foundation of a theology of missions, and provides the absolute truth on which it stands.  The eternal nature of the Bible also contributes to a solid theology of mission.  As Moreau et al. affirms, “in the most general sense, the only possible foundation is the Bible itself; the Bible alone has the authority to guide the church through the complex questions that face each new generation.”[9]

However, even though the statement by Moreau et al. above is theologically correct, one must not overlook one simple truth concerning Scripture—the same Spirit that inspired its writing indwells every believer.  Every Christian is indwelt by the One who inspired God’s special revelation through Scripture, and serves as the mortar that holds the foundational bricks of a theology of missions together.

In turn, another Christian theology that mutually supports mission theology is Pneumatology, which is the study of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.  While the works of the Holy Spirit are many, some works more aptly relate to missions.  According to Paul Enns, the works of the Holy Spirit that complement and enable missions include teaching, testifying, guiding, convicting, regenerating, interceding, and commanding.[10]

Another indication of the Spirit’s contribution to missions is found in Acts 1:8, where Jesus mentions the power of the Spirit that will enable the disciples to become His witnesses to the world.[11]  One may conclude that without the Spirit’s power, as indicated in this verse, one cannot be an effective witness for Christ, thus making the Spirit a crucial element of mission theology just as He was for the early church.

The mission theology of the early church provides a great example of how Bibliology—in the form of the Gospel—and pneumatology—in the form of the Holy Spirit’s power—laid its foundation, and provided the necessary assurance for both Christians and non-Christians.  Moreau et al. states that in all of the apostles’ endeavors, “Christians saw how the power of the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the Gospel brought persons to faith.”[12]  The number of people brought to Christ through these two elements of mission provided a sense of edification for Christians, and encouraged all who witnessed it.

For non-Christians, those supernatural elements of the Spirit that produced signs and wonders at the hands of the apostles, as indicated in Acts 2:43, became their assurance of God’s work and attracted many of them to hear the Gospel.  Moreau et al. indicates that “demonstrations of supernatural power, whether through exorcism of demons, physical healings, or other miraculous happenings, continued to attract non-Christians.”[13] Again, both of these elements—the demonstrations of supernatural power through the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the Gospel as stated in Scripture—should form the foundation of a theology of mission for all Christians.

Two Key Themes or Motifs of Mission Theology

Coupled with the two additional Christian theologies discussed above, there are also certain key themes or motifs associated with mission theology—the gifts of the Holy Spirit and eschatology.  According to Moreau et al., “a motif is a recurring idea that reinforces our central themes.”[14]  The first key motif of mission theology is the gifts of the Holy Spirit which serve as conduits of His power discussed above.  Moreau et al. affirms that the “Holy Spirit permeates [multiple] levels of our core theology of mission”, and [He] “convicts the world of sin…, guides the church in all truth (John 16:13)…, and gifts the church for the purpose of growth (Acts 2:14-41).”[15]

While the gifts of the Spirit and their purposes are discussed in length in Scripture, many within the church have forgotten or neglected some of them for a variety of reasons.  As A.J. Gordon once asked, “Have we forgotten that there is a Holy [Spirit], that we must insist upon walking upon crutches when we might fly.”[16]  In order to fully ‘fly’ upon the power of the Holy Spirit, believers must seek the full use of all spiritual gifts listed in Scripture in order to produce the same results experienced by the early church.  These gifts also aid the church in preparing for the return of Christ through missions.

The second key motif of mission theology is eschatology, or “the study of the events relating to the return of Christ and the end of history.”[17]  While the field of eschatology is broad, when applied to mission theology, its focus narrows towards missions and evangelism.  Moreau et al. states that “eschatology relates to each of the three levels at the core of mission thinking,” which include evangelism as a response to an eternal separation from Christ, hope associated with Christ’s return, and motivation from the assurance of eternal preservation.[18]

Key Roles in Mission Theology

All of the elements of mission theology discussed above then forms the foundation of the theology of missions for the individual missionary, church leaders, and ordinary lay people not in full-time ministry.  Corporately, all three people-groups serve as conduits that accomplish the Great Commission.

In fulfilling the mission set forth by Christ in His Great Commission, the individual missionary serves as the good Soldier that carries it out, not out of oppressive obligation as that of a conscript, but as a professional that was born to a profession.  Just as Paul indicates in 2 Timothy 2:3-4, the missionary must dutifully serve the One who chose him/her as a Soldier.  In addition, as discussed previously, the individual Christian serving as the missionary is also indwelt by the Holy Spirit and bestowed certain spiritual gifts that aid in spreading the Gospel.

Church leaders also play a key role in mission theology, and must ensure that the corporate church is attuned to the leading of the Holy Spirit.  They must strive to prevent such situations as indicated by C.T. Studd when he declared the following:  “How little chance the Holy [Spirit] has nowadays; the churches and missionary societies have so bound Him in red tape that they practically ask Him to sit in a corner while they do the work themselves.”[19]  In preventing this, these leaders ensure the proper support for missions.

Lastly, ordinary lay people not in full-time ministry also play a role in mission theology.  One key way is through the use of their own spiritual gifts for the edification of fellow believers and the church, as discussed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14.  Through this edification, lay people help both missionaries and church leaders remain attuned to the leading of the Spirit, thus ensuring unity of effort in carrying out the Great Commission.

In conclusion, in accordance with Scripture and the nature of God, the Christian theologies of Bibliology and pneumatology, reinforced by the motifs of the Holy Spirit and eschatology, forms the theology of missions for the missionary, church leaders, and ordinary lay people.  All of these elements working together ensures the unity of effort mentioned above, and ensures a more holistic theology of missions for all believers .

___________________

[1] Acts 1:8 (GNV).

[2] A. Scott Moreau et al., Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2004), 36.

[3] Finis Jennings Dake, Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible (Lawrenceville: Dake Publishing Company, 2001), 1142.

[4] Matthew 28:16-20 (KJV).

[5] Acts 1:8 (KJV).

[6] Gailyn Van Rheenan, Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 14.

[7] Henry Blackaby et al., Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God (Nashville: LifeWay Press, 2007), 9.

[8] Moreau et al., 76.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), 258-259.

[11] Moreau et al., 93.

[12] Ibid., 96.

[13] Ibid., 101.

[14] Ibid., 79.

[15] Ibid., 82-83.

[16] Ibid., 82.

[17] Ibid., 85.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 86.

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