Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Final part)

Two months ago, I started to write this series of articles titled “Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission” to formulate answers to some of the mission-related questions that had been arising in my mind. These articles were heavily influenced by Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret, by David J. Bosch’s Transforming Mission, and by what I have been learning from my own Bible reading, especially from Acts, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews.

I began this series by asking what happens when our understanding of Scripture is contradicted by the leading of the Holy Spirit. It is easy for us to convince ourselves that we are holding to “biblical” values and principles simply because we belong to a ministry that strongly emphasizes Bible study, and yet miss what God is saying to us here and now. The epistle to the Hebrews contains a vivid description of how the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with Scripture (Hebrews 4:12-13, NIV):

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

For the Bible to do its work, we must do more than just try to understand the meaning of the written word. We need to come in the presence the living Word and allow him to expose unpleasant truths about ourselves. In the King James Version, “laid bare” is rendered as “naked.” Studying the Bible while you are naked sounds rather uncomfortable. Unless our Bible study is somewhat uncomfortable, we are not approaching Scripture as we ought. In the next chapter, the author delivers a stinging rebuke to his readers (Hebrews 5:11, The Message):

I have a lot more to say about this, but it is hard to get it across to you since you’ve picked up this bad habit of not listening.

There are countless bad habits that keep us from listening to the voice of God. The bad habit of pulling verses and passages out of context to support our pre-existing positions. Using the Bible to affirm our identity and make us think we are better than others. Treating the Bible as a collection of timeless principles and moral examples rather than the great metanarrative of history culminating in the person and work of Jesus. From my own experience, I know how easy it is to fall into a pattern of bad habits which, while we are interacting with Scripture, allows us to remain distant from Jesus. As Jesus said in John 5:39-40:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

The Spirit wants to awaken us out of complacency into a dynamic, life-giving relationship with Christ. He wants to refresh our mission, giving us a renewed understanding of the gospel and how to participate in missio Dei.

As the 50th anniversary of UBF approaches, I have mixed feelings about what has been happening in our ministry. I am grateful for what God has done among us thus far, but I am apprehensive about the talk about preserving our “spiritual heritage” and passing on “UBF principles” to the next generation. The reason I am apprehensive is that, when leaders articulate what the heritage and principles are, it sounds like a description of the fruit of the gospel work among the first generation of UBF members, not the seed that generated that fruit.

The seed is, of course, the gospel. The historical facts of the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, his ascension, lordship and Second Coming, are the universal message that must be proclaimed by the Church in every time and place. The call to believe this message and personally follow the risen Christ are the core of the universal Christian witness. The fruit is the renewal of persons and restoration of relationships seen among those who receive the gospel message, the visible work of the Holy Spirit who dwells in the fellowship of believers.

If someone has come to a saving faith in Christ, evidence of that faith must appear in the person’s life in the form of visible fruit (Heb 6:8; Jas 2:26). But that visible fruit may look very different from one person to another and from one community to another. Profound differences began to appear within the first generation after Christ. The first disciples of Jesus were Jews, and they expressed their gospel faith in visible ways within the context of distinctly Jewish lifestyle. But when Gentiles received the gospel message, they began to live out their faith differently. This led to a crisis around 50 A.D. culminating in the Jerusalem Council in Acts chapter 15, when distinctions between Jewish and Gentile Christians were openly acknowledged and blessed. If the apostles had decided to impose Jewish life-patterns upon Gentile Christians, the growth that the Church experienced in its first two decades would have been unsustainable. The key to continued growth was for the apostles to simultaneously hold on to the historic message of salvation through Christ alone and let go of their implicit, culture-bound notions and expectations about what the “ideal” Christian life should look like, allowing the Holy Spirit to work creatively among new converts.

Too many evangelistic movements have fallen into the trap of trying to sustain activities that are inherently unsustainable. When the Spirit works powerfully in a particular time and place, those who are changed by it may naturally begin to think that this is how it’s supposed to be in other times and places. There is a very fine line between (a) giving thanks to God for what he has done and faithfully building upon it, and (b) canonizing the formative experience of the evangelistic movement by constructing a system of theology, principles, and rules around it in an attempt to perpetuate it. Those who cross this line try to absolutize what is provisional and, despite good intentions, obscure the gospel message and stifle the work of the Spirit among those who would come after them.

