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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : CHAPTER VII. IMPORT OF THE GREAT COMMISSION.

Thoughts On Missions by Sheldon Dibble


The Founder of the church was a missionary. The church is a missionary band, professedly aiming to carry out the design of its Founder, in the wide field of the WORLD. The commission to the apostles is the commission to Christ's ministers in every age. This commission, it is to be feared, is losing much of its force from misinterpretation.

That a construction somewhat incorrect is placed by some ministers on the commission which they hold, seems to be evident; for how otherwise should an impression obtain, that there is something peculiar about the office of the missionary -- that his commission is quite different from that of other ministers of Christ.

Let the commission of both the minister at home and missionary abroad be exhibited and read. The terms, word for word, are the same. It is unhappy, extremely so, that a peculiarity is thrown about the word missionary, since the New Testament authorizes no such distinction. Both ministers at home and those abroad claim to be successors of the apostles or first missionaries, whose letter of instructions, short but explicit, reads thus: |Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.| This is the commission of every ambassador, and no one, at home or abroad, can consistently hold his office any longer than he continues to act in accordance with its import.

The Saviour is all-wise, and knew precisely what commission to give. He carefully chose every word in which it is expressed. The apostles showed by their conduct how they understood it -- that they knew what was meant by |all the world| and |every creature.| Now, I ask, how can such a construction be placed on these obvious phrases, as to make it consistent for about eleven thousand eight hundred ministers out of twelve thousand to stay in the United States, and about the same proportion in Great Britain? The apostles showed by their conduct what they understood by the word |Go.| By what reasoning, I ask, has it been made to mean, in fifty-nine cases out of sixty, send, contribute, and educate young men? If an inhabitant of another planet should visit this earth, and see ministers clustered together in a few favored spots, could you make him believe that they hold in their hands the commission first delivered to the apostles?

Would it be thought dutiful, in military officers, to treat the orders of their commander-in-chief as we do the command of our Master; or in mercantile agents, to interpret thus loosely the instructions of their employers? The perversion, however, has become so familiar to us, that we are insensible of it; and the fact may be numbered among other wonders of a like kind, which the experience of a few past years has exhibited. A few years since, good men were in the use of intoxicating drinks without dreaming it a sin; and so now we may be shaping our course very wide from the command of our Saviour, and yet think not of the guilt we incur.

The misconstruction has become so universal, and so firmly established -- the true and obvious interpretation buried so deep in the rubbish of things gone by -- that all books written on ministerial duty, which I have seen, take it for granted that the persons addressed, for the most part at least, are to preach and labor among a people who have long had the Gospel. And may I not inquire -- and I would do it with due deference and respect -- Do not lectures on pastoral theology in the schools of the prophets take it too much for granted, that the hearers are to labor in Christian lands? Is not the business of going into all the world, and preaching the Gospel to every creature, regarded, practically at least, as an exception, for which there need be no provision in books or lectures? If Paul were to write or lecture on pastoral theology, would he not give more prominence to the duties that might devolve upon his students in foreign lands? Would he not, indeed, make the work of missions stand forth as the work, and not as an exception or a peculiarity?

Few men, in these last days, can quiet their consciences, and yet live in entire neglect of the heathen. Almost all professed Christians feel that they must have some interest in the great enterprise. To begin to act just as the last command of Christ requires, in its plain literal import, as the apostles understood it, would be a hard and self-denying service. What then shall they do? Will they operate by proxy? This is the charming suggestion, by which often conscience is lulled to sleep and the heathen are left to perish.

