Turning the Gospel Promise into a Law Threat

Speaking of matters missional. . .

I am struck by the motivation that missions proponents sometimes use to justify their efforts. Having grown up in a faith mission environment, I have some familiarity with the ploys designed to generate gifts for missions and even cajole youth into full-time Christian service. As a kid even I thought some of the tactics were manipulative. But recent reading in the work of Alexander Duff (1806-1878), who was the first modern Presbyterian missionary, the Church of Scotland’s own ambassador to India — Presbyterianism’s William Carey as it were, has prompted me to think that much of the modern movement for overseas evangelism has employed what appear to be dubious arguments. The following comes from Duff’s Missions The Chief End of the Christian Church (1839):

It thus appears abundantly manifest from multiplied Scripture evidence, that the chief end for which the Christian Church is constituted—the leading design for which she is made the repository of heavenly blessings—the great command under which she is laid—the supreme function which she is called on to discharge—is, in the name and stead of her glorified Head and Redeemer, unceasingly, to act the part of an evangelist to all the world. The inspired prayer which she is taught to offer for spiritual gifts and graces, binds her, as the covenanted condition on which they are bestowed at all, to dispense them to all nations. The divine charter which conveys to her the warrant to teach and preach the Gospel at all, binds her to teach and preach it to all nations. The divine charter which embodies a commission to administer Gospel ordinances at all, binds her to administer these to all nations. The divine charter which communicates power and authority to exercise rule or discipline at all, binds her to exercise these, not alone or exclusively, to secure her own internal purity and peace, union and stability; but chiefly and supremely, in order that she may thereby be enabled the more speedily, effectually, and extensively, to execute her grand evangelistic commission in preaching the Gospel to all nations.

If, then, any body of believers united together as a Church, under whatever form of external discipline and polity, do, in their individual, or congregational, or corporate national capacity, wilfully and deliberately overlook, suspend, or indefinitely postpone, the accomplishment of the great end for which the Church universal, including every evangelical community, implores the vouchsafement of spiritual treasures—the great end for which she has obtained a separate and independent constitution at all,—how can they, separately or conjointly, expect to realize, or realizing, expect to render abiding, the promised presence of Him who alone hath the keys of the golden treasury, and alone upholds the pillars of the great spiritual edifice? If any Church, or any section of a Church, do thus neglect the final cause of its being, and violate the very condition and tenure of all spiritual rights and privileges, how can it expect the continuance of the favour of Him from whom alone, as their Divine fount and springhead, all such rights and privileges must ever flow? And, if deprived of His favour and presence, how can any Church expect long to exist, far less spiritually to flourish, in the enjoyment of inward peace, or the prospect of outward and more extended prosperity? (pp. 13-14)

I am not convinced, as valuable as foreign missions are, that threatening the church with a revocation of God’s favor is wise. Worse, I don’t believe it is true. But it is curious to see how old this kind of appeal is.

What is also worth highlighting is Duff’s account of Reformed Protestantism several pages later, since he has to acknowledge that the Reformation did not show an interest in non-European pagans and so did not measure up to the ideal of the true church. Because the Reformation was “itself a grand evangelistic work” by which the Spirit “put it into the hearts of an enlightened few, to arise and make an ‘aggressive movement’ on the unenlightened many, by whom they were every where surrounded,” Duff is at liberty to approve of sixteenth century Protestants. But when it comes to efforts of the Covenanters and the remnant of Presbyterians who tried to avoid compromise with the politics of episcopacy, the crown, or parliament, Duff (who was a student of Thomas Chalmers and would take sides with the Free Church during the Disruption of 1843) is not so approving:

When, after the Reformation, the Protestant Church arose, as by a species of moral resurrection, with newborn energies, from the deep dark grave of Popish ignorance and superstition,—then, was she in an attitude to have gone forth in the spirit of her own prayers, and in obedience to the Divine command, on the spiritual conquest of the nations,—and, in the train of every victory, scatter as her trophies, the means of grace, and as her plentiful heritage, the hopes of a glorious immortality. But instead of thus fulfilling the immutable law of her constitution,—instead of going forth in a progress of outward extension, and onward aggression, with a view to consummate the great work which formed at once the eternal design of her Head, and the chief end of her being :—the Church seemed mainly intent on turning the whole of her energies inward on herself. Her highest ambition and ultimate aim seemed to be, to have herself begirt as with a wall of fire that might devour her adversaries—to have her own privileges fenced in by laws and statutes of the realm—to hare her own immunities perpetuated to posterity by solemn leagues and covenants. (p. 22)

I’m not sure what the point of this is other than to suggest that since 1800 we have always had the missionally minded and manifesto affirming with us. But because of the ways in which proponents of missions can threaten by inducing guilt, those with questions about the methods, if not the content, of foreign missions (especially non-denominational kinds) have to prove their innocence before raising their concerns.


