Fourteen years as a missionary in Cambodia changes your view of God. It changes the way you stand in front of a church and give a report. “This is what God did” somehow gets sorted out from “This is what I thought He was doing at the time” and “This is what I expected.” In fourteen years, a diligent and creative missionary can change the landscape around a tribal village. That’s what happened with Ralph and Kim: bridges span river beds, water towers provide safe water, medical and educational facilities stand cheek by jowl with planed boards and thatch.
So many needs to tend to: the cobra bite, the malaria patient, the feverish baby. But then it becomes clear that the medicine sent to the home of the sick child got washed down the throat of an alcoholic dad — along with most of any good things that come through the door. Then you notice that the baby hanging in the hammock is not actually being watched by anyone — unless you count the twelve-inch centipede that is inching its way toward him.
Can even the most heroic, godly, and motivated missionary on the planet deal with this kind of need?
According to John Owen in Chapter 7 of The Mortification of Sin, the answer is a resounding “no!” That’s not to say that Owen would abandon the mission field. His word to the missionaries of the world would be to work on conversion before focusing on behavior. There’s no mistaking his meaning, because he says it in various ways:
“Unless a man be a believer, . . . he an never mortify any one sin.
Mortification is the work of believers.
There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.
Sin is to be mortified, but something is to be done in the first place to enable us thereunto.
Mortification is not the present business of unregenerate man. Conversion is their work.”
He would likely view the bridges and the water towers as a means to an end, that end being faith, for it is by faith that the believer receives the power of the Spirit, by whom sin is put to death. In fact, those Cambodians may “easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit.”
And so let the work of conversion begin. While Kim sewed up ragged wounds and ran I.V. tubing from poles to patients on mats and in hammocks, Ralph began the work of translation. Together with their children, they built relationships with people in the village. By 2017, the entire New Testament should be available in the tribal language of this hidden jungle people group. They will be able to read for themselves the good news (that is “even gooder than we ever dared hope” according to Frederich Buechner) that the Spirit of Christ may dwell in them, the Refiner’s fire who alone is the remedy for sin.
But beware, missionaries, and beware, Christians in all lands, because “to break men of particular sins, and not to break their hearts, is to deprive ourselves of the advantages of dealing with them.” John Owen uses strong metaphors to describe this tendency to attack sin apart from the work of the Spirit. He compares it to “beating the enemy into an impregnable castle, not to be prevailed against.” “Peccant!” (diseased or offending) is this call to mortification apart from believing. This vain method of contention deludes them, hardens them, and destroys them, resulting in the “most vile and desperate sinners.”
This truth lands very close to home, because my most important mission field over the past twenty years has been my four sons. Has my missional motherhood (Gloria Furman’s term) been a gospel of “philosophical self-regulation” or of purifying the soul through the Spirit in obedience to the truth? (I Peter 1:22) I want nothing more than to see my sons as “living men,” engaged in a living faith, for “where men are dead, sin is alive and will live.”
Hence, the call of Christ in evangelism, teaching or missionary work is not the stamping out of sin, but the igniting of Spirit-fire. When we get the transformation in the proper order (conversion before mortification), we “call a man away from mending a hole in the wall of his house to quench a fire that is consuming the whole building.”