It is true that many, and perhaps most, must aid in the work by proxy -- by training up others, by sending them forth, by encouraging them, and by furnishing the necessary means. But the error is, that all, with the exception of perhaps one minister out of sixty, and one layman out of three thousand, are inclined so to act. It is wonderful with what electrical rapidity the soothing suggestion has spread abroad. It is so insidious and speciously good, that it has found its way, like an angel of light, to the best hearts and holiest places. Indeed, it is a point very difficult to be determined; and many judge no doubt with perfect correctness, when they decide to act in this way. The danger consists in the eager rush and universal resort. To be sensible that there is such a rush, begin and enumerate. Directors and officers of various societies -- and they are not few -- of theological seminaries too, and of colleges, think they are employed in furnishing the requisite men, the requisite means, and the requisite instrumentalities, and so are preaching to the heathen by proxy. Among ministers, the talented and eloquent, the learned and the influential, think they must labor in the important field at home; keep the churches in a state to operate upon the world, and so preach to the heathen by proxy. Ministers generally, about eleven thousand eight hundred out of twelve thousand, are zealous for training up young men, and think in that way of preaching to the heathen by proxy. Pious men of wealth, and those who are in circumstances to acquire wealth, or imagine that they have a talent to acquire it, profess to be accumulating the necessary means, and to be thus preaching to the heathen by proxy. Sabbath-school teachers, fathers and mothers, are fond of the notion of raising up children to be missionaries, and of thus preaching by proxy. Proxy is the universal resort. Now some proxy effort, and much indeed, is proper and indispensable; but must it not strike every mind, that such a universal and indiscriminate resort to it is utterly unreasonable?

How often do we hear the exhortation, |Let mothers consecrate their children to the missionary work in their earliest infancy. Let them be taught, as they grow up, that to labor among the heathen is the most glorious work on earth. Let teachers in Sabbath-schools impart such instructions, and ministers in their pulpits. Let ministers and elders search out young men, urge them to engage in the work of missions, and let the churches educate them for that end, and pray for them that their zeal fail not. Let no pains be spared and no efforts be wanting, to raise up and send forth a large body of young men to labor for the heathen.|

Now in regard to such an effort, every reflecting mind can see that it must be insufficient, if not hopeless. To succeed thus, as I have already said, precept must become more powerful than example. Commit the work of converting the world to your children, and they will commit it to your grandchildren. Try instruction in the nursery, try instruction in the Sabbath-school, try instruction from the pulpit: it will fall powerless as a ray of moonlight on a lake of ice, while contradicted by the example of mothers, of Sabbath-school teachers, and of ministers. Urge young men into the missionary field without going yourselves? A general might as well urge his army over the Alps without leading them. Consecrate them to the work? Would it not be an unholy consecration -- a consecration at the hands of those who were not themselves consecrated? The command does not say, send, but |Go.| Let us then go, and urge others to come. We shall find this mode of persuasion the most effectual.

Let us commit to proxy that work which is pleasant and easy, and betake ourselves in person to those kinds of labor that are more self-denying, and to those posts that are likely to be deserted. This is the only principle of action that will secure success in any enterprise within the range of human efforts. Suppose the opposite principle is acted upon -- that every one seeks for himself the most easy and pleasant work, and the most delightful and honorable station, and leaves for others the most obscure, the most self-denying, and the most perilous. Discover such a spirit in any enterprise, secular or religious, and it requires not the gift of prophecy to predict a failure. Practical and business men understand full well the truth and force of this remark. The true method is this: if there is a work that is likely to be neglected on account of its obscurity or self-denial, let every one, first of all, see that that service is attended to. And if there is a post likely to be left deserted on account of its hardships or its perils, let every one be sure, first of all, that that post is occupied. Let there be an emulation among all to do the drudgery of the service, and to man the Thermopylae of danger. Then you shall read in the vigor and nerve of the action the certainty of success.

In this way Bonaparte conquered Europe. If a portion of his army was likely to fall back, there the general pressed forward in person, inspiring courage and firmness. If all others shrunk from the deadly breach, thither he rushed, at once, with the flower of his army.

This principle of action is not more indispensable in the conquests of war, than in the great enterprise of the world's conversion. And how truly glorious, how sublime by contrast, to exhibit this principle of action, not in destroying mankind, but in laboring for their salvation! Let all Christians be filled with this spirit, let every redeemed sinner adopt in practice this rule of action, to do the most self-denying, the most difficult and perilous work in person, and to commit the easiest to proxy, then there would be a sight of moral sublimity that earth has not seen -- all the elements in action that are needed, under God, to usher in the millenial day.