31 thoughts on “Turning the Gospel Promise into a Law Threat

  1. I think it’s well to quote Sting of “The Police” (google it, youngsters): “Do do do / dah dah dah / is all I want to say to you.”


  2. Half and half. We sing one from the psalter per service but often sneak in a second from the hymnal that’s really just a psalm.


  3. DGH: Well, he’s criticizing

    (1) The church seeking to have her privileges protected by the law of the realm, and
    (2) The church seeking to have her immunities (legal, I presume) kept into perpetuity by the solemn league and covenant, which of course was an explicit church/state agreement.

    But I don’t see any railments (?) against doctrinal purists within the church per se, do you?


  4. Jeff, Duff’s point in part is that the Covenanters (and the Reformers’ barely passed inspection) was looking out for Scotland rather than taking the gospel everywhere. The looked out for Scotland through its laws and church state agreement. That was the form, but the substance was no missionary zeal compared to holding on to a “reformed” Scotland.

    As much as I disagree with the Covenaters on the magistrate, I do appreciate their efforts to preserve a Reformed church. Duff doesn’t appear to give them any points for that (plus, in other parts of the book he laments the persistence of differences between denominations on the missions field — as in Baptists and Presbyterians together).


  5. Re: Duff and matters missional. . .

    Seems like we ought to be able to question missions – if Wiki is to be believed, it appears that the more things change, the more they stay the same:

    Christian missions in India had been successful only in converting a few low-caste groups from a poor socio-economic background. The upper caste Hindu and Muslim communities had been practically untouched. Duff shrewdly assessed that these affluent communities could not be accessed by traditional evangelical methods. He recognised that holding out the prospect of upward mobility, by offering a western education, would bring the children of the affluent classes into his range of influence, which could then be extended to encompass religion. Duff devised the policy of an educational mission. The success of his work had the effect:

    1. of altering the policy of the government of India in matters of education;
    2. of securing the recognition of education as a missionary agency by Christian churches at home
    3. of securing entrance for Christian ideas into the minds of high-caste Hindus.

    By teaching Biblical courses as well as courses in the physical sciences, Duff hoped that students would logically come to realize the contradictions and impracticality of Hinduism and embrace wholeheartedly the “truth” of Christianity. While a few students converted, Duff seems to have widely miscalculated the resilience of Hinduism as well as its ability to adapt itself to western knowledge. Whereas Duff and many of his fellow evangelists saw Christianity and Hinduism as diametrically opposed, Hindus did not generally consider the knowledge either tradition provided as mutually exclusive with the other.

    Hmm… maybe the Covenanters’ had a good grasp on priorities? And Duff was, well.. a bit of a duff?


  6. I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to accuse Alexander Duff of this kind of legalism or manipulativeness.

    His argument here seems to be little more than ‘take seriously what the gospel message says about its availabilty to all nations’ – coupled with the very standard, very unremarkable position that we can’t expect God’s blessing when we fail to do what he requires us to do. The “threat” of losing God’s favour is connected to “wilfully and deliberately” shirking known responsibility, and his point is just to make known the (surely uncontroversial) responsibility of looking beyond national boundaries when gospel ministers are sent out. Identifying such an argument as legalism, especially in the context of a generation of ministers who grew up on Boston and the Erskines and studied under the likes of Thomas Chalmers, is verging on the risible.

    In Duff’s favour, (1) he didn’t see ‘what God requires’ as anything different than simply preaching that gospel which the Scottish Church had by his time been confessing in terms of Westminster for generations; and (2) the responsibility he feels is to make use of God’s ordained means of preaching the gospel to bring souls in to the Church. And (3) the fact that his loyalties in 1843 were to the freedom/spirituality of the Church suggests he was actually intensely concerned about preserving the Reformation principles – his beef is with making the earthly security of the national church the “highest ambition and ultimate aim” – it’s right in itself, but not as the ultimate aim (which is to preach the gospel, to all the nations).

    Duff may have over-stated his case but a better scapegoat is needed if you’re hunting someone to pin the blame of the Original Mission Guilt Trip on.
    (In particular, if I may say so, the causes of today’s problems in American Christianity are more likely to be found closer to its own doorstep than the Disruption Free Church.)


