Many people claim that John Calvin was against missions and that those who call themselves Calvinists or ascribe to the 5-points of Calvinism are anti-missional in their thinking. Is that true? Does the belief in a robust God who saves spiritually dead sinners create cold hearts who resist any work of gospel missions among the neighborhoods and the nations?
Over the past several years, the population of men and women who embrace the doctrines often called Calvinism has drastically increased within the evangelical church—notably so within the Southern Baptist Convention. This has caused many to question their beliefs, examine their positions, and in some cases, to take up the sword and fight. The common charge is that anyone who’s a Calvinist is also a hyper-Calvinist—someone who opposes the spread of the gospel. First of all, there must be a distinction between Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism (just as there must be a distinction between the First Baptist Church in your local community and Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas). Calvinism is not hyper-Calvinism and before we label someone a heretic, we must understand that vocabulary choices matter.
John Calvin’s Missionary Zeal
Did John Calvin teach people to hide the gospel under a basket (Matt. 5:14-16)? The very moment that you stop listening to horrible sermons, inaccurate lectures in Bible college and seminary settings, and stop reading historically and intellectually dishonest blogs in the Internet, you will actually discover something rather refreshing about this often hated figure from church history. John Calvin was not only a man with a passion for preaching the Bible, he was also a zealous hearted, missions focused preacher.
As Calvin’s preaching thundered from his pulpit in Geneva, he was preparing men to go and lead churches in France. He organized, trained, developed, and sent out hundreds of these zealous hearted missionaries who proclaimed the good news of the gospel. These missionaries stood upon the firm foundation of a robust sovereign grace. As these men were convinced of God’s sovereignty in salvation, such knowledge became the fuel in the furnace of their hearts as they went out to plant churches and preach the gospel. By 1562, Calvin (with the aid of other surrounding cities) had planted over 2,000 churches in France. Some of the missionaries who were sent out from Calvin’s church died as martyrs. Does this sound like a hyper-Calvinist to you?
The hyper-Calvinist rejects any effort to proclaim the gospel to the non-elect. Rather than preaching the gospel indiscriminately and allowing God to bring sinners to faith, the hyper-Calvinist resists any attempt to offer the gospel to those who aren’t the elect of God. Does this sound like the ministry of John Calvin? Edward Panosian writes the following:
From that city [Geneva], hundreds of missionaries, evangelists, and pastors traveled to all corners of the continent preaching the gospel. Their efforts, sometimes sealed with a martyr’s blood but always crowned with success, thrilled Calvin. 
Harry R. Leader points out that “Calvin’s beloved France, through his ministry, was invaded by more than thirteen hundred Geneva-trained missionaries.”  Why would someone who rejected the idea that we need to send out missionaries to preach the gospel actually send out hundreds of trained missionaries to preach the gospel?
I’ve read about (never met an actual hyper-Calvinist other than the Westboro group) people who were hyper-Calvinistic in their theology, and they would never send missionaries out to spread the good news of Christ. They would consider it a waste of time and effort. One such figure from church history was named John Ryland, and he rebuked William Carey for inquiring about “using means” to reach unbelievers (it should be noted that it was William Carey, the Calvinist, who was trying to organize a missions effort).
The Missions Preaching of John Calvin
No hyper-Calvinist would preach with a missionary zeal as was consistently evident in the preaching ministry of Calvin. In a sermon titled, “The Call to Witness” Calvin preached from 2 Timothy 1:8-9. He made this powerful statement:
If the gospel be not preached, Jesus Christ is, as it were, buried. Therefore, let us stand as witnesses, and do him this honor, when we see all the world so far out of the way; and remain steadfast in this wholesome doctrine. . . . Let us here observe that St. Paul condemns our unthankfulness, if we be so unfaithful to God, as not to bear witness of his gospel; seeing he hath called us to it.
The preaching ministry of a hyper-Calvinist is cold, lifeless, and without passion for the lost world. That doesn’t describe the preaching of John Calvin. For instance, in a sermon on Isaiah 12:5, he said the following:
[Isaiah] shows that it is our duty to proclaim the goodness of God to every nation. While we exhort and encourage others, we must not at the same time sit down in indolence, but it is proper that we set an example before others; for nothing can be more absurd than to see lazy and slothful men who are exciting other men to praise God.
