At first glance, one might think from the title that this article will fail to promote a healthy interest in missions. Who would be interested in biblical and Reformed missions if he is told that it is a humanly impossible work from many perspectives?
Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to remember that the work of faithful missions, including its important result of positive fruit, is truly a wonder of grace alone. Faithful missions is the wonder-work of the sovereign Lord of the harvest, in which the faithful missionary is only a servant and a tool in His hand.
Due regard to the impossibility of missions does not hinder support or interest in it. It will not drive a missionary to quit, nor produce pessimism about missions. Instead, it gives a missionary proper direction, realistic expectations, a humble attitude, burning motivation, and sustaining encouragement in his labors.
The labors of a missionary are demanding. He must “preach the Word” (a), which requires that he study the Word of God and rightly divide the Word of truth for faithful, expository, Christ-centered, and edifying preaching within the context of his field of labor. He must preach the Word in season and out of season, reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with all longsuffering and doctrine (II Tim. 4:2b).
The missionary must serve the Lord with all humility of mind and faithfulness of heart in the work. He must testify “…repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:19-20). He must in all his teaching and preaching not fail to declare “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). He must apply the Word of God to those who are in his audience and not fail to warn them of idolatry, heresy, false doctrine, radicalism, and ungodliness. He must call sinners to repentance from their sin and to faith in the only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The missionary seeks to fulfill his work after the example of the apostle Paul, who testified about his work that “though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more…. I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you” (). He crosses the cultural and economic boundaries as best he can to prevent unnecessary hindrances to the hearing of the gospel.
When we consider his demanding duties, it should become clear to us that a missionary faces an impossible task. This becomes even clearer when we notice that, as the Lord sends His servants through His church into mission endeavors, He charges them essentially with the same charge He gave to the apostle Paul: “…unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (). What missionary of himself can do that?
If a missionary, particularly in a foreign work, might forget the human impossibility of missions, then it will not take long for him to be reminded. For example, some missionaries are met with hostility by those who refuse to turn from the darkness of their false religion and idolatry, seeing the messenger of Christ as a serious threat. As a result, we know that missionaries have suffered death for the sake of Christ.
More commonly, there are other daily realities that a missionary probably did not think much about before he came to the foreign field. There may be for him the daily reality of a language barrier, if he does not enjoy complete fluency in the local language of his field of labor. He may experience occurrences of miscommunication due to differences in ways of communication. He may have day-to-day irritations of living: air pollution in a major city, roads choked with traffic, time consumed in perplexing traffic jams or in seemingly endless lines at government offices, and such like things. Compared to former experience in his home country, his family’s simple trips to a grocery store or bank in his foreign field of labor now consume much more time than expected. His work output, which previously in his home country may have been quite high, may drop due to unexpected demands from daily life in his mission homeland.
Perhaps when he preaches there are the irritations of the tropical climate that sap his energy for the preaching and the energy of the congregation or mission group for their full attention. During worship he may experience the irritations of interruptions and distractions from the noise of passing trucks, muffler-less motorcycles, farm tractors, barking dogs, crowing roosters, cackling hens, the deafening noise of an afternoon downpour on a tin roof, and, sometimes, loud karaoke music from ungodly neighbors. With all of the disruptions and distractions, he may well wonder in discouragement if his work is effective.
If he is a western missionary, having come from a relatively affluent country and laboring in a place that has lesser wealth, he faces the reality of unfamiliar poverty. He will feel constantly the economic differences between himself and those among whom he labors and among the world in which he lives. This in itself brings an element of daily stress, concern, and responsibility in his labors.
The faithful missionary soon faces the reality of his own limitations. While he may want to preach far and wide and take on a massive load of mission work, his unique set of God-given abilities allows for only a limited workload. Especially in his times of sickness, he has time to reflect on his human limitations, his weaknesses, and the human impossibility of missions.
Even a calling church faces the impossibility of missions when calling a missionary. A calling church faces the question: will it be this call, the next one, or the next one after that, that results in a favorable answer? There are many factors and considerations that go into a call. Whether a minister accepts the first, second, or twelfth call of the calling church, that acceptance of a mission call is a remarkable work and gift of the Holy Spirit.
