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Grace in the “Missionary Call”

Written by Bradley Bell, Director of Content Development

Much has been stewing in my heart lately regarding the “missionary call”. Not the typical discussion about whether or not there is a specific missionary call. That’s another day’s musings. No, more about what manner of miraculous event starts someone down the path of mission. What ignites such desire in the heart? What should spark it?

There are plenty of great responses. A zeal for God. A passion for the gospel. A heart for other cultures. A hunger to serve. The missionary-types are some of the most highly motivated people the world has ever seen. So if you want to be one, that’s just what you need to muster: zeal, passion, heart, and hunger.


But if that’s true, it’s the worst news I’ve heard in a long time. Actually, it’s probably clearer to say that it’s the worst news I’ve heard for a long time. For as long as I can remember, this has been the most basic articulation of the missionary call. Part miscommunication and part misperception, I’ve heard over and over that you’ve really got to be something special to make it as a missionary. And I actually believe that’s true to a certain extent. But when the conversation begins or centers on being awesome-sauce, it preaches a false gospel. What is it that lies at the heart of the call and deconstructs the measure of a missionary?


Yet I would venture to say that much of the motivation underneath the missionary call is sprinkled with grace rather than rooted in it. I’ve found it to be true over and over in my own heart. The mysterious motives of the heart, a heart that is “deceitful above all things and desperately sick” as the prophet Jeremiah calls it (17:9), always tend toward contributing something. Thus, grace never settles in the human heart without a slow death to the world (Galatians 6:14) and a growing urge to respond (1 Corinthians 9:16). But at the end of the day, is our wrestling with mission a response to God’s grace or a contribution to it?

Let’s take some time to mine out the treasures of grace, and thereby rule out some of the biggest stumbling blocks in the missionary call. And let’s do it by considering some treasure-ers of grace, people who came to the end of themselves and realized Jesus’ grace had brought them there.

The Removal of Self-Actualization

Mark 5 records the compelling story of a man possessed by a legion of demons. He was strong enough to rip apart chains and shackles, and enraged enough to live in a graveyard where he howled and mutilated himself. Yeah, terrifying. Given up by everyone as an impossible case, the most hope this man had in life was ironically that the demons might be merciful enough to let their torments go too far and end his life. He was the real-life, outward expression of what Ephesians says that each of us look like inwardly: “dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air” (2:1-2).

Then Mark, as part of his ongoing saga of the Messiah’s identity and authority, writes that Jesus showed up and cast out the demons without breaking a sweat. The formerly demon-possessed man then sat at his Messiah’s feet, impossibly the opposite of what he used to be. His response to grace? He begged to go with Jesus. Jesus’ response? He commissioned him to the Decapolis, a group of ten influential cities, to tell others about the grace he had received. There was no need for the man to be coached in his new identity. He had an almost unbelievable story to tell about his encounter with the grace of Jesus, and his natural response was to cling to Jesus and any directive he gave.

When God’s grace is central, the natural response is mission. Missionaries rooted in grace have no need to self-actualize by going cross-culturally, to reconcile their identity through obedience. They are responding the only way they know how.

The Removal of Obligation

Perhaps the story of grace that we get most acquainted with in the New Testament is that of Paul. Recorded multiple times from different angles, we first encounter it in Acts 9. Even if the Bible didn’t hint at this, we could probably surmise that God intentionally chose Paul to really showcase his grace. In a culture of haters, Paul (or Saul) was the worst, leading the ruthless persecution of the church out of the overflow of his own foaming self-righteousness. He was the very picture of Jesus’ words of warning: “Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2). Yet he was overthrown, literally and figuratively, on the road to Damascus. Jesus made a post-Pentecost appearance in blinding heavenly light and let Paul know just who he was persecuting. After being struck with blindness, and probably the fear of God in every sense of the phrase, scales that hid the truth of Jesus fell from Paul’s eyes and he received the Holy Spirit.

What was his response to grace? “And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (Acts 9:20). There seemed no need for a fuller understanding of his commission as an apostle. Paul couldn’t help but say what he no longer had reason to deny. There seemed to be no initial sense of obligation that carried him into synagogues and the troubles he would face for preaching grace, which is strange because Jesus pointed out that there was obligation: “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16).

Although Paul would go on to reference his calling often, he referenced far more his treasured grace. Likewise, missionaries rooted in grace do not stumble over obligatory reasons to volunteer and suffer for Jesus’ mission. Grace has removed every demand upon them, and they are free to obey.

The Removal of Confusion

The last story is a bit more obscure, but by no means inferior. Luke 17 brings out a heart-rattling commentary on legitimate faith after the disciples ask for increased faith. Their focus was on the production of personal faith, while Jesus demonstrated over and over that it’s not so much about the person of faith, but the object of their faith. He offered a parable that showed how dutiful servants focused on the results of their faith are unworthy servants. Then Luke follows Jesus’ parable with a situation that lived it out.

Jesus encountered ten lepers crying to him for mercy on the way between Samaria and Galilee. He instructed them to act appropriately according to the law by showing themselves to the priest, and along the way to the synagogue they realized that they had been healed. Amazingly, only one of the ten returned to Jesus with gratitude–and he was a vile Samaritan. Jesus marveled, and encouraged the man, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19). The other nine, having believed just enough to do their duty, walked away perhaps healed only in part. But for the Samaritan, grace had led him to the object of his faith, the merciful Jesus, and he was commissioned “praising God with a loud voice” (Luke 17:15). There was no lack of clarity for him in how to respond.

For missionaries rooted in grace, the confusion of ‘Am I called or not?’ can be quieted, along with every nagging hesitation of whether or not to go. That’s because the going is always to Jesus first (Mark 3:14), where they are commissioned not just because of the faith that made them well ones, but because of the faithful One who made them well.

*Remember that there isn’t a thing, a substance, or a “quasi-substance” called “grace.” All there is is the person of the Lord Jesus—”Christ clothed in the gospel,” as Calvin loved to put it. Grace is the grace of Jesus. If I can highlight the thought here: there is no “thing” that Jesus takes from Himself and then, as it were, hands over to me. There is only Jesus Himself, Sinclair Ferguson via Jared C. Wilson



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