Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 12)

In the last installment, I argued that a major theme of Paul’s epistle to the Romans is divine election. Paul didn’t answer all the questions that people have about Calvinism versus Arminianism. His writings are less about theology than they are about history.

In a nutshell, Paul says that God hardened the hearts of most first-century Jews to reject the gospel message of righteousness by faith. The remnant who accepted the gospel did so by the grace of God alone. And the Gentiles who accepted the message did so by the grace of God alone. Paul also expressed his hope that someday the Jews, seeing God’s work among the Gentiles, would be aroused to envy, believe the gospel and be saved.

Why did God choose to work this way? Paul’s analysis suggests the following.

  • If most of the first-century Jews had accepted Christ, then Christianity would have been so closely bound to Jewish lifestyles and traditions that the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles would have been hindered, and the message of salvation by grace alone would have been watered down.
  • If most of the first-century Jews had accepted Christ, then they could think it was their superior character, discipline, keeping of the law, etc. that allowed them to fulfill their purpose as the chosen people. The fact that only a remnant accepted Christ was a mark of shame upon the Jewish Christians which humbled them, making the remnant less arrogant and less likely to impose their own cultural standards upon the Gentiles (although some of them still tried).
  • The Gentiles who received the gospel from the Jewish remnant also had to be extra careful not to think of themselves as superior in any way, because if God did not spare arrogant Jews, he would not spare arrogant Gentiles either.
  • If and when the gospel ultimately flows from the Gentiles back to the Jews, it will again be an act of saving grace by God’s own choosing.

Another powerful description of election is found near the beginning of 1 Corinthians, where Paul notes that neither Jews nor Gentiles were naturally inclined to accept the gospel (1Co 1:22-24):

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Note the use of the word called. He uses the same term again a few verses later: “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called” (1Co 1:26). That term emphasizes that it was God who, by his divine sovereignty, selected and called the believers in Corinth out from their respective cultural groups to follow Christ. It was not their own choice, their own faith, their own character, their own anything. It was only because of him that they became Christians, and so they have absolutely no reason to boast (1Co 1:30-31). This sense of being called by Christ, and not approaching him by their own merit or choosing, was so pervasive among the early Christians that it is reflected in the name of their community. The Greek word ekklesia, which we translate as “church,” literally means, “ones who were called out.”

What does Paul’s teaching on election imply for the spread of the gospel and missionary work today? Here are three practical lessons that I draw from it.

First, it underscores the fact that evangelism is not driven by human planning, vision, or zeal, but is undertaken by God’s initiative and the work of the Holy Spirit.

There is a short passage in the middle of Romans chapter 10 where Paul writes (Ro 10:14-15):

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

This paragraph has often been interpreted as an exhortation to evangelism. Countless pastors have quoted these verses to urge their members to volunteer, go out, and carry the gospel to an unbelieving world so that they too can have “beautiful feet.” In the context of Romans 9-11, however, this is not an exhortation to evangelism. It is an explanation of why a remnant was chosen out of Israel to believe in Jesus. The original disciples of Jesus didn’t volunteer; they were called by Jesus and then sent by him and the Holy Spirit to the preach the gospel to the rest of Israel, who for the most part rejected the message because God had hardened their hearts. And the hardening of their hearts was part of God’s plan!

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that evangelism is unnecessary. It is necessary. But it is God who calls and sends some to evangelize, and it is God who manages the outcomes, either positive or negative, and uses them for his own mysterious salvation purpose. To think that we can decide to accept a vision and go out and evangelize, and that we will be successful if we only try hard enough, pray long enough, and use the correct methods, then we are deluding ourselves. God’s interest is to save the nations, not to expand our churches and ministries. He is more than willing to allow us to fail, to chasten us, to humble us, etc. if necessary to show us the world that no group is intrinsically privileged, that salvation comes to everyone by the grace of God alone. He is more than willing to use poor, ineffective, arrogant, or ethnocentric evangelism to reveal the weaknesses of evangelists, churches and Christians and show the world that everyone, including all missionaries and all religious leaders, are sinners not just in theory, but in actuality. He is not interested in helping unrepentant Christians to save face. He wants to show off the amazing grace of his Son, not to dazzle people by the greatness of us.