The actual fruit of the gospel consists of inward qualities (love, joy, peace, etc.) which cannot be directly observed (Gal 5:22-23). These inward qualities are universal, but their outward manifestations are context-specific and culturally conditioned. During the last century, conservative evangelicals in the United States promoted “Christian” values by demanding that church members abstain from smoking, drinking, gambling and dancing. Interestingly, none of these activities is specifically prohibited in the Bible; Christians in the first century wrestled with a different set of moral issues and dilemmas. A personal decision to refrain from smoking, drinking, gambling or dancing may be an appropriate response to the gospel in some contexts, but these are not timeless laws, and treating them as such can produce unintended negative consequences for individuals, congregations and society at large. When standards like these are imposed as a matter of policy, disciples may adhere to them, but their adherence may not be the evidence of real inner transformation; rather, it will appear through self effort, relationship pressure, cultural expectations and church rules. It will be counterfeit fruit, not the result of genuine Christian spirituality, and its benefits will not last.

When missionaries bring the gospel message into a new culture, they also carry tacit notions of how an ideal Christian disciple should look and act. It is almost inevitable that missionaries will impose many culture-bound standards and expectations upon their disciples. As the disciples mature and begin to exercise independent faith and judgment, they begin to challenge the missionaries’ standards with ideas of their own, leading to tensions and conflicts within a ministry. Appeals to the Bible may not solve the problem, because each one can make a compelling case (in their own minds, at least) that the Bible is on their side. The fundamental question being raised is this: Who determines what the ethical implications of the gospel are in that specific time and place? Should the missionaries decide? Or should the native disciples decide?

The correct answer, I believe, is neither. In a genuine gospel ministry, the Holy Spirit must decide. Fruit-bearing is the prerogative of the Spirit who comes upon each believer in Christ, young and old, male and female, and upon the Church as a whole (Acts 2:16-18). The work of the Spirit is mysterious, unpredictable and surprising. He cannot be treated in a mechanical fashion or be reduced to rules, principles or methods, because he is a person. There is no greater need among us now than to become personally acquainted with Holy Spirit and discern what he doing in this present generation among missionaries’ children and among native disciples, so that this work may be encouraged and blessed.


  1. Amen. Nice article. Many-a-time have I wondered why I’m being made to conform to a certain way. It’s a difficult struggle to want to tell people that the spirit isn’t necessarily leading me in the same path as others. I wonder also wonder how long our church can sustain itself. Are the elders saying we need to sustain our “spiritual heritage?” The other week Dr. John Jun gave a message on spiritual revival and it made me think about what direction UBF will take when the new General Director come in. Will there be a turn to restore our “spiritual heritage?” Will there be an attempt for reflection and possible reform? Based on Dr. Jun’s message, I’m a bit scared if this church were to take a more, shall we say, conservative attitude. I don’t mean that in a political sense. I mean, look at the practices of UBF now, I’m scared that in an attempt to return to our “spiritual heritage” we will “double down.”
    Now, I’ve never met Dr. Samuel Lee, but when I think of “spiritual heritage” I think of him. Like I said, I’ve never met him, but I’ve heard a lot of things, and I’ve seen his influence up and down this church. Would returning to our “spiritual heritage” mean the proverbial one step forward, two steps back?

  2. GerardoR

    This is wonderful Joe. Very honest of you to be doing this kind of reflection. We are often trapped in our own bubbles and think that our spin on Christianity is how everyone else worships. I feel this strongly when I talk with friends who don’t even know where the bible came from or the history of the Church  beyond  acts. It almost seems like there is a strong distrust in anything that is non biblical and hence, a strong disinterest in Church history and or reading the Church Fathers.  

    Indeed, holding a very denomination centric view can lead to some individuals to practically value their own denominations stance (and the cultural framework that shaped that stance) above what the bible (e.g., ban on music, drinking, smoking etc..) or Holy Spirit. And what kills me is that it is always the Holy Spirit that  apparently  justifies this. Should we X yes or no? One guy says the Holy Spirit says yes, the other one says the Holy Spirit says no.  This is strange as I do not know any denominations that claim to hold infallible interpreters of the Bible. So while there are no explicit infallible interpreters, you have people who practically act as if they infallible on an implicit level which leads to self  righteousnesses.  

    I think you put it well once before when you said what we need is humility. It shows a lack of humility to be able to look at a fellow Christian and with all the confidence that the world can offer, say to him, “You are not Christian” or, “You are going to Hell”, or “You are not saved unless you attend my particular denomination”.

    One of my favorite stories related to this is in regards to a fiery priest in Baltimore during the 60s. He was preaching that protestants are not Christians and that they are going to hell and that there is no Salvation unless you are Catholic. The Church responded to this matter not simply by reprimanding the priest but also by releasing a papal encyclical titled Lumen Gentium. =)

  3. Martyn Lloyd Jones said in a sermon that if everyone in the church is the same, then it is not a church but a religious gathering. His point is that people are different, and the Holy Spirit works in people differently. So, if everyone is more or less the same, it is not really the work of God, but the work of man’s effort for religious conformity and acceptibility with one another.

