Theology of Missions

The Church today, at least in America, is conflicted about missions. Distinctions are argued between the terms, “mission” and “missions.”[1] In their book, Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, Why it Matters, How to Become One, Roxburgh and Boren spend an entire chapter explaining how and why the term “missional” cannot be defined.2 Some argue that the American Church is becoming inward focused, moving away from local and overseas missions in both sending qualified people and support. Many Christians avoid sharing their faith at home, let alone engage in missionary work beyond the borders of their suburbs. Could a move away from missionary work throughout the world be a result of the Church simply checking out of these theoretical and philosophical arguments? Or might it be that the Body of Christ in the United States is not educated about God’s Word regarding missions? This paper will argue that the problem is a checking out due to a lack of understanding. Therefore, a survey of missions found in the Old and New Testaments will precede a discussion of the theology of missions

The Church’s mission, or the idea that God’s people are to engage in missions,3 finds it start the moment Adam and Eve (after listening to the serpent) decided to rebel against God’s single prohibition in the Garden of Eden.4 As Moreau, Corwin, and McGee state, “As a result of their blatant denial of respect for their creator; God judges them and the serpent.”[5] God’s instruction to Adam (written in Genesis 2:17) indicated that the consequence of violating God’s command was death that very day. Yet, when the first sin accrued, neither Adam nor Eve fell down physically dead. Neither does God completely cast off humanity in judgment without a picture of his love for future humankind or his plan of redemption. On this matter Calvin writes, “For then was Adam consigned to death, and death began its reign in him, until supervening grace should bring a remedy.”[6] Genesis provides the first hint of this supervening grace when God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”[7] Moreau, Corwin, and McGee call this hint the “initial promise of salvation, knows as the protoevangelium.”[8]

As the meta-narrative advances deeper into the Old Testament, God calls upon Abraham. Genesis 12:1-3 records this contact, which ends with an indication of the necessity of missions and a forthcoming redemption. Verse 3 states in part, “. . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[9] While not entirely clear at that point how all the families of the earth would be blessed, New Testament readers sit at a vantage point that affords them the ability to see this promise come to fruition. On numerous occasions, Old Testament writers look forward to this redemption, but they also serve as God’s agents to bring about his revelation of himself to other people groups. Leviticus 19:33 indicates that decedents of Abraham, the Israelites, were to love foreigners as much as the loved themselves. Kings 8:41-43 outlines how the Israelites were to share the revelation of God to foreigners and allow them to worship him in the temple. The key running through the passage is that “all the peoples of the earth” may know God’s name and worship him.[10] In prophesying the restoration of Israel, Amos declares that all nations called by God will take part in that restoration.[11] And Isaiah 56 shows that salvation is soon coming available to all people.

In light of Old Testament passages that show God’s love for all nations, it is important to see the role of the Israelites in God’s plan of redemption for all people. Too often, new students of the Bible will feel that God’s chosen people were the only ones he loved or blessed; but in fact, God’s people were and are actually called to be his missionaries and servants to the rest of the world. For example, Isaiah says that God has called his people, among other things, to be a light to the gentiles.[12] “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”[13] And in fact, Old Testament readers will find that Jonah—unwilling, but still under the command of God—went on a missionary journey to the gentiles in Nineveh. Ester too seems to demonstrate her God’s glory in a foreign land, as do Daniel, Hananiah (Shadrach), Mishael (Meshach), and Azariah (Abednego). As Moreau, Corwin, and McGee conclude, “Mission in the Old Testament involves the individual and the community of God’s people cooperating with God in his work of reversing what took place as a result of the fall.”[14]

The New Testament—coming by way of the fulfillment of promises made many years earlier—is not only the good news of Jesus’ gospel, it is also the call to missions. Even before Christ went to the cross, he presented a picture of a people reaching out to the world in order to proclaim the good news of salvation. Much of the New Testament implores the Church and the individual believers to engage in mission and live sent. Jesus tells his disciples that just as the father sent him, he is sending them; and to help them, Jesus breathes on them and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit.[15] On numerous occasions throughout the gospels, Jesus is shown going throughout the towns and villages, teaching, healing, forgiving sins, and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. The woman who met Jesus outside Samaria at the well became a missionary to the entire town, of which “many Samaritans from that town believed in [Jesus] because of the woman’s testimony.”[16] Jesus sent out his disciples, after saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”[17] And Jesus continually preaches that his people must be a light unto the world.[18] Even John’s Gospel was written with a missionary/evangelistic purpose. John writes, “but these [signs in the presence of the disciples] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”[19]

As the gospels end, Jesus gives the Church what is commonly known as the Great Commission, the very mission and duty of the Church. Jesus says to his disciples, “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.”[20] In Acts and the epistles that follow, the very setting is within the backdrop of Christ’s commission for his Church. Paul and others are continually seen journeying to other lands and other peoples, faithfully preaching the gospel. Indeed, these texts provide the models after which most present-day missionaries and church planters structure their missions and church plants. However, it would seem that at times the Church reads over the many calls to missionary work throughout the New Testament. Duffield and Van Cleave remind their readers, “The Church has frequently needed special urging to get on with her assigned task.”[21] But for those who engage in missions, the hope that the biblical meta-narrative points to, which believes long for, is the picture seen in Revelation 7; that is, a multitude from every tribe, people, and language continually worshiping the Lamb of God.

Mission theology is essentially a biblical understanding of evangelistic outreach to the world. It addresses the questions of what does the Bible say about mission, missions, and the Missio Dei, and how these ideas are to be carried out in practical application. Like most aspects of theology, there are internal arguments about the answers to these questions. Theologians and missionaries struggle to land on single definitions. In part, it is the objective of this paper to avoid the minor details of these debates. Instead, this section, in light of the previously offered biblical survey of missions, will address how the nature of God relates to the mission of his Church, how mission theology fits within the broader systematic theology, and some motifs and themes running through mission theology today.

