There is an older hymn that begins with the words, “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying…” My – we sure don’t sing songs like that anymore!
Is it because we have lost a sense of urgency? Or is it because we have lost a conviction of the spiritual plight of people outside of saving faith in Jesus? Do we not envision them as helpless ships being tossed in the midst of a dark, threatening tempest, like the El Faro cargo ship earlier this month that was battered by winds and rain in hurricane Joaquin until it sunk with all 33 souls on board?
Or is it because in contrast we prefer to see “the lost” as content tourists relaxing on a sandy beach, drink in hand, enjoying the refreshing ocean breeze without a care in the world? If so, why would we want to disturb these comfortable sunbathers with a disturbing message of condemnation and hell? “Leave those people alone and let them enjoy life while it lasts,” some would say.
The act of “rescuing” carries the idea of delivering or saving someone from imminent danger by prompt and vigorous action. Besides pressing dangers, we rescue victims of slavery, exploitation, and hardship. We deploy rescue squads in rescue vehicles, usually with blaring horns and flashing lights that make quite a fanfare. We even have rescue missions where street people are delivered from conditions that they in-and-of-themselves do not have the means to get out of. Bottom line: human beings are vulnerable creatures. So at times rescue operations are necessary.
However, we dare not let the outward visible vulnerability of humans mask their inward plight. Spiritually, all are dead in the trespasses of sins, without hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:1-10). All need to be rescued from their sins, from their selfishness, from Satan, and from a world permeated with sin. Their condition is one of desperate “lostness.”
By definition, something that is lost is something that is out of place – like the keys to your car when you need them and can’t find them anywhere. They’re not in the right place. People outside of Christ are just that – spiritually not in the right place. They are outside of a relationship with the God of the universe who created them and wants them back in relationship with him. They are spiritually out of place because of their sin, which is an affront to God.
The missionary statesman Robert Speer once said, “Men are in this plight not because they are unevangelized, but because they are men. Sin is the destroyer of the soul and the destruction of the knowledge of God which is life. And it is not the failure to have heard the gospel which makes men sinners. The gospel would save them if they heard it and accepted it, but it is not the ignorance or rejection of the gospel which destroys them, it is the knowledge of sin.” That is why Jesus came. Jesus said that he came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He was on a rescue mission. He saw mankind in need of relationship with the Father, and he was uniquely qualified to do something about that need. He saw the situation as urgent, and so he did something about it.
John Piper has said, “If people are cut off from eternal life (Eph. 2:2-3, 12: 4:17; 5:6), and if calling on Jesus is their only hope for eternal, joyful fellowship with God . . . then love demands missions. The biggest problem in the world for every human being – from the poorest to the richest, from the sickest to the healthiest – is the same: how to escape the wrath of God that hangs over all humans because of our sin. Love demands that we work to rescue people from the wrath of God.” Have we minimized the need to engage in rescue operations? Have we lost that sense of urgency? Do we still believe in the importance of “rescue the perishing, care for the dying?” That sense of urgency in our mission needs to be recovered.
 Robert E. Speer, “Are the Unevangelized Heathen Lost?” in Sunday School Times.
 Craig Ott and Stephen Strauss, Encountering Theology of Mission, page 179.