I live outside the U.S. and work alongside faithful Christian brothers and sisters who largely use Spanish as a first language. We read the Bible in Spanish, sing praise songs in Spanish, and live out our calling as Spanish-speaking Christians among our neighbors and friends, the majority of whom hold different beliefs.
I recently spoke with a wise brother about our desire to serve the church well. During our conversation, he told me that one important step for our context is helping people in local churches see themselves as more than recipients of the gospel; they should see themselves— individually and corporately—as those who are called to take the gospel to others.
Generations ago, Protestant missionaries arrived in the country where I currently live. Through God’s leading, the first generation of national believers began to hold the Bible as the authoritative word from God. Back then, they were a pioneer generation who lived counter-culturally. Now, the footprint of the Baptist churches among whom I serve has grown. For instance, a national convention of Baptist churches connects local congregations. Seminaries promote sound doctrine and train leaders. For generations, believers have been faithful in their local, national setting.
But what about cross-cultural missions? Does God’s call for Christians to evangelize and make disciples extend beyond their own cultural group identity as well?
The answer is yes, for all Christians and all churches should see themselves as called, empowered, and accompanied in this God-honoring, global mission.
Some time ago, I heard of a minor disagreement between a few local Baptist church leaders and several Baptist missionaries from a different country who served in the same location. These two groups held identical doctrines, but initially they didn’t see eye to eye on how to reach their community for Christ. Instead of a spirit of cooperation, competition and mistrust marked their interactions. One believer (correctly in my opinion) explained to the others that the authorization for all of them to work in that area came from Christ himself. In the passage of Scripture known as the Great Commission, Jesus provides instruction:
And Jesus came and said to them, “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. (Matthew 28:18–20)
Jesus references his authority (v. 18) and then exercises this authority by directing his disciples to a task (vv. 19–20). In that moment, Jesus was talking to eleven disciples. However, Jesus’ focus is global in that all nations were to receive a full expression of the Christian faith. His eleven disciples would take the message to others, who would take it to others, even to the ends of the earth.
In the present day, every believer has received this calling from Jesus. That means we are included in Christ’s original target audience. We are those who are supposed to receive and transmit the message to others.
We can’t explain away this responsibility by claiming that we were not the immediate audience of the Great Commission. It was impossible for eleven men to visit every place on earth and teach them everything Jesus wanted people to know and obey. Those who heard their testimony—which includes believers in all ages— are also included in the command to communicate it to others. Furthermore, the universality of Christ’s command prohibits a two-tier form of Christianity in which a portion of believers are called to serve and share while the others are left only to hear and receive.
There’s a well-known saying about submission to authority: “When I say ‘Jump,’ you say, “How high?” But what if you were instead commanded to fly? Can you be obedient to the impossible? No one can. We can’t obey a command for which we lack resources to follow.
Counterintuitively, the Bible teaches that what Jesus commands humans to do in the Great Commission is impossible. That is, making disciples is impossible without God’s help. Scripture teaches that humans are spiritually dead until God enlivens them through the gospel (Colossians 2:13). No amount of persuading can make a person who is dead in sin to be alive to God and to submit and agree to his will. Salvation is the work of God in the life of a believer (Ephesians 2:1–10)
By sharing the gospel, believers are giving their hearers access to God’s Word, a message from the author and perfector of the Christian faith. Knowledge of God comes through hearing, and with knowledge of him, the opportunity to believe. (Romans 10:17) The gospel message comes to hearers through the testimony of obedient servants.
So how do those who receive the gospel get the ability to believe it? The power to believe the message comes from God’s own Spirit. I am not referring to an impersonal force; power comes through God’s transformative presence, that is, the literal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises his disciples,
But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:26–27)
As recorded in Acts 2, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to his church. This momentous event has profound implications, providing every believer with an everlasting guarantee of eternity in God’s presence, beginning at the point of salvation. God’s presence is with those whom he indwells by his Spirit. This truth is of central importance to individual Christians as well as to the church’s corporate identity.
The fact that believers have the Spirit, the same Spirit who was present in Jesus’ earthly ministry, means that we have much to imitate based on Jesus’ example. For example, Jesus consistently modeled his care and concern for the lost. Arron Chambers writes, “It was one thing for Jesus to welcome sinners, but it was something else altogether for Jesus to eat with them. Jesus shared a table with sinners because he wanted to have a relationship with them.” Jesus’ practice of seeking out those who were in rebellion against God as a means of communicating the good news about himself is one we should emulate. Jesus reached out to his neighbors and even crossed frontiers to seek and save the lost (John 4). We are also commanded to bring his message to others, both near and far.
Like William Carey, we too are called to use whatever means are available to accomplish God’s desires in his world.A Christian’s biblically informed self-identity includes God’s presence and a Holy Spirit-empowered ability to live in obedience to the Great Commission.
Quote from Corrie Ten Boom, quoting John Bunyan, by John Piper, “Long for the Pure Milk of the Word”, Sermons from John Piper (1990–1999), January 30, 1994.
For more on the centrality of the Holy Spirit’s presence and actions in the life of the church, see Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, 29–30.
Arron Chambers, Eats with Sinners: Loving like Jesus (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2017), “Some of my best friends are lost”.
William Carey, Una Investigación, 30.