The sovereignty of God is fundamental to Reformed theology. Throughout the history of the church there has been a constant struggle to maintain this truth as the cornerstone of missions. Some have so emphasized missions to be the work of the church and missionaries that they have weakened and minimized God’s control over missions. Others have so emphasized God’s sovereignty as to deny the church any obligation to do missions.
A biblical conception of God’s sovereignty in missions gives believers a sense of the urgency and necessity of evangelism.
On the one hand, those who fail to understand God’s sovereignty in missions castigate the church for her unfaithfulness and lay upon her the blame for the gospel not yet reaching the ends of the earth. Why have not all men heard the preaching of the gospel? Their answer is: the church has been slow in performing her task. The church has not been obedient to the calling Jesus Christ gave her in the great commission. Jesus Christ has every right to come and shame the church for her disobedience.
On the opposite extreme are those who emphasize that there is no need to be actively involved in missions, for God is sovereign over all things. He has elected His people and He will insure that all of them come to salvation. All of this will occur either through the church or in spite of the church.
Both of these views do an injustice to the precious doctrine of God’s sovereignty in missions. William Carey, a simple English cobbler who became a minister and finally a pioneer missionary to India, faced both of the extremes. Carey was a preacher among the Particular, Calvinistic Baptists in England who held firmly to the doctrines of election, irresistible grace, and particular atonement. In the late 18th century the views of “False Calvinism” gained distinction among Particular Baptists, in part due to the influence of Joseph Hussey, a Congregational minister, who denied that it was the duty of sinners to believe in Jesus. Many churches in England were shaped by this influence for years to come and became Hyper-Calvinistic.
The missionary mandate was understood as restricted to the original apostles only! Since the world had already heard the gospel in the apostolic age, what need was there to offer it again? So pervasive was this thinking that it was reflected in an anti-missionary hymn which made the rounds in the eighteenth century.
Go into all the world,
the Lord of old did say,
But now where He has planted thee,
there thou shouldst stay.
Due largely to the theological influence of Andrew Fuller, a fellow Particular Baptist minister, Carey came to see that evangelism
and Calvinism could be reconciled.
There was no contradiction between the universal obligation of all who hear the gospel to believe in Christ and the sovereign decision of God to save those whom He has chosen. The failure to believe stemmed not from any physical or “natural inability,” but rather from a “moral inability” which was the result of a perverted human will.
William Carey came to the following convictions:
1) Unconverted sinners are commanded and exhorted to believe in Christ for salvation.
2) The gospel, though a message of pure grace, requires the obedient response of faith.
3) The lack of faith is a heinous sin which is ascribed in the Scriptures to human depravity.
4) God has threatened and inflicted the most awful punishments on sinners for their not believing on the Lord Jesus Christ.
5) The Bible requires of all persons certain spiritual exercises which are represented as their duty. These include repentance and faith no less than the requirement to love God, fear God, and glorify God. That no one can accomplish these things apart from the bestowal of the Holy Spirit is clear. Nevertheless, the obligation remains.
6) If sinners are obligated to repent and believe, there must be another obligation! Christians who were themselves delivered from darkness into light are most urgently obliged to present the commands of Christ to those who have never heard!
Carey became convinced that the divine commission was binding upon all succeeding ministers. He therefore suggested this as a topic for discussion at a meeting of fellow pastors. The response was harsh and unexpected: “Young man, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to converse with heathen He’ll do it without consulting you or me.” These remarks reflected the hardened attitude which had gained widespread support in Carey’s day. The Particular, Calvinistic Baptists resisted the liberalizing tendencies of the Arminian Baptists and strongly affirmed the sovereignty of God and the doctrines of grace. In their zeal they minimized the responsibility of the church to be zealous in evangelism and missions. God would save His people with or without them.
Responding to this type of argumentation, R.B. Kuiper states:
The premise of that argumentation is altogether true. Divine election makes the salvation of the elect unalterably certain. But the conclusion drawn from that premise reveals a serious misunderstanding of the divine sovereignty as expressed in the decree of election.
While election is from everlasting, the truth may not be lost out of sight that its realization is a process in time. In that process numerous factors play a part. One of those factors is the evangel. And it is a most significant factor.
R.B. Kuiper goes on to state that election demands evangelism and also guarantees that evangelism will result in genuine conversions.
God chose certain persons, not only that they might go to heaven when they die, but also that they might be his witnesses while here on earth. Once more let it be said, election demands evangelism.
An equally significant conclusion is that election guarantees that evangelism will result in genuine conversions. The preacher of the gospel has no way of telling who in his audience belongs to the elect and who does not. But God knows. And God is sure to bless his Word to the hearts of his elect unto salvation. Just when it will please God to do that in the case of an elect individual, we do not know, but he most certainly will do it before that person’s death.
