The Life-Changing Power of the Gospel
1 Corinthians 2:1–5 NKJV
President, International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention
I want to refer to an anniversary over thirty years ago, when, with my wife and two small children, I arrived in Indonesia in response to a sense of God’s call compelling us to go and share the gospel with people who had never heard of our Lord Jesus Christ. I was under the illusion that I would arrive in that Far Eastern country, and the pages of Acts would just unfold once again. I envisioned identifying with my hero, the apostle Paul, as he swept across the nations declaring the gospel, planting churches, reaping the harvest.
And I indeed did identify with the apostle Paul, in his testimony in the second chapter of 1 Corinthians when he said, “I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. . . . I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1, 3–4).
When we face the opportunity and mandate to witness to the lost on the streets of our city, when we participate in those volunteer mission projects, cross-culturally, among those strange sights and smells, and people speaking languages we don’t understand, we stand before them in fear and trembling, not with fluency of speech to communicate the wisdom of the gospel. But you are aware that Paul went on to exclaim, “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified . . . that your faith should not be in the wisdom in men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:2, 5).
I discovered, as did Paul, and all of our missionaries discussed, that as they go out to share the gospel with the lost world, to reach the nations with the saving message of salvation, it is not their abilities. It’s not their skills. It’s not their programs and their ministries. But as Paul expressed in Romans 1:16, “It is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.” It’s the gospel of Jesus Christ that is our power for winning a lost world.
God has clearly defined His purpose for us, His people. Even before the foundation of the world, it was born in the heart of God that redemption would be provided through the gospel of Jesus Christ. He called Abraham to leave his home and his family, that through his seed all the families of the nations would be blessed. He called apart the Jews as His chosen people so they would be a priestly nation to draw the Gentiles and the nations to know and exalt the name of our Lord. And He has given us to that mandate to go into all the world and disciple the nations.
Jesus came in fulfillment of that vision and the heart of God to bring redemption to empower His people. He died on the cross and rose again that whosoever would call upon the name of the Lord should be saved. He said, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (John 20:21). We go only in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, with a vision to reach the nations and a lost world to the glory of the heavenly Father.
God is saying to us as Southern Baptists, as He said to Isaiah about the Messiah, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). We dare not be disobedient to the mandate, to the mission, to the purpose that was born in the heart of God and given to us almost two thousand years ago. Yes, it’s a challenging world out there. Our newspapers, our television screens, and our newscasts are filled with warfare, bombing, ethnic violence around the world, economic deterioration sweeping Asia, political disruption, natural disasters, and human suffering.
What do we have in our hands? What do we have with which to respond to the awesome needs of humanity and suffering in a lost world? It’s not our Western diplomacy and United Nations peacekeepers. It’s not humanitarian sociologists. It’s not even the programs of our denomination and the strategy of the International Mission Board. The only thing that we have to share is the message that Jesus died and rose from the dead and is coming again. The gospel of Jesus Christ—that sin-conquering, life-changing, redeeming message that Jesus saves—is our weapon to combat evil. That’s what empowers us for our mission and our task.
Paul is reflecting on the power of the gospel in 1 Thessalonians. He is reflecting on the gospel and the power of that message that has been received and planted in the hearts of the Thessalonican believers. He observes:
Our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake.
And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe. For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything. For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:5–9).
Do you get the picture of what’s happening here? As Paul continued on his itinerate preaching ministry, he found that he didn’t have to explain the gospel of Jesus Christ. He didn’t have to tell people who Jesus was. They already knew. They had heard. It had swept not only the province and into the neighboring provinces but on beyond them. People had seen the reality and power of the gospel; they had seen how these people had turned from idols to serve the living and true God. It was the power of that life-changing message that was the hope of sweeping the world with the saving message of Jesus Christ.
It reminds me of visiting in the southeast corner of Bangladesh a few years ago, where one of our missionaries had been working among the people for several years. When he got there, he found that they had never heard of Christianity. They had never heard the name of Jesus. He told me about two men who came running down a roadway, down a hill into the roadway, stopped his car, and said, “Are you the man who is telling about a religion that provides the forgiveness of sin?”
Where had they heard that? It was sweeping from village to village. They had seen how those who embraced faith in Jesus Christ had cleaned their villages. They no longer got drunk. Their children were being educated. Others would come to these converted people and ask, “What is it that has made a difference? Why is it that you no longer worship those little clay idols?” And they would tell them about the life-changing message of Jesus Christ.