    I have the same concern and apprehension as Joe, if we are indeed trying to pass on our “spiritual heritage” and “UBF principles” to the next generation. This, I think, would be how our first generation of UBF members lived out their Christian life.

    God does whatever pleases HIMSELF (Ps 115:3; 135:6). The wind blows wherever it pleases (John 3:8). Man can never be the determiner of what is passed on to the next generation.

    We, as Christians, are primarily called to realize and receive his indescribable gift (2 Cor 9:15), which is the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 20:24), and then to share this very gospel to the world, including the next generation.

    I do not believe that we Christians are called to share our methodologies, principles, or any church or denominational legacy or heritage. What do you think?

    • Joshua Yoon

      Apostle Paul’s only aim was to finish the race and complete the task of testifying to the good news (gospel) of God’s grace. For this task, he considered his life worth nothing to him. (Acts 20:24) If our task focuses on something else, even something good like certain ministrial legacies and principles, there is a danger of putting the ministry ahead of Christ.

  4. Joshua Yoon

    Thanks Joe for putting this long but thought provoking, relevent series of articles. Personally, I was very blessed by all the articles and comments. I was also challenged to think deeply of why I am doing what I am doing. Now I understand better why the title of this series is Word, Spirit, Gospel, Mission. One thing that stood out among many learnings is the importance of reading and studying the Bible, doing the ministry in a constant touch with the living God the Father, the person Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

  5. Dear Joe,
    Congratulation on the completion of the series.
    Could you please combine all parts into one PDF for convenient reading?
    Perhaps A6 + A4 formats, since somebody like me could use an eBook reader.

  6. yaruingam

    Hi Joe, you are really a wonderful  writer. I really admire the way to try to correct all the errors we, the UBF have committed. In fact, every one knows it but not easy to point out in concret manner as you do it in this article. This is truly great and admirable. I hope whoever read this articles are being blessed.
    You have pointed out  the exact reason why many hopeful ubf brothers left the ministry in the centre where I was associating. One of the primary reasons they gave for their leaving was, ‘ there is no Holy Spirit’ in ubf ministry. This is true because we didnot allow God to work in an individuals’ life in very personal manner; minisionaries thought that unless, native brothers and coworkers confirm to the standard and activities of the missinories or UBF, we are committing sin and thus require repentance. Thus, most of our testimony sharing was repentance of not obeying the rule and regulation of the orgnization. To give  a smal example, not putting neck tie itself used to be a great problem (sin). Shepherd  are being rebuked and demanded for repentance. I hope many missinoaries who read this valuable article will be greatly benefiting. Keep writing ….

  7. Yongha Lee

    Joe, I thank you very much for taking time and efforts durinig your busy schedules.  I think this online venue is certainly  limited but many of  UBFiends  would benefit from your insightful and spiritual articles as we walk before God.  I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be great if you  speak  up during the missionary conference, if you have a chance,  to be held right after the 50th anniversary world  mission report in Korea. I don’t know  the  missionary conference  programs, but if they repeat the  same old stuffs, it would be a shame.  As a  lowly  lay member of UBF  for more than 10 years, it is my  sole assessment (I respect others who may disagree with me) that we, as a church, seem to have neglected  examination of ourselves and corrective repentance during the past  years. Maybe we never knew about such things or we were just too busy doing the work of God.  People are different so I can’t speak for others, but at least, I am learning it personally in a hard  way, and I am very thankful to God for that.  May the help of the Holy Spirit be on its way to each of us before it’s too late.  God bless you and all UBFriends.

    • GerardoR

      Out of curiosity, how do long time members feel UBF higher ups would react if someone like Joe were to bring up this topic at the upcoming conference? Would it be seen as a sign of courage and invitation for self examination? A sign of individualistic westerners trying to impose their views on a long held, tried and true formula? Maybe something in between?

    • We shall see.

  8. James Kim

    Thank you Joe, for sharing another wonderful article. It was very relevant to our situation. One of the themes of Lesslie Newbigin’s book, “The Open Secret” is privilege and responsibility. The Jews were chosen (elected) by God for purpose. They were chosen to be the light of the Gentiles. Newbigin said how God accomplishes his redemptive purpose in this book. “He chooses one to be the bearer of his blessing for the many (Mk 1:17, Jn 15:16, 1 Pet 2:9)—The one (or the few) is chosen for the sake of the many; the particular is chosen for the sake of the universal”. God always has his eyes on the universal and he calls the particular for this purpose.
    As we know, the Israelites became complacent. They only enjoyed their privileges without taking responsibilities as God’s chosen people. They felt superior and safe. As Newbigin also said, “But the Old Testament repeatedly portrays the chosen people as falling into the illusion that they have a privileged position with God that insures them against disaster.—-Israel has to learn that election is not for comfort and security but for suffering and humiliation.— to be the elect is a fearful responsibility.”
    The Israel’s problem can be ours too. We are chosen only by his grace and for God’s purpose. As Paul said in Phil 2:12 “—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” and 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained all this—I press on to take hold of me” Based on these verses Newbigin said we have fearful responsibility. To avoid the pitfall of complacency as God’s chosen people, we should remember his grace always and struggle to grow in healthy tension between privileges and responsibilities. They said it is easier to receive God’s blessing than to maintain God’s blessing. God blessed UBF for the last 50 years in many ways. We need to pray to maintain God’s blessing with humility and fearful responsibility.

