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Lecture 3: Theological Questions
Course: Essentials of World Missions
Lecture: Theological Questions
The next portion of the biblical section leaves a strict exposition of particular passages and deals, actually, more theologically with some more important questions that people have in reference to the Great Commission and the obedience of the church in the world.
Objections to the Gospel
Today, we cannot ignore the objections that many people have against the global mission of the church. Jesus Christ has commanded us to go into all the world. Jesus Christ has promised us that he will be with us as we bring this message to the ends of the earth. But we also saw that even in Psalm 2, even though Abraham was promised that the nations would be blessed by this great message of redemption, we find that the nations actually rage, and they scheme, and they plot against the Lord and against his anointed one. So this has not changed in the history of the world, despite the fact that we are bearers of good news, the church often fails to appreciate that good news and to respond to it accordingly.
So, have you ever heard any of the following statements spoken? Someone who says something like, “My god is a loving god. How could he send anyone to hell?” Or, “Aren’t all religions basically the same?” Or someone who says, “If everyone tries to do good or as best as they can, I’m sure it’ll work out okay in the end.” Or, “What about the poor native in the rain forest who has never heard the gospel – will they go to hell because of a geographic accident?” Or people who say, as the Hindus often do, “Just as many rivers run to the same ocean, so many religions lead to the same god.” Or the Japanese statement, which says, “All of the paths to the summit of the mountain differ; from the top, one sees the same moon.”
These are all statements that reveal that our society today and our world today is not prepared to accept, without some explanation, the message of a unique Savior who uniquely is poised to save the world, and the real reality of the lost. And so in the fuller course we examine in very great detail the question, “Are the lost really lost?” I explore all the areas where evangelicals have been in agreement, and then some areas where evangelicals continue to have some debate.
But there is no question that evangelical thought completely precludes the challenge of pluralism, which is the belief that many different religions can lead independently to God, and that Christianity is just one of many religions leading to God. In the larger, extended lectures, I exposit particularly the writings of Dr. John Hick, who argues that we should not be focused on Christ, but on God in kind of a general way, and that all religions can lead us to God. But upon evaluation there are major weaknesses to John Hick’s position, and the extended lectures go into great detail in pointing out a number of problems with the pluralist position, and I actually lay out four major objections that Christians have to the pluralistic position. We will not accept that position as a biblical one.
The second major challenge we look at in the extended course is the challenge of inclusivism. Inclusivism is not the same as pluralism, and we should be very careful to distinguish between the two. Pluralism believes flat-out that there are just simply multiple ways to God. That is to say, a Hindu or a Buddhist or a Muslim may just as surely find salvation and eternal life as a Christian. They would maybe insist that you be a faithful Muslim or a faithful Buddhist or a faithful Christian, but they don’t believe there is any significant difference between the capacities of the various religions in the world to lead one successfully to God. Inclusivism is a different position altogether.
Inclusivism insists that salvation is only through Christ and his death on the cross. At that point, they are radically different from the pluralists, because they believe in the absolute, unqualified uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only hope for salvation. Without his death on the cross, without his resurrection, then no one could be saved.
But inclusivism is yet a very marked difference from the exclusivist position, or the evangelical position, because the inclusivists go on to say that even though salvation is only found in Christ, that the work of Christ can achieve its effect apart from one’s conscious knowledge of Christ or their personal faith response to Christ. This has often been called “anonymous Christianity.” You are a Christian – Christ has saved you and died for you, you’re going to heaven – you just don’t know it. You may be a Buddhist or a Muslim. You don’t realize that Christ has saved you.
This position we exposit in the extended lectures, the writings of the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who is probably the most well-known expositor of the inclusivist position, just as John Hick is the most well-known expositor of the pluralist position. But once again, we go through very carefully looking at this position, we try to give it an extremely fair hearing, we listen carefully to their own sources of what they say their position holds, and yet we find that there are six major problems with the inclusivist position, and it cannot be accepted.
To separate, for example, to say that Christ’s work on the cross is ontologically necessary, but not epistemologically necessary. That is, to say that it’s essential that it happened but it’s not essential that you know that it happened or that you come to consciousness that it happened, is absolutely in violence to the clear teaching of the New Testament, which calls us to call people to explicit faith in Jesus Christ.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached the gospel and the Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit convicted them of their sins and they cried out to God, and they cried out to the apostles of God who had brought the message, and said, “What must we do?” Peter does not say, “Oh, nothing really, you’re already Christians, you just don’t know it. Come from implicit to explicit faith.” No! He says to them, “Repent, and believe the gospel.” Through repentance and faith, and only through repentance and faith, can you be saved.
When Paul preaches to the Philippian jailer, he does not say to him when he falls on his knees and says, “How can I be saved?” Paul does not say, “You’re already saved!” Paul calls him to explicit faith in the gospel. So, the gospel is filled with examples and clear calls to call us to conscious faith in Jesus Christ.
Response: Engaged Exclusivism
So instead of the pluralist and inclusivist position, I affirm what is called the “engaged exclusivist” position. Now, you’ll have to listen to full lectures to understand the fullness of what I mean by this, but I am actually contrasting my position as “engaged exclusivist” with kind of the general “exclusivist” position, because I believe there are some ways, particularly in the contemporary discussion, the term “exclusivism” has given an inadequate view of general revelation and God’s preparation work prior to the gospel being preached.
And I’ve already showed you even in these quick summary lectures the importance of the Missio Dei, the mission of God, and our insistence that the gospel work begins before the missionary arrives. Before the person witnesses to you, God has been doing his work, and I don’t think that can be easily ignored, and, therefore, I think in some of the expressions of exclusivism, they don’t give proper space to general revelation and the preparatory work of God through the Holy Spirit in the lives of future believers.
