Calvinism does not impede missions, it impels it. Here are three ways how…

In 1853, an Ohio pastor named John Marshall Lowrie wrote an article in the Southern Presbyterian Review entitled, “The Presbyterian Church and Foreign Missions.” In it he sets forth three peculiar advantages that Calvinistic Presbyterians possess in our doctrine and polity that encourage us to the work of missions. His words do not arise from a narrow and exclusive spirit that would only see Christians in the Presbyterian Church, or that wishes “to disparage, much less hinder, the efforts of other Christian bodies, in the same great work.” On the contrary, “A warm attachment to Presbyterian institutions does no more imply hostility to other churches, than an enthusiastic admiration to our country implies a hatred to other lands. Surely a man can be a patriot, and not thereby be an enemy to all the world beside. And just as truly may we rejoice if Christ is preached by other lips to perishing men, and yet claim that the church to which we belong has peculiar inducements to lead her to missionary labor, as he she has peculiar advantages in her organized capacity for its rapid and successful prosecution.”

First, Lowrie sees missionary motivation in the “the peculiar type of personal religious experience generated by Calvinistic teachings.” Our own experience of salvation “naturally tends to give its subjects an interest in the missionary work,” for it has taught us that we are absolutely dependent and unworthy in and of ourselves; that we are reliant upon the grace of God, the precious blood of Jesus, and the efficacious working of the Holy Spirit for salvation; that we are adopted as sons of God and given a new heart; that we have been bought with a price and are no longer our own; and that we have been richly given privileges beyond enumeration. All these things “tend to awaken our compassion for the perishing, to convince us that they are no further from hope then we ourselves were as an alien from God, and to urge us from motives of duty, gratitude, and compassion, to teach others also the way of salvation.” The more we know our own depraved sinfulness, and the exquisite grace of God in Jesus Christ, the more we will believe that there is hope for any unconverted man or woman, and the more we will desire others to experience what we have experienced. “If the Christian has had a view of the plagues of his own heart, can he believe that any wretched Pagan is more deeply engulfed than he was in personal ill desert, or more hopelessly beyond the power and grace of Christ?…If his is a new spirit, even the spirit of Christ, what shall we look for, as essential to the spirit of the Master, if we may not expect compassion for the perishing?…True piety is essentially evangelistic. The new born soul desires that others may partake with him of the same grace.”

Second, “the Calvinistic doctrines of the Presbyterian Church are peculiarly favorable to her zealous engagement in the missionary work.” In the areas where our views differ from other Christians, the difference always pushes us toward more missionary labor, not less. Our views of sin and depravity point out like no other system of theology the necessity of salvation: “No other links the entire race together in closer bonds, not only of a common origin, but also of a common corruption, derived from a like connection with the same federal head; no other extends over them with the same inflexibility a just and righteous law, known indeed to them only by the teachings of nature, but under its teaching leaving them without excuse; no other magnifies more the certainty and dreadfulness of their perdition without the gospel.” Likewise, our understanding of God’s sovereign grace gives us confidence like no other system as we preach the gospel to the lost. “The Calvinist who does the work which the providence of God has placed before him, has supports and encouragements in it, which cannot be felt by him who refers not all things to the eternal counsels of God’s will, or whose hopes are less dependent upon sovereign and efficacious grace. As no man is taught to be more entire in his dependence on God than the Calvinist, so, if he is consistent with his own principles, there can arise no discouragement in the plain path of duty, which has not an answering support in the gracious dealings and promises of God.”

The difficulties which arise as we go forth in the work are answered by our belief in the sovereign providence of God. We know that troubles are God’s refining fire; that the resistance of the unbelieving is able to be overcome by sovereign grace; that the backslidings of men are to be expected, but that God will finish the work He has started in His elect. Even when we see sin in the lives of our co-workers or in our own heart, we are not cast down entirely: “Even against these sorrow, we are fortified by our belief in the entire depravity of the human heart; and while deeply grieved and humbled, we cannot be thrown back from our work at these sad exhibitions – for in their grossest forms they do but the more firmly establish the certain truth of our own creed. As no one has a deeper view of sin’s intrinsic evil – of its fierce workings in the heart of man; of its continued hold, even upon the renewed mind; of its deceitful disguises to the soul’s delusion; so no one should be less surprised than a Calvinist at its manifestations in any heart; and certainly no one knows a surer or more available remedy in the grace of God.” As we call men to faith and see little fruit at first, we remember “that the grace and efficacy is of Him, [and this] gives us a warrant for prayer, makes our dependence entire, just in proportion to the lack of encouragement from every other quarter, even enables us to feel that when human inattention seems insuperable, and when human opposition rages most fiercely, our path to the mercy seat is as open as ever; our motives for prayer are greatest when it is our only refuge; the grace and power of God are not lessened for the accomplishment of his designs, and the final issue shall be good to them that are the called according to his purpose.”

In sum, writes Lowrie, “No system, we are persuaded, brings more closely home the responsibility of the individual, or allows him to be less influenced by the manifest coldness and remissness of others, or forbids more strictly that the feeblest talent should be hidden in the earth, or encourage more largely the most humble desires and efforts.”

Finally, “the government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church is an important auxiliary in her efforts to evangelize the nations.” Every form of church government engages in missions based upon the command of Jesus. But the Presbyterian form of government, being based upon the word of Christ Himself, in “in a peculiar manner of a diffusive spirit, may more easily be established than any other, and is eminently calculated to awaken public interest, whenever it is associated with the preaching of the gospel.” Here Lowrie has in mind the gospel’s going forth among pagan nations in particular. Presbyterianism, contrary to hierarchical forms of church government, teaches that government is from God, but the ruler is of the people’s choice – and thus lays the axe to every form of authoritarianism even in the civil realm. On the other hand, Presbyterianism differs from congregational forms of church government in asserting rule by representatives. The relationship between local congregations, Presbyteries, and General Assembly ensures both self-government, and the principles of review and control, checks and balances. The church that is Presbyterian can spread over a land without the need of top-down control and micro-managing. Further, “In the expansion of the Presbyterian church, there is no increase of power to any individual; no lack of oversight to the most distant and obscure of the frontier congregations, save the destitution arising from the scarcity of laborers; no encouragement to disregard of lawful authority in any quarter; no undue dependence of the several parts upon each other; and no jealousy of superior prosperity in one or another land.”

It brings great encouragement to know that Calvinistic Presbyterians today have a greater commitment to missions than was the case in Lowrie’s day. Yet is it sufficient, particularly in light of the advantages we possess?  Why do we not pray, give, and go with even more diligence? Lowrie mentions one reason: “Upon our system we are at no loss to account for an apathy which we have no wish or power to justify. It arises from the depravity of the heart, which finds ever irksome the duties of faith and spirituality; and which, even in regenerate souls, exerts its power to war against the law of the mind.” Knowledge of our privileges and our duties is a first step in repentance. But ultimately only the Holy Spirit can overcome our hardness of heart, and by God’s grace, He will. So let us pray, let us labor, let us spur one another on to love and good deeds, for the joy of the nations and the glory of King Jesus!


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