John Calvin was not only a faithful expositor of God’s Word and a defender of the true faith, he was also a zealous proclaimer of the faith. He preached with trumpet zeal and passionately pointed people to Jesus Christ. In a letter to five missionaries who had been arrested and were facing death, John Calvin wrote a letter to them on May 15th, 1553. Here is what he said:
Since it pleases him [i.e. God] to employ you to the death in maintaining his quarrel [with the world], he will strengthen your hands in the fight, and will not suffer a single drop of your blood to be spent in vain. And though the fruit may not all at once appear, yet in time it shall spring up more abundantly than we can express. But as he hath vouchsafed you this privilege, that your bonds have been renowned, and that the noise of them has been everywhere spread abroad, it must needs be, in despite of Satan, that your death should resound far more powerfully, so that the name of our Lord be magnified thereby. For my part, I have no doubt, if it please this kind Father to take you unto himself, that he has preserved you hitherto, in order that your long-continued imprisonment might serve as a preparation for the better awakening of those whom be has determined to edify by your end. For let enemies do their utmost, they never shall be able to bury out of sight that light which God has made to shine in you, in order to be contemplated from afar. 
Hyper-Calvinists are heretics who oppose the open preaching of the gospel and never engage in missions. Whatever your opinion of John Calvin is, let’s be sure to make this clear point—he was no hyper-Calvinist. The towering figure of Geneva who labored in his expository preaching, trained missionaries, and prepared them to die well—was no heretic. We must be careful to learn church history from accurate records and to use vocabulary carefully.
If the missionary preaching of John Calvin’s ministry is what it means to be a Calvinist, may the Lord raise up many more.
- Edward Panosian, “John Calvin: The Theologian” in Faith of Our Fathers, ed. James Cardinal Gibbons, (New York: Aeterna Press, 2015), 109.
- Harry R. Leader, “The Churchman of the Reformation” in John Calvin: A Heart for Doctrine and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons, (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2008), 68.
- Letter 318 [in Jules Bonnet, ed., Letters of John Calvin, tr. Mr. Constable (1858 ed.; repr. New York: Lenox Hill Pub. & Dist. Co., 1972), II, 406].
I‘m currently reading Kevin DeYoung’s book A Hole in our Holiness with a group of men. We meet every other week to discuss the chapters over coffee. In the first chapter, Kevin DeYoung (besides showing his disapproval for camping) points to an often overlooked relationship between our pursuit of holiness and the Great Commission. If we are majoring on making disciples within our church without a goal of holiness, it’s not really the Great Commission – right?
The Commission of Jesus
Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). What a vast charge to God’s people. We are to go and reach the world with the gospel.
While we live in a sophisticated culture in 2016, we must not overlook that a great number of people on planet Earth still live in extremely poor conditions without running water, without Internet, without smart phones, without many of the luxuries that we enjoy. One critical thing that a vast number of the world’s population lives without is the good news of Jesus Christ. We are commanded to go and tell and disciple these people in the gospel. That is the heartbeat of the church and it should be the heartbeat of God’s people. But, as we consider what it means to be a Great Commission church or a Great Commission Christian, we should look well beyond the waters of the baptistry and see the whole picture of a redeemed sinners serving, worshipping, and living for Christ.
The Goal of Holiness
The ultimate goal of Jesus’ command to His disciples was far more than just sparing His elect from the eternal flames of hell. It had a purpose and that purpose is centered in holiness. Far from baptism statistics, Jesus was focused on His people and how they reflect the glory of God to all peoples across the world. When we as believers become competitive and focused on getting high baptism statistics, we miss the point of the Great Commission.
From the very beginning, God has purposed to select His people from the population of humanity and His desire has been for them to be a set apart people – distinct – and holy unto Him. That doesn’t mean that God expects His people to be peculiar in the sense of odd or strange. God expects His people to be sanctified. What does this sanctified life look like? The entire book of 1 John explains that God’s people love God rather than the world. Great Commission Christians go and reach people with a goal that extends far beyond the baptistry. It has a goal of holiness. J. C. Ryle provides a helpful reminder:
We must be holy, because this is one grand end and purpose for which Christ came into the world. . . . Jesus is a complete Saviour. He does not merely take away the guilt of a believer’s sin, he does more—he breaks its power (1 Pet. 1:2; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9; Heb. 12:10). 
