by David J. Hesselgrave
It has been more or less assumed that one’s view of the millennial kingdom strongly affects how one views and goes about the work of missions.
It has been more or less assumed that one’s view of the millennial kingdom strongly affects how one views and goes about the work of missions. Michael Pocock has demonstrated that this assumption is not entirely without foundation (Intercultural Journal of Frontier Missions, Vol., No. 2, 1984). However, undoubtedly other factors than eschatological ones are at work in many cases that are often cited in support of this assumption.
In his new book, Christ’s Victorious Kingdom, John Jefferson Davis maintains that during the 19th century postmillennialism was the dominant view among Bible-believing Americans in the United States. No one questions the fact that Bible-believing Americans played an important role in world missions during that "great century of missions."
To conclude our four-part series on the future of missions and missionary preparation, we contacted six outstanding evangelical theologians (only one is also a missiologist) to ascertain how their views on the millennium affect their understanding of missions. They are: Dr. John Jefferson Davis, Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; Dr. Anthony A. Hoekema, Professor of Systematic Theology, Emeritus, Calvin Theological Seminary; Dr. Gordon R. Lewis, Professor of Theology and Philosophy, Denver Theological Seminary; Dr. Robert L. Saucy, Professor of Systematic Theology, Talbot School of Theology; Dr. Robert R. Recker, Associate Professor of Missiology, Calvin Theological Seminary; and, Dr. John F. Walvoord, Chancellor, Dallas Theological Seminary.
Three of the five—Lewis, Saucy, and Walvoord—categorize themselves as premillennialists; two of them—Hoekema and Recker—are amillennialists; and Davis is postmillennialist. If this appears to be a case of "stacking the deck," we remind our readers that evangelical missions in North America are predominantly premillennial. On the other side of the spectrum, postmillennialist evangelical theologians are in the minority. In any case, we believe that our readers will agree that it would be difficult to find a more theologically and eschatologically astute, and a more missiologically sensitive, group of respondents. Their answers below represent only selected portions of their responses, but are true to the whole and highlight those portions that are truly representative.
How do you understand world evangelization as put forward in Matthew 24:14 and Mark 13:10?
Hoekema: The gospel must be to all nations a witness which calls for a decision—a witness which will become so much a part of the life of every nation that it cannot be ignored. The missionary preaching of the gospel to all the nations is, in fact, the outstanding and most characteristic sign of the times. It gives to the present age its primary meaning and purpose. This sign, therefore, should be a great incentive for missions. It lays on every generation since Pentecost the solemn duty of bringing the gospel to every nation.
Davis: On the basis of Matthew 24:14 I do understand that the gospel will be preached to all nations before the return of Christ. I point out, however, on the basis of Matthew 28:19-20, that I expect that the gospel is to be not only preached to all nations, but that there will actually be disciples made in all nations as well. Furthermore, on the basis of Revelation 7:9, I expect that before the end of history there will in fact be an indigenous church established in every ethnic group on the face of the earth.
Saucy: Before the final event, namely the actual appearance of Christ and the setting up of the kingdom, the good news of the kingdom which is the equivalent of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, must go to all the nations. With a pretribulational understanding of the rapture, it is possible to see some time for this process to go on following the rapture, but I would not let this possibility take this task away from the church.
Walvoord: As far as Matthew 24:14 is concerned, I believe this relates to the time of the Tribulation which the Lord discusses in Matthew 24:15. The same is true of Mark 13:10. The world has been evangelized in the sense that the gospel has gone out into all the world, but it certainly has not reached all individuals, as two billion have never heard the gospel even once. I do not believe that eschatology can be used to support world missions in the sense that we have to lead more souls to Christ before the Lord can come. On the other hand, the fact that the Lord is coming at any time, and Christians will be removed in the rapture, to me is a stimulus to do everything possible to get out the gospel in the present age to every individual we can. Eschatology is not a threat but simply a reminder that we do not have forever to accomplish our task.
When you are teaching and preparing the missionaries of tomorrow, what implications of eschatology for missionary service do you bring to bear upon the presentation?
