How the Apostle Paul Did Frontier Missions

This blog was originally published last year as “Some Characteristics of Paul’s Missionary Methods” 

The apostle Paul is the greatest missionary Christianity has ever known, behind only the Lord Jesus himself. Paul was a frontier missionary. He went where no one had gone before. He blazed new trails. In God’s providence, Paul is the reason Christianity spread around the world.

While on the frontier, Paul had a lot of tools in his missional tool belt. Of course, all of his methods and strategies were subject to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This may actually be considered the supreme “characteristic” of Paul’s methods. Aside from walking in the Spirit, many other things characterized Paul’s frontier ministry, and these things still inform the church’s efforts today to reach the unreached. Here are five characteristics:

  1. Paul committed to preaching Christ where he has not already been named. In Romans 15:20, Paul makes clear that this is his intention and goal in his ministry. Paul saw himself as a minister of the gospel who would reach new people and not build on someone else’s foundation (Rom. 15:20; 2 Cor. 10:16). He was not a “pastor” in our modern sense. He was a multi-church planter who constantly moved from one location to another. This does not mean that in our day we should not plant churches in already reached areas; Paul’s time and ministry was unique as the church was in its formative stages. However, the principle still remains: there is great importance for the church to recognize and send those whom God has called to a Pauline-type ministry to spread the gospel among the unreached. This leads to a second characteristic of church planting.
  2. Paul’s missionary ministry focused on church planting. Paul’s goal was not to simply evangelize people in order to gain a host of individual converts. His goal was to evangelize and gather God’s people into local congregations. As mentioned above, Paul was not a planter-pastor who planted a church and stayed there for a long period of time. Once a church was established and functioning, Paul and his team moved on. This informs our missionary efforts today, reminding us that establishing local bodies of worshipers, not simply getting individuals saved, is our main task. This leads to a third characteristic of how converts and congregations were established.
  3. Paul’s preaching centered on the story of Jesus. Paul was less interested in evidential apologetics and philosophical debates and more interested in simply sharing the story of God’s work in the world. His goal was to “preach Christ” (1 Cor. 1:24; cf. Col. 1:28) as the center and climax of God’s unfolding story of redemption. In our day, preaching denominational distinctives or simply external morality should not be the content of missionary preaching. As Paul did, so too we preach Christ and the fact that he is the fulfillment of God’s redemptive drama. This characteristic leads to the next, which answers the question, “What happens after people believe in Jesus?”
  4. Paul desired to develop believers so that they might experience their inheritance in Christ and be ready for his second coming. Paul did not want shallow Christians. His goal was not to gain converts but to make disciples. He wanted mature believers who knew of the incredibly spiritual riches they had in Christ. The letter to the Ephesians, particularly 1:3-14, shows Paul’s heart to develop Christians to, in a sense, become what they already are in Christ. Paul wanted believers to be ready for Christ’s return (1 Thess. 3:13), and he was confident that God would provide everything necessary to make this happen (Phil 1:6; Phil. 2:13). The churches needed godly leadership to accomplish this, which is the last characteristic.
  5. Paul worked to develop local leaders over local congregations. Paul appointed and empowered elders in Ephesus to watch over and care for the flock (Acts 20:28). The pastorals explicitly show Paul’s effort to establish local leadership in churches. This is particularly important for our contemporary situation. Churches may mature and be effective with foreign leadership. However, for local churches to truly thrive and operate optimally there must be godly, indigenous leadership. Only then will the local believers “own” the life and ministry of the church.

These five characteristics are not exhaustive, of course. But they do provide a good “big picture” structure of Paul’s ministry. If you are a missionary, does your work reflect this model? What are some other characteristics of Paul that are essential to biblical missions? Let’s pray that all of our modern missionary efforts to unreached and under-reached people’s reflect God’s work through the apostle Paul!

Tremble Because God Did That, Not You

Here’s a portion of my sermon, “Work Out Your Own Salvation” from Philippians 2:12-13.

Paul doesn’t give us a three-step process for sanctification (there are very few, if any, of those in Scripture). Rather, he describes a heart disposition that characterizes “working out your own salvation.”

At the end of verse 12, he says to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” meaning, “You do not have what it takes, so be very, very, very aware of that it is all grace.”