From the highest perspective, God’s people reach out to the lost because we are reflecting God’s desire for the redemption of his creation. This should be only natural for the regenerate believer being made in the image of God. As seen throughout the Old and New Testaments, the believer is sent—from the moment of conversion—on mission for the gospel. Therefore, it is important to understand other theology through the idea of mission. Moreau, Corwin, and McGee argue, “If Gods’ concern is truly that all nations be called to worship him [...], then it is natural to build a theology of mission at the core of all theological studies.”[22]

Balancing various other theologies with mission theology tends to be simple in areas dealing with creation, sin, and the fall of man. It gets difficult in soteriology or the order of salvation for example. Does God’s sovereignty even require missions? This question is sometimes asked specifically by Neo-Calvinist; however, the Bible clearly demonstrates God’s people on mission. Although there are some differences in the theology of the Calvinist and Arminian or Reformed and Free-will camps, there is no doubt that believers in Jesus are to be reaching others, living sent. Packer specifically address this issue in his book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, writing, “Always and everywhere the servants of Christ are under orders to evangelize[...].”[23] Paul also speaks of this matter, writing to Timothy, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.”[24] If Paul understood the elect like those doubting the need for missions today, why would he “endure everything”? Grudem, a theologian of a Calvinist/reformed position explains it like this: “It is as if someone invited us to come fishing and said, ‘I guarantee that you will catch some fish—they are hungry and waiting.’”[25] Notice that Grudem’s statement still requires one to engage in the act of fishing, guarantee or no.

Even still, important questions have to be asked even in areas of missiology. Does one work to reach the lost close to home or should the Church still engage in overseas missions? Traditional missions or church planting? Long-term or short-term missions? There are no simple answers, and the Bible demonstrates a variety of different models for mission work. That being said, it is important that those asking the questions spend much time in the Word of God and equally as much time in prayer. Ideally, like for Paul, the Holy Spirit will be the guide and helper.[26]

Primary dependence upon on the Holy Spirit’s lead is one motif or theme of mission theology. Moreau, Corwin, and McGee define motif as “a recurring pattern or element that reinforces the central guiding theme for the house.”[27] Motif is the look or feel that dictates other choices such as furniture style and paint colors. Among mission theology, Moreau, Corwin, and McGee identify a variety of motifs, that is, mission theology preferences. As already mentioned, the Holy Spirit is one motif. Those that gravitate to this theme tend to place the Holy Spirit in the guiding position of all that they do. Another motif is the Kingdom of God, which deals with the paradoxes of the Bible and tends to be driven by the idea of the coming Kingdom in and beyond the end times. The Jesus motif sees the Great Commission as the command and example of Christ. With this motif, Jesus is the absolute focal point and driving force behind missions. With the myriad of books publishing recently on the function of the local church and church planting, there is a high likelihood that the Church motif will also gain in popularity. The purpose and role of the church, in this motif, becomes the primary theme one views mission theology through. This motif seems much more community driven than some of the others and the church—having a strong purpose in this theology—plays a strong role. The Shalom motif tends to place a high priority on the peace of Jesus in world thrust in the conflict between Christ and Satan. And finally, the Return of Jesus is motivated by a strong leaning toward Eschatology. “The coming of Christ,” according to Moreau, Corwin, and McGee, “motivates Christians to be preservers in the lost world.”[28]

Regardless of the motif one’s mission theology might prefer, it is important that one have a mission theology that leads them to live sent, on biblical mission. Considering that God’s mission is assigned upon conversion, it applies to the missionary, church leader, and layperson alike. This paper only offers a brief survey of the vast material in mission theology, most of which is worth further exploration. However, one most eventually leave the theoretical and engage in the practical, as did the many missionaries of the Bible.

Calvin, John. Translated by John King. Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol 1., Genesis. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2009.
Duffield, Guy P., and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave. Foundations of Pentecostal Theology. Los Angles, Calif: Foursquare Media, 2008.
Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
Moreau, A. Scott, Gary Corwin, and Gary B. McGee. Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey. Encountering mission. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2004.
Packer, J. I. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Roxburgh, Alan J. and M. Scott Boren. Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2009.

1. Scott A. Moreau, Gary Corwin, and Gary B. McGee, Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey, Encountering mission (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2004), 17.
2. Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2009), 27-45.
3. It is not the intention of the author to differentiate between the terms mission, missions, or missional in this paper. Therefore, the terms will be used interchangeably and simply mean the intentional effort to share the gospel with others in the vain of Matthew 28:19-20.
4. Genesis 3.
5. Moreau, 30.
6. John Calvin, translated by John King, Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol 1., Genesis (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2009), 128.
7. Genesis 3:16, ESV.
8. Moreau, 30.
9. Genesis 12:3b, ESV.
10. Kings 8:43, ESV.
11. Amos 9:11-12.
12. Isaiah 42:6.
13. Isaiah 49:6, ESV.
14. Moreau, 37.
15. John 20:21.
16. John 4:39, ESV.
17. Luke 10:2, ESV.
18. See Luke 8:16-18 for just one example.
19. John 20:31.
20. Matthew 28:19-20.
21. Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology (Los Angles, Calif: Foursquare Media, 2008), 440.
22. Moreau, 75.
23. J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 13.
24. 2 Timothy 2:10, ESV.
25. Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 674.
26. For examples, see Acts 13:2, 16:6, 20:23, and 21:11.
27. Moreau, 79.
28. Moreau, 85.

* This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website. 

** Photo by Seth Anderson, registered under a creative commons license.