- J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (Moscow, ID: Charles Nolan, 2011), 49.
|Guest Article: Lita Cosner. Lita is a specialist in New Testament studies and obtained a B.A. (summa cum laude) in Biblical Studies from Oklahoma Wesleyan University in 2008. She received an M.A. (cum laude) in New Testament from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2012. Her thesis is titled Jesus the Honorable Broker: A Social-Scientific Exegesis of Matthew 15:21–28. She joined CMI as Information Officer in 2010, and is a prolific contributor to the website, Creation magazine, and the Journal of Creation. You can find more information and articles by Lita at Creation.com.
In modern times, many people try to present the Gospel in ways that will make it seem more attractive to their ‘target audience’. Whether it is the ‘seeker-sensitive’ movement in churches, contextualization in Muslim-dominated countries, or reinterpreting the Bible’s teachings on marriage or creation, people often seem to want to make the Gospel as inoffensive as possible.
Paul’s address to the Areopagus is often cited as a model of ‘contextualization’ of the Gospel—presenting it in a way that is especially crafted to the sensibilities of his audience. In a way, this is correct—Paul did consider the sensibilities of his audience. But his specially crafted message challenged their core beliefs, and aimed to correct the critical errors in their thinking. In the process, he succeeded in offending and alienating most of his audience. This is quite a different approach from that of many people today!
The account of Paul’s time in Athens begins with a statement that “his spirit was provoked him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). In Paul’s day, the beautiful statues that many people now admire in museums were actually worshipped in temples as gods and goddesses.
Paul’s response was to go to the local synagogue to teach the Jews and Gentile God-fearers about Jesus the Messiah, as was his normal practice. But he also conversed in the open marketplace, where Greeks would traditionally gather for philosophical conversations and debate. Paul’s letters would show that he was skilled in the sort of structured arguments and rhetorical styles that would be expected in such a place.
But if the structure of Paul’s arguments was familiar to the Athenians, the content certainly wasn’t. Acts says that he was preaching “Jesus and the resurrection” (17:18). The Athenians called him a “preacher of foreign divinities”.
They took him from the informal setting of the marketplace to the formal setting of the Aeropagus—the appropriate place for serious debate where they could judge Paul’s claims. The reason everyone was gathered to hear Paul, Luke tells us, is because “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (17:21). This regional generalization, like “all Cretans are liars” (Titus 1:12), reflects the broader cultural opinion about them. Thucydides said of the Athenians:
No men are better dupes, sooner deceived by novel notions, or slower to follow approved advice. You despise what is familiar, while you are worshippers of every new extravagance. … In a word, you are at the mercy of your own ears, and sit like spectators attending a performance of sophists, but very unlike counselors of a state. 
And commentator F.F. Bruce notes: “The Athenians themselves admitted that their passion for anything new could be carried to excess”. 
That Paul was addressing Epicureans and Stoics is important for understanding why Paul phrased his arguments the way he did. They represented two rival philosophies in Athens in that day. Epicureans were materialists who did not believe in any sort of afterlife. Rather, their highest ideal was found in the combination of tranquility and the absence of pain. They believed that the gods themselves were beings who lived in the empty spaces between the planets, and that their existence was characterized by the Epicurean ideals.
The Stoics, on the other hand, taught self control and determinism—one could not change one’s fate, so the best one could do is refuse to be emotionally influenced by things one has no control over. They believed in a sort of pantheism, and would have denied any meaningful distinction between God and the universe.
Paul was clearly aware of these philosophies, or he would not have been able to formulate such a direct attack on them in his address. It is important to remember that Acts gives us Luke’s summary of Paul’s speech—his actual address to the Areopagus would have been much longer. But Luke gives us the highlights and general structure, and the turns of phrase may be genuinely from Paul.
The unknown god
Paul’s first phrase is generally translated, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious”. But the word translated ‘religious’, δεισιδαίμων (deisidaimōn), could just as easily have a connotation of ‘superstitious’. And as we will see, this translation fits the overall tenor of his address. “By the end of the speech, the Athenians themselves would have little doubt about Paul’s real opinion of their religiosity.” 
Exhibit A of the Athenians’ superstition was their idol worship. The Athenians had gods for every area of life imaginable, but they were completely ignorant of the true God, who could not be represented by an idol and who did not need their temples and sacrifices.