When I visited a couple of years later, there were already eleven churches, fourteen other villages worshipping our Lord Jesus, where believers were baptized. Just last year this missionary was on furlough, and I recalled this experience. And I said, “How many churches are there among the Tripura today, eight years later?” He said, “We lost count after two hundred churches because the villages are just so remote!”
It wasn’t our missionary who reached over two hundred villages with the gospel. It was the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ changing lives. You have heard others tell about eight years ago, when our missionaries first went into the killing fields of Cambodia. And two years later, in 1993, there were three little Baptist churches. Four years later there were eighty churches. And now there are over two hundred churches. That is not the work of our missionaries. It is the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s not ministry and rehabilitation work. It’s the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If we are going to be empowered for the mission that God has given us, if we are going to seize the opportunity in the twenty-first century, we must realize our only power is that message—a story, or an experience of what Jesus has done in our hearts, and that life-changing experience. God is at work today in unprecedented ways. And God has blessed Southern Baptists in numbers and resources. We are not to take pride in being a great denomination but only in being His servants and His instruments to reach the Gentiles, the nations.
Last year we saw 885 new missionaries commissioned by the International Mission Board. We are well beyond 5,000 missionaries overseas. This last year we saw baptisms reported on mission fields go from 300,000 to 348,000. That’s nearly a thousand new believers a day being baptized! We are seeing that last frontier of the Great Commission. Those nations and peoples who have never had an opportunity to hear the gospel are systematically being penetrated and touched by the gospel of Christ. We are in the midst of the greatest opportunity God has ever given His people to fulfill His mission.
We must be compelled and driven by that vision. John saw in Revelation 7:9 a multitude that no man could count, from every tribe and people and tongue and nation, gathered around the throne and worshiping our Lord. But if we are to be compelled by that vision, if we are to be empowered by that message, if we are to be empowered for tomorrow, we cannot limit our international missions work to the organizational potential of the International Mission Board. We have one missionary unit for every 2.8 million people overseas. My native state of Mississippi has 2.7 million people. What if there was only one pastor, one family to share the gospel with that entire state? We cannot do it simply with the potential of the International Mission Board. We must mobilize the resources of our entire denomination and involve every church and every denominational entity in fulfilling the Great Commission.
If we are to be empowered to do God’s mission tomorrow, we can no longer be satisfied with incremental growth. We cannot be satisfied with anything less than the global impact of all the nations knowing Jesus Christ. As Southern Baptists, we are good at measuring ourselves by ourselves and commending ourselves to ourselves. As long as we can report a few more new churches than last year, a few more baptisms than last year, appoint a few more missionaries than we had a few years ago, we pat ourselves on the back and are so happy with incremental growth.
But when we reached five thousand international missionaries, that represented only 0.03 percent of Southern Baptists. Not even one-tenth of one percent! If we took seriously the call and mission of God, the empowerment of the message of the gospel that He has given us, compelled by that vision that all the nations and peoples of the world would have an opportunity to hear and respond to that message of Jesus Christ, and called out only one from among a thousand in the churches in your associations, we would be talking about not five thousand but sixteen thousand missionaries to carry the gospel around the world.
We cannot be satisfied with incremental growth, but we must reach for having a global impact. If we are to be empowered for tomorrow, we cannot be confined to man-sized goals but a God-sized vision. The psalmist said, “All the ends of the world shall . . . turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You” (Ps. 22:27). That’s the goal. That’s the vision. To have such a passion in our relationship with God is a compulsion that all the world would know Him and worship Him.
I have often shared the experience of coming into our headquarters in Richmond after twenty-three years overseas, and trying to get up to speed on all the technology we were using in our mission administration, to discover that they had just put a new word-processing program on our computer system. Now if you work with computer word processing software, you know as I discovered that it has an automatic spell-check. If you misspell a word, it will highlight it right there on the screen. You can’t deny it. It blinks right there before God and the office and everybody. But amazingly you don’t have to know how to spell. All you have to do is click the mouse, and it will just spell it automatically for you.
