Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 6)

One overarching theme in the book of Acts is that the mission of the church is directed by the Holy Spirit. The church cannot fully set its own direction, because she doesn’t grasp the totality of God’s plan. Christ is concerned about reaching lost people. But he is also concerned about recreating his Bride, making her beautiful and fit for the world to come. Because we don’t yet envision the people and community that God intends for us be, we don’t know how to achieve that goal. The Spirit can lead us where we need to go, places of which we are not yet aware. When the purpose of a church reverts to expansion — keeping the ministry exactly as it is, only making it bigger — it is a sign that God’s plan is being thwarted and the Spirit is being ignored.

Sending missionaries is a laudable goal. But a church cannot measure its success, or its degree of obedience to God, solely by the number of missionaries it sends. If we say, “Our mission is to send missionaries,” then we are merely running in circles. We need to clarify what the missionaries are supposed to do. If we say that the missionaries are supposed to make disciples, and those disciples are supposed to make more disciples, then we are again running in circles. The church cannot exist only to replicate itself.

Jesus Christ says to us, “Behold, I make all things new!” (Rev 21:5) The church, through its missionary outreach, should be bringing new believers into the fold. And the fresh working of the Spirit in those new believers, especially those from new generations and cultures, should be breathing vitality and renewal into the church. That is part of God’s grand design. A concept of mission is incomplete if it does not include the church being re-evangelized by its converts. Unfortunately, the way that churches have conceived and carried out foreign missions over the years has often prevented this backflow from happening. Consider the well known missionary hymn We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations by H. Ernest Nichol (1862-1928). The verses of this hymn begin as follows:

  1. We’ve a story to tell to the nations…
  2. We’ve a song to be sung to the nations…
  3. We’ve a message to give to the nations…
  4. We’ve a Savior to show to the nations…

The pattern here is unmistakable. From this perspective, mission is about exporting a message but never about importing. It’s giving but not receiving, serving but not being served. In The Open Secret, Lesslie Newbigin explains how this type of missionary activity, although well intentioned, ultimately quenches the Spirit’s fire (p. 139):

In this case the sending church is insulated from the correction it needs to receive from the new converts. Mission, as I have insisted, is not just church extension. It is an action in which the Holy Spirit does new things, brings into being new obedience. But the new gifts are for the whole body and not just for the new members. Mission involves learning as well as teaching, receiving as well as giving.

During the 20th century, the flow of evangelizing missionaries from mainline churches, particularly those in western Europe, slowed down or stopped entirely. This coincided with the decline of church attendance and overall secularization of European society. Clearly these two trends are linked. A church that is shrinking and fighting for its survival can hardly be expected to send large numbers of missionaries overseas. Over the years, however, I have heard Christians claim that those churches shrank because they neglected foreign missions: “European churches didn’t keep their mission; they stopped sending missionaries, and that’s the reason why they declined.” If I had a penny for every time someone told me that, I would have many pennies. Is that a sensible or reasonable analysis?

Here is a common metaphor: “Water flows into the Dead Sea, but not out; that’s why the Dead Sea is lifeless.” By implication, a person or church that lives selfishly, continually receiving but never giving, cannot survive for long. Perhaps that is so. But what happens to a body of water that has streams flowing out but none flowing in? Sooner or later, that lake will run dry.

The gospel was never intended to flow just from proselytizer to proselyte, from evangelist to evangelee. (Is that a word? It ought to be.) If we think that it does, we miss one of the huge themes of the New Testament, a theme that addresses some of the deepest mysteries of the Bible:

  • Why God chose Israel and covenanted her to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6)
  • Why Israel failed to keep this covenant and, in a sense, was destined to do so
  • Why the Jewish nation as a whole rejected Christ and, in a sense, was destined to do so
  • Why Jesus had to ascend to heaven and entrust the preaching of the gospel to his young disciples
  • Why Jesus appeared to the most outrageously legalistic Jew and appointed him to carry the gospel to the Gentiles
  • Why in the fullness of time the gospel will ultimately flow from Gentiles back to Jews

That theme is the doctrine of election. Stay tuned; there’s more to come.


