In the 15th chapter of the book of Romans, we have Paul laying out his rationale for why he must press on to new places that have yet to hear the gospel.
He says this; “So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand. This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you. But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to visit you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to see you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while.” Romans 19b-24.
There are two key observations about this passage. The first being that Paul says there are actual places where “there is no more place for me to work.” There was some metric by which Paul, the pioneer missionary, measured completion. Apparently, that metric had been fulfilled from Jerusalem to Illyricum, so Paul pressed on to places that still did not have what Jerusalem through Illyricum had.
This is no small point. Paul saw that there are limits to the missionary task. Every location did not count as a mission field to Paul. At some point, the task Paul was committed to was complete for a particular people group or location. Yes, churches need to be revitalized, least reached and poorly reached areas need help….but those were separate jobs from what Paul was called to do. His job was complete.
The second takeaway is that Paul saw the proclamation of the gospel as central to the missionary task. He is clear on this in Romans 10:13,14; “For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”
The missionary is then to go to places that have no foundation and preach the gospel. Those who have never been taught cannot come to saving faith apart from someone preaching to them. The ambition of missionaries is to preach where Christ has not been known, to build that foundation.
Three implications that come out of those two observations are as follows.
Every Christian is not a missionary
This logical outworking from Paul’s statement in Romans 15 is probably the hardest for Christians in our day to accept. Good books and articles have been written to bring Christians back to the idea that some places are mission fields and some people are missionaries, but not every place and not every Christian.
The most common pushback to this outworking is that it creates a class of “super Christians”, or those who do “the real work” and those who are ordinary Christians. But, as is so often the case, the overreaction to guard against this seeming dichotomy creates a mushy confusion that diminishes the role that Paul spoke to and lived out. After all, if everyone is a missionary then in reality no one is a missionary.
Paul recognized the uniqueness of what he had been called to, and that others were not called to the same task. Timothy was to stay in Ephesus and correct bad doctrine that had crept in, Titus was to stay in Crete and strengthen the church there by appointing elders. Both are equally validated in Scripture, but both were not given the task that Paul was given. The unique role that God gave Paul was different than what he gave Timothy and Titus and through it God was honored, established churches were strengthened, and new ones planted.
A healthy church is primary, not numbers or opportunities
Church history records that around 57 AD Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome asking them to participate in his missionary trip to Spain. He wrote to introduce himself because they haven’t met him yet and only know him by reputation. He explained to them what he believes, what he teaches, and the goals he had for this upcoming trip. This is the book of Romans that we find in our Bible.
Paul would have had a welcome audience in Rome. The numbers of people that he could have taught and possibly seen led to Christ, and a generally fruitful ministry among them would most likely have resulted. After all, the seat of power was in Rome and what emanated from Rome would inevitably ripple through the rest of the known world. But in Paul’s plans Rome was to be a stopover, a brief interlude to gather resources, encourage, and be encouraged, and then to press on to that country where no foundation of Christ had yet to be laid.
The logic of Paul’s thought can only be described in terms of how he viewed the church. If a healthy New Testament church was present…it represented a reached area to Paul. The amount of people that were members of that church was irrelevant, the opportunities to evangelize were also secondary. If a church existed in that area it constituted a reached area, an area by his own estimation that had “no more place for me to work.”
The taught word of God is primary
While there are many methods that exist today that bolster the cause of Christ in certain ways, none can substitute for the taught word of God. Mark Dever states it this way; “We are in the age, not of the eye, but of the ear; and we will be until the visible return of the Son of God.” The flip side of this is that if we are in the age of the ear, Christians are in the business of the voice.
Faith comes from hearing and hearing comes through the word of Christ. For many though the concept of a God who created the heavens and the earth, a chasm existing between this God and man, and this God coming in flesh to save us from our sins is an unbelievably foreign set of concepts that will take much teaching and time for them to become acquainted with. Jesus films, short-term trips, and tracts may have their place in this, but nothing will come close to someone clearly teaching the Word of God in their language.
Paul’s concepts of a “reached area” and the primacy of the taught Word of God can be a help to every church and pastor who are wrestling with how to effectively be about reaching every tribe, language, people, and nation. Is every sent one from the church to go to an unreached location, and is every missions’ dollar to go towards a Romans 15 type ministry? Surely not. But the framework and implications serve us well in teaching, stewarding, and giving some level of priority to “those who have not heard.”
President of Radius International
Brooks and his wife Nina planted a church among the Yembiyembi people in Papua New Guinea. Now Brooks serves as the president of Radius International, training future church planters.