Adapted for serial use in the Missions Banner from a sermon of the same title delivered at Tacoma Bible Presbyterian Church, September 9, 2018. Rev. Fisher is a member of the Presbyterian Missionary Union Council. The text was 1 Peter 1:23-25. Used with permission.
Most people are familiar with Mark Twain’s famous comment about his death. Over the years, however, the statement has been somewhat distorted. Twain’s remark was part of a letter sent by him to a reporter from the New York Journal, and printed by that newspaper in an article about Twain’s visit to London. The article said…
Mark Twain … said: “I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration. (http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2010/06/reports-of-my-death-are-greatly.html)
Another Exaggerated Report
I mention this incident because through the years, Christianity, and particularly the Gospel as presented in the Word of God, has been the victim of the same sort of exaggeration. Take for example this observation of Dr. G. Stanley Hall:
… the world is in sad need of a renovated Christianity. At present this religion is out of keeping with the spirit of the times. It has undergone the mutations of periods of theological, speculative, and historical-philological rethinking, each mode transmuting it to its own form. To-day these modes are outgrown: the dominant interest of the times is psychological…. Experience teaches us that Jesus is a symbol, that Christianity is a symbol. The meaning of the symbol changes with the time, the place, and the condition, but it always designates more or less adequately the innermost wishes and hopes of men (The Dial, 1917 – Volume 63 – Page 70).
Dr. Hall was touting this critical need to re-examine Christianity and the Gospel before anyone in this room was born. Hall was convinced more than a hundred years ago that Christianity was in peril and on the verge of extinction. He believed that its only hope was to abandon the Word and conform to the world.
In contrast, David says, “The entirety of Your word is truth, And every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever.” Consequently, despite Hall’s predictions, it remains the largest religious affiliation in the world, with about 1/3 of the world’s population committed to some form of Christianity or another.
We realize, of course, that this involves many groups whose theology would be repugnant to us, and which departs widely from that which you find in the Bible; nevertheless, orthodox, biblically-based Christian faith continues to be embraced around the world, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as preached by the Apostles, continues to be used by Him to save lost souls and to change lives.
Fears, Cries and Pearl S.
Fears concerning the unpopularity of Christianity, the abuse of it and the perceived loss concerning the potency of the Gospel, have often tempted men and women to consider changing it so that it is more in step with what Dr. Hall called, “The Spirit of the Times.”
The pressure in this regard is felt in the work of missions as much as anywhere else. In the journal, Church History, Grant Wacker wrote an article entitled, “Pearl S. Buck and the Waning Missionary Impulse.”
Most people know Pearl S. Buck as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, but she was much more than that. Both she and her parents were long-time Presbyterian missionaries to China, and she rocked the Christian world in 1932 with her now infamous address, “Is There a Case for Foreign Missions?”
Two thousand Presbyterian women went to hear her speak, primarily because of her novel and prize, at the Hotel Astor in New Yok City. When she was done with her speech, there was stunned silence. After she was escorted off the stage, applause started, and it eventually rose to a crescendo, but not until she was in the wings.
The question she courageously raised, asserted the Century, was whether the missionary enterprise should remain forever bound by an “authoritative, unchangeable, and exactly phrased body of doctrine,” or whether it should be free to adjust to the needs of the time. The mission board’s secretary for China praised Buck’s ideas as “fine and sound.” The Hartford Courant and the Seattle Times toasted her.” (Wacker, Grant. “Pearl S. Buck and the Waning of the Missionary Impulse” (Church History 72, no. 4 : 852-74. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4146375).
But there was something more to her speech than just a “courageous” question. Buck publicly expressed her doubts concerning the divinity, the death and resurrection, and even the existence of Jesus Christ, historically.
This position should have been acknowledged for what it was, but despite the clear instruction of God’s Word, she, and others with her, persisted in their “Christianity.” [Consider] 1 John 4:3 – “And every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.” [Pearl] would eventually admit that she was not a disciple of the Jesus she denied, but not at first—not until she had led many along into a denial of the truth in the name of true faith.