There are several possible explanations for what the altar ‘to the unknown god’ might have been. Some scholars dispute the existence of such an altar, but F.F. Bruce presents a scenario in which it would be likely for such an altar to exist: “When a derelict altar was repaired and the original dedication could not be ascertained, the inscription, “To the (an) unknown god” would have been quite appropriate.”  Another is that the Athenians were covering all their bases with a generic altar to cover any gods they might otherwise inadvertently neglect. Some claim that Paul is saying that they are worshipping the true God in ignorance through this altar, but nothing could be further from the truth. Paul is driving home the point that they are superstitious and ignorant of the true God.
Paul makes his speech even more offensive when he says, “Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you”. He is speaking to the religious, cultural, and intellectual elite, and claiming to know better than they do! This would be particularly galling to the Stoics, who considered it their duty to examine nature because they believed all nature had a ‘divine spark’ in it. Ignorance was something like a ‘cardinal sin’ for them, and that is precisely what Paul is accusing them of. 
Paul establishes that both the Epicureans and the Stoics are wrong. God is neither the universe nor part of the universe; rather, “God … made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24). This would have been hard for the Greeks to grasp. As Polhill explains:
Paul began with the basic premise that runs throughout his speech: God is Creator. He referred to God as the maker of the “world” (kosmos), a term that would be familiar to every Greek. The concept of God as absolute Creator, however, would not be so easy for them to grasp. For them divinity was to be found in the heavens, in nature, in humanity. The idea of a single supreme being who stood over the world, who created all that exists, was totally foreign to them. 
Furthermore, the Epicureans were also wrong about God’s non-intervention in the world. In fact, our existence is dependent on God’s continual provision. Paul’s God is not a deistic god who simply created the universe and left it to its own devices: “God is a personal God who not only creates but also sustains everything he has made. This self-sufficient God daily cares for man and for his great creation in the minutest details. God is the source of life, for he gives breath to all living creatures.”  Paul establishes the immanence and transcendence of the Creator God in a sweeping statement that contradicts as much of the Greeks’ beliefs as possible.
Man and his relationship to God
Having countered their core errors about God, he moves on to their errors about man. Historically, the Athenians belonged to the earliest migration into Greece, and they were also the only Greeks on the mainland who had no tradition of their ancestors’ migration. They prided themselves “on being autochthonous—sprung from the soil of their native Attica”.  Paul counters this unfounded exceptionalism with the biblical message that all humanity is descended from one man, Adam. It is speculative, but Paul may have filled out this part of the discourse with details about how God created mankind and how the nations spread out from Babel. It was important for Paul’s argument for the Athenians to know where they came from.
This also has implications for how he wants the Athenians to understand God. “The God whom Paul proclaimed was no local Jewish cult God, He was the one sovereign Lord of all humankind.” 
Paul goes on to explain God’s reasons for providing for humanity: “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us …” (Acts 17:27). The reason God ordered everything as He did was to enable one to seek God. The Stoics would have agreed with this in principle, but their philosophy said that God could be understood through observation of nature. But we know from Romans 1 that Paul believed that all such general revelation was only sufficient to condemn people, not to save them. And the grammar here expresses strong doubt that this actually happens. As Polhill notes: “There is no question about God’s providence; there is about humanity’s ability to make the proper response.” 
Witness from Greek poets
Luke told us that the Athenians loved discussing new ideas, but Paul now quotes some very old ideas to support his argument. First, he quotes Epimenides who lived in the 7th–6th century BC, long before either the Epicurean or Stoic philosophy was created: “In him we live and move and have our being”. Epimenides was allegedly referring to the Cretans’ claim that Zeus, the king of the Greek pantheon, was mortal. He countered that Zeus was immortal and even the source of their own life. The only record we have of the context of this quote is from the 9th century commentary on Acts by Isho’dad of Merv:
They fashioned a tomb for you, high and holy one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies. 
But you are not dead; you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being. 
The second quotation is from a Stoic poet named Aratus, who was also referring to Zeus. However, in Stoicism, Zeus is not a personal god, rather, Zeus is the supreme ordering principle of the universe:
Let us begin with Zeus. Never, O men, let us leave him unmentioned. All the ways are full of Zeus, and all the market-places of human beings. The sea is full of him, and so are the harbors. In every way we have all to do with Zeus—for we are truly his offspring. 