Second, it shows that God’s mission travels in all directions.

God did not intend for the gospel to travel just from Jews to Gentiles. His plan was for the gospel to start with a remnant of Israel, to flow out the Gentiles, and then ultimately come back to Israel. If the gospel were to flow in one direction only, then it would elevate certain persons and groups to privileged status over others. But the gospel flows in all directions. As missionaries evangelize disciples, they must allow themselves to be re-evangelized by the disciples. This makes the concept of a missionary-sending nation somewhat dubious. Rather than praying for any nation to be “a missionary-sending nation,” it would be more reasonable to envision “a gospel-proclaiming and a gospel-receiving nation.” A church that sends missionaries overseas should not imagine itself to be just a power-station for mission, always giving but never receiving, insulating itself and not allowing itself to be influenced by the Christianity of the converts. As the Church welcomes new believers into the fold, it must itself be transformed. God is always interested in using the various parts of the Body of Christ to evangelize, renew and reform other parts. If any part seeks to reform another, it had better be prepared to be reformed right back.

In part 4 of this series, I discussed the problems with the “mission-station” strategy in which foreigners enter a new culture, set up a church that resembles the one from back home, and attempt to raise disciples in their own image. Donald A. McGavran (1897-1990), the missionary and scholar who coined this term, criticized the mission-station strategy on the grounds that it is ineffective and inhibits church growth. Although I believe his arguments have merit, I do not consider slow growth to be the main reason why Christians must avoid establishing mission stations. We must avoid doing so because this approach conflicts with what the New Testament teaches about election and undermines the gospel of salvation by grace alone.

Third, it underscores the need for great humility – not a false modesty, but a true acknowledgement of our own spiritual poverty – in the way we do apologetics, evangelism and discipleship.

Paul’s teaching about election leads explicitly to the conclusion that at no point may any Christian individual or group think of themselves as superior to any believer or nonbeliever. This does not mean that there is not a proper time for some to teach and others to learn. Indeed, election means that some are called by God to positions of teaching. But the role of teacher carries a grave responsibility to examine himself to uncover the weaknesses of himself and the group from which he comes. As Paul warned in Romans 2:17-20:

Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?

We have no business evangelizing others if we are not simultaneously allowing ourselves to be evangelized by the message we are preaching and by the work of the Holy Spirit among those we are attempting to reach. At no point does evangelism depend on our own effort, faithfulness, righteousness or obedience, because the gospel comes to all not because of our wonderful goodness, but only despite our horrible badness. And if our efforts do not produce the desired result, if the message we preach is rejected, what are we to conclude? Lesslie Newbigin (as quoted by Bosch in Transforming Mission, p. 413) wrote:

I can never be so confident of the purity and authenticity of my witness that I can know that the person who rejects my witness has rejected Jesus. I am witness to him who is both utterly holy and utterly gracious. His holiness and grace are as far above my comprehension as they are above that of my hearer.

In the next, and final, article of this series, I will pick up a question that was left unanswered at the end of part 4: Who decides the ethical implications of th gospel?


  1. James Kim

    Thanks Joe for wonderful article. I like your statement, “Gospel flows in all directions”. Scott Moreau said, “The day of Western missionary domination is over, not because Western missionaries have died off, but because the rest of the world has caught the vision and is engaged and energized”. For centuries, Western nations dominated missionary movement. It was a common sense that missionaries could be sent out from developed (rich) nations to developing nations (third world nations) not the other way around. It was a very recent thing that missionaries from developing nations were sent out to the developed nations. When I first came to Chicago as lay missionary, I felt like a grasshopper before gorgeous American students. I had no idea how I can be a missionary to America. In retrospect, I believe it was the leading of the Holy Spirit in this time of declining Christianity in the Western nations.
    As you said in your article, “gospel flows in all directions”. I believe this is true in this global age. Paul said, 1 Cor 1:27,28 say, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised tings—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.” Only by God’s grace Korean missionaries were sent out to all over the world including developed nations. However, there is always danger of feeling superior or paternalistic as missionaries. We should not forget that we are only servants.