Wacker traces Buck’s life and views, putting them into three phases, and marks with these phases the changes in the attitudes of Americans toward missions. It is especially the second phase of her life that he fixes on, because her thinking, first expressed in this 1932 speech, helps, he says, to “illustrate the process by which millions of Americans came to doubt the morality of exporting Christianity to a non-Christian culture.”
Christianity, not Culture
And right there you discover part of the problem—if you reduce Christianity to a “culture,” you immediately diminish it in every way. There is no doubt that many people think of Christianity as a “western,” religion, despite its historic and organic connection to the Middle East; but what is often overlooked in this view of Christianity is not how much impact western culture has had on Christianity, but what influence Christianity has had on the development of western culture.
Wherever mere culture—that is, wherever those habits, practices and ideas of a society which are influenced by history, environment, or superstition—has displaced Christian truth and morality, it should not be mistaken for Christianity. But where Christian truth has permeated any culture, that reality should be acknowledged, and the truth recognized for what it is.
Many Colors and Textures Neutralized
When the committee and interior designer began looking at what sort of carpet to put in this room, one thing was quite evident—the stained-glass windows had an effect on every piece of carpet, no matter what its color or texture. Pieces of carpet that contrasted dramatically with one another outside the room, suddenly took on similar hues and colors under the light passing through those red, blue and purple windows.
Culture or societies being influenced by the light of this Word are bound to have similar hues and colors, not because people are being immorally forced to change their ways to conform to western culture, but because they understand what sin is, and what God requires for the salvation of the soul and for holy living—which are all things that find their way into the life of every disciple of Jesus Christ, despite national or cultural origin.
What makes the difference is that hearts are “Christianized”—one’s culture is not different, but hearts are changed by the Word of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Romans 1:16-17 – “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘THE JUST SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.’”
Sadly, in the 1940’s Pearl S. Buck’s identification with Christianity of any sort—liberal, radical, or otherwise—seemed to evaporate. She didn’t like being called an atheist, but confessed, “I feel no need for any other faith than my faith in human beings” (Wacker, Grant. “Pearl S. Buck and the Waning of the Missionary Impulse.” Church History 72, no. 4 : 852-74. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4146375).
Buck, and thousands with her, had determined that what they called “conversionary missions,” was “culturally imperialistic at best, and morally indefensible at worst.”
Was it true? Well, anyone who has any historical understanding of the Victorian Age out of which Buck emerged, has to admit that there was an imperialistic element to it—especially in Great Britain. But, because any mission work becomes tainted with that, or any other element, does it then render the Great Commission illegitimate? Certainly not!
Ironically, Buck was very supportive of secular philanthropic endeavors, but they too were, and are, tainted with all sorts of corruption—including a modern type of Imperialism.
Now, you might be asking yourself, I thought this was supposed to be about the Bible and modern missions, so why are we talking about something that happened nearly 100 years ago? The answer to that question is that this was a seminal moment in church history. In the end, Buck confessed not only her utter lack of Biblically-based faith, she revealed a deep resentment of all missionaries on a personal level, describing them by every evil you can imagine.
Fifty Years Ago
Fifty years ago, when Mrs. Fisher applied to her secular art college for a scholarship to go to Korea to teach and encourage an interest in art, she was not only turned down, but when she sat down before the board of eight governors who determined who should be awarded the scholarships, she was confronted with a lecture based on Pearl S. Buck’s hatred of missions because she had listed as her contacts in Korea missionaries under the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.
She was asked, “What right do you have to go and change the culture of another country?” And then they proceeded to lecture her on the fact that she had no right to do such a thing.
Six Months Ago
Six months ago, [a BP] mission work in Africa was condemned in accusations presented to the national government, on these very same grounds—a spirit of Western Imperialism, seeking to control and exploit the African people—and yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
Nevertheless, behind these accusations, one could clearly see the shadow of Pearl and the spirit of anti-Christ.