  7. Cath, for the record I think pretty highly of Duff. But I don’t care at all for the guilt he potentially inflicts (nor for his disregard for “denominational” differences on the mission field). And if you want to think about the problems of American Christianity, it might be fair to consider the very sorts of pietistic outlook that Duff himself exhibits when he begins (but doesn’t follow through on) to question the Reformation because it wasn’t missionary minded. It seems to me that the modern understanding of missions is bound up a lot more with European colonialism and modern individualism than it is a form of biblical activity. This does not mean that I oppose missions. Far from it. But it is hard not to see European superiority writ large over post 1750 Protestant missions. And Duff himself was not immune to this. After all, he was the head of a college that taught western arts and sciences as a way of “advancing” Christianity.


  8. Well, on the doctrinal point, if you neglect to do your duty, which includes the duty of making use of the means God has ordained, guilt is incurred. It isn’t legalistic to say so – the charge of legalism can only be warranted if someone teaches a wrong way of getting guilt dealt with, and I’ve never yet come across such an accusation against Duff (his reputation deserves better treatment than this, really).

    It simply isn’t convincing to say that Duff is questioning the Reformation. In fact he describes it as a moral resurrection from the deep dark grave of ignorance and superstition. He may have a bee in his bonnet about the “spiritual conquest of the nations,” but that’s rather the opposite of making him a pietist: he’s talking about the orthodox gospel proclaimed in the ordained way, and simply taking the church to task for not using the means to the extent (not the purpose) for which they were ordained.
    (I have no appetite for the problems of American Christianity – the poor church in Scotland has trouble enough for anyone.)

    On the link with European colonialism (and possibly modern individualism, although this is less immediately obvious to me) – I think there is plenty scope for teasing out the various connections here. Certainly the foreign mission field seemed to grip the imagination of the Victorian-era church in a way that seems quite new, and there does seem to have been a lot of hubris which can’t really be attributed to the spiritual honour of having greater gospel light to share with benighted foreigners.
    On the other hand, the whole social context of the church had changed by the end of the C18th – the Reformation was a hugely unsettled time, and the Covenanters hardly had the luxury of sending out missionaries to the heathen while they were trying to avoid being shot dead on their own doorsteps. Having reliable civil freedoms gives the church a stability which allows her to be more active both on the social front (ragged schools etc) and on the overseas preaching front — both of which have some sort of place in the life of the church, even though that place is secondary to the regular preaching of God’s Word to gathered groups of God’s people.

    As for denominations – it would be interesting to know whether D’s main lament was over attitudinal differences or whether he really doesn’t care about denominational differences – it’s obviously not an easy balance to strike, but in principle there should be real and obvious love among brethren surrounded by pagans based on their shared commitment to the gospel fundamentals – important as baptism (etc) is, the main strain it places on unity among the brethren is ecclesiastical, not vital, and the more sensitive the context (the more clueless the watching world) the more obvious this should ideally be.


  9. DGH, you have access to the whole source, so you’re probably speaking with knowledge of context. But I don’t see Duff as criticizing the Reformation. He calls it a God-ordained moral resurrection. It’s afterwards, when the church sought to preserve her privileges with the solemn league (1643, not 1517!) that he becomes critical.

    So I read it as being critical of the post-Reformation church, not the Reformation.


  10. Jeff, exactly. He can’t take on the Reformation. But by Duff’s standard of foreign missions the Reformation was a failure. So he has to shift grounds to exculpate the Reformers.


  11. Cath, I believe it is legalistic (and manipulative) to suggest that a church will lose God’s favor if it does not do X — even when that church is being faithful in a host of other areas. Sounds FVish to me.


  12. Whether or not it’s legalistic really depends on the rest of the context. As a question about the use of means, you really can’t expect God’s blessing when you neglect to use the means he has provided: that point itself is not legalistic. The use of means is not meritorious, acceptance with God does not depend on our use of means, and God does not bless the use of means automatically, but although God is not tied to means, we are. We have no right to expect the continuation of his favour when we stray from the path of duty. God *might* (does often) keep the church faithful in many areas, but that’s no license to act presumptuously, or defiantly, in other areas. The FV would have been laughed out of court if it had raised its head in the days of Thomas Chalmers – it’s thoroughly anachronistic to startle at turns of phrase used by earlier generations which just happen to raise the spectre of today’s error unimagined at the time.