  2. Joshua Yoon

    Joe’s article about “election” shows a big picture of God’s sovereign way of working out his plan of salvation for the world. Thank God for putting this on Joe’s mind and thanks Joe for his deep thinking and diligent writing. I realize no one is in a safe zone whether we are gospel deliverers or recepients. Unless we are rooted and keep standing in the grace that is found in Christ Jesus (Rom 5:2), anyone is in danger of being cut off no matter of how many years we have served God and taught others. This fearsome truth makes me trembling. I agree that we should be prepared to be reformed back as we seek to reform others, whether they are strangers or our own children. This requires that we should be ready to empty whatever gets in the way of “being re-evangelized” or “reformation.” To acknowledge and admit our own need of lesson from the one we try to teach is not easy. Only it can be done only by the work of the Spirit, by God’s grace. In my own experience, a missionary calling gave me a sense of mission, direction and identity. But at the same time for a long time it hindered me from being ready to be reformed back. I was ready to give but not receive. I was ready to teach but not learn. I realize that there are some areas I can teach others but more areas I should learn. I taught my teen aged son to use the corded phone when he was young but now he teaches me how to use my iphone which is not even his. I told my daughters Bible stories but now they coach me how to make the Bible studies and messages relevant to young students. God put me in a position of a life long-learner (disciple). That’s right. I became a disciple of Jesus before I received a missionary calling. Being a missionary is God’s special blessing not because we can evangelize others but because we are in a position of experiening constantly God’s grace and mercy. I am saying based on my own experience, so this may not apply to everyone. Even after living many years in N. America, I cannot speak or write in English fluently. I cannot speak or write in Korean fluently either. I cannot pray fluently in either language. Even now sometimes I cannot laugh when Canadians laugh while watching a TV show or a movie. Sometimes I feel and appear to be a fool. But I was called by God. Did God call me to make me an idot? No! He called me to belong to Him and be rooted in His grace. I realize I am in the best position for experiencing God’s grace and mercy. Election is all about God’s grace and mercy. God wants us to depend on his mercy from first to last. I see God using his election process and cycle to make all of us humble and dependent on his mercy only (Rom 11:30-31)until Jesus comes back.

  3. Andy Stumpf

    Hey I’m excited to announce that I finally worked my way through this whole series. In order to ensure that I did so, I made this reading part of the research involved in a paper I’m writing for my New Testament class in my theology program. (By the way, I’m hoping to be able to submit the thing I’m working on as an article on this blog, God (and the admin) willing.)

    This has been an awesome read, and I really appreciate the new windows being opened up and the fresh wind of ideas blowing in on how to think about evangelism and election. As I read, a number of questions arose in my mind. I’ll start with a personal one: Sometimes I feel that my problem is not so much an inability to learn from others as it is an inability to be confident in what I myself know. Maybe part of this is just being Canadian (for those of you who don’t know, Canadians generally don’t have a very clear identity, besides the fact that we are multicultural and diverse, and we like beer, hockey, and canoes). I’m not saying I’m exempt from the problem of pride and superiority complex. But there is an issue on the other side of the coin that I think I personally struggle with more – namely living and speaking with a sense of conviction about what I actually believe myself. To make this a bit more general – how do we balance a deep conviction that the Jesus we know is Lord, with a deep humility about the limits of our understanding of Him?  

    A second question – this one directed more to understanding what’s going on in Joe’s posts: At various points, Joe, you made comments to the effect that one of God’s reasons for hardening the hearts of most 1st century Jews to the gospel message was to ensure that a Torah-free gospel could be preached. I find myself enthusiastically agreeing with alot of what you’ve been saying, but I feel a need for greater clarity about this point.

    For one thing, is it even right to think of the gospel as Torah-free? I’m thinking of passages like Matt 5:17-20, where Jesus claims that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” A face-value reading of this seems to me to indicate that in some way Torah is going to remain a very important part of the church’s message – and even in the sense that its commandments need to be practiced and taught – right up until Jesus’ return.  

    Of course, we know from lots of other places that we are in some ways “free from the law” – but how do we get a sense of freedom from the law that at the same time involves paying very careful attention to practicing and teaching the law (even to “the least stroke of a pen”)?