Paul is not equating Zeus with the true God by quoting these poets. Neither is he saying that one can gain a true understanding of God from the pagan philosophers. He is, however, appropriating their ideas to make his own point.
If we are God’s children, God must be greater than us, not something we can mold with stone or metal. This polemic against idols is very much like what is found in Isaiah when he protests the utter senselessness of worshipping molded things as if they were gods.
A command to repent
Everything Paul has said to this point has been a foundation that was necessary to establish Paul’s position. He had to cut through the Greeks’ false ideas about God and man to get to the point where the Gospel would make sense to them. And he did not pull any punches, but got straight to the point. He said that God formerly overlooked the ‘times of ignorance’—keeping in mind how offensive it would be for Paul to call his audience ignorant. This is similar to Paul’s statement in Lystra that God formerly “allowed all the nations to go their own way” (Acts 14:16). Bruce claims, “It is implied in these places that the coming of Christ marks a fresh start in God’s dealings with the human race.” 
Paul just argued that God was the Creator and Father of all people. Now he warns that God is also the judge of all people. And He will judge the world through a man—Jesus—whose chosen status was confirmed via the Resurrection. At the end of the discourse, he finally gets back to the key topics that so intrigued the Athenians to begin with—Jesus and the Resurrection.
A message most rejected
There were a variety of reactions to Paul’s message. To most Greeks, the ‘ideal state’ was thought to be a disembodied spiritual existence. They perceived the idea of physical resurrection as impossible, ridiculous, and grotesque. Yet it is a central doctrine, which is why Paul took such a long time to explain and defend it in 1 Corinthians 15. However, this doctrine caused most of his audience to immediately dismiss his claims.
Others said that they would like to hear Paul speak again. Some people would interpret this as positive interest, but we have to remember Luke’s mockery of the Athenians as people who simply wanted to hear new ideas. Christianity is not some lofty philosophy that one can just listen to over and over again—it demands a response.
Only a few people responded in genuine faith. If Paul was contextualizing, he did not do a very good job, because only a few people were interested in hearing more after his first address! Rather, the lesson to learn from Paul’s addresses at Lystra and Athens is that evangelism must start with a correct understanding of the God to whom we must be reconciled.
The reason Paul’s message was so offensive was because it was far removed from and completely opposed to key Greek beliefs about reality. Paul’s offensiveness was necessary and came from undermining the false foundational beliefs the Athenians had about the nature of both God and themselves.
It is easy to see a parallel between Paul’s message and creation evangelism today. It’s often difficult to evangelize people today without telling them some very controversial, even offensive, things about God’s actions in history and their own need to repent from false beliefs, and even false worship. When we share the Gospel, we should expect to be ridiculed by the mainstream culture, because what we are saying runs deeply counter to many things that the culture holds dear.
Therefore, rather than trying to ‘contextualize’ a watered-down message in order to avoid persecution or ridicule, as many do today, one needs to determine what false beliefs people have, and to try to overcome them “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
- Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 2.38.5, tr. Jowett, B., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1881.
- Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 332.
- Polhill, J.B., Acts, NAC (Broadman & Holman: Nashville, TN, 2001), p. 371.
- Bruce, The Book of the Acts, pp. 335–336.
- Ibid., 336.
- Polhill, Acts, p. 372.
- Kistemaker, S.J. and Hendriksen, W., Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, BNTC (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1990), p. 634.
- Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 337.
- Polhill, Acts, p. 374.
- Ibid., 375.
- Paul cited this in Titus 1:12.
- Cited in Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 339.
- Aratus, cited in Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 339.
- Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 340.
As one of the elders of our church who oversees and works directly with our mission projects, I have come to the blunt conclusion that many short-term mission trips are a bad idea. Yes, you’re reading this correctly. In fact, I have come to believe that many short-term mission trips are a complete waste of time, money, and energy. Why would I suggest that many churches should consider canceling their summer mission trip?
Beware of Scams
Yes, scams and scandals come in every shape, color, and size. The world of mission trip scams is alive and well. There are reported cases of fake church buildings that have been erected, never used, and only occupied as a false image when the Americans visit in order to get additional “mission” money for their efforts. Additionally, some groups have been known to exploit their children as a means of receiving relief funds as a result of the big hearted Americans who see their “needs” during their visit. Unless the work on the field can be properly documented with trustworthy eyes and boots on the ground, beware of sending money and teams to random areas without a plan.