  1. Oh boy, I feel a good discussion might be brewing about the practical implications of Calvinism vs. Arminianism here…where does UBF fall in this regard? I know that Mother Barry was/is a presbyterian right? So I would think that UBF has historic roots in Calvinistic teaching, however, the preaching and teaching that I heard was usually overwhelmingly Arminian. I am very curious about the answer!

    • This is a mischievous experiment I conduct with friends whenever they think about the issue of Calvinism vs. Arminianism:
      Read Acts Ch. 27 (story of Paul and the shipwreck) and tell me if you had to choose, simply based on Paul’s interactions with his shipmates, whether you think he is more of a Calvinist or an Arminian, (or even both!) In particular, compare verse 22 with verse 31….:)

    • Hi Dave,

      It took me perhaps 2 years of reading  to barely skim the surface of somewhat  understanding the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism. My conclusion is that I’m Calvinist and Reformed, though that  comes across as offensive to some in UBF whenever I’ve said so. Thus, I stopped saying it.

      IMHO UBF follows the Wesleyan tradition, which is Arminain. Even my own dear wife, I believe, is perhaps intellectualy Calvinist, but functionally and practically Arminian. I just told her last night that the next article that I am considering submitting to Joe would be entitled: “I’m Calvinist, my wife’s Arminian, and we’re both happy in UBF (and I still love her).” But that’s probably too long of a title!

    • Hi John,

      Since I  incline toward  things that people generally shun or don’t like, I love your Acts 27:22,31 experiment, which I believe that the Bible never gives us full satisfaction this side of heaven  (Deut 29:29). I believe the apostle Paul is Calvinist, 16 centuries before Calvin, who simply expounded on Paul’s theology. The humanly irresolvable biblical conflict (which drives some Christians nuts) is that GOD IS SOVEREIGN, YET WE ARE FULLY RESPONSIBLE.

      Arminians, who emphasize free will and human responsibility, inadvertently diminishes God’s sovereignty in his election and predestination, while Hyper Calvinists emphasize God’s sovereignty as an excuse for laziness, complacecy and negligence. What do you think, John?

  2. God predestined me to be Arminian, but I rebelled against him and chose to be a Calvinist.

    Sorry, that’s a bad joke.

  3. Darren Gruett

    I have a difficult time seeing the conflict in Acts 27. Granted, I am a five-point Calvinist, so maybe that is tinting my view of this (yes, I meant tinting, not tainting). However, the doctrine of election does not mitigate or abrogate man’s responsibility to repent of his sins for salvation. The Bible teaches that God chooses men for salvation (Eph 1:5) and that men have a responsibility to repent and believe (Mk 1:15); and neither of these is mutually exclusive to the other. It is human beings who muddle this up and try to make it an either-or situation, but in God’s eyes, it makes perfect sense. Therefore, when applied to Acts 27, there is no conflict. Paul had been given a special revelation from God telling him that everyone would be saved, and he rightly told the crew what they would need to do in order to be saved.

    Although there are difficult things to accept about the doctrines of grace, such as limited atonement, it is the only tenable soteriological point of view. This is especially true when questions get asked such as, “Well, what about people on a remote island that never heard the gospel?” Believing that God is sovereign in all things and ultimately the elector of men’s souls, those issues quickly become irrelevant. It also should put Christians at ease when it comes to preaching the gospel and the guilt that they sometimes feel for when people reject it. I suppose it is perfectly natural to second-guess ourselves and wonder if we really did the best we could in any given situation, but certainly God is not going to send someone to hell because of a weakness or even a failure on our part. And since man is totally depraved anyway, he cannot come to God on his own without the help of the Holy Spirit.

    For me this was difficult to accept at first. In fact, I even found some of it offensive. But the more I examined the Bible, the more I started to see the truth of these things over and over and over. And once I was willing to accept it, I found myself filled with the highest gratitude for what God has done for me. Aside from the Five Solas of the Reformation, I can think of no other more important teaching for Christians to know and understand than the doctrines of grace.