  • If you wake up and have the desire to read the Bible, tremble, because God did that, not you.
  • If you go home happy to see your husband or wife after a long day of work and you are not a grumpy mess, tremble, because God did that, not you.
  • If you do not lash out at that classmate who has harassed you time and time again, but instead pray for them, tremble, because God did that, not you.
  • If you resist the temptation to look at someone in a way you should not look at them, tremble, because God did that, not you
  • If you delight when a friend succeeds, rather than succumb to jealously, tremble, because God did that, not you.
  • If you spontaneously offer to give something away that is precious to you, tremble, because God did that, not you.
  • If you joyfully sing to the Lord this morning, tremble, because God did that, not you.

It should make us tremble that even though we are Christians, we have no power on our own to do good. That makes God’s power and grace all the more astonishing.

Listen to the whole thing.

The Miracle of Striving

Often, the mystery of how we grow as Christians baffles us. There are some Christians who say, “God takes care of all the work. Those commands in the Bible simply show you that you can’t do them and need Jesus.” Others say, “No, you gotta clench your fists and get to work. God gets this rolling, but you need to seal the deal.”

I think both of those approaches to sanctification are wrong.

If we are going to be ruthlessly biblical however, we are going to see grace and effort working together. We are going to see that Paul is adamant that Christians need to strive, but all of their striving is by God’s power and grace. Earlier this week, I spent a devotional time in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24, where this idea is extremely clear:

12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

In one breath, Paul can command the Thessalonians to “be at peace,” “admonish,” “rejoice,” and “do not quench.” In the next breath he can say, “Now may God sanctify you completely.” How can he do this?

Paul understands that, at bottom, the Thessalonians will grow in holiness only by God’s grace. He also understands that his teaching, exhorting, and commanding are the God ordained means to accomplish what God wants in the Thessalonians. So yes, God is sovereignly working for the holiness of the Thessalonians (and us). On the other side of the coin, people have to actually do something. As John Piper has said, Christians have to act the miracle of sanctification. And who gets the credit for that acting? God. Therefore, it is not legalism for Paul to give a command, and it is not legalism for us to do so either.

Paul is clear that Jesus delivers from the wrath to come (1:10). He delivers through his perfect obedience and substitutionary death. The only proper response to being rescued by Jesus is love, joy, thanksgiving, abstaining from evil, devotion, and obedience. John Stott once wrote, “To teach the standards of moral conduct which adorn the gospel is neither legalism nor pharisaism but plain apostolic Christianity.” Those who have been saved by grace will respond with obedience. They will not obey perfectly, of course, and that is why salvation is all of grace. It is only by the grace of God that our soul and body will be kept blameless when Jesus returns (5:23). That is why Paul prays in verses 23-24, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you!” We do the acting, but God is the one causing the acting to happen in such a way that he gets the glory and ensures that we will arrive at the end the way he intended.

So what’s the difference for you and me? If someone asked me, “If you seek to do some act of obedience even though you don’t want to do it, isn’t that the definition of legalism?” my answer would be, “No, because my theology is right.” That might sound like a snarky answer, but think about it.  If I believe my rejoicing in God (one of Paul’s commands above) merits love from God, then yes, it is legalism. But consider an alternative. I strive to rejoice in God even when I don’t feel like it. I do it not to earn God’s love because I realize I am already loved in Christ through the gospel. No amount of rejoicing will earn more of God’s favor I already have. Instead, I know rejoicing in God is what God deserves in light of the gospel and that only rejoicing in him will bring true joy. I ask God to help me strive. I confess my apathy and laziness. I recognize that Christ is the treasure and some other comfort has subdued his rightful place in my heart. I realize that through my striving, God is working in me to kill idolatry, laziness, apathy, self-pity, etc. in order to find true happiness in him. Only when I strive this way is my striving not legalism but proper response to God’s grace in the gospel. 

And that kind of striving, my friends, is a miracle. It is a gift of grace, and that makes it all the more beautiful, lovely, and exciting. I want this for myself, and you. May God be gracious to do it!