I quickly discovered that not all of my vocabulary was in that spell-check dictionary. It had never heard of Turkestan and Azerbaijan. I didn’t know if I spelled it right, and it didn’t either. It had never heard of Lottie Moon. The first time it highlighted “Lottie Moon” and I clicked the mouse, it changed it to “Little Moon.” I found that you could add those words to the program, and it wouldn’t keep doing that. But a word I was amazed wasn’t in that spell-check dictionary on my computer was a word I often used—the word unreached. Unreached people. Unreached nations. Thinking that was a misspelled word when I clicked the mouse, it changed it to what it presumed should be the correct spelling—the word unrelated.
I don’t think there is a theological basis for word-processing software. But it’s right on target here. Who is it that is unreached? Whether in your community or in the last frontier of unreached people groups the other side of the world, those who are unrelated to our heavenly Father. And the greatest tragedy is not just their lostness; it’s not just the fact that many have never even heard the gospel. The greatest tragedy is that He alone who is worthy of all praise and worship and honor and glory is not receiving the worship and praise and glory from those He loves and died to save. I have often wondered why we are no more diligent in sharing the gospel, in witnessing to the lost around us, in responding to God’s call to go to those who have yet to hear of our precious Lord.
I read a paragraph in a book that just jumped off the page that helped me to understand it. The author said the Great Commission is the efficient authority to send us after the lost, but it’s not sufficient motivation. And I thought if we are not motivated by the command of our Lord to go, what will motivate us? But he went on to say that it’s not the authority of an external command that sends us after the lost but the impulse of an indwelling presence.
It’s only when we enter into a relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ and worship and honor and praise Him, that there springs up something within our hearts that compels us to share our Lord Jesus Christ with those who are lost, that compels us to go to the nations to declare the message that draws people to Himself. But this will not happen through program promotion. It’s not all about promoting the International Mission Board. But it’s only through a spiritual motivation of knowing God and God’s heart for the nations.
It will come not through generic support of missions but through personalized involvement, adopting unreached people groups, working along with strategy coordinators. We have been identifying and mobilizing churches that will say, “We are not going to draw a circle around our community and say, ‘This is our mission.’ We realize our mission as a local church is the entire world.”
We have been talking about global priority churches. We received a letter from a young man in a small church in Texas. He explained that he was their missions coordinator. He was a volunteer layman. And he said that they had been reading about the global priority church network, and they wanted to be part of that. He said that they thought they qualified. He went on to explain that they were a new church, less than three years old. He said they didn’t even have their own facilities. They met in a school building. But they were giving 40 percent of their offerings to missions. He said they seldom had as many as one hundred in Sunday school and worship. But last year they sent volunteer teams to Guatemala, Mexico, Romania, and the Ukraine. They had adopted a people group in North Africa and a city in China to pray for until the strongholds of Satan are broken and until they come into the kingdom.
He went on to say that last year the IMB appointed two couples from their church to go as missionaries. He asked if they could be a global priority church. Absolutely yes! Praise God, you don’t have to be big. You don’t have to have big resources. But you do have to have a heart for God because He has given us all the message of the gospel. That’s what empowers us for His mission today and tomorrow.
Recently Jerry Sutton talked about Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, linking up with a strategy coordinator in southwest China. He said their church has been revitalized with a sense of ownership and responsibility for providing the prayer support, the volunteers, and the resources to impact that people group with the gospel. And we are thrilled that he invited a thousand churches to a missions summit for this new millennium.
What will empower us for tomorrow as we move into the twenty-first century to share the gospel of Jesus Christ? More resources? New strategies? More denominational programs? No. It’s only when we return not to the twenty-first century but to the first century and stand by Peter as he declared, “Let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). It’s the power of that message of the gospel that empowers us as Southern Baptists, as God’s people, to fulfill His mission tomorrow as we move into the twenty-first century.
If there is any verse of Scripture that any Southern Baptist knows next to John 3:16, it would be the Great Commission. We are told to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). But we must never forget that the Great Commission is framed by two very important verses. Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth,” and “lo, I am with you” (Matt. 28:18, 20).
Let that sink into our hearts. There is no power in all the universe that exceeds the power and authority of our Lord Jesus Christ. He has the authority to do whatever He plans and determines to do. And He tells us in the next verse exactly what that is—that we are to go and disciple the nations. But then He closes by reminding us, “But don’t forget, I go with you.” May we go in obedience with the assurance that the Lord Jesus Christ goes with us, as we go in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to fulfill God’s mission and reach a lost world for Jesus Christ.