  4. Well said, Darren, from a fellow 5 point Calvinist. I’m wondering when you read, studied, digested and assimilated your Calvinism into your Christianity, since I know you did not learn it in UBF?

    • Darren Gruett

      In answer to your question, my coming to grips with this was something that has only happened more recently, within the past couple of years or so. I am not entirely sure what first motivated me to look into this, but somewhere along the way through one of my various endeavors I stumbled across this and began investigating Calvinism and Arminianism. After looking at each one I started to examine the Scriptures more carefully and ultimately concluded that Calvin was right.

    • Darren, it was awesome to meet you in person. Thanks for stopping by and talking to me at the staff conference.   I love your enthusiasm and sincerity, and I look forward to getting to know you better.

  5. In terms of the Calvinism vs. Arminian thing, frankly, I’m the sort of guy that is quite comfortable (maybe too comfortable?) living in the paradox, the mystery and tensions of Christian life and theology. So though I do tend toward one direction theologically on this debate, my views on this is best expressed by J.I.Packer:
    “…[B]eware of draining the mystery out of Scripture in a misplaced desire for rational consistency…and [learn to live] with incompleteness, paradox, incomprehensibility and deep mystery in [our] relationship with God and as [we] think theologically.”

    • Thanks for the Packer quote, John. Love it. But I personally know of atheists friends who hate such statements as mystery, incomprehensibility, supernatural, for which they accuse Christians of blindly believing,  “blind faith,” and refusing to consider the facts, being illogical, irrational, etc. Nonetheless, I desire to live in full confidence and comfort even in uncertainty, by depending on the only One who can save and deliver me in spite of myself.

    • Great quote! Actually, I tried reading material from apologists and they always left me frustrated. Looking for straight rationality from the bible was becoming a stumbling block for me. Maybe I’m not spiritually mature enough to digest it yet. I’m just sticking to the gospel as is and I’ll leave the logical and rational stuff to other people. Unless someone makes a grossly erroneous observation ;)

  6. Unfortunately, I cannot complete this experiment in its entirety until I get more Arminians to comment. The responses appears to be biased in favor of Calvinists so far. :)
    But to continue the experiment further (and mostly to humor me) if all of you who commented on the Calvinist vs. Arminian debate could fill out this quick personality questionnaire and tell me what your personality result is, I would be greatly indebted. http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/JTypes2.asp
    In case you are curious, I am a ISFJ personality type. Famous religious figures with this personality included St. Teresa of Avila, Mother Teresa and other Christian mystics…
    I hope you see where I’m going with this…but I hope you don’t so I can keep this a blinded experiment :)

    • And sorry, this has absolutely nothing to do with Joe’s post, so sorry about this. I do have more substantive things to say about Joe’s recent postings

  7. Yongha Lee

    Dear friends, besides the above article, I am not sure if I understand what you guys are talking about in the following comments as to Calvinism and Arminianism. I’m sorry I’m lost so maybe someone please plainly explain what relation it has with the above article.

  8. Hi Yongha,  The Calvinism/Arminianism thing is regarding  the bullit points that Joe posted at the end of the article and then in his last sentence where  he said, “That theme is the doctrine of election. Stay tuned; there’s more to come.” Calvinism and Arminianism have much to say in opposition to eachother about the doctrine of “election” so that is why I think those two theological positions might be relevant to the discussion, or at least to the next article!

  9. Hi John, I’m thinking that more Calvinist-inclined people view this blog and comment than Arminians. Joe sent me his presentation, and I also think it was very good.
    I took the personality test, and of the 4 types (Guardian, Artisan, Idealist, Rational), I am supposedly INTJ, which is Rational, subtype Mastermind. Reading the description I think I agree. Nice test, others should take it: http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/JTypes2.asp
    Hi Youngha, if you are so inclined, I think that it would help anyone to read and study his Bible “better.” if they read up and understood the Calvinism/Arminian divide, though this should not divide Christians.

    • david bychkov

      I got the same result, dr. Ben!

