Often, why we are doing a certain task determines how we do it.
Early in my years at Westminster Theological Seminary, I was asked to organize an “appreciation banquet” for Ed Clowney. Ed was retiring from the seminary presidency, and this was to be a chance for many in the broader Christian world to express their gratitude for what he had meant to the evangelical Reformed church in America.
Of course, I wanted those who attended the banquet to enjoy their meal. But their culinary enjoyment was secondary to the real purpose of the evening—praising the Lord for Ed’s ministry among us for half a century. Therefore, seating arrangements, menu selections, and all sorts of other details were set to accomplish that main purpose. Because that goal was accomplished, the evening was a success, even though the baked chicken lacked “a certain tenderness.”
So it is with missions and evangelism.
Why we engage in these kingdom activities has a great deal to do with how we carry out our tasks.
Why exactly do we preach the gospel? Why do we participate in programs such as Evangelism Explosion? Why precisely do some of us go to distant cultures as missionaries? Why do others of us provide financial support?
An easy answer is, “Because God requires it.” While this is a true answer, it is rarely the one given or suggested by missions committees or by missionaries on furlough or by those who challenge us, in Christ’s name, to be more active in the work of evangelism. We are often asked probing questions about the extent of our love for our neighbors or our family members or even distant men, women, and children who will go to hell without the gospel. But these challenges, well-intentioned though they may be, do not lead us to the best answer to the question, “Why?”
Because of who God is. And because of what God deserves. That’s why.
An 18th Century Perspective
I have found that in this area, as in so many others, the best (the most biblical) perspective is suggested to us by the 18th century theologian, Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was a sinner saved by grace, like all of God’s people, but he was also a saved sinner to whom the Lord gave extraordinary gifts of spiritual discernment. And he was a saved sinner who, precisely because of the gifts given to him by the Lord, was deeply involved in the most profound spiritual revival ever to occur in the United States. These are a couple of reasons why it might benefit us to get a sense of the spiritual perspective that Edwards brought to these kinds of questions.
Edwards’s imprint on America’s spiritual landscape was remarkable. When, other than during the Great Awakening, did three times the population of America’s largest city gather for a single worship service? What other religious event determined the shape of the nation that became the United States of America? (See Alan Heimert, Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution.) When were the present ecclesiastical structures of Christianity in America determined?
Edwards, from his pulpit in Northampton, Mass., and through his itinerant preaching, was at the very heart of the event we call the Great Awakening.
So, what does Jonathan Edwards have to do with the Christian rationale for doing evangelism and missions? In his later explanation of all that had happened during those tumultuous years (A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections), Edwards sought to answer this fundamental question: What makes a person a Christian? He asked both what causes a person to be a Christian, and how do we recognize a true Christian?
In answering these questions, Edwards provides superb, biblical insight into the proper motive for the preacher or the evangelist or the missionary—a motive which alone assures how our kingdom work brings appropriate honor to God.
Our “Affections” Reveal Who We Are
Edwards’s Treatise is in three parts. In the first part, he offers what proves to be, for the rest of his argument, a crucial foundation. He addresses the topic of the nature of man (in the generic sense). What is it that really defines who we are? Are we what we think? Or are we what we feel? Or are we what we do? Or is there some other, more inclusive, way of defining the human person that takes adequate account of thoughts and feelings and deeds?
Edwards thought there was, and he marshaled great chunks of biblical evidence for this other way of understanding essential human nature, a way he called, without much enthusiasm for the term itself, “the affections.” In his Treatise, Edwards deals with matters philosophically and theologically complex, but the heart of the matter is quite simple.
Take, for example, Jesus’ words at the end of the sixth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. After warning his followers about the inappropriateness of worry, Jesus gives this positive command: “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness.” What defines who a person really is? It is the specific nature of their “first seeking.” What do I really, in my heart of hearts, seek first? That is what ultimately defines me.
Of course, “seeking first” involves thinking and it involves feeling and it involves doing. But it is more fundamental and more determinative than any of those other things. What, in my deepest soul, I most want—that is who I really am! And my deepest, most profound desires, those are what Edwards calls my “affections.”