THE HEART OF TRUE MISSIONARY ENDEAVOR
At the heart of all true missionary endeavor, beloved, is the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20):
Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 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; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
The “Christ Figure”
Pearl Buck and others with her doubted, and effectively denied, the existence of Jesus Christ, replacing it with the “Christ Figure,” to “stir the loftiest aspirations of the human race.” This figure represents all the best aspects of mankind, which in her mind were represented in the mythical figure of Jesus, created by men, so that they might have something to admire and aspire to—a spiritual equivalent of Superman.
True missions, on the other hand, sees its purpose to make disciples – that is, followers, students, or obedient servants – not of the “highest aspirations of the human race” which turn to dust in the grave, but of Jesus Christ Himself; the only true, risen and living Redeemer of men.
Our Only Effective Tool
The only tool we have to combat opposition to the Truth is the Truth itself, which has every advantage over this prevalent distortion born out of unbelief and a prejudice against Christ and His Gospel.
The Gospel is the Word of God to all men and women, of every age, every race, every time. But it is more than that. As the Word of God, it possesses certain unique attributes. These are summed up in Psalms 19:7-9:
- The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul:
- The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
- The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart:
- The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.
- The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever:
- The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.”
You see here, laid out poetically, the power of the Word of God in the hands of God the Holy Spirit. It has the power to convert the soul, make wise the simple, rejoice the heart and enlighten the eyes.
An Interesting Comparison
In an interesting comparison, the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winning words of Buck by mid-century were considered by literary critics as sugary, too obvious, and too oriented to the tastes of middle-class housewives. Pearl S. Buck remained a popular personality but was considered blinded to the cruelties of the Maoist regime in China.
In light of this, one has to wonder why her influence has such a long shadow. There is only one logical answer: her efforts to undermine the work of Christian missions around the world has had a champion in the one who opposes all righteousness.
Despite all the attention to her position—and it was not unique to her as we saw that Dr. G. Stanley Hall was promoting these ideas more than a quarter of a century before Buck—this concept has only found traction among those with an agenda against God and His Word from the beginning.
Despite the Best Efforts…
Meanwhile, despite their efforts, the Word continues to show itself to be the Word of God, living and powerful, like fire in the bones to those who preach and teach it, and like a hammer in the way it shatters resistance, crushes the heart of stone, saves souls and changes lives. [As] Jeremiah 23:29 asks, “Is not My word like a fire?” says the LORD, “And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”
THREE BASIC THOUGHTS
If you look at 1 Peter 1:23-25, you will see there the basis for three thoughts with which I want to close this morning. Here Peter is talking about how the disciple of Jesus Christ is one who has been born again. He reminds us that we have been redeemed, not by corruptible things, “but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” (1:19)
This Word of God has been believed by the Christian, Peter says, along with the fact that this same Jesus was raised from the dead and given glory so that our faith and hope might be in God. This is so, and every disciple of Christ has obeyed the truth, “Having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because “ALL FLESH IS AS GRASS, AND ALL THE GLORY OF MAN AS THE FLOWER OF THE GRASS. THE GRASS WITHERS, AND ITS FLOWER FALLS AWAY, BUT THE WORD OF THE LORD ENDURES FOREVER.” Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you.” (1 Peter 1:23-25)
Notice first, that Peter says that Christians are born again, through the Word of God. The Word of God is employed by God in the heart, to bring about a spiritual change that is as extraordinary as our outward and first birth.
The Word takes the dead life and souls of individuals and is used to give them life. It works in the heart of the elect, and suddenly you have a unique Christian disciple walking among men and women.
In Sunday School a few weeks ago, we spoke of Peter Stam, the father of John, the Christian martyr. Peter was a carefree youth, who indulged in the worldly pleasures of this life, practically without thought. But then, studying English by reading a Dutch/English translation of the Bible, he came across John 3:16. The Holy Spirit spoke to him in those words. He saw Christ as his God and Savior, and he was never the same.
