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 Destiny of the Human Soul
Both the Reformation and Puritanism sought to strip away human ideas accumulated in the church over centuries and restore the divine Word to its authoritative place, directing and energizing God’s people. Since the Bible is a missionary book written by the God who sent His Son into the world to save sinners, it provided the Reformers and the Puritans with compelling reasons to pray for the lost world.
Christians of all times have been deeply affected by Christ’s words in Matthew 16:26, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Calvin commented,
Christ reminds us that the soul of man was not created merely to enjoy the world for a few days, but to obtain at length its immortality in heaven. What carelessness and what brutal stupidity is this, that men are so strongly attached to the world, and so much occupied with its affairs, as not to consider why they were born, and that God gave them an immortal soul, in order that, when the course of the earthly life was finished, they might live eternally in heaven! And, indeed, it is universally acknowledged, that the soul is of higher value than all the riches and enjoyments of the world (John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew 16:26).
John Flavel (1628–1691) observed that the human soul was specially created by God and thus has intrinsic worth and excellence, including the capacity for divine grace and glory. God prepared a place in heaven for souls that He purchased with the blood of His own Son. The actions of the soul have eternity stamped upon them, for every obedient action is a seed of joy and every sinful action a seed of sorrow (John Flavel, The Works of John Flavel, 3:153–161). Flavel said, “The soul of man is the prize about which heaven and hell contend: the great design of heaven is to save it, and all the plots of hell to ruin it.” (Flavel, Works, 3:161) But though the soul is so precious, it may be lost forever in hell. (Flavel, Works, 3:180–181)
The value of a human soul remains the same, regardless of one’s nationality or social status. Matthew Henry (1662–1714) noted of Christ’s preaching in Matthew 9:35–38, “He visited not only the great and wealthy cities, but the poor, obscure villages; there he preached, there he healed. The souls of those that are meanest [least] in this world are as precious to Christ, and should be to us, as the souls of those that make the greatest figure…. Jesus Christ is a very compassionate friend to precious souls.” (Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, 5:104)Such considerations led Reformed Christians to value the souls of all their fellow human beings and to pray for the extension of gospel preaching to the entire world.
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.