    • That was fun.   I am INFP, the idealist healer.   Famous people include, Princess Diana, Michel de Montaigne, J.K. Rowling, Anton Chekhov

    • Yongha Lee

      David L and Ben Toh, thank you very much. That’s helpful.

  10. I can’t resist another bad joke:  

    When Calvin ran for office, his slogan was “elect Calvin”.

    • I’m an INFP, also. Ben, I recently finished “Nudge” by Leonard Sweet. I got a lot out of it, I wonder if you’d like it or have heard of it. To Sweet, evangelism is “awakening each other to the God that’s already there.” He says the purpose is “to manifest Christ in a moment of mutual knowing, which benefits both the person being nudged and the nudger.” In this context to nudge is to evangelize and it has to be reciprocal. Christ is who we nudge people towards, not our own perceptions of truth and holiness. It’s about finding where Christ is and where the Spirit is working and joining them, which is actually everywhere.
      I think I liked it because evangelism and missions have been a dirty words for me. They seemed contrived and executed by a person who thinks too much of their own opinions and will never be driven to think more about them. They also seemed to mean you care more about facts, truth and principles than the people you alienate or offend by evangelizing. I will readily admit however, that that is kind of unfair and immature on my part. But it did come out of honest feelings or retaliation because I couldn’t live up to that if that was evangelism.
      To John Y, I think this partially has to do with my personality type. Especially the fact that I am an introvert and the way evangelism is talked about seems to me to often presuppose extroverted strengths.  
      I guess what I’m getting at is this: does enlarging the church in numbers necessarily make the world into a better place? Is part of evangelism healing relationships, and seeking to spread grace rather than judgment and shouldn’t it continue whether people will ultimately join your church or not?

    • Ruthie,
      I had not heard of Nudge, but will check it out.  The only Nudge book I had heard of was one dealing with economic policies, but I know that’s not what you are referring to.  The concept makes perfect sense for personalities like ours.  We’re not pushy salespeople.  We’re also not like military generals.  But in the context of a friendship we can tell our story to people we trust and who trust us, and thus nudge them to Christ.  It’s more natural to me for Jesus or a Bible story (I also like to talk about one of my favorite novels, Moby Dick, which has biblical allusions on almost every page) to come up during a conversation over coffee than for me to start preaching in the subway.  I have no compunction about asking people their religious views, but I would have a hard time in a public debate with an atheist.  I do believe there is a place for evangelism and in church for people like us, even though it may look like we’re not doing much.  I suppose our biblical model would be Barnabas?

    • Hi Ruthie,
      I have been reading Nudge. Haven’t finished yet. But it’s very thought provoking and challenging. Many people have been asking questions like these: How do I experience the presence of God? How do I interact with the Holy Spirit? How do I know and follow God’s leading?  Nudge goes a long way to answering these questions. It makes me realize that evangelism is not about bringing people to church. It is about the church going out into the world to see how God is already working there and participating in that work.

      You asked whether enlarging the church is always a good thing. That is a very insightful question. The answer is no. During the mid 20th century, many evangelicals were praying for revival, but A.W. Tozer didn’t. In fact, he hoped and prayed that there would not be a revival (in the sense of increasing church membership) until the church experienced renewal (deep repentance and reconciliation to God). There is no sense in growing something that does not contribute to God’s redemptive purpose. The church and the kingdom of God are not the same thing. They are related, but they are not the same. Distinguishing between the two is not splitting hairs. It is fundamental to understanding God’s mission.

  11. Nice one Ben!

  12. http://us.mg5.mail.yahoo.com/dc/launch?.gx=1&.rand=fr5b3alsk7n61
    I found this article written by Dr Armstrong, great and relevant to this blog.

    • James Kim

      Sorry I failed to attach the article properly.

  13. Brian Karcher
    Brian Karcher

    Cool test.   I am ISTJ   “Inspector Guardian”. (Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman, Kirk Douglas, Clint Eastwood, Greta Garbo).