O, if to angels were committed the instrumentality of the world's conversion, where would Gabriel speed his way if not to the post of peril, and to the post of self-denying and toilsome drudgery? I mistake his character much, if he would not betake himself at once to the most arduous service. O, how he would delight to come down and labor with the lowest being on New Holland or New Guinea, and be the instrument of raising him up to the throne of Jesus! But to angels is not committed the stewardship of propagating that precious Gospel, which God has ordained for the world's renovation. The infinite treasure is placed in our hands, the immense responsibility is thrown upon us. O, let us prove ourselves worthy of such a trust, and not become traitorous to the cause, by falling into the general spirit of operating by proxy.

But, in truth, how far do we act on the principle named, that of performing in person the most arduous service, and of leaving the most pleasant work for others? Look over the desolate and secluded parts of the United States; look over the heathen world, and make out an answer. Let facts speak. Is a residence in Arkansas preferred to a residence in New-York, or a voyage to New Guinea before one to Europe?

Our blessed Saviour and his apostles did not feel inclined to shrink from the more self-denying service, and to shift it upon others. If they had felt so, then we should have continued in a state of darkness, and have known full well the import of present wretchedness and eternal woe.

Let us suppose, for a moment, that the apostles had made the discovery of obeying by proxy the Saviour's last command. But I hesitate to make such a supposition, lest the force of such an immense contrast should make it to be regarded as a caricature upon the operations of the present age. In other words, our efforts to convert the world become so clumsy, slow and inefficient, from a lack of the right spirit and enough of it, in ministers and in the churches, that to impute the same kind and degree of effort to the apostles and primitive Christians, might excite a smile, rather than a sigh; and be deemed an attempt to ridicule what is at present done, rather than an earnest, serious, and solemn expostulation. Such a result I should deplore. But if my readers will believe me to be aiming simply, with weeping eyes and an aching heart, to illustrate with force my own defects and their short-comings in duty, by detecting and tracing out a wrong principle of action, I will venture cautiously to make the supposition.

The words of the last command have fallen from the lips of the ascended Saviour, and the apostles assemble to deliberate how they shall carry them into execution. In the first place, Peter delivers an address. It is an able and thrilling discourse. He seems impatient to wing his way to foreign lands. After the discourse, they form themselves into a society. Arrangements being made, and the machinery being complete, they send forth John to solicit funds. He finds the disciples willing to contribute on an average, after much urging, about twenty-four cents each. A pittance of money is obtained, and then they search for a man. They thought Peter would be ready to go, from the speech he delivered, but he wishes to be excused: he has a family to support. They then fall upon various plans: some think of training up young men to go forth, and others exhort parents to infuse a missionary spirit into their children. At length, however, it is found that one of the twelve begins to feel that he has a call to go -- but this would be at the rate of one thousand from the twelve thousand ministers in the United States. This one man is sent forth to |go into all the world, and to preach the Gospel to every creature.| The rest of the apostles sustain the various offices of the society, and have charge of important posts in Jerusalem, and in the cities and villages round about. They meet yearly, to deliberate upon the missionary enterprise. Some feel much, and humbly pray, and some say eloquent things about the glorious cause, and tell how they have found a fulcrum, where to place the lever of Archimides to elevate the world.

Now I ask most solemnly, and in a spirit of grief and humiliation, how such a course of conduct would have appeared in the apostles? Would it have evinced a spirit of obedience? Believe me, in early times, a readiness to obey supplied a great deal of machinery. Bring back into the ministers of the present day the spirit of the apostles, and into the churches the spirit of the early disciples, and operations at once would be more simple and more efficient. A backwardness in duty -- a disposition, if we do anything for the heathen, to do it by proxy, this is it that makes the wheels so ponderous and encumbered. |The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.| Give us the spirit, and annihilate the notion of operating so much by proxy, and we shall soon see a multitude of angels flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting Gospel to preach to the nations.