    Just something I’m wondering about. I guess I have some of my own (partially worked out) ideas about how to understand this out but I thought I’d throw this out to others first to see what people think. Also I think this is getting way too long for a comment…

    • Andy, thanks for this comment. There is one more article in the series (Part 13)  which, God willing, will be posted very soon. This article may address some of the questions you raised.

      When I wrote about a “Torah-free gospel,” I now realize that this could be easily misunderstood. The Torah — the first five books of the Bible  — lay the foundation for the whole Bible. Without the Torah, the gospel doesn’t make any sense. Gospel-believing Christians can never dispense with the Torah, nor can we ignore the truths revealed  through the giving of the law, the failure of the Israelites to live up to the law, God’s prophetic promises to them in the midst of their disobedience, etc.   All of those things anticipate the gospel and set the stage for the  coming of the Messiah. Many Christians present the  gospel in a way that ignores the Torah, jumping from the Fall in Genesis 3 directly to the coming of Christ, as if the history and experience of Israel doesn’t matter. That is a big mistake.

      The expression  “Torah-free gospel” was meant to represent the kind of message that Paul taught in Romans 8.  It’s  about how the death and resurrection of Christ has fulfilled the requirements of the law, bringing us into a new reality of direct interaction with God through the Holy Spirit rather than following a written code. We Christians are not merely freed from the written law; we are  required to leave the law behind and follow the person of Jesus Christ through the leading of the Holy Spirit.  This sounds so dangerous and subversive  that  many Christians simply do not want to go there.  We feel way more comfortable  standing in the shallow water  of  rules, practices and disciplines than  we do swimming out into the deep ocean of dependence upon the Spirit who, as the Scripture promised, would replace the written law and write God’s requirements directly upon our hearts.

      If we  are honest, I think we will find that much of our tendency to return to the practice and teaching of the law stems from
      * our desire to appear righteous in the sight of our peers  and not look like lawbreakers,
      * our insecurity about not knowing how to interact with the Holy Spirit, and
      * a kind of laziness stemming from the fact that it’s far easier to follow a few commandments (especially if everyone else in the church community is following them) than it is to pursue a deep personal relationship with God characterized by intimacy, love and two-way communication.

      I will contend that the gospel demands nothing less than a vital, living relationship with God that depends on Christ to fulfill the law for us. The gospel requires us to stop basing our self esteem  on our personal adherence to principles, laws, and behaviors which (however good they may be) can never substitute for Christ. And it requires us to consider, “What is the Immanuel God, who is alive and working in my life, saying to me and asking me to do right now?”

    • Thanks, Andy. If I may add to Joe’s comment, I would include Galatians as being Paul’s 6 chapter polemic and almost a diatriabe “against the law,” which the Judaizers were holding over the heads of the new Galatian Christians, thus taking away their freedom in Christ, and enslaving them to the law all over again, which Paul refers to as “slavery to weak and miserable principles of the world” (Gal 4:3,9).

      As Joe said, it’s so much easier to think/feel ourselves righteous when we do what “everybody else in the church is doing.” Then before we realize it, we begin imposing and expecting everyone who comes to church or Bible study to “do the same thing.”

      Eventually, even though we say we believe in Jesus, and we say we believe in the gospel, but practically and functionally we believe in our methodology, our procedure and protocol, our etiquete, our traditions, our religious practices, etc. We assume the gospel, and then expect others to conform to our religous expression “according to the law,” just as the Judaizers expected the Galatian Gentile Christians to be circumcized, keep their dietary food laws, special holy days, etc.

  4. Thank you for the responses, Joe and Ben!

    I totally agree that the point of Christianity is to follow and love Jesus the person and not to be enslaved to legalistic rules. But is it fair to identify Torah with legalistic rules, or with “our methodology, our procedure and protocol, our etiquette, our traditions, our practices, etc.?” Can we say that Paul was “against the law” when he so often reasoned from the law even in defending the gospel (e.g. Abraham’s example in Romans 4 comes from Torah)? And isn’t there a sense in which the Law is just the same as the Gospel?

