Paul’s concepts of a “reached area” and the primacy of the taught Word of God can be a help to every church and pastor who are wrestling with how to effectively be about reaching every tribe, language, people, and nation. Is every sent one from the church to go to an unreached location, and is every missions’ dollar to go towards a Romans 15 type ministry? Surely not. But the framework and implications serve us well in teaching, stewarding, and giving some level of priority to “those who have not heard.”
In the 15th chapter of the book of Romans, we have Paul laying out his rationale for why he must press on to new places that have yet to hear the gospel.
He says this; “So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand. This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you. But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to visit you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to see you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while.” Romans 19b-24.
There are two key observations about this passage. The first being that Paul says there are actual places where “there is no more place for me to work.” There was some metric by which Paul, the pioneer missionary, measured completion. Apparently, that metric had been fulfilled from Jerusalem to Illyricum, so Paul pressed on to places that still did not have what Jerusalem through Illyricum had.
This is no small point. Paul saw that there are limits to the missionary task. Every location did not count as a mission field to Paul. At some point, the task Paul was committed to was complete for a particular people group or location. Yes, churches need to be revitalized, least reached and poorly reached areas need help….but those were separate jobs from what Paul was called to do. His job was complete.
The second takeaway is that Paul saw the proclamation of the gospel as central to the missionary task. He is clear on this in Romans 10:13,14; “For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”
The missionary is then to go to places that have no foundation and preach the gospel. Those who have never been taught cannot come to saving faith apart from someone preaching to them. The ambition of missionaries is to preach where Christ has not been known, to build that foundation.
Three implications that come out of those two observations are as follows.
Every Christian is Not a Missionary
This logical outworking from Paul’s statement in Romans 15 is probably the hardest for Christians in our day to accept.