He was born again through the Word of God, and God gave him the faith to believe that Jesus died for his sins, rose again and was calling him to live for Him. A new spiritual life and nature were communicated to Peter and he became a disciple of Jesus Christ.
This is the power that the Word has, and it is unlike anything else in this regard. It must be the first tool in all the work of missions, because nothing else has the power to affect this sort of result in the lives of men, women and children. Certainly, the highest aspirations of the human race are utterly impotent in this regard.
Second, the Word of God is something which lives and abides forever, in contrast to all the glory of man.
“It is described as living,” says Thomas Manton, “because of its efficacy. It quickens us and begets (or gives birth) to a life in us that cannot be quenched (or put out).” (The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, Vol 21, Sermons Upon 1 Peter 1:23, page 300).
This is something that is so hard to explain to those who have not known it, but every Christian disciple knows this reality. The word of God is alive, and it generates life in you. And, just as it does that in you, it has the same potential to work in the hearts of others.
It is not your propensity to accept the Word that gives it life in you; it is the Word’s propensity to give life to you that makes it effective in you by the grace of God. [As] James writes, “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” (1:18)
And, it abides forever. David declared in Psalm 119:89-91, “Forever, O LORD, Your word is settled in heaven….” Consder, this Word, which is true now, and is bearing living fruit, will continue to do so for all eternity. Think about Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John:
For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day. (6:38-40)
It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. (6:63)
Furthermore, there is also a sense in which this applies more immediately—that is, regarding every age of mankind. Both Hall and Buck wanted a Gospel that morphed with the ages—how sad. How, logically, can eternal hopes be anchored in something that is constantly changing, something constantly subject to the fickleness of high human aspirations?
The Gospel is not the expression of human will, but of the will of the eternal God of heaven, and as such, it reflects His nature which is unchanging. He is, as Patrick Fairbairn says, unchanging in His relation to us, His purpose toward us, “and what He has done in the execution of those purposes” (A Commentary on 1&2 Timothy and Titus, pages 341 and 342). As Malachi 3:6 reads, “For I am the LORD, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.” (3:6)
And [third], this Word is the Gospel.
We don’t want there to be any confusion here. It is by the instrumentality of the Word, that is, of the truths and doctrines of the Gospel, that the regeneration of the soul is brought about. As Halliday says, “The Holy Spirit is indeed the supreme agent in the work, and without his influences, the truth, with all the powerful motives which it presents, could never accomplish it (Sermons by the Late Reverend Thomas Halliday, Glasgow, Printed for Andrew Young, “On Regeneration,” pages 69-70).
Yet, the Spirit has planned and promised to use the Word in this work. This is why it must be the first and main tool in the work of missions. Nothing else carries this sort of promise.
This Word is the thing that the Holy Spirit uses to expose sin, press guilt, draw out repentance, give birth to hope and faith, and generate a love toward God, and begets a new creature in Christ (John 1:1-14).
A FINAL THOUGHT FROM SPURGEON
I should like to close this morning with the words of one far more eloquent than myself. Charles Spurgeon once said,
Hence, I may add it is so alive that you need never be afraid that it will become extinct. They dream—they dream that they have put us among the antiquities, those of us who preach the old gospel that our fathers loved! They sneer at the doctrines of the apostles and of the reformers, and declare that believers in them are left high and dry, the relics of an age which has long since ebbed away. Yes, so they say! But what they say may not after all be true; for the gospel is such a living gospel that, if it were cut into a thousand shreds, every particle of it would live and grow. If it were buried beneath a thousand avalanches of error, it would shake off the incubus and rise from its grave. If it were cast into the midst of the fire it would walk through the flame as it has done many a time, as though it were in its natural element (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Vol. 34, No. 2010).