Also, I believe that some versions of exclusivism have been far too defensive rather than offensive regarding the claims of Christ, and, therefore, I call my position “engaged exclusivism,” which seeks to be faithful to biblical Christianity and also seeks to be faithful to the historic Christianity that’s been proclaimed by the Apostles and those who have been faithful to preach it to the ends of the earth.
So, we have this section on the Great Commissions that has led us to, I think, an application of that to the nature of the lost and whether or not we believe the lost are really lost. I believe in summary that, in fact, the lost are indeed lost, and desperately need the gospel.
Clarifying What Missions Is
The third and final part of this first major section has to do with clarifying with more certainty what missions is and what missions isn’t, and biblically speaking, why do I make this insistence about missions being a cross-cultural activity and how do we distinguish missions from other kinds of things that the church often calls “missions?”
Now, in the extended version, we go back and we examine the difference between a country and a nation again. We make it very, very clear that a country and a nation are two different things, and, therefore, we want to clarify the fact that the gospel is about penetrating every people group with the gospel.
One of the problems today is that this analysis of the world is not properly understood by people, and, therefore, they tend to think that a lost person in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or a lost person in Chicago, Illinois, is not really different from a lost person in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, or in Pyongyang, North Korea.
But this is actually not true, because even though from an individual standpoint these people are in a similar situation, from a strategic planning point, missiologically, we have to recognize the dramatic difference between someone who has access to the gospel and someone who does not have access to the gospel. And so missions makes a strong distinction between the evangelistic work of the church, whereby Christians witness from an existing church to people within their own cultural group (this is your normal witnessing activity of the church), and cross-cultural witness, which is missions, whereby a Christian worker crosses a cultural, linguistic, or social barrier with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Those who have access to the gospel are in a witnessing sphere; those who do not have access to the gospel need a missionary activity in order to give them access to the gospel. So, we go into a lot of detail to try to exposit and defend this important distinction.
Let me just bring you one example, biblically, why I think this is very, very important. In Acts 1 we have that great text of Jesus, where he says, that the gospel is to be borne witness to by his church in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. Now, this is very important, because this is a progressive idea where Jesus lays out a kind of a simple blueprint that the church is to bring the gospel from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts, or to the ends, of the earth.
Now if we interpret that as essentially a geographic expansion, it seems to be inconsistent with the great “people-group” emphasis, which has been so clearly laid out by our Lord in the Great Commission and in other ways that our Lord has exposited this, and certainly as we’ve seen in the Old Testament.
So if you look very carefully in the book of Acts, you’ll see as the book develops that it is roughly arranged according to this same framework of Jerusalem - ministry of the gospel in Jerusalem - Judea and Samaria, as the gospel spreads into Judea and Samaria, and finally as it goes into Rome and to Spain, to the ends of the earth.
Now, it’s essential to recognize that this progression is not primarily a geographic one, but it is an ethnic one. The reason we know this is from the great breakthrough - what many missiologists believe is the most significant missiological breakthrough in the book of Acts, and I certainly think it is in the top ten most important events in the life of the early church.
That’s what we find in Acts 11. In that passage (Acts 11:19), the disciples are being scattered and persecuted, and we’re told in verse 19 that they tell the message only to Jews. Now, they have geographically gone to Judea and Samaria, but they have not ethnically gone to new groups. They are simply sharing the gospel with their own people who happen to live in a different place geographically. That’s our natural tendency, and we all would do the same thing. But the gospel would call them to go beyond that.
So the great breakthrough occurs in verse 20 when some men from Cyprus and Cyrene breach the Jewish wall and they begin to address the gospel to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. This is extremely important and significant, because this is the first intentional cross-cultural step of the gospel among an unreached group with a different ethnic background than those who were there.
So, I highly encourage this emphasis, and that we think carefully about what missions is and what missions isn’t. Someone who preaches the gospel from the pulpit every Sunday to a group of gathered Christians is not a missionary activity. It’s a very important activity – it’s indeed one of the most important activities in the life of the church, and maybe the most important, but it is certainly not missions. It is a proclamation of the gospel, maybe helping to disciple, to train, or even to evangelize, but it is certainly not missions.
But when we see the church being planted cross-culturally, we begin to see that the gospel is being brought to new people groups, and that is the missionary task. I think this is important, because churches should ask the hard questions. They should ask themselves, “Why do we give money and call it missions if it’s actually evangelistic activity? Is it actually crossing cultural, linguistic, social barriers for the gospel?” It would be helpful to actually look carefully at your budgets and see what percentage is actually going to missionary activity, because if we only focus on evangelistic activity, we will never fulfill the Great Commission.
Because even if every Christian in the world became an evangelist, and they witnessed to everybody they knew, and everyone they knew became Christians, and they themselves became evangelists, even after you had tremendous movement to Christ all over the world, there would still be over a billion people who had never even heard the name of Jesus. Why? Because they had no friends or neighbors to evangelize to them, to speak the word of God to them.
So, however vibrant the church’s life may become in various parts of the world where the church is planted, however vivacious the people’s witness may be, however mature the church’s growth, the world will not be reached, the Great Commission will not be fulfilled, until people cross cultural barriers and bring the gospel to those who have not heard it.
So, in the extended lectures we explore this in great detail, and this represents the conclusion of the first part of the course, which is the biblical section of the course, which explores some biblical and theological issues related to the world mission of the church.