The Heart of Biblical Missions

Note: Dr. Sam Horn is host of The Word for Life radio program.

by Dr. Sam Horn

Doxology or Soteriology?

A carefully crafted statement or phrase has a way of penetrating and fastening itself to a man’s mind as firmly as a nail driven into a wooden beam. Such statements often surface at the most unexpected moments to confront us with the message they proclaim. They will not be denied or ignored until the truth they declare has been reckoned with and answered in some definitive way. They profoundly impact the way we think and act and therefore have enormous potential for changing the direction of our lives. Such statements are rarely long or elaborate. Usually, they are short pithy phrases much like the one I encountered some time ago while preparing for a seminar I was to deliver on missions.

The opening statement of John Piper’s work on missions, Let the Nations be Glad, arrested my attention. His statement, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t,” began a thought process that would ultimately force me to reexamine much of my thinking about a biblical approach to missions and the great commission.[1] The journey was neither brief nor easy. I found myself uncomfortable with Piper’s statement although I could not easily explain or express the specific reasons for my discomfort. The longer I pondered his statement, the greater my discomfort. Somehow this phrase just did not sound right. To me, adopting the idea of worship as the primary motivation for missions, although sounding spiritual on the surface, would seem to ultimately undermine our efforts to send believers to the mission field by subtly directing attention away from the desperate need of the lost.

Furthermore, I could not see how Piper’s statement squared with Scripture passages where God seems to use the urgent need of the lost to motivate believers to reach them. Passages like John’s account at the well in Samaria show Jesus motivating His disciples by reminding them that although there may have been four months before the physical fields before them were ready for harvest, the people of Samaria themselves were ripe for an immediate harvest (John 4:35). Besides my theological reservations, I had an unspoken practical reason for my discomfort. I had sermons and files full of material on missions I had preached and taught which were now being challenged (at least in my mind) by Piper’s comment.

Furthermore, I had been to the mission field many times and had seen the desperate need of the lost for myself. Piper’s statement just did not seem to account sufficiently for their need. And so faced with the possibility of having to rework much of my thinking on missions, I determined to dismiss Piper’s irritating statement and add his book to the missions section of my library. However, neither Piper nor his statement would be so easily dismissed. At the most unexpected moments I found myself mulling over the idea that “missions exists because worship doesn’t.” Slowly I began to see that this statement made me uncomfortable because it almost seemed too “God-centered” although I was very uncomfortable stating it in those words. I had always seen the need of lost men for salvation as the driving motivation in God’s mind and heart for missions. God was forcing me to wrestle with the idea that He, although deeply burdened by His love for lost men, actually has a deeper and more important motive for missions – namely His desire to be worshipped. I was also forced to consider that God’s desire to be worshipped by men of all nations is actually the engine that drives biblical missions rather than the need of lost men to be saved from an eternal hell. In short, my perspective on missions was too man-centered.

While I believed and taught that God and not man is at the center of God’s universe, when it came to missions, I was inconsistent. I was with all good intentions teaching and preaching as though man was the central focus of missions rather than God. This realization, although uncomfortable, initiated a reexamination of what the Bible really had to say about a proper motive for missions.[2] This led to the conclusion that doxology rather than soteriology is the ultimate prime motivation for missions.[3] In other words, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.”

A Doxological Approach to Missions Is Consistent with Biblical Revelation

At the heart of Biblical revelation is God’s self revelation to man. Part of what God chose to reveal in the Scriptures concerns His primary motive for the activities ascribed to Him in the words of the Book. That motivation can be summed up in the phrase, “God does what He does for the sake of His name.”[4] God’s primary motive in the salvation of lost men is doxological, “for the sake of His name” (Isaiah 63:7-14; Acts 15:14; Romans 1:5). The Scriptures reveal God’s primary motive in delivering His children from their troubles is “the sake of His name” (I Samuel 12:22; Psalm 106:8). God’s primary motive in showing mercy to sinning people is “the sake of His name” (Isaiah 48:9; Ezekiel 20:44). God’s primary motive in dealing with the wicked is “the sake of His name” (Exodus 9:14-16; Romans 9:17). Finally, God’s primary motive in His dealings with saved men is “the sake of His name” (I John 2:12; Acts 9:16).

