A Lingering Obligation
by Tom Ascol
In 1792 a little-known shoe cobbler published a book in which he argued that the Great Commission remains a duty for every generation of Christians. Within two years the author, William Carey, left his native England and became a missionary to India. Today he is widely regarded as the father of modern missions.
Carey’s An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens is one of the most pivotal writings in the history of world evangelization. The first section of this brief work focuses on Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18–20: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (ethnē, which refers to people groups), baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Though it may seem self-evident to us today, in the eighteenth century many Christians assumed the opposite — that Jesus laid this responsibility exclusively on the original apostles. Such thinking cut the nerve of any kind of missionary impulse.
Carey was unconvinced by the conventional wisdom of his day. He and some of his closest friends had been stirred by a reprint of Jonathan Edwards’ Humble Attempt, which was a call for prayer for revival issued by the New England pastor and leader of the First Great Awakening in 1747.
In 1784, Andrew Fuller, John Sutcliff, and John Ryland Jr. joined Carey in setting aside the second Tuesday of every month to fast and pray for “the revival of real religion, and the extension of Christ’s kingdom in the world.” They were joined later by a fifth pastor, Samuel Pearce.
For eight years these men met, fasted, and prayed together once a month. On October 2, 1792, the same year that Carey published his book, while meeting in the home of a deacon’s widow, these men led in the formation of the “Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen.” The next year, Carey sailed to India and lived the rest of his life making Jesus Christ known to people who had never before heard the gospel. He never returned to his homeland.
The modern missions movement was launched by a fresh consideration of and humble submission to the Great Commission. Carey argued that these words of Jesus place on his followers an obligation that remains until the end of history.
The nations belong to Jesus Christ. They are the inheritance that has been granted to him from the Father (Ps. 2:8). He has shed His blood to redeem people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
How can we remain indifferent when confronted with our Lord’s commission to go and make disciples? It has been nearly two thousand years since He gave us this commandment, and still the obligation has not yet been fulfilled.
Today missiologists tell us that there are nearly six thousand people groups comprised of one and a half billion individuals left in the world who have virtually no gospel witness available to them. Yet, our Lord’s command is simple and clear. As His disciples, our obligation remains.
As Carey argued, the promise of Christ underscores the extent of His command. His pledge to be with His disciples “to the end of the age” indicates that they remain obligated to fulfill His commission until His return.
Every Christian shares the responsibility to make disciples for Christ. That is, we are all to be involved in the work of evangelism. Some will engage this work more directly and forcefully than others (as did Phillip, Barnabas, Paul, and other New Testament church leaders), but all are obligated to promote and support efforts to see unbelievers become believers in Jesus Christ.
Acts 8:4 says that the early Christians were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria because of persecution in Jerusalem and “went about preaching the word.” As verse 1 indicates, these were not the leaders but were regular members of the church. They were heeding Christ’s commission wherever they went.
The church at Antioch felt the weight of this obligation when the Holy Spirit directed them to send Barnabas and Paul to foreign cities to preach Christ. This resulted in many people being converted in Pamphylia and Galatia. As also happened in Paul’s later missionary journeys, the new disciples were organized into churches who then joined the effort of fulfilling the Great Commission.
Here we are two thousand years later and the task is unfinished. There are still people to be saved and whole people groups who are unevangelized. Our Lord’s commandment to make disciples remains, and His promise to be with us as we do is still secure.
The obligation to enter into this work yet remains to those of us who name the Name of Christ. May this generation of believers be found faithful to this calling.