I may very well pretend to desire certain things in order to achieve a particular standing among friends and acquaintances. I may pretend to desire to attend the opera in order to impress certain people. But if I, in fact, really desire to sit at home and watch Desperate Housewives, then that is who I actually am.
In the second and third parts of his Treatise, Edwards applies this perspective to all kinds of religious issues, most fundamentally to the question, “What makes a person a Christian?”
Summarizing several hundred pages of Edwards’s careful and thoroughly biblical argumentation, “what makes a person a Christian” is what he/she really seeks first. Here is how Edwards’ described the “truly gracious affections” that characterize those who have been regenerated by the Spirit of God: “They do not first see that God loves them and then see that He is lovely; but they first see that God is lovely, and that Christ is excellent and glorious … . The saints’ affections begin with God.”
A Passion to See God Receive His Due
To put the matter as bluntly as possible, why have you, a Christian, placed your faith and your trust in Christ? Is it just because, by so doing, you will get all kinds of spiritual rewards? If this is the only or even the dominant reason, then questions need to be asked about what it is you are seeking first.
The fact of the matter is that the most fundamentally biblical reason for trusting in Christ is that He deserves your trust. He deserves the gift of all that you are. And, therefore, the defining characteristic of the genuine Christian man or woman, boy or girl, is that that person desires, more than anything else, that God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—receive the glory and the worship and the praise that He deserves. In other words, the true Christian seeks first the kingdom of God, where God’s rule is fully honored, and the righteousness of God, where God’s nature and character are reflected back to Him in worship, obedience, and service.
This passion to see God receive what is His due is the most fundamental characteristic defining “what makes a person a Christian.” It is also the motive for all of the many things Christians are called to do. It certainly is the best and most fundamental motive for missions and evangelism. Yes, of course, those without the gospel will spend eternity in hell. And yes, of course, we should love them enough to want them to avoid that fate. But there is Another Whom we should love even more.
Let’s go back briefly to the Ed Clowney retirement banquet, which I mentioned earlier. When urging key Christian leaders from around the country to consider attending the banquet, I might have talked about what a great time they would have or about what wonderful fellowship there would be or about what excellent chicken they would eat. All of these (except possibly the last) would have been true. But these emphases would have distorted the real reason why they should attend. They should attend because the Lord had done great things for His Church through Ed Clowney, and it was appropriate for us to gather to recognize those things and to praise Ed’s God.
Missions and Evangelism: Shaped by God’s Worthiness
How very much more should our missions and evangelism work be shaped by the worthiness of the One in whom we are calling the nations to trust and, by trusting, to worship and serve! Our God deserves the worship and praise of every creature upon Earth, and that is the primary reason for us to urge all peoples to come to Him. Of course, if they do genuinely come to Him, they will receive blessings unimaginable. But focusing primarily upon those blessings distorts the real reason for them to come and, as Church history teaches us, often leads to a distortion of the gospel itself.
The really good news of the gospel is not that, because of Jesus’s work, we can get blessings otherwise unavailable; it is that we can give worship and praise to the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
So we speak about the glories of God. We paint word pictures, as Edwards did, of the majestic grace of our Creator King. We describe in detail the cost of that grace (“How great the Father’s love for us, how rich beyond all measure … ”). We invite others to ponder the amazing and “bles’t assurance” that “God has regarded my helpless estate and has shed His own blood for my soul.”
We tell any who will listen even more about our Creator and Savior than we do about what they will enjoy when they know Him. We remember the order of that marvelous answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism—“Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. We stress that the greatest enjoyment comes when we see the One who deserves all honor getting exactly what He deserves.
And we build our own lives on this principle because we know that true evangelism is more caught than taught. We begin our own affections with God. We concentrate our private devotional times, our prayers, our Bible studies, and our sermons on “knowing God” (to cite the title of one of the most important books of the 20th century) because the more He is known (by us and by those to whom we are ministering), the more passionate will be the desire for that day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
And the bowing of those knees and the confession of those tongues is exactly what biblical evangelism and missions are all about.
Sam Logan is chancellor and professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and executive secretary of the World Reformed Fellowship. He has written and speaks on the theology of Jonathan Edwards and British and American Puritanism.