Everything that God does is done for the benefit, advancement, and glory of His great name. The Psalmist recognized this great truth in his statement, “Let them praise the name of the Lord: for his name alone is excellent; his glory is above the earth and heaven” (Psalm 148:13). Malachi opens his prophecy with this same recognition, “For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 1:11). In the New Testament, Paul establishes the glory of God as the basis for every activity or area of the believer’s life including the most common and menial of activities such as eating and drinking (I Corinthians 10:31). Clearly God is concerned about the advancement of His glory and since this concern becomes the primary motivation for God’s activity in Scripture, it must become the motivation for our activity on earth as His people. If God’s glory is to be our primary concern and motivation in such things as eating and drinking, how much more should it be our primary concern and motivation in missions?

A Doxological Approach to Missions Is the Foundation for the Great Commission

A doxological approach to missions is not only consistent with the general pattern of biblical revelation; it is clearly the foundation for the Great Commission. One would be hard pressed to separate the Lord’s statements in Matthew 28:18-20 from the concept of biblical missions. Although not the only place in the Bible where the Lord commissioned His disciples to reach the world, the account in Matthew 28 is certainly the most familiar and is commonly referred to as the Great Commission. Whereas the other commission statements each stress a different aspect of the believer’s responsibility to proclaim the gospel [5], Matthew’s statement sets forth the goal (make disciples from every nation) and the authority for the mission being assigned to the disciples.

A wealth of literature exists discussing the exegetical structure, the nature of the commission, and the particulars of carrying out the teaching (discipling) of all nations. Much of the discussion is limited to verses 19 and 20 of this passage. However, a very important particle in verse 19 (therefore) links the reader back to the previous verse where Jesus stands before His disciples and declares He has been given all authority in every realm of the universe. I believe this statement is really the key to understanding the rest of the Lord’s statements in the Great Commission. Everything else that follows in verses 19-20 rests on the fact that Jesus has all authority in the universe. Jesus is not basing the commission on the need of the nations but rather on His authority over all creation. Because He has authority (not just because there is a need in the nations), His disciples are obligated to dedicate themselves faithfully to the task of this commission. In other words, Christ and His authority (doxological) become the grounds for the commission rather than the nations and their need of salvation (soteriological). Although this may seem to be mere semantics on the surface, this observation in fact has great implications for the manner and methodology we use in the application of this commission to missions.

A Doxological Approach to Missions Is the Basis for Paul’s Missiological Ministry

If the contention that a doxological approach to missions is the foundation of the Great Commission is accurate, then the New Testament pattern of those who carried out this commission should reflect this approach. Clearly the most extensive example of missions in the New Testament can be seen in the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul. If doxology really drives missions, then we should be able to identify this as the primary motivation in Paul’s perspective and approach to ministry. An overview of Paul’s ministry and missionary journeys make it obvious that he had a great passion and burden for the lost. Paul himself articulates this burden in his letter to the Romans where he describes his love for lost Israel by stating, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved” (Romans 10:1). His love for the lost went beyond Israel. He expressed his desire to see Gentiles saved in these words, “That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles may be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost” (Romans 15:16). Clearly Paul was moved by a love for the lost world of his day. However, was this the primary drive that motivated Paul’s missionary ministry?

Several passages clearly associated with Paul’s call to missionary ministry would seem to indicate otherwise. Paul’s testimony to the Galatian Christians indicated God had separated him even before his birth for the specific task of preaching God’s Son to nations (Galatians 1:15). This passage stresses the preaching of Christ as the primary emphasis and presents the need of the nations as an important secondary emphasis in Paul’s ministry. A second place where this is clearly seen is in Luke’s account of Paul’s call to the first missionary journey. The Holy Spirit instructed that Paul be separated to Him for a special work to which he had been called (Acts 13:2). What was this work? It is described for us in the passage that follows. However, it is interesting that the other place where Paul was described as being separated or set apart by God is also related to this “work.” Shortly after Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road, God appeared to Annanias and revealed that Paul was a “chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16). Clearly, God had called Paul to a ministry of advancing “the Name.”