    I really do struggle to imagine many Free Church ministers of Duff’s generation and calibre criticising the Solemn League and Covenant. Certainly the charge is not proven by the excerpt provided in the post here. It would make much more sense to see him instead in the role of persuading someone among his contemporaries who thought that the past glories of the Scottish church allowed her to rest on her laurels and not take advantage of fresh opportunities to spread the gospel further than it had currently reached. I don’t entirely agree with his analysis of the Church turning inwards to give itself legal protections, etc – it’s easy to criticise from the comfortable position of Victorian complacency, when the national covenants were born of terrible external pressures on the church’s doctrine and practice – but nor do I see him criticising these privileges *as such*, as opposed to making them the church’s “highest ambition and ultimate aim”.


  13. Cath, does it work the other way then: do we have the right to expect the continuation of his favour when we stay on the path of duty? I don’t know, talk of “rights” always makes me blanch a bit, and I’m not sure how rights and duties can be easily squared with each other. But it also does seem to me that we are duty-bound because of what has already been done from sheer grace and what is promised to be done up ahead. I just don’t see how the Christian life (individual or corporate) can be described in terms of rights and relative favor or punishment based on behavior.

    Besides, don’t some get away with their sin and other kicked in the teeth for doing the right thing? How do you explain that? And how do you explain martyrdom if favor follows faithfulness?


  14. Does it work the other way – not really. As in, in the normal run of things, God blesses what he himself has ordained, and allows us to expect that he will graciously bless what his grace enables his people to do by way of duty (ie, any blessing he gives, he gives from sovereign grace, but that does not mean he acts arbitrarily or capriciously). Actualy, even on the basis of your own view of the ‘organic link’ between means and godliness, I think you underlyingly already grant this.

    On rights – fair enough – that’s just poor word choice – for “no right to expect” just read instead “no grounds to expect”.

    The scenarios to explain are a different question, surely.
    Question 1: is it legalistic to say you can’t expect God’s favour if you don’t do your duty?
    Answer: no.
    Question 2: how to explain the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked?
    Answer: tricky, but start with Job and Psalm 73.


  15. Cath, one might also ask if it is antinomian to say that the only ground to incentivize sinners (individual and corporate) is the work of Christ? I say no, it’s Christian. The Christian life is grateful obedience.

    But if one wants to maintain that God’s favor can be either retained or lost on the grounds of human obedience then another may be curious to know what that gain or loss might look like. So how does the church know she has lost or retained favor? I hope the answer doesn’t involve longevity and loyalty. But I still say the issue isn’t divining God’s favor, but rather looking for the marks.


  16. Cath, it’s hard for me to read Duff as anything less than a shot at the Covenanters of the Scottish church’s preoccupation with the true religion within its kingdom. And by Duff’s standard, the Reformation was equally guilty, and that’s why he has to try to explain around the Reformation.

    God’s grace is of course no reason to act presumptuously. But it is a major leap to accuse a church of unfaithfulness on a matter that was contested. As much as foreign missions is taken for granted today — and I’m not sure it rests on the best of grounds — it was anything but taken for granted in Duff’s day since he was the first Scottish Presbyterian missionary. So why threaten those who question missions with God’s displeasure?

    I think I know the answer. It is the same answer that led revivalists to conclude that their critics were unconverted. If only that line of argumentation — “if you disagree with me you must be wrong” — worked with my wife.


  17. The preoccupation which Duff is challenging in the quote you’ve provided is not to do with true religion but to do with shoring up the external, societal, constitutional, legal recognition of the Church itself in a way which (he alleges) distracts attention from the Church’s supreme duty of preaching the gospel (to all nations). It would take a lot more evidence than is provided in the quoted excerpts to make good any of the many accusations which have now been made against a good man (legalism, manipulativeness, disparaging the Covenanters, disparaging the Reformers).

    Foreign missions was not a contested issue even in Duff’s day – it wasn’t very common, for sure, and there were debates to be had about the means and manner of carrying it forward, but nobody among Duff’s contemporaries actually contested the point that the Church has a duty to preach the gospel as far and wide as possible.