  14. Ok, I’ll end the experiment here so we can get back on track to Joe’s original posting…
    To explain things a bit, my hypothesis is that on a very crude general level, personality is part of the lens by which we filter our scriptural interpretations. In my experience, I think certain personality-types tends toward certain modes of thinking or even certain theologies. So a lot of my friends who tend to be INTJ types find Calvinist/Reformed theological interpretations more attractive and tend to view the Bible through that lens. Not sure why that is, but I have a friend who is about to submit a provocative article on personality types and Christian implications of learning to love each other with each of our personality differences. There’s also a book called the “Blue Parakeet”? that Joe recommended to me that I think addresses the issue of how our particular personal interpretation filters (also influenced by personality, perhaps?) colors our understanding of Scripture. I just bought the book, but I need to read it.
    Anyway I just found it interesting that as an ISFJ myself (perhaps in solidarity with the Christian mystics of my personality type) that we sort of feel at home with mystery and paradox, not feeling the urge for rational consistency with everything. I bet John Calvin was an INTJ.   I guess no way to infer the personality types of Jacobus Arminius or John Wesley (Methodists adopted more of an arminian theology). Maybe I should read their biographies and find out…
    That is all. Sorry for this long digression. My bad. If you’re interested in personality science and the Christian faith, be on the look out for a post by my friend Adrian in the near future —

  15. Joshua Yoon

    I am glad that we are back to  Joe’s original topic (by the way the test shows that I am the idealist healer INFP). Joe said that we need to clarify what missionaries are supposed to do. The Spirit put a smilar questions in my heart these days, “What are my expectations as I minister to N. Americans?”  When I  came as a missionary 26 years ago,  I had a clear goal:  to bring native students to God  and raise them as disciples of Jesus through 1:1 Bible studies. So when students came to Bible studies, I expected them to grow as Jesus’ disciples and reproduce disciples as I did. Basically, I was hoping for them to be like me in lifestyels and commitment to mission. About  3 years ago, I began to question about this  “running in cycles”. While studying one of the gospel accounts, the Spirit gave me  new  realization about the way Jesus ministered. Even though  Jesus focused on serving the Twelve, his interaction with people was not limited only tothem. He often welcomed and served all kinds of peoople, even those who appeared to be least likely disciple candidates. I was moved by Jesus who did not distant himself to anyone but mingled himself among even tax collectors and “sinners’ and yet maintained his integrity.   Jesus’ ministry  continued through the Twelve and  others like Paul and Barnabas. When I studied Acts this time, I learned that the apostles did not replicate  a disciple-making ministry.  First of all, the Holy  Spirit came at Pentecost. It led to the birth of church and the diversity of the membership was unavoidable. The church did not run in circles. The Spirit did not let the church experience unlimited expansion. The apostles and missionaries had to sort out the cross cultural issues. The recipients of the gospel did not enjoy God’s blessing onesidedly. The missionaries and apostles including Peter experienced God’s transformation in their own hearts and lives.  I fully agree to Joe’s quote on Newbigin’s statement,  Mission involves learning as well as teaching, receiving as well as giving.   Here we find one answer to what missionaries are supposed to do. We should be studentsas well, not only teachers. We should be humble enough to receive Gods’ greater gift. If I am asked what was the best blessing of a missionay life, my answer would be God’s tranforming work in my own heart. While living for mission, I was blessed to discover my own inadquacies and  sinfulness, which led me  to the throne of God’s mercy. Encountering Jesus in a deeper way was a greater blessing than leading a few people to Christ. By Joe’s  term, I was reevangelized while doing mission (this work is still going on).   The challenge is to learn how to reach out to the people the Spirit leads me to and nudge them (I like this term a lot. Thanks, Ruthie), not falling in the cycle of disciples making disciples, these disciples making other disicples and they making other disciples. What would happen to those marginalzied in the disciple production line if we pay attention only to “quality” product of disicples and disciple makers? Should they be thrown away because they are not our main target? Or should   proper structures  and programs be in place,  that accomodate their needs? At least the church in the book of Acts proved the latter to be  healthy and consistent to Christ’s teaching and the will of God who desires to save all people, regardless of their ages, ethnicity and cultural background.