Not only are there scams on the field in third world countries waiting to take money in Jesus’ name, but there are scam artists in many churches too. These people are unwilling to walk across the street and share Christ with their neighbor, but they are willing to board an airplane and fly thousands of miles from home in order to “win the lost” to Christ in the jungles of Peru. Beware of the sightseeing tourist who wants to go see lions, tigers, and bears on the dime of faithful saints who sacrifice of their money to get the true gospel of Christ to other nations.
Unless your team from your church is properly trained and accustomed to the cultural practices and lifestyle of the people group that they will be ministering to, it’s quite possible that this team will bring a false report back home to the church. When was the last time you heard of a mission team reporting 75 to 100 salvations in one village during one week of evangelism in Africa? These false conversions happen because of two primary causes:
1. Improper Preparation: Without the proper knowledge, it’s possible to lead many people to pray to receive Jesus Christ as Lord in a village in Zimbabwe without knowing that they are polytheistic in their religious practices. Although they worship their ancestors, they want to be sure to have all of their bases covered. Therefore, they’re happy to accept any deity figure presented, no matter if you present Jesus as God or the Easter Bunny – they will pray to either one. Unless you know this up front through proper preparation, you will not know how to present the gospel so as to strip them from their false god worship practices and reveal to them the exclusive Savior – Jesus Christ.
2. Flawed Methods: I’ve been on the mission field and watched groups walking around door-to-door with little gospel cubes. After they twist it around and tell a little story about Jesus, they quickly invite people to bow and pray to invite Jesus into their heart. Not only should you stop telling people to invite Jesus into their heart, you should be careful when dealing with someone’s soul. More times than not, people are willing to pray a prayer when directed, resulting in a false conversion that appears on a report and perhaps confuses the person into a false sense of security that may entrap them for the remainder of their life.
It’s a very common thing to have laborers on the field for years before they see a hand full of genuine conversions. So, the authenticity of these inflated reports that often appear in nice PowerPoint slides during mission reports at the end of the summer should be questioned and scrutinized. Additionally, if the mission teams are in it for the notches in their belt, they would do the church of Jesus Christ a great service by staying home.
Church Planting Is a Superior Model
Stop wasting time and resources through short-term mission trips. Too often these trips turn into sightseeing adventures rather than actual gospel missions. Rather than simply visiting a new country, talking to a few random people about Jesus, snapping some nice photos and then heading home – the church planting model provides a lasting source of gospel light long after the American team returns home.
This model is best served through an American church assisting while an indigenous pastor leads the church in the specified country. Yes, American missionaries can be of assistance in the area of support, training, and equipping, but the most fruitful mission projects are those where the indigenous pastor is raised up by the Lord to pastor and lead the people. As the mission teams visit, they have a point of contact, a plan to follow, and a reoccurring effort for years to come.
In closing, I want to be clear, I support mission trips and believe that God wants the church of Jesus Christ actively engaged in the work of local and foreign missions. However, I do believe that many short-term mission projects are a massive waste of time, resources, and potentially dangerous for the people. A biblical model of church planting and a perpetual support strategy from a local church is a good model to follow. We must be careful not to confuse people with the gospel, empower scam artists in Jesus’ name, and return with an inflated report of false conversions. Proper planning, strategy making, and church planting efforts will bypass much of the waste that occurs in the name of Jesus each year “on mission.” Before you plan that summer short-term mission trip, make sure it will be well planned and thought through prior to jumping on the airplane with an eager group of Americans.
Project Africa is a church planting effort through the G3 Conference. To learn more about this 8 year project – visit the G3 website.
As I finish out each year, I typically do a missionary biography for our church in order to help us focus on the Great Commission and begin the new year standing upon the shoulders of those who have labored before us. For the 2014 missionary biography, I chose George Whitefield. While it may seem strange to view him as a missionary, in my biographical overview for our church, I sought to focus upon his work in the “new world” of America with the Wesley brothers, orphan care, and his relentless evangelistic preaching.