    Joe, you said that we are commanded to leave the law behind, and in one way this makes sense to me; but in another I still feel uncomfortable about it, especially in light of the passage from Matthew’s gospel I quoted above. Might we actually be talking about two different things when we use the word “Law”?

    Law 1: Torah as (often mis)interpreted by man
    Law 2: Torah as intended by God to reveal and lead us to Christ

    Jesus himself quoted Torah a lot and arguably His spiritual formation as a man was thoroughly shaped by Torah, no? Jesus spoke with his disciples in a long, post-resurrection walk during which “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Lk 24:27) Jesus also did not shy away from issuing commands – see especially John 13:34 (read this with 13:12-17 in the background, and as the discourse continues this theme in 14:15-24, and again in 15:9-17). The words “command” and “obey” are all over the place – and this is the gospel!

    Is something like this what you were getting at, Joe, when you said that “Without the Torah, the gospel doesn’t make any sense. Gospel-believing Christians can never dispense with the Torah, nor can we ignore the truths revealed through the giving of the law…”? It’s all the Word of God, even if it’s easy enough to turn it into our own misunderstood body of rules and customs, as the Pharisees did. I just feel a worry that in throwing out human rules incorrectly based on Torah, we miss the force Torah still had for Jesus, the apostles, and for us (as this has to be understood, of course, in the context of the whole Bible and especially the revelation of Christ). And no one yet commented on the meaning of the text I quoted in my first response, from Matthew 5.

  5. Andy, you raised many interesting and deep questions. And in your last paragraph, you started to answer them. I think that the role of Torah in the Christian life can only be understood with respect to the flow of biblical history and the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

    The relationship between law and gospel is one of the trickiest things to understand and explain. (As you point out, “Law” has multiple meanings. In chapters 1-8 of Romans, it is used in at least 3 or 4 different ways.) I feel that I am only starting to understand them now. If we approach the Bible from a standpoint of platonic dualism, reading it as a book of timeless principles and teachings, then it is very hard to reconcile law and gospel, because as principles they appear to conflict. But if we approach the Bible from a historical/relational standpoint — viewing it as a narrative of God’s salvation work and his dynamic relationship with the human race — then the pieces start to fall into place. There are many books that explain this really well. One superly duperly awesome book is Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright (2005), which I wish every UBF Bible teacher would read. The central thesis of this book is that, despite Protestant assertions of sola scriptura, final authority does not rest in the text of the Bible but in the person of Jesus Christ (Mt 28:18). When we talk about “the authority of Scripture,” that is really just a shorthand expression for “the authority of Christ exercised through Scripture.” It may sound like obscure theological hair-splitting, but it is not. It makes a world of difference when we start to understand that everything about the Christian life, and everything period, is centered on the person of Jesus.

    Everything has always emanated from Christ (John 1:1-5). But it is only in New Testament times that this has been made clear to us (Heb 1:1-3). If we do what Jesus taught his disciples to do in Luke 24:27, to adopt a radically and ridiculously Christ-centered approach to reading the whole Bible, then everything starts to take on a new flavor. For example, we begin to see that the commands given by Jesus are of a different nature than most commands appearing in the OT covenant of law; although we call them commands, they are impossible to obey unless we invite the Holy Spirit to operate on us and allow Jesus himself to obey the commands through us.

    A great example is the one you mentioned in John 13:34, the command to love one another. Apart from the gospel, this command is pure nonsense. Love is an inner orientation that is not under our control. Suppose I command my wife to love me. Can she possibly do that? She cannot make her love flow. Suppose I try to win her heart by writing love letters, buying gifts, showering her with attention and affection. It might work, but it might not. It might cause her to reciprocate and be nice to me out of sense of duty, guilt, or pity, but still that is not love.   Love is a mysterious inner response that cannot be generated by us; if it flows from human effort or will then it is fake. Real love ultimately flows from God and must be awakened by him. So when Jesus said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” he was talking about what he was going to do for his disciples after his glorification. He was going to send the Holy Spirit upon them and generate his own love in them as a fruit of the Spirit.

    I predict that we will be discussing these things a great deal on UBFriends in the weeks ahead.