  9. Hi Dr. James. Thanks for being the only elder who comments fairly regularly on this site. It is always such a welcome sight that you share your thoughts, your experience,  your vast years of Christian living, your love and commitment to Christ, and your wisdom with us.

    As you rightly thank God for  more than gratiously blessing UBF for the last 50 years, so do many of us. Thank God especially for calling Dr. Lee, Mother Barry, and the founding members of UBF from the early 1960s to serve God’s world mission purpose.

    The point you raised from Newbigin’s Open Secret (which I have not read) is excellent: Responsibility must always follow privilege. Yet, sadly, because we are sinful, the Jews and we Christians incline toward emphasizing privilege while minimizing responsibility, or ignoring it altogether. Woe to us for doing so, for which we Christians constantly need Jesus’ mercy and grace, along with his discipline and judgment.

    I thus fully agree with you regarding the sin of complacency, and of our ever constant need to grow in the “healthy tension between privileges and responsibility.” However, I would like to suggest that as much as complacency is a sin, but so is self-righteousness if we over-emphasize our need for being responsible. Our sense of responsibility can then easily degenerate into a man centered and man generated human effort that obscures the marvellous grace of Jesus.

    In a sense, the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day were actually very responsible to ensure the keeping of the law. But although they studied and “knew” the Bible more than anyone else, they completely missed the point (John 5:39). Likewise, I think that in our zeal to be responsible to keep our “UBF spiritual legacy,” we might be in danger of also missing the point if we primarily emphasize “UBF principles and practices” to the next UBF generation, as Joe pointed out.

  10. Andy Stumpf

    Thanks for putting the final touch on this important series, Joe. I hope the ideas touched in it keep on running in our minds, hearts and ministries, even if the series has come to an end. I think there are some real challenges we’re facing as we seek God’s leading on our 50th anniversary, given the blend of missionaries, native leaders and disciples, and second gens. How can we truly work together, genuinely respecting each other, to discern what the Spirit is saying to us?
    I would like to add a brief reflection on 1 Thess. 5:19-21 “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.”
    There is a really interesting balance in these verses between,
    (A) Being open to the Spirit’s activity as it manifests itself in any member of the community (via prophetic message, which I think actually covers a pretty broad range of divine input), and
    (B) A requirement to not just let anything fly – to have some standard in place by which things get tested, and the good is sorted out from the bad.
    What are some practical principles we might seek to apply to our ministries that allow us to generate this balance? I think a big part of what we need to develop, both at the local level in individual chapters and at the more overarching levels of the ministry, a structure in which top leadership actively solicits feedback from the congregation (and/or lower-level leaders), and those other members in turn take enough responsibility to offer their feedback and to be willing to dialogue with the upper leadership. I think this structure could deal with every aspect of the ministry’s practice, leaving everything open for discussion by those who are committed to the ministry.
    At the same time, it does not seem right to allow ministry practice to simply be dictated by whoever expresses an idea with no controls operating – there needs to be a method for testing and discerning the will of God, and for holding on to what is good and discarding what is not. There needs to be some body in place where the final decisions are made, whether this is an individual director, a small leadership team (deciding by vote, for instance), or a democratic process in which all committed members are able to cast a vote.
    I personally am very interested in investigating models for establishing a structure like this. Does anyone know of any good examples, or have any other thoughts about this?

  11. Andy, what you say makes sense. Democracy and voting doesn’t necessarily yield greater control to the Holy Spirit than other modes of decisionmaking. But whatever we do, we need to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is a gift to the entire church, not just to one leader. Greater interaction with other parts of the Body of Christ outside of UBF will also help.

  12. Just sharing a recently published article that a friend of mine from college wrote. Thought our community here would appreciate it


    • Thanks, John. An interesting quote: “Traditionally, Asian cultures can be quite “closed.” We don’t share failures, weaknesses, or emotions, because it’s considered shameful to do so. We keep everything bottled inside us, and if we do tell anybody, it doesn’t go much beyond our tightest circles of family and friends.”

      Since, being “Asian-influenced,” we might have a blatant or implicit tendency to often work from a position of strength and power, (rather than from a position of weakness and vulnerability), which is quite contrary to Christ on the cross dying in weakness and helplessness.