So certain as it is that all of God’s elect will be saved, precisely so certain is it that the word of the gospel will not return to God void. (Cf. Is. 55:11.)
Through the theological impetus of Andrew Fuller and the zeal of William Carey, a missionary society was soon formed and the first missionaries were sent to India. Among these first missionaries were William Carey and his wife. For more than five years Carey labored with little fruit. There was unrelieved opposition, the kind of opposition which natural man always exhibits toward the gospel. One day Carey was talking to a Brahman who was defending the worship of idols. Tom Wells relates the conversation:
Carey cited Acts 14:16 and Acts 17:30 and explained that God formerly “suffered all nations to walk in their own ways,” said Carey, “but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent.”
“Indeed,” said the native, “I think God ought to repent for not sending the gospel sooner to us.”
This was the Brahman’s way of saying that he did not believe Carey’s message. He was in essence saying, “If what you say is true, why have I not heard it before?”
The Brahman was failing to understand properly God’s sovereignty in evangelism and his own responsibility. He was blaming Christians, the church, and ultimately God for not having sent the gospel to him and his country earlier. What was missionary Carey’s response?
Suppose a kingdom had been long overrun by the enemies of its true king, and he, though possessed of sufficient power to conquer them, should yet suffer them to prevail, and establish themselves as much as they could desire, would not the valor and wisdom of that king be far more conspicuous in exterminating them, than it would have been if he had opposed them at first, and prevented their entering the country? Thus by the diffusion of gospel light, the wisdom, power, and grace of God will be more conspicuous in overcoming such deep-rooted idolatries, and in destroying all that darkness and vice which have so universally prevailed in this country, than they would have been if all had not been suffered to walk in their own ways for so many ages past.
Essentially the answer of Carey was that it pleased God to keep the gospel from India, and He had His perfect reason for doing so. It was so that India would sink into idolatry and corruption. God’s rescuing it, then, would be a far greater work and God would display His power and grace in a far greater manner.
God’s sovereignty, so far from making missions pointless, gives us our hope for success in missions. God’s sovereign grace makes us confident that our efforts in missions will be used to gather His church. God’s grace alone can conquer the two obstacles which missions face: First, man’s natural and irresistible impulse to oppose God (Rom. 3:10ff.), and secondly, the devil’s powerful efforts to lead men down the pathways of unbelief and disobedience (I Pet. 5:8). “Were it not for the sovereign grace of God, evangelism would be the most futile and useless enterprise that the world has ever seen, and there would be no more complete waste of time under the sun than to preach the Christian gospel.”
That God is sovereign makes missions necessary and urgent! God has determined that no man can be saved apart from the gospel (Rom. 10:9ff.). The urgency of repentance is stated throughout the Scriptures: “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5).
In conclusion I quote a section from “An enquiry into the obligations of Christians, to use means for the conversion of the heathens,” which William Carey wrote to motivate the saints to see the proper relationship between God’s sovereignty in missions and the responsibility of man.
If the prophecies concerning the increase of Christ’s Kingdom be true, and if what has been argued concerning the commission given by him to his disciples being obligatory on us be just, it must be inferred that all Christians ought heartily to concur with God in promoting his glorious designs, for “he that is joined to the Lord is one Spirit” (I Cor. 6:17).
One of the first and most important of those duties which are incumbent upon us is fervent and united prayer. However the influence of the Holy Spirit may be set at nought and run down by many, it will be found upon trial that all means which we can use will be ineffectual without it. If a temple is raised for God in the heathen world, it will not be “by might, nor by power,” “nor by the authority of the magistrate, or the eloquence of the orator,” “but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Zech. 4:6). We must therefore be in real earnest in supplicating his blessing upon our labors….
We must not be contented however with praying without exerting ourselves in the use of means for the obtaining of those things we pray for. Were “the children of light” but “as wise in their generation as the children of this world” (Luke 16:8), they would stretch every nerve to gain so glorious a prize, nor ever imagine it was to be obtained in any other way. 
 Timothy George, Faithful Witness (Birmingham: New Hope, 1991), p. 39.
 Ibid., p. 55.
 Ibid., pp 56, 67.
 Basil Miller, William Carey (Bethany House: Minneapolis, 1980), p. 32.
 R.B. Kuiper, God-Centered Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), p. 33.
 Ibid., p. 35.
 Tom Wells, A Vision For Missions (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), p. 12.
 Wells, p. 13.
 J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1961), p. 106.
 Timothy George, p. E.54.