Reformed, experiential Christianity birthed the pioneer missionary efforts of men such as John Eliot (1604–1690), David Brainerd (1718–1747),William Carey (1761–1834),Adoniram Judson(1788–1850), and John G. Paton (1824–1907). This mission effort was small and struggling until it exploded into the modern missionary movement begun by Carey at the end of the eighteenth century. Persecution from Roman Catholic authorities in Europe, numerous wars, the need to first evangelize homelands in Europe and North America, the deaths of missionaries by disease and martyrdom, and the slowness of the church to respond to the Great Commission all hindered the development of Reformed missions. However, from the start, Reformed and Puritan Christians fervently prayed for worldwide evangelization and revival. In some respects, the Great Awakening and today’s missionary movement may be regarded as an answer to centuries of persevering prayer. What motivated the Reformed and the Puritans to pray for the world? What guided their prayers for missions? This series seeks to provide answers to these questions.
The Puritan Motivation for Missionary Prayer: The Efficiency of the Holy Spirit
The Reformation rediscovered the work of the Holy Spirit as opposed to that of human religious activity, such as the priestly administration of the rites of the church. Zechariah 4:6 says God’s temple will be built “not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.” Calvin said, “We ought to be so dependent on God alone, as to be fully persuaded that his grace is sufficient for us” (Calvin, Commentary on Zech. 4:1–6). This belief led men and women to rely upon God in prayer and to resist their innate tendency to rely upon human ability. John Howe (1630–1705) wrote, “There is as great an aptness to trust in other means and let out our hearts to them. An arm of flesh signifies a great deal, when the power of an almighty Spirit is reckoned as nothing. And persons are apt to be very contriving, and prone to forecast, how such and such external forms would do our business and make the church and the Christian interest hugely prosperous” (Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope, 243).
Scripture and experience also awakened Reformers to the reality of large-scale outpourings of the Holy Spirit for the conversion of many sinners, lifting up the church to new degrees of holiness. John Knox (ca. 1510–1572) wrote of a remarkable work of God in Scotland in 1559, saying, “God did so multiply our number that it appeared as if men had rained from the clouds” (Murray, The Puritan Hope, 243). The Holy Spirit can do great things, far beyond our limited aspirations.
Confidence in the promises of God and the power of the Holy Spirit should thus lead us, in the words of Howe, “to wait patiently and pray earnestly” for a worldwide spiritual harvest. We can be sure as well that “he will give his Spirit to them that ask him” (Murray, The Puritan Hope, 254-55).
The Instrumentality of the Gospel
John Calvin and the Puritans taught the doctrine of sovereign or unconditional election: that God has chosen certain individuals and ordained them to eternal life, to glorify His grace in their salvation (Eph. 1:4–6). At the same time, they said that God brings His elect to faith and salvation through the preaching of the gospel (Eph. 1:13). Therefore, the Reformers and Puritans labored to spread the gospel (Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality, 54–72, 143–69). They trained and sent out gospel preachers and prayed for the propagation of the gospel in the lost world.
William Perkins (1558–1602), a patriarch of English Puritanism, said a fundamental principle of Christianity is that Christ and His benefits must be applied to the soul by faith, and faith comes only by the hearing of the Word (Workes, 1:2). The gospel is “the instrument, and, as it were, the conduit pipe of the Holy Ghost, to fashion and derive faith into the soul: by which faith, they which believe, do, as with a hand, apprehend Christ’s righteousness” (Workes, 1:70). Perkins taught people to pray for God to send gospel preachers into the world. He wrote in his exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, “When we shall see a people without knowledge, and without good guides & teachers, or when we see one stand up in the congregation not able to teach, here is matter for mourning…. It is time to say, Lord, let thy kingdom come.” Perkins said Christians must pray for gospel ministers and “pray that their hearts may be set for the building of God’s kingdom, for the beating down of the kingdom of sin and Satan, and for the saving of the souls of his people” (Workes, 1:336, 339. These pages are consecutive in the book; the latter should read 337).
Christ has given His church the commission to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–20). So Matthew Henry wrote, “Salvation by Christ should be offered to all, and none excluded that did not by their unbelief and impenitence exclude themselves” (Commentaries, 5:361–62). In light of Christ’s compassion and command to pray for laborers (Matt. 9:35–38), Henry said, “All that love Christ and souls, should show it in their earnest prayers to God…that he would send forth more skillful, faithful, wise, and industrious labourers into his harvest; that he would raise up such as he would own in the conversion of sinners and the edification of saints; would give them a spirit for the work, call them to it, and succeed them in it” (Commentaries, 5:105). God’s appointment and use of this great means of grace for the salvation of men encourages us to pray for the calling, training, and sending forth of men who will preach the gospel to the very ends of the earth.
Joel Beeke (@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.