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“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them [and] . . . teaching them” (Matt. 28:19–20). These are Jesus’ famous last words in the gospel of Matthew. He calls His church throughout the ages to enlist in His mission to the world. By “church” I mean both the organization as it is structured with ministers, elders, deacons, and members and the organism of those members dispersed throughout the world. The church is not just a place but a people. It is not just a static temple but a building made of living stones (1 Peter 2:4–8). Further, by “missions” I mean both official sending of the gospel to people far and wide (Rom. 10:14–17) and individuals like you and me living as gospel outposts of heaven (1 Peter 3:13–17).

Yet for people who embrace Reformed theology, there is the need to be honest: we make practical excuses not to obey Jesus’ commission. In fact, we make theological excuses as well. The two most popular have to do with predestination and the death of Christ. Oftentimes we hear these two doctrines caricatured by theological opponents as leading us to have no real interest in or motive for personal evangelism and world missions. Popular anti-Calvinist writer Dave Hunt said that Calvinists “bring the gospel to the world not because of their Calvinism but only in spite of it.” I believe this is a caricature, but practically we also are liable to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy at times. Instead, I want to assert that Christians who embrace Reformed theological formulations of predestination and Christ’s death actually have a stronger impetus for missions than any other theological tradition. Let me explain.


From the outset, we have to realize that it’s not as if some Christians believe in the sovereignty of God in predestination and therefore don’t believe in missions while others do missions because they have a greater belief in human responsibility. As J.I. Packer explained: all Christians believe in the sovereignty of God because all Christians pray, thank God for saving them, and ask that the Lord would save their lost loved ones.

So is predestination a motivation for missions? Paul anguished over the fact that most of his fellow Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah. In fact, he said that he was willing to be eternally cursed by God if that meant saving the Jews (Rom. 9:1–3). Yet Paul went on to explain that the promise of God hadn’t failed; instead, His purpose of election was being realized in time (vv. 6–18). And to the objection that predestination makes people robots, Paul shot back: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ ” (v. 20). And so Paul’s “heart’s desire and prayer to God for [the Jews was] that they may be saved” (10:1). What does Romans 9–11, then, mean for predestination being a motive for missions? Let me offer several practical reflections.

First, because predestination is true, Paul had heartfelt anguish and desire for his fellow Jewish people to be saved. Predestination deepens desire, inflames emotions, and prods persistent prayer.

Second, because predestination is true, Paul obeyed Jesus’ command: “Go” (Matt. 28:19). Just read the book of Acts in parallel with Paul’s letters to see this. For us this means that we aren’t to live our lives wondering about God’s secret will for our lives or the lives of others but are to live according to His revealed will as found in His Word. He tells us to go, reach, and teach the lost, so we do.

Our doctrine is no disincentive; it is the incentive.

Third, because predestination is true, Paul preached knowing that without the gospel, no one would be saved. Preaching is the necessary means by which God brings those whom He predestined unto salvation from spiritual death to eternal life. Whether we are ordained preachers of the gospel or the simplest believer, we are called in our own social circles to bear witness to the Savior. Whoever we are, we know that while we seek to “persuade” (2 Cor. 5:11) and “implore” (v. 20) through the Word, it is God Himself who pleads with sinners to be reconciled to Him (vv. 19–20).

Fourth, because predestination is true, it was Paul’s—and is our—only hope of any success in missions. Paul ends his discussion of Israel’s unbelief, his anguish, God’s predestinating grace, and the means of preaching with his great doxology reflecting on this:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,

or who has been his counselor?”

“Or who has given a gift to him

that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:33–36)

jesus’ effectual death

We often hear that “limited atonement” or “definite redemption”—that doctrine saying that Jesus effectually “la[id] down [His] life for the sheep [the elect]” (John 10:15)—is a disincentive to missions or that to do missions is in direct contrast to our theology. Let me state positively that because I believe that Jesus laid down His life effectively for a particular people, I am to preach the gospel and to desire that it be preached everywhere.