There is no cheap or easy way of converting the world. It is to be feared that some fall into the contrary notion, because they do not wish to believe that all they possess is needed in the work of the Lord, and that there is absolute necessity that they themselves go to the heathen. It is to be feared, that it is for this reason that so many are ready to imagine that the work is to be done by a few men, and a small amount of means. It would seem they expect to form lines of these few men, and encircle the globe in various directions; to place them on prominent points, like light-houses, and leave each with his single lamp to dispel the darkness of a wide circumference. They seem to imagine that nations can be elevated from a degradation many ages deep, and thoroughly transformed, religiously, morally, mentally and socially, by the influence of a few missionaries, scattered here and there on some high eminences of the earth: that a single missionary, under a withering atmosphere, is to be preacher, physician, teacher, lawyer, mechanic, and everything that is necessary in raising a whole community from the inconceivable degradation of heathenism, up to the elevation of an industrious, intelligent, and Christian people.

Neither are the expectations formed by many, of mission seminaries, less visionary. A school, with two or three teachers, limited accommodations and small funds, with all its school-books to make, and the whole literature to form, is expected to accomplish all the work of the academy, college, and theological seminary, and speedily to transform untutored savages into able preachers of the Gospel.

And it is expected, by not a few, of the wife of the missionary -- though living under a burning sun, in a house of poor accommodations, with unfaithful domestics, or none at all; that notwithstanding, she will not only attend to the arduous duties of the household and educate her own children, but teach a school among the people, and superintend the female portion of the congregation -- a task which a minister's wife in a Christian land, and under a bracing air, does not often attempt.

Now, would it be really a benefit to the church thus to flatter her indolence and her avarice, and convert the heathen with a fraction of wealth and a handful of men? Be assured, God loves the church too well thus to pamper a luxurious and self-indulgent spirit: he will allow no cheap and easy way of accomplishing the work. The object is worth more: worthy not only of the combined wealth of Christendom, but worthy also of the energies, the toil, and the blood if necessary, of the greatest and holiest men. It will not be in consistence with God's usual providence that a victory so noble should be achieved, till the treasures of the church shall be literally emptied in the contest, and the precious blood of thousands and tens of thousands of her ablest and best men poured out on the field. The work has already cost the blood of God's only Son; and the prosecution and finishing of it shall be through toil, self-denial, entire devotement, and obedience even unto death.

Some rules that may be of use in agitating the question of becoming missionaries.

1. Guard against an excuse-making spirit. This is an age of excuses. There is no need of seeking for them; they are already at hand, and of every variety, size and shape. They are kept ready for every occasion. If one will not suit, another may be tried. Be admonished then, that a disposition to be excused is not much different from a disposition to disobey.

2. Guard against antinomianism on the subject of missions. There is a great tendency in these days to say and do not. The thrill of the missionary theme, like an exhilarating gas, is pleasant to many; but the sober and humble business of engaging in the work is not so welcome. A disposition to say much and do little is a feature of the most alarming kind. It shows an obtuseness of conscience.

3. Remember that Divine direction is better than human wisdom. We are very much inclined to argue the question, |Where can I do the most good?| Be assured we can do the most good by obeying the Saviour: by carrying out the spirit of his last command. Let us keep close to that command: it is safer than to determine by our own dark and biased reasoning, and by our very limited foresight, where we can be the most useful.

4. The nearer you live to Jesus, the more hope will there be of your coming to a right decision. There is a process of conviction and conversion before a man becomes a missionary -- a serious conflict. Nothing but nearness to the Saviour will prepare a man to pass through such a conflict, and keep safely on the side of truth and duty.

5. If, after examining thoroughly and prayerfully the question of becoming a missionary, the mind waver between conflicting reasons, it will be safest to lean to the side of the greatest self-denial.

6. In selecting the place of the greatest usefulness in the wide field of the world, the best rule is, to fly to the post most likely to be deserted.

7. A kindred principle is, to do in person the more difficult and unpleasant work, and to commit the more easy and delightful to proxy.

8. Remember the time is short. A few days more, and we shall meet our Saviour in the presence of a world of souls.

9. Keep in mind the conduct of our blessed Saviour, and be imbued with his spirit. Feel as he felt, and do as he did, when he beheld us in misery and in sin.

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