  16. A kind of a mind set shift already echoed by others which I am personally embracing is this: “Instead of mainly trying to bring people to church, be the church wherever I am.”
    Thus, I am not less holy visiting my friends or relatives than I am at church or on the campus inviting students to Bible study, for “I am the church” among my friends and relatives.
    I am not less holy being at home than at church studying the Bible with others, since “I am the church” to my own family at home.
    I say this because I used to have guilt whenever I was not at church or on the campus. This is no one’s fault but my own, because I thought or felt that my location (church or Bible house) or “mission field” (campus) made me more holy than if I just went on a date with my wife, or when I visited my family in Malaysia.
    Now that I visit my family overseas freely without guilt, and am genuinely happy to see them, I realized that they softened their heart toward me and toward the Bible. My mom began going to church with her friends, and my agnostic older brother began to discuss Christianity with me. He was also happy to have conduct an informal worship service, watch video sermons that I showed him, and then discuss them with me. In the past, he was very angry with me for I had avoided my own family intentionally. Again, this is no one’s fault but my own. Thank God that in Christ, we are truly free ambassadors wherever we are, and that only by the grace of God, we can be the church wherever we are, even at the beach!

    • Abraham Nial
      Abraham Nial

      Thanks Joshua for sharing your learning from the Book of acts and your personal story of being reevangelized and still willing to be if God wants.
      Thanks Dr Ben for sharing your personal story about your heart for your family members. I kind of relate to it. At the beginning of my Christian life, I also avoided my family. In fact, if you remember a life testimony of mine you edited, I talked about how I cancelled my plan to participate in a close family member’s funeral in order to share my weekly testimony. Although, it was of some use at that time, later on I realized how unfortunate it was and how misguided I was. It took so long time and some painful circumstances to restore relation with my father. Slowly he is also opening his heart to the Bible. Now God has put a burden in my heart to pray for my parents’ salvation and I visit them more than before.
      In UBF however, intentionally or unintentionally, such burden for close family members can be easily viewed as selfish or ungodly. For example, I used to visit my parents once in two years, later on once a year and last year i visited them twice. Some were critical about this. But it is my opinion that we will be far more effective, even in disciple making, when we honor our parents and teach our disciples not to neglect serving parents, off course with the limitations of the availability of time and opportunity.
      Last time when I visited my hometown, God spoke to us to take a unmarried hindu convert younger coworker with us. She was far more effective in sharing the gospel, especially to young village girls and house-wives (mostly my relatives)in my village, including my mother. I was the only Christian from my village, but through her ministry, I think soon there are going to be some more!
      Recently, I have been telling my bible students to pray for their parents and family members. We are also praying to visit their homes to have worship service with their parents.

    • Joshua Yoon

      Thanks Ben and Abraham for sharing God’s gracious work in your families and villages. I am reminded of how the churches were planted in the first century. Regardless of Jesus’ focus on “Jewish disciples”, the Spirit prompted the apostles to reach out to people whom they had not expect to encounter. The Spirit led Philip to meet an Ethiopian eunuch, not a typical disciple candidate by the standard of many of us. God urged Peter to visit Cornulius. Philippian church was born through a business woman Lydia and a jailer. Paul spoke to them at the riverside and at the jail, not typical places for “fishing” by ubf’s standard. We could miss the great work of the Holy Spirit if we are bound by specific organizational goals and agenda. The guest speaker at the staff confernece encouraged us to lay down our goals and agenda sometimes to be able to hang out with people for a coffee or talk. We could experience God’s marvelous work in others including our children, friends and relatives when you free ourselves from our life and ministry routines. I pray for the Spirit to open the hearts of many Hindus to God through Abraham’s visiting ministry. Our good friend Andy’s father was told by the doc that he needs kidney dialysis. This was almost a death sentence to him. Please for God to open his heart to His unfailing love as I visit him and pray for him soon.(Andy’s parents have not received Christ yet). My wife is also going to Korea in April to invite her father and mother to accept Christ as they celebrate his 80th birthday.