Let me explain this by going back in history. At the Synod of Dort (1618–19) in the Netherlands, Reformed theologians, pastors, elders, and statesmen from across Europe gathered to counter the teachings of the followers of Jacob Arminius. Arminius and his followers (called the Remonstrants) believed that Jesus died in the same way for all people. In response, the Synod of Dort said in its second point of doctrine that we are to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth because of our theology. Dort said that while the value of Jesus’ death is enough to satisfy the sins of a thousand, million, or infinite worlds if they existed, Christ made atonement only for those whom God predestined and who embrace Jesus by faith. In other words, if your view of limited atonement limits your missionary outlook, you don’t understand the historic Reformed view of Jesus’ death. The Canons of Dort in 2.5 echo Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19:

This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel.

We are to do missions because Christ’s death is effective for the elect. Jesus has a universal authority: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). He makes a universal promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (v. 20). He further promised His presence with the church’s universal task to baptize and teach the nations. Jesus’ Great Commission is the means of fulfilling the story of God in Scripture. God made the world so that through Adam’s obedience all who would come from him would be blessed to live in everlasting fellowship with the Creator. But Adam sinned. Instead of leaving all of Adam’s posterity in their sins forever, the Lord intervened with promises that one day He would bless and save the world. To Abram He said, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). The psalms of Israel celebrated this future promise in poetic prayers and songs when “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you” (Ps. 22:27). The prophets longed for that day to come when “the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it” (Isa. 2:2).

At the Synod of Dort, the Remonstrants caricatured the Reformed position, saying:

Only those are obliged to believe that Christ died for them for whom Christ has died. The reprobates, however, as they are called, for whom Christ has not died, are not obligated to such faith, nor can they be justly condemned on account of the contrary refusal to believe this. In fact, if there should be such reprobates, they would be obliged to believe that Christ has not died for them.

More recently, anti-Calvinist George Bryson expressed this caricature:

From a thoroughly Calvinistic perspective . . . just as no amount of preaching will help the unelect, no failure of Christians to reach out to the elect will hinder them from coming to Christ. Thus, while the Gospel is to be proclaimed, it is difficult to see why we should be all that concerned—Calvinistically speaking.

In contrast, the father of modern missions, William Carey—a Calvinist—opened his famous work on the obligation of Christians to spread the gospel by saying:

As our blessed Lord has required us to pray that his kingdom may come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, it becomes us not only to express our desires of that event by words, but to use every lawful method to spread the knowledge of his name.

Our doctrine is no disincentive; it is the incentive. The British delegates to the Synod of Dort said, “There is no man who cannot be earnestly called to participate in the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life obtained through the death of Christ.” John Calvin commented that Jesus uses the word “whoever” in John 3:16 “both to invite indiscriminately all to share in life and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers.” He said that God “is favorable to the whole world when He calls all without exception to the faith of Christ.” Finally, he exhorted his readers:

Let us remember that although life is promised generally to all who believe in Christ, faith is not common to all. Christ is open to all and displayed to all, but God opens the eyes only of the elect that they may seek Him by faith.

The theological doctrines of predestination and Christ’s death motivated our forefathers and foremothers to missions. The Reformed church of Geneva sent missionaries to Brazil in the 1550s. John Eliot (1604–90) went every other week to preach to and catechize the children of Native Americans beginning in 1646. The English Parliament created the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England in the seventeenth century. The Synod of Dort began a missionary school. David and John Brainerd preached to the Housatonic people in the mid-1700s. Carey founded what came to be called the London Missionary Society. Robert Moffat (1795–1883) and David Livingstone (1813–73) gave themselves to South and Central Africa. Robert Morrison (1782–1834) translated the Bible into Chinese by 1818. May these doctrines motivate us to missions across the backyard fence and across the continents and oceans today.

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A History of Reformed World Missions

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From the April 2022 Issue
Apr 2022 Issue