He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" - Romans 8:32

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Wednesday, May 05, 2010 

Missions: Jesus as Savior to Sinners

To the animist, who constantly fears the malevolent powers inhabiting the physical universe, the life and ministry of Jesus can be presented, how he went about doing good and delivering people from evil spirits and bondage. As I have heard somewhere, to those who fear the spirits, “Jesus must be presented as Lord of life, able to free us from fear and bondage to all other spiritual forces and able to empower us to live a life pleasing to him.”

A number of years ago, I was involved in a meeting in which missionaries were asking the question, “What is the most effective strategy for evangelizing animists?” Some answered that Jesus should not be offered to the animist as the savior of sinners. These pointed out that the animist does not perceive God in the same way that the Christian does, nor does he seek the forgiveness of sin. Rather, the animist primarily perceives that he needs to be protected from the malevolent spirits that inhabit the physical world. Thus, it was argued, we should not present Jesus to animists as the savior of sinners, but as the one who can protect them from the evil spirits.

The question naturally arises, “Can we be confident that the animist who comes to Jesus solely for the purpose of being delivered from the evil spirits is in a saving relationship through Jesus Christ?” We must think carefully about this matter. Remember that Jesus had a lot to say about meeting perceived needs, which often are real needs. We can even step away for a moment from our animistic setting and pose the following questions about our own context.

Can Jesus meet a financial need? Yes! In fact, some here this morning could testify concerning his faithfulness in meeting those needs in their families. Can Jesus patch up a broken marriage? Yes! In fact, as a pastor, I never hesitated to direct married couples to Jesus. The marriage that is falling apart, if it is to be all that it can and should be, must be centered upon Jesus Christ. Can Jesus heal? Of course! The physicians have done all they can do. They have called the family to the bedside in order to await the end. Even in those moments, though, we often will find ourselves praying that the Lord will heal the loved one. We do so because we know that he is able to heal, and that he delights to show himself strong on behalf of his people.

Can Jesus protect the animist from the malevolent spirits and demons? We must answer this question in the affirmative, also. We can explain to the animist that, whatever is out there, this Jesus has created it, he rules over it, and he is able to protect his people from it. In the final analysis, Jesus can meet every need of his people. No need is too small or too great. He is concerned about all of life, and he would have us direct others to rest in his sufficiency. But all these things, as I have sometimes explained to my students, fall into the category of what I call “all those other things.”

Jesus has come to save his people from their sins. And having addressed other needs, the missionary will find himself ultimately coming back to this need. We must never forget this message or relegate it to a place of secondary importance. I once heard a missionary testify that he had grown up in a conservative evangelical church where the doctrine of justification was emphasized. He explained that, during his first years on the international field, though his preaching focused on the need for sinners to be justified before a holy God, he never saw many come to Christ. When he learned that people in the host culture were more concerned about abundant life in the present, he began to preach about the abundant life that Jesus offers. With that change in strategy came a huge turn-around with many “decisions” being made.

The strategy employed in the illustration seems to be that of discovering the felt needs of a particular people or culture, then announcing that Jesus came to deliver the people from those needs. This strategy sounds suspiciously like that taken in the evangelistic tract, How to Have a Good Life, published, by the way, by our own Southern Baptist Home Mission Board in the 80s. Apparently, the tract was written to address the issues of personal worth and happiness in a “personal happiness” culture. And though the tract references texts such as Romans 3:23 and 6:23, it leaves the discerning reader wondering if Jesus came only to save us from personal burdens and disappointments. But, again, if Tom Schreiner is correct, i.e., that penal substitution is the heart of the atonement, we do not have the option of addressing only culturally conditioned concerns.

- Dr. George Martin

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