Saucy: The business of the church is the proclamation of the saving gospel of Christ with a view to getting people rightly related to the coming king and prepared for the kingdom. It is not to attempt to set up the kingdom on earth today. This means that the present task of the church is the evangelization of the world. While this most definitely includes all Christian social action, such action is done in the service of the revelation of the love and righteousness of God and the gospel.
Walvoord: For me the implications of eschatology are that we should get out the gospel as soon as possible because we may be nearing the end of the age. Obviously, God is waiting for some who have not heard to hear the gospel, and he is waiting for some who have heard to respond. In keeping with 2 Peter 3:9, I believe that the consummation of the ages is being postponed to allow as many as possible to hear and respond to the gospel.
I personally believe, however, that after the rapture many more will receive Christ, including Israel, because I believe will be an awakening of Israel in line with Romans 11:25, and many Jews will come to Christ in the period after the rapture but before the Second Coming. Eschatology may not be the main motive for missionary work, but it certainly makes it urgent.
Recker: This is presented and emphasized in conjunction with the teaching of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the core course on the church and its ministry. In this course and in missiology it is emphasized in conjunction with the kingdom of God. The telos of the entire salvation-historical process is accented. And that this is to be part of the glorification of the Son of Man, the bringing of the wealth of the nations into the city of God, Jerusalem—”that which comes down from above.
Davis: Confidence in the present kingship of the resurrected and ascended Christ should give missionaries and evangelists the confidence that the universal power and authority of Christ is available to them in mission, and consequently, that in principle no institution or ideology can ultimately withstand the advance of the Christian gospel. In my view, the essence of eschatology is Christology, and confidence in the power and authority of the resurrected Christ gives confidence to the church in its mission.
Hoekema: Much more could be said, but let me mention just three points: (1) Christ is the center of history. (2) The characteristic activity of the present age is missions. (3) The ultimate outcome of history will be the realization of God’s goal, namely, that every knee will bow before Christ. When we do missions, we are advancing toward that goal.
What place should biblical prophecy of endtime events have in the message of the missionary?
Lewis: Prophecy should have the same place in the message of missionaries today that it had in the message of first century missionaries: Christ and the apostles. We are to preach the whole counsel of God. Anticipation of the coming day of Christ’s punishment of the ungodly culminating in Armageddon historically and in eternal punishment adds urgency to the missionary’s motivation. And anticipation of the gathering of believers (who have not been appointed to either God’s historical or eternal wrath) to be with Christ adds joyful expectation to the motivation. Eschatology keeps missionaries from the pessimism of total preoccupation with the present wants of people that in this life they cannot totally meet. Since people in New Age movements are convinced that humanity is at the end of the present age and that the Age of Aquarius is dawning, missionaries without a sound eschatology will be hampered in reaching this exploding unreached group.
Saucy: The mission of proclamation of the early church as seen in Acts included the return of Christ and the coming judgment. If these eschatological events were part of the apostolic message, they must be included in the message of the missionary today. To make them understandable, of course, they must include explanation. Why is Christ returning? What is going to take place when he returns? How does this relate to the believer; what part does he/she have in the return and subsequent divine plan? What is the effect of the return of Christ upon the unbeliever? The discussion of all of these questions should be part of the message of the missionary.
Hoekema: Jurgen Moltmann has said, "From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving." This being the case, the missionary’s message should be thoroughly eschatological. Not in the sense that he should try to give a precise timetable of future events, complete with sensational charts, but in the sense that the great central eschatological truths of Scripture must be an essential part of his message. The missionary therefore should teach and preach about the kingdom of God—which is present now, but which will some day be revealed in all its fullness of the new earth. He should teach about the resurrection of the body, and the final judgment, and about the crucial importance of a living faith in Jesus Christ in the light of that coming judgment day. Though this should not be the primary or major aspect of his preaching, he should tell his hearers what the Bible says about eternal punishment. And he should preach the glorious message of the new earth, on which we shall forever praise and serve our wonderful God. Since there is both continuity and discontinuity between this earth and the new earth, the missionary should make clear that our service of God in this life will infinitely enrich our happiness in serving God in the life to come.
In an article in Missiology (12:1, Jan. 1984, p. 3), David B. Barrett reflects a view quite common in mission today when he says that the prophets and implementers of the new era we are entering "…will be, not evangelists or missionaries, or church executives, but global church researchers. And the major tools seem likely to be personal computers with access to vast databases of missionary and global information.—? What is your reaction to this view?
