by Gary Corwin
Four constant values have reliably guided the evangelical movement’s practice of mission: compulsion, courage, certainty, and clarity.
The open-air preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield was startling to establishment religious leaders in England and America in the eighteenth century who believed that a church building was the only proper place for sermons. But their message was a familiar Reformation one—the simple gospel that all men and women are sinners and need the salvation that comes only by grace through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. That message has, from the beginning, been the indispensable center of what has come to be called evangelical Christianity.
Accompanying that steady rudder at the center, however, are some substantially constant values that have reliably guided the evangelical movement’s practice of mission. Among them are four that remain as important today as they have ever been: compulsion, courage, certainty, and clarity.
Compulsion: “Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). We could go into the reasons for the compulsion (the love of Christ, the glory of God, etc.), but let it suffice here to say that like the Apostle Paul, Wesley, and Whitefield knew instinctively and resolutely that no obstacle could be allowed to keep the gospel from those who needed it. They would preach at the mines and they would preach on the streets—any place where those who needed the saving grace of the gospel were willing to listen. The power of their legacy to this day, as with William Carey and others in the train of the modern mission movement, rests in no small measure on passionate adherence to this value.
Courage: “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now, as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil.1:20-21). Hardly less important is the belief that no sacrifice by God’s people is too great to see his mission accomplished. The well-known legacy of missionary mortality and martyrdom is eloquent testimony to the longevity and power of this value.
While these first two values still receive broad acknowledgement and support, in theory at least, there are two others that are less widely appreciated today.
Certainty: “And of this gospel…I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Tim.1:11-12). The third value is belief in truth that is knowable with certainty. To the postmodern ear (and a lot of modern ones) this sounds arrogant and foolhardy. None of us knows any truth with certainty, it is argued, so we must be humble in its proclamation. In fact, forget proclamation altogether and simply share with each other what you are learning on your journey. Ironically, a 100-year-old quote from G. K. Chesterton is quite telling on this point:
What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays, the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason. (1996, 37)
Clarity: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6). “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Similar to the value of certainty, this fourth evangelical mission value asserts the importance of declaring one’s message with clarity. Clarity, however, runs headlong against the case for genteel agnosticism—the view that since none of us knows anything for sure, we must articulate our understandings in only the most couched and gentle terms. Clarity, rather than being our ally toward creating understanding, is viewed as an adversary which threatens peace, tranquility, and tolerance.
Many stepchildren of postmodernism who wear Christian garb tread precisely on these latter two values. There is no certainty, only journey; and there is no clarity, only individualized interpretation. There is, in short, only an amorphous realm of fluid definition and unknowing. Again, it is Chesterton who captures the scope of the problem:
We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern skeptics are too meek to claim their inheritance. (1996, 38)
May we not follow Esau in selling ours for a pot of “broadminded” stew.
Chesterton, G. K. 1996 (original 1908). Orthodoxy. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and a missiological advisor to the leadership of SIM and Arab World Ministries.
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