As we come to the close of 2014 and look over the precipice into 2015, I would like to consider the legacy of Whitefield. What made Whitefield great? According to Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “George Whitefield is beyond any question the greatest English preacher of all time.” When we consider the fact that Charles Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers” referred to George Whitefield as the “Chief of Preachers” – we must pause to consider the depth and breadth of his preaching ministry. Those are big words from Lloyd-Jones and Spurgeon. What made the blazing evangelist tick? What pressed his soul toward God and his preaching toward greatness? As I spent a good portion of time in 2014 reading and thinking about George Whitefield, three specific things stand out to me. The greatness of Whitefield is directly connected to his holiness, his doctrine, and his evangelism.
Lesson #1 – Whitefield’s Pursuit of Holiness
George Whitefield was a man who labored to know God. After he was born again, he started reading his Bible on his knees. Whitefield was known for his preaching and his piety. As much as he was known for his thunder and lightning in the pulpit, he was likewise known for his quiet pursuit of God in the early hours of the morning. Born just over 50 years after the “Great Ejection” of the Puritan pastors from their pulpits in 1662, it was as if God planted another Puritan in the pulpit during an era of dry, cold, and lethargic preaching in England.
Arnold Dallimore describes Whitefield’s longing for God as he writes:
We can visualize him at 5 in the morning in his room over Harris’s bookstore. He is on his knees with his Bible, his Greek New Testament, and a volume of Matthew Henry spread before him. With intense concentration he reads a portion in English, studies its words and tenses in the Greek, and then considers Matthew Henry’s exposition of the whole. Finally comes his unique practice of “praying over every line and every word” in both the English and Greek, feasting his mind and his heart upon it till its essential meaning has become a part of his very person.1
As we prepare to welcome in 2015, we must consider our own pursuit of holiness. What does our Bible reading, meditation, and memorization look like? What can we learn from George Whitefield regarding Bible reading that may help us in this upcoming new year? I think from a pragmatic standpoint, Whitefield’s commitment to rise early and immerse himself in God’s Word is commendable. Additionally, a good reading plan can assist in this endeavor to read through the entire Bible in 365 days. You can locate the plan that I typically follow and that many in our church follow at the bottom of our church’s website (PraysMill.com). You may find another plan that works well for you linked here on the Ligonier site for your review. However, the point is quite obvious. Nobody can rise in holiness if he is unwilling to be immersed in God’s Word.
The reason that Whitefield’s pursuit of holiness stands out to me is likewise connected to his prayer life. It was not an uncommon thing for this great preacher to be completely exhausted from preaching (he preached approximately 1,000 sermons per year for 30 straight years), but stay up until midnight or 1am in prayer with God. Whitefield understood the importance of spending time with God. Whitefield recorded the following in his journal:
I give to Him my soul and body to be disposed and worn out in His labours as He shall think meet. I do hence resolve, by His assistance…to lead a stricter life than ever, to give my self to prayer and the study of the Scriptures…. God give me my health, if it be His blessed will…. I give myself wholly to Him.2
Lesson #2 – Whitefield’s Doctrine
Unfortunately most of us have heard of traveling evangelists who have majored on the minors, preached proof texts out of context, and left the congregants without adequate spiritual food. That was not to be said of George Whitefield. Although he was not the expositor that John Calvin was nor was he the theologian that Jonathan Edwards was, he was a deeply rooted doctrinal evangelist who had something to say. Whitefield understood that preaching was God’s intended means of awakening dead sinners to life and it was likewise God’s intended means of growing His church in spiritual maturity.
J. C. Ryle, the great preacher from church history describes Whitefield’s preaching:
Few men, perhaps, ever gave their hearers so much wheat and so little chaff. He did not get up to talk about his party, his cause, his interest or his office. He was perpetually telling you about your sins, your heart, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the absolute need of repentance, faith, and holiness, in the way that the Bible presents these mighty subjects. “Oh, the righteousness of Jesus Christ!” he would often say: “I must be excused if I mention it in almost all my sermons.” Preaching of this kind is the preaching that God delights to honour. It must be pre-eminently a manifestation of truth.3
George Whitefield was a Calvinist before Calvinism was cool. He claimed that he had never even read John Calvin prior to embracing the doctrines of grace. He told people that he got them from Christ and His Word. The preaching and ministry of George Whitefield was saturated with the deep wells of sound doctrine. He was not satisfied with getting up before people and “talking” or “entertaining” from the sacred desk of God. His goal was to bring people to know God and to know Him more intimately.