When a missionary considers that the work of missions is to bring sinners to repentance from their sin and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, he realizes that he cannot open one heart to receive that Word. He cannot make the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the dumb to speak, and the lame to walk in the ways of God. He cannot breathe true life into a dying, withering soul. He cannot make lost sinners into saints, unbelievers into believers, lost sheep into repentant sheep, and the proud into the humble. It is humanly impossible to create that good fruit.
There are a multitude of things that are necessary to make this entire, spiritual enterprise of missions do what Christ promised that it would do and to make it possible for His servants to fulfill their mission duties. When one considers carefully all of the aspects of missions—from the calling of a missionary, to the moving of a missionary to the foreign field, to the establishment of a missionary in his work, to the actual preaching and the hearing of the preaching, and to many more factors and elements in missions besides—we need to realize that foreign missions, like the ministry of the Word in a local congregation, is a humanly impossible enterprise.
How should we respond to this reality? Our response might often be discouragement. Lofty expectations may have been dashed. Repeated calls to the mission field are repeatedly declined with repeated disappointment. The direction desired for important aspects of the work may often take unexpected turns. Unanticipated problems seem to interrupt progress. All of these things can add up in a missionary’s mind and heart, and he can be tempted to thoughts of quitting. He may feel as Elijah did, when the aftermath of the display of Jehovah as God alone on Mt. Carmel was not an immediate and dramatic national reformation of Israel. It appears that even the apostle Paul, when facing hardened and fierce opposition to his initial labors in Corinth, and experiencing some discouragement before the hard reality of missions, perhaps contemplated leaving Corinth and going elsewhere (Acts 18:8-10).
Our response should be, among other things, that we reckon with the reality that missions is humanly impossible, and that the struggles and problems one faces underscore that fact. We need to reckon with that reality, lest we become proud when there are positive results, lest we quit when anticipated results do not materialize, and lest we forget the extent of our dependence upon Jehovah for faithful missions.
We must also remember God’s promises in connection with missions, and remember that God is willing and able to fulfill those promises for the sake of Christ. He knows that He has His sheep and lambs in this global city (Acts 18:9-10). He will gather those other sheep that yet must be brought under the rule of His grace, Spirit, and Word. Concerning His promises and commitment to them, “is anything too hard for Jehovah?” (a). No. What remains impossible for faithful missionaries to do is possible with our covenant God.
Often the work of foreign missions does not grow in grand, staggering leaps of progress. Often the work progresses slowly, with periodic setbacks; yet it is nourished and nudged forward by the still small voice of the foolishness of preaching. The work often begins in a humble way and continues in a humble way, which the Scriptures admonish us not to despise, because God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty (; ). What is the reason for that with respect to missionaries? The reason is, that no flesh should glory in His presence ( )—particularly when we observe that the Lord is using us to gather His people into the fellowship of His truth.
The wonder-work of missions is entirely dependent upon Jehovah from beginning to end. That truth gives missionaries incentive to do their work faithfully, within their limitations, and in their particular field of labor. They have the confidence that, by His Holy Spirit, the Lord will direct the preaching where it needs to go. He will make sure that His chosen people among the nations hear His Word at the right time and place for their repentance, faith, and salvation. That encourages missionaries, and even those who support and oversee them in the mission work, to give their best efforts in the service of the Lord, not doubting the value and usefulness of their instruction, sermons, advice, discussions, decisions, and labors. It encourages missionaries to fervent trust in Christ for His indispensable blessings unto faithfulness in the service of Christ.
Even though what will remain day after day is impossible of ourselves, yet day after day missions is possible for our God in and through us. Daily He will add to His church such as should be saved (b). By His grace, Jehovah will draw unto Christ His elect out of their sin and depravity from all of the different cultures and nations of the world, and create them as one body in Christ and His truth. It is possible for Him to do that through the foolishness and weakness of the preaching of His glorious Word.
What a wonder of God’s grace alone to behold!
What a blessing it is to be involved in His wonderwork!
To God alone be the glory because He makes the impossible possible!