Why I Changed My Mind on Romans 7:14-25

Romans 7:14-25, is a controversial passage. As controversial as they come (well, maybe behind the one on tongues). Good, Jesus-loving Christians divide over what Paul is talking about. In case you are unfamiliar with the argument, there are three main views:

  1. Some believe that the “I” in the passage is Paul speaking autobiographically as a Christian, describing his Christian experience of struggling to obey the law.
  2. Others hold that the “I” is Paul speaking autobiographically of his non-Christian experience.
  3. Still others advocate that the “I” is Paul writing, from his present Christian perspective, as a non-Christian Jew living under the Mosaic law.

I used to be a staunch advocate that Romans 7 describes a normal, Christian (i.e. regenerate) experience (position #1). Last summer, I wrote an exegetical paper on Romans 7. As I studied the passage and began to write the paper, I changed my mind. Now I believe that in Romans 7:14-25, Paul reflects on his experience as an non-Christian (i.e. unregenerate) Jew under the law (position #3).

In the end, the main reason I changed my mind was due to the context of Romans and what Paul is arguing for as a whole. On the micro level, I cannot believe that the man who so firmly believes he is united to Christ would describe his Christian self as “of the flesh, sold under sin” (7:14). To hold to the regenerate position directly contradicts what Paul spent chapter six and the first part of seven explaining: that is, Christians are no longer slaves of sin (6:14, 17, 18, 20).

On the macro level, if we think about the wider scope of Paul’s letters, it would be strange for Paul to write this particular section (vv. 14-25) as a regenerate person with such an enormous emphasis on adherence to the law of Moses. It is true that the law reflects God’s nature and character, but this emphasis from Paul would actually push against the exact thing he teaches elsewhere: freedom from the burden, curse, and power of the law (7:1-6; cf. Acts 13:39; Gal. 3:10-14; 5:1-12; Col. 2:14). Simply, in Romans 7:14-25, Paul does not sound like his “normal” Christian self as he is portrayed in the rest of the New Testament. He sounds more like a Jew who senses the absolute hopelessness of banking on the law for salvation (cf. Peter’s remarks in Acts 15:10).

There are so many applications for this passage (I direct you to the paper’s link below for the ones I’ve found). One of the most prominent is that though Christians do struggle with sin, the struggle is simply not described in Romans 7. Romans 7 looks at sin from the perspective of slavery and defeat. This is not the Christian perspective on sin.

So there you have a couple very brief reasons I’ve changed my mind on one of the most controversial sections of Scripture. If you’re curious and/or have a free half-hour, you can read the whole paper for more of my thought process. 

What Are You All About?

What are you all about? If you are a church leader, what is your church all about? If you had to give a one-word answer, what would you say?

As Paul begins his letter to the Romans, he writes that he has been called to be an apostle, “set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). In other words, all of Paul’s life and ministry revolves around the gospel. That’s Paul’s “what-am-I-all-about-in-a-nutshell” word (see Rom. 1:16-17, too). To Paul, the gospel isn’t simply some piece of “helpful” information he throws to people on his missionary journeys, as if it’s a pill they swallow or a membership they sign up for to get eternal life. Paul’s whole existence is centered on the gospel, so it is gospel he’s going to give to saints that they might be more like Jesus and to unbelievers that they might come to Jesus (see Rom. 1:15).

Why is his focus on the gospel? First, God promised the gospel in the Hebrew Scriptures (Rom. 1:2). Paul, like the other New Testament authors, read the Old Testament “christologically,” that is, the Old Testament promised and foreshadowed Christ’s incarnation, redemption, and restoration. The gospel does not exist in a vacuum–it is grounded in the history of God’s people Israel.

Second, the gospel does not just promise Jesus, it reveals who Jesus is and what he has done. Jesus’ life and work is the content of the gospel. As it has been said before, he is the gospel. In Romans 1:3-5, Paul’s writes that Jesus is revealed in the prophets (the Old Testament) as the Son of David and the Son of God. He is the One who has ushered in the new creation through his resurrection and the one who has given us grace and the mission to make disciples of all nations.

Discipleship, mission, sacraments, doctrine, and other things are vital to our lives as Christians. But none of them can be the main thing. The gospel gives unity, meaning, and purpose to all those things. In his book, Center Church, Tim Keller writes, “Because the gospel is endlessly rich, it can handle the burden of being the one ‘main thing’ of a church” (37). Would that it be so for our churches and our own lives!