Christ, our Light

The Spirit of Missions

an essay on

Pentecost and the World
Roland Allen

     Roland Allen (1869-1947), Anglican priest, sometime missionary to China, and longtime writer on missions, sums up in Pentecost and the World his view that the Holy Spirit is a missionary Spirit. The book analyzes the account of the early church in Acts and shows how each step taken was specifically directed by the Holy Spirit towards evangelism -- from the initial gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost followed by the preaching of the apostles in foreign tongues, to the decision by the Council of Jerusalem to evangelize the Gentiles, to the far-flung missionary journeys of St. Paul. None of these things was merely an undertaking of men, but Luke, the author of Acts of the Apostles, makes a point of crediting the impulse of the Holy Spirit in each of them. This Spirit operates today, with the same objective in mind, the spreading of the Gospel, an expression of God's redeeming love.

     One night several years ago, I was in the library of the Dallas Theological Seminary, engaged in verifying a quotation that I had encountered in my father's notebook taken from Pentecost and the World. Somehow the quotation had gotten corrupted, a word or two incorrectly transcribed. I found the book, actually part of a collection of other Roland Allen publications, and began searching for the passage. Not finding the quotation with a quick scan, I decided to read the book, since it was not long (60 pages, without notes).
     Before long, my jaw was (figuratively) on the floor. This writer was describing (1) an understanding of Acts that was not primarily historical or biographical, (2) a theory of the development of the early Church that owed nothing to human planning or prudence, and (3) ascribing to the Holy Spirit a role that had never occurred to me, had never been preached to me. That role is the inspirer of missions. Put in that way, it seems almost absurdly simple and obvious that missions are and must be a work of the Holy Spirit. But I had always heard missions preached as something that comes from within believers, that is to say, on a purely human level, as part of a believer's response to salvation from God, an obligation, like other obligations, to spread the Gospel.
     Let me clarify that this is what I had always heard, not necessarily what was actually preached to me. What was preached and what I heard may well have been two very different things. Nevertheless, there is a school of teaching that fails to emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit in missions and the direction of the Church in general. That school may give lip service to the Holy Spirit, but on the record of its actions and plain teaching, it is primarily a human, prudential activity, planned to achieve (in effect) what only the Holy Spirit (I see in retrospect) can achieve.
     I must confess that reading Pentecost and the World had a great impact on me, in several respects. (I finally did find the quotation; God be praised, it was near the end, so I got to read the whole book!) Three things stand out: (1) God directs missions through the Holy Spirit, and (2) God provides for missions through the Holy Spirit, and (3) the unity believers have in the Holy Spirit is the only real basis for Christian unity. The last of these is obvious, in that so many efforts to unify the Church on other bases have so clearly failed; but it was nice to see it written in black and white. The other two are equally obvious, but they so often escape notice that it is vital to re-emphasize them at every opportunity. The evidence of Acts is clear: the Holy Spirit called the apostles to mission, awakened within the apostles the discernment of people's need for the Gospel, provided the opportunities for the Gospel to be preached, and brought people to a saving knowledge of the Gospel through this preaching.
     Let me emphasize that, for Allen, there is nothing at all wrong with planning, marshaling resources, training, appealing for help, etc., as part of a missionary activity, so long as the Holy Spirit as the impulse to missions remains clearly in view. The record of Acts shows that the impulse of the Spirit may lead in surprising and unexpected directions, with equally unexpected urgency and timing. We must always be ready for these things. I say "we", because one is not permitted by the philosophy demonstrated in Acts to regard missionaries as "them": all believers are called to be missionaries.
     Here is the central principle of the book: all believers are called to be missionaries because of the gift of the Holy Spirit given to all believers. That Spirit is not something vague, or a feeling, or conscience, but the inhabitation of a Person within ourselves. While there are other gifts given, some to one, some to another, and the Holy Spirit is cited in the epistles as responsible for comfort, strength, and in fact, all of Christian regeneration, the Spirit of Christ is first and foremost a missionary Spirit. This is so because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of redeeming love, that seeks the salvation of men. That is His primary characteristic, as described in Acts.
     One case in point will serve to illustrate. The Council of Jerusalem met to consider the question of sending the Gospel to the Gentiles, apart from circumcision, the mark of the Jew, and adherence to the Law. The apostles had every reason to keep Christianity a cult of Judaism, for Jews, within the Jewish community: Jesus was a Jew, He preached the eternal character of the Law, He validated His own ministry from the Law and the Prophets, and so on. But the Spirit directed otherwise. Looking back on that event now, we see that there were many Old Testament citations that could have justified this decision, but for the apostles at that moment, there was only one criterion: "It seemed good to the Holy Ghost..." Peter knew that Gentiles (at Antioch) had believed the Gospel and received the Holy Spirit without first submitting to the Mosaic Law. This alone was convincing evidence that the Holy Spirit desired the Gospel to extend beyond the adherents of Judaism. And so Peter made his judgement, justified only by the witness of the Holy Spirit, and the unburdened Gospel was sent to the Gentiles as part of God's plan for the redemption of the world.
     This brings to the fore the second major principle that Allen expounds in his book, that is, that the Holy Spirit is the sole basis for spiritual discernment. If one sees that an impulse or motivation is from the Holy Spirit, that is enough. If one sees that a person or a group has the Holy Spirit, that is enough. For this principle, Allen goes beyond Acts to 1 Corinthians 12:3, which says "... no man can say that Jesus is Lord, but by the Holy Ghost." The consequences of this passage and those portions of Acts that tell of the validation of Christian community through the reception of the Holy Spirit (not "Have you believed?" but "Did you receive the Holy Spirit?", the one authenticating feature) compel one to reevaluate the present divisions in Christendom. Rather than seeking to establish Christian unity, Allen insists, we should be seeking ways to express a unity in the Holy Spirit that already exists.
     Let me conclude by returning to the missionary theme so completely worked out in this wonderful book with a quotation from Roland Allen that translates the facts of the Christian faith into action:

Missionary zeal does not grow out of intellectual beliefs, nor out of theological arguments, but out of love. If I do not love a person I am not moved to help him by proofs that he is in need; if I do love him, I wait for no proof of a special need to urge me to help him. Knowledge of Christ is so rich a treasure that the spirit of love must necessarily desire to impart it.
The rich treasure desires not to be hoarded but lavished richly on the spiritually poverty-stricken people that so abound in our world, not just in the foreign mission field, but in the domestic one as well.
     RMA, August, 2000

Pentecost and the World, Roland Allen, Oxford University Press, London: 1917

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Last updated: 09/10/09