Saucy: The statement focuses on one of the major problems of the contemporary church, i.e., the relationship of human sciences (e.g., psychology and sociology) to the spiritual working of God. This involves the total question of the relation of the natural to the spiritual. It is not an easy issue as quite clearly both are involved. God most often does work through the natural dynamics of man which he created. But his does not in any way equate the two. In our opinion, the statement cited opts primarily for the natural omitting the spiritual. Suffice it to say, "personal computers" and "databases of missionary and global information" are not the means that transform the human heart and free it from the bondage of sin. Only the Spirit of God through the Word of God is able to do that. This means that "evangelists or missionaries" will never be replaced by research specialists.
Lewis: It is not an issue of either the gospel or a global database. No amount of information about the world will displace the need for the gospel. The global (and heavenly) information Jesus as omniscient had at his disposal did not displace his emphasis on any sinner’s need for atonement. What we do with our global information is the important thing. It must always be evaluated in terms of the biblical standard. No amount of such data will displace the once-for-all provisions of Christ’s atonement or the ministries of the Holy Spirit for sophisticated computer operators or other sinners.
Davis: I believe that new electronic technology can enhance the mission of the church, but should not and in fact will never replace prayer, and the confident Spirit-filled preaching of the gospel at the very heart of Christian mission.
What question do you think should be added to the above list? How would you answer it?
Lewis: I believe that we should ask ourselves whether we should follow the pattern of Peter or of Paul for our pre-evangelism in post-theistic (not just post-Christian) cultures, including those of the end times. Peter could reason out of the Scriptures with Jews who knew the God of Abraham and knew the Old Testament to be his Word. Paul as the apostle to the heathen (Gentiles) at Athens particularly, could not assume the knowledge of the living God nor of Old Testament Scriptures. Paul proclaimed who God isâ€”the one upon whom we all depend, to whom all shall give account, and before whom all are guilty. Against this background Paul proclaimed the gospel. Since few non-Christians today are believers in God or in the Old Testament, our training of missionaries should include more of Paul’s reasoned defense of theism. Specifically, for Hindus, Buddhists and New Age pantheists, missionaries need to master Paul’s approach to Stoic pantheists.
Walvoord: I believe the current attention to creating schools to train nationals around the world is a good forward step for missions as people from America with proper educational background can train nationals to reach their own people in a more effective way. Possibly some question should be raised about the best way to found these schools and how to make them effective. No doubt the biggest problem in missions is that there are two billion who have not heard the gospel even once, and it is difficult to work out any strategy by which they can be reached in our generation except by radio.
Recker: We should ask how all of this relates to the millions of poor and oppressed around the world. We should emphasize that we, part of the comfortable church in North America, had better get our house in order, our priorities straight, and be ready to answer the question of whether or not we truly desire Christ to come quickly! ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!"
Perhaps some adjustments in our thinking about the relationship between missions and theology in general, and eschatology in particular, are in order.
In the first place, though different emphases based on their respective views of the millennium are obvious from the above answers, it should be clear that all of these theologians believe in the same gospel; that the first priority of the church is to take the gospel to all men everywhere; that man’s eternal destiny is involved; and that the missionary task is an urgent one. In the light of current controversies regarding the nature of the gospel and priorities in mission, this consensus should be most reassuring. Fundamental differences at these critical points stem not so much from different views of the millennium as they do from more basic theological commitments, such as those that divide evangelical theology from liberal theology.
In the second place, it seems clear that our colleagues in the discipline of theology would unitedly encourage missionaries to reconsider the scope of their message. In view of the urgency of the task, many evangelists and missionaries seem to be willing to settle for much less than "discipling the nations" and "teaching them to obey all that the Lord commanded." With one voice, these evangelical theologians urge us to communicate the whole counsel of God, including the oft-neglected themes of the Second Coming, the judgment, and the Age to Come.
In the third place, these theologians remind us again that, while human technology and information systems are useful in mission, they can never replace the power of the gospel, of God’s Word, and of the Spirit. Deep down we all know that. But, surveying our words and works it does seem that a periodic and forceful reminder from evangelical theologians is in order.
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