    It is a far more plausible reading to take Duff’s comments as a dig at people who might have sounded as though they thought that they already had the last word in God’s favour in that he had by then granted them 300 years of post-Popish light, a legally binding ‘national recognition,’ a respected voice in the nation, and a moral/Christianised society round about, not to mention lots of highly profitable new colonies all over the globe. Also, if Duff published this in 1839, that would have been right in the middle of the Ten Years’ Conflict (in the run-up to the 1843 Disruption), when church courts and civil courts were butting heads all over the country on very serious constitutional issues (does the authority to ordain a minister belong to the Church or to the State, etc) and there was a tremendous controversy both over the spiritual independence of the Church (see his terminology of charters, constitution, spiritual rights) and over the civil recognition of true religion (laws, statutes, immunities, leagues and covenants). Spiritual independence and the national recognition of religion were the twin issues absorbing the energies of the nation as a whole, churchmen, statesmen, and plebs alike, and the chances are that Duff was only providing what he saw as a corrective to that obsession. Given that he did indeed join the Free Church at the Disruption, it is unthinkable that he places absolutely no store by these things: the only way to make sense of what he’s saying is to treat it as a question of emphasis and priority – as if to say, GIVEN how important we all realise these things are, NOW realise what’s even more important, the actual preaching of the actual gospel every place where we get the chance.

    There are plenty of criticisms which can validly be made about the contemporary understanding of foreign missions, but surely it would be better to pick on contemporary exponents of contemporary notions, instead of casting aspersions, unsubstantiable, at good men of the past.

    What incurs God’s displeasure, as a general rule and among other things, is failing to carry out a known duty. If Duff was right that the Church of his day wasn’t taking seriously the opportunities it had to preach the gospel, then the only possible conclusion anyone can come to is that they were there and then, and to that extent, under God’s displeasure. That is not legalism, unless the sheer mention of duty, sin, guilt, and divine displeasure are to be classified as legalism. Since that’s not really what you believe, it shouldn’t be that difficult to see what Duff really means either.


  18. Zrim, no, that’s not antinomian.

    All that the church can do, as all that an individual Christian can do, is give conformity to God’s revealed will. As a general principle, God graciously blesses his people as he graciously enables them to walk in the path of duty (their life of grateful obedience). What the actual manifestation of God’s favour looks like is (I agree) not something we can necessarily divine. It could be nothing more dramatic than God continuing to give grace to continue to walk in the path of duty, or it could be that the God of hope might fill them with all joy and peace in believing, or it could be something in between. Either way, when believers do their duty, God looking on them in his Son is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections, WCF 16.


  19. Cath, who said Duff was a bad man? Can’t someone raise questions? And if Duff himself — to his credit — recognized that his logic would lead to questioning whether the Reformation itself showed the proper support for missions, then possibly there is something even in this “good” man’s reasoning that can be challenged.


  20. Oh, absolutely. His characterisation of the post-Ref and post-Killing Times Church as ‘turning in on itself’ is hardly fair, for one thing. Just as long as he’s challenged for what he is actually saying…


  21. But the question remains, Cath, about how to compel the individual/church to give conformity to God’s revealed will: gospel promise or law threat? And when I read Paul, I can’t say that I see much law threat. What I see is a pretty liberal and staggering use of gospel promise. I also see a lot of covenantal language, as in being bought at a price and thus enslaved to righteousness. Maybe some like being cajoled by guilt, but I don’t much NT precedent for it.


  22. Zrim, I agree for the most part, but that last part of church discipline known as excommunication seems awfully nasty especially when added to the WS’s lesson that there is ordinarily no salvation outside the church.


  23. Joseph, even so, I don’t see how any task given to the church, from evangelism to excommunication, can be compelled by anything but gospel promise. Even in discipline, isn’t better to compel the true-but-wayward soul by holding out gospel promise for repentance instead of threatening punishment?


  24. Fascinating that someone immediately identified David Platt as a problem, and no one responded…someone take the bait!


  25. At the Arminians and Keller/Carson coalition—

    Mike Horton– To be claimed as part of God’s holy field comes with threats as well as blessings. Covenant members who do not believe are under the covenant curse. How can they fall under the curses of a covenant to which they didn’t belong? … God promises his saving grace in Christ to each person in baptism, whether they embrace this promise or not. Yet they must embrace the promise in faith or they fall under the covenant curse without Christ as their mediator. ”

    Mike Horton—We must account for this category of common covenant beneficiaries of grace who spurn the objective common grace delivered to them and fall away. Our theological system can account for this third group—not elect but not without covenant grace either—There is a tertium quid between “foreigners to the covenant” and “elect members.” Some non-elect share the new covenant in common with the elect.. All of this fits well with Jesus’s distinction in his parables between a seed that at first begins to grow but is choked by weeds, or weeds sown among the wheat, or fish caught in the net and sorted out (Matthew. 13)



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