Looking forward into 2015, we could learn from Whitefield. Doctrine matters. We live in a day of shallowness from the pulpit. Pragmatics overshadow doctrine in our church growth saturated culture. It really does matter what we use to attract people into the front door of our church building. Our appetite for God’s Word and sound doctrine is crucial to our personal growth and the growth of our church.
Lesson #3 – Whitefield’s Evangelism
History is replete with the thundering voice of Whitefield that continues to echo to us today. The pointed truth is clear. The world has not forgotten Whitfield. He possessed a powerful preaching voice that was once heard thundering down the river 2 miles from the field where he preached. He could preach to thousands without the aid of a microphone. In fact, once in Scotland, he preached to nearly 100,000 people and it’s believed that 10,000 of those people turned to Christ and were saved. To put that into perspective, 3,000 souls were saved when Peter preached at Pentecost! I was having lunch with Steven Lawson one day and he said to me, “If I could be anyone in church history, I would be George Whitefield.” As it turns out, he was working on his excellent book on Whitefield and it was the first sentence of his preface. However, it wasn’t just the preaching of Whitefield that caught the attention of Steven Lawson. He was likewise captivated by Whitefield’s evangelistic zeal.
George Whitefield’s heart was broken for broken people. George Whitefield once said, “O Lord, give me souls or take my soul!” He was not searching for the high class of society or merely those who could help fund his ministry endeavors. He trusted God in those matters. His heart was fixated upon the depravity of humanity and the need for Jesus in England, across Europe, and across the sea to America.
Whitefield would travel across the Atlantic Ocean from England to America 7 times. This would result in 13 voyages across the Atlantic. He would die in America during his final preaching tour. The sacrifice of time for souls is apparent in Whitefield’s commitment. At a time when his popularity was reaching a high point in England, he did the unthinkable. He got on a ship and sailed across the sea to America to evangelize the eastern coast of the new world. He would spend 3 to 4 months on the ship each time he crossed the Atlantic. This was no Disney cruise ship. His time on the boat would be tiresome and dangerous.
Whitefield was perhaps the greatest English preacher in church history, but with the notoriety came opposition. When Whitefield entered the fields to preach, it was common for people to throw stones, slanderous phrases, and dead cats upon him. Nevertheless he would press on to preach Christ. He would make his way through the field to a wooden structure or platform. He would look into the faces of the people and say, “I have come today to talk to you about your soul.” His voice would thunder across the fields to thousands. In a manner that did not involve manipulation, gimmicks, or pulpit trickery, Whitefield called sinners to repentance in Jesus Christ without giving an alter call. Hundreds of thousands of sinners were saved through his preaching. God blew the winds of the Great Awakening through this man’s powerful preaching.
Whitefield was once recorded as saying the following:
I offer you salvation this day; the door of mercy is not yet shut, there does yet remain a sacrifice for sin, for all that will accept of the Lord Jesus Christ. He will embrace you in the arms of his love. O turn to him, turn in a sense of your own unworthiness; tell him how polluted you are, how vile, and be not faithless, but believing. Why fear ye that the Lord Jesus Christ will not accept you? Your sins will be no hindrance, your unworthiness no hindrance; if your own corrupt hearts do not keep you back nothing will hinder Christ from receiving of you.4
As we plan ahead for 2015, let us plan to be zealous in our evangelistic efforts. Too often Arminians criticize Calvinists for not being evangelistic enough and zealous enough for lost souls. While that may be an unfair criticism, Arminians and Calvinists alike should look to the Calvinistic evangelist George Whitefield as a worthy example to follow in our desire to reach unbelievers with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Whitefield is dead. His voice is but a soft echo from the pages of history. God has placed us here at the end of 2014 and perhaps God will grant us more time in 2015. What will we do with it? Will we strive for greater holiness? Will we search the Scriptures and seek to know God more intimately? Will we weep for the lostness of our city, our neighborhood, and the nations? Let us look back at Whitefield and look onward toward Christ.
For His eternal glory,
Pastor Josh Buice
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1. Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival Vol. 2, (Westchester, Illinois: Cornerstone Books, 1979), p. 22.
2. George Whitefield, George Whitefield’s Journals, (PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), p. 60.
3. J. C. Ryle, Five Christian Leaders. “Estimation of Whitefield’s Ministry.” (PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960).
4. Ernest Reisinger, “What Should We Think of Evangelism and Calvinism.” The Founder’s Journal, Issue 19/20.