Perhaps the clearest articulation of this truth can be seen in Paul’s introduction of himself and his ministry to the Romans. In the opening verses of chapter one, Paul describes himself as a man separated to the gospel (1:1). He then goes on to make several statements about the gospel related to its authenticity, content, and immediate objective or goal (1:2-5). However, Paul identifies the ultimate purpose or objective of the gospel and, by association, his ministry in that gospel as being “for the name” (1:5). In his commentary on this passage, Douglas Moo notes, “Ultimately, Paul ministers not for personal gain or even the benefit of his converts, but for the glory and benefit of Jesus Christ his Lord.”[6] Perhaps the following words of a well-known commentator on this passage will best sum up Paul’s doxological motivation for ministry.

Why did Paul desire to bring the nations to the obedience of faith? It was for the sake of the glory and honor of Christ’s name. For God had “exalted him to the highest place” and had given him “the name that is above every name,” in order that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” If, therefore, God desires every knee to bow to Jesus and every tongue to confess him, so should we. We should be “jealous” (as Scripture sometimes puts it) for the honor of His name–troubled when it remains unknown, hurt when it is ignored, indignant when it is blasphemed, and all the time anxious and determined that is shall be given the honour and glory which are due to it.[7]

A Doxolgocial Approach to Missions Strenthens the Church’s Commitment to Modern Missions

All this leads us back to our original question and my initial discomfort. “Does a doxological approach weaken our commitment to missions and the Great Commission?” It is clear that the early church certainly understood that God’s glory was the primary motivation behind the work of proclaiming the gospel, and they reached their world within one generation. In fact, they were so committed to the glory of God and the sake of “the Name” that many of them were willing to lay down their name for its advancement. Contrast that with the contemporary state of missions in the Church. How many are really committed to the cause of missions and the Great Commission? Often we have contented ourselves with giving dollars to missions rather than personally going, and have salved our consciences by developing a program of evangelism or visitation in our church for others to carry out. However, how many believers in local congregations are truly active in the verbal proclamation of the gospel personally? We tend to address this need by painting pictures of the eternal destiny of the lost or of their desperate need for salvation. What is the result of such a soteriological approach? The lowest missionary force in decades. If our primary motivation for missions is a love of the lost, then sooner or later our commitment to missions will wane. Our primary motivation for missions should be a love for God!

Have you ever wondered what it feels like to have a love for the lost? This is a term we use as part of our Christian jargon. Many believers search their hearts in condemnation, looking for the arrival of some feeling of benevolence that will propel them into bold evangelism. It will never happen. It is impossible to love “the lost.” You can’t feel deeply for an abstraction or a concept. You would find it impossible to love deeply an unfamiliar individual protrayed in a photograph, let alone a nation or a race or something as vague as “all lost people.” Don’t wait for a feeling of love in order to share Christ with a stranger. You already love your heavenly Father, and you know that this stranger is created by Him, but separated from Him, so take those first steps in evangelism because you love God. It is not primarily out of a compassion for humanity that we share our faith or pray for the lost; it is, first of all, love for God.[8]

As great as the need of the lost for salvation may be, and as deeply as I may (or may not) be able to love them, these in themselves are insufficient as primary motives for my commitment to missions. My love for God, my commitment to the advancement of His name, my desire and passion for His glory will ultimately be that which renders my service in missions acceptable in His sight. Furthermore, a commitment to His glory rather than man’s need will force me to focus on faithfulness rather than results; and prayer and obedience rather than pragmatic methodology! I began with a statement that started this journey; allow me to end with a paragraph that summarizes the conclusions of that journey.

Missions is not God’s ultimate goal; worship is. And when this sinks into a person’s heart, everything changes. The world is often turned on its head. And everything looks different–including the missionary enterprise.

The ultimate foundation for our passion to see God glorified is His own passion to be glorified. God is central and supreme in His own affections. There are no rivals for the supremacy of God’s glory in His own heart. God is not an idolater. He does not disobey the first and great commandment. With all His heart and soul and strength and mind He delights in the glory of His manifold perfections. The most passionate heart for God in all the universe is God’s heart.

This truth, more than any other I know, seals the conviction that worship is the fuel and goal of missions. The deepest reason why our passion for God should fuel missions is that God’s passion for God fuels missions. Missions is the overflow of our delight in God because missions is the overflow of God’s delight in being God. And the deepest reason why worship is the goal in missions is that worship is God’s goal. We are confirmed in this goal by the biblical record of God’s relentless pursuit of praise among the nations. “Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!” (Psalm 117:1). If it is God’s goal it must be our goal. [9]


1 John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), p. 11. Although Piper would not claim to be a militant Fundamentalist and many of our readers will rightly disagree strongly with the way he chooses to apply certain passages of Scripture or the ministry associations he maintains, he has made a significant contribution to the literature on missiology that should be read and discussed by Fundamentalists. His contributions would help bring some much-needed clarification to our thinking on the motive and practice of missions within Fundamentalism. A proper understanding of what he is actually saying will strengthen rather than weaken our commitment to missions.

2. When we ask the question “What are we doing in and for missions?” we are examining the nature of our concept of missiology. The question, “How are we accomplishing the work of missions?” leads to an examination of our performance or methodology in missiology. However, when we ask the question “Why are we doing what we are doing in missions?”, we arrive at the heart of our commitment to missiology–our motive. Unless we adopt an “end-justifies-the-means” approach to missiology, our motive is of utmost importance.

3. This is not to minimize the soteriological concern that God has in missions. Clearly, the Scriptures present the salvation of the lost as a key component of biblical missions. In my thinking, this has to do with the means rather than the end of missions. The ultimate end of missions is the glory of God and the advancement of His name. The means by which this goal or end is to be achieved is through the salvation of people from all the nations of the earth. We have no grounds for relaxing our commitment to evangelism. Rather, we have a much higher motivation for our evangelistic efforts. When we realize what is at stake is the honor and glory of God and not just a human soul (as valuable and precious as that soul may be), we begin to understand the urgency of the Great Commission and the need for our total commitment to missions. Piper expresses this concept by calling missions the “second greatest activity in the world.” He goes on to state, “Missions is not first and ultimate: God is. And these are not just words. This truth is the lifeblood of missionary inspiration and endurance … Missions is not God’s ultimate goal, worship is. And when this sinks into a person’s heart everything changes.” Let the Nations Rejoice, 14.

4. The idea behind the phrase “for his sake” in the New Testament can be gleaned from the Greek term “uper.” This term is often used in salvific contexts to describe the substitutionary aspect of Christ’s death on the cross for us. However, there is also a sense in which this preposition can also refer to the idea of benefit or advantage. In contexts such as Acts 5:41; 9:16; 15:26; and 21:13 the idea is clearly not substitution. In other words, these individuals would not suffer in place of the Name but because of or on behalf of the Name. These believers were called to live, act, suffer, and even die for the purpose, advantage of, or advancement of Christ’s Name.

5. Other commission statements can be found in Mark 16:15 (stressing the breadth of the commission); Luke 24:47 (stressing the content of the message); John 15:16 (stressing the results of the message); and Acts 1:8 (revealing the pattern and power behind the message).

6. Douglass Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), p. 53. This same concept is expressed by Cranfield in the following statement, “It is a reminder that the true end of the preaching of the gospel and of the winning of men to faith is not just the good of those to whom the preaching is directed, but also–and above all–the glorification of Christ, of God.” C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans in the International Critical Commentary, Vol 1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Limited, 1975), 67. The well-known commentator, Haldane, notes on this verse, “The world was created for God’s glory, and his glory is the chief end of the restoration of sinners. The acts of his goodness to his people are declared to be done for his own name’s sake, and for the same end his judgments also are executed on sinners for his own name, Rom. ix., 17. Men are very unwilling to admit that God should have any end with respect to them greater than their happiness. But his own glory is everywhere in the Scriptures represented as the chief end of man’s existence and of the existence of all things.” Robert Haldane, Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Robert Carter, 1847), p. 28.

7. John Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the Word (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1994), p. 53.

8. John Dawson, Taking Our Cities for God (Lake Mary, FL: Creation House, 1989), pp. 208-209. The above quotation can also be found in Let the Nations Rejoice, pp. 38-39.

9. Let the Nations Rejoice, p. 15.


Dr. Sam Horn is pastor/teacher at Brookside Baptist Church (Brookfield, WI). He received a B.A. in Bible, M.A. in Bible, and Ph.D. in New Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). In 1996, Dr. Horn joined the administration of Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI) as vice president for academic affairs. In 2000, he assumed the position of executive vice president. While at BJU, he served as faculty member and director of extended education. He is an experienced pastor, conference speaker, and board member of several Christian organizations. He and his wife, Beth, have two children. This article is reprinted by permission of Brookside Baptist Church.

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