Commentary: The Bible makes clear the union of theology and missions


Missions and theology are meant to be kept together because the Bible never separates them. The testimony of Scripture is that biblical theology fuels missions and biblical missions fuels theology. That is why it should be no surprise to us that the greatest Christian missionary was the greatest Christian theologian. It is also why we must work especially hard to reintegrate theology and missions in our lives and in our churches.

Before talking about the greatest Christian missionary, I often remind students that the greatest missionary was Jesus, the Son of God, who humbly entered his creation to reconcile us to the Father. We are beneficiaries of his divine mission as his redeemed people transformed by his gospel.

The greatest Christian missionary and theologian, however, was the Apostle Paul. All of us have been impacted by his life and ministry. The spread of the gospel outside first-century Palestine is, in large part, owing to Paul’s gospel ministry to the Gentiles. His New Testament letters have nourished and instructed the Church for millennia, and his life has served as a model of how missions and theological reflection go hand in hand. So, what does Paul teach us about the relationship between missions and theology?

If you are familiar with Paul’s writings, then you know that Paul’s theology was missiologically driven. I always love to say that Paul was a missionary before he was a writing theologian. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, his New Testament writings sprang forth from his experience and engagement with churches on the mission field as a church planter. His missionary journeys provided the occasion for his letters and directed his theological reflection toward his recipients’ particular needs.

The inverse was also true: Paul’s message and ministry strategy were theologically driven. If you survey Paul’s writings, you will discover that his teachings and practice were rooted in Jesus’s fulfillment of Old Testament narratives, themes, prophecies, and promises. Because of his theological understanding, Paul regarded his own ministry of preaching the gospel where Christ had not been named as part of the flow of salvation history, fulfilling what the Old Testament had foretold (Rom 15:14-21).

Through his writings and ministry, Paul models for us how deep theological reflection and vibrant missional activity are necessarily intertwined. The truths of God’s word compel the Church’s mission, and the mission calls us back to the word afresh, directing our theological reflection toward the goal of God’s glory among the nations.

The unfortunate reality in our day is that many churches and individual Christians confuse doctrinal fidelity alone with spiritual health and vitality. However, the New Testament paints a different picture. Doctrinal fidelity should fuel obedience and worship, which the Bible is clear includes making disciples of all nations. Churches and Christians who are grounded in doctrine should be going as disciple makers. Hearers are meant to be doers. Theologians are meant to be proclaimers.

If your theology is not missiologically driven, then you risk adopting a fatalistic worldview that undermines the force of Jesus’s command to go make disciples. When your theology is not missiologically driven, you also demonstrate that the truths of Scripture and the reality of the gospel have yet to sink in as deeply as you think they have. You cannot claim to understand the two great commandments and not fulfill the Great Commission. If you say you know and love God, then you will do what he commands, and he commands that we go make disciples. If you say you love your neighbors, then you will go to them joyfully as Christ’s ambassador.

The Bible admits no divide between theology and missions. Those who have been made new in Christ and have been gripped by the magnificent theology of the cross and our reconciliation to God are also made ambassadors of that message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:16-21). At conversion, when we receive our new identity in Christ, part of that identity is being Christ’s ambassador. If our conversion and the profound theological realities of the cross do not compel us on mission, then our identity is not being rooted in who Christ saved us to be.

While many fail to embrace the missional thrust of Christian theology, others believe that theology and theological education distract us from the mission. However, when biblical theology is not driving us to missions, we not only risk delving into heresy but also risk becoming anthropocentric in doing missions, losing focus on God and his word in order to make the gospel more palatable to people. If missions is not wedded to God’s word, then you will become gimmicky in ministry, forgetting that you are not able to convert anyone and that the Spirit exalts Christ through the unadulterated proclamation of the gospel.

What the world does not need is theologically anemic missionaries who have passion but little to no doctrinal precision or theological clarity. When theology drives missions, you will proclaim a healthy, robust gospel — without pandering to particular groups or neglecting certain truths of Scripture. When theology drives missions, you will also develop a sound methodology derived from Scripture and not derived primarily from business trends or by happenstance.

Many missionaries and church planters do not last because they are not rooted theologically. Some flounder or give up because they do not have deep roots in the gospel. Good discipleship and theological education help you develop deeper roots, teaching you to abide in Christ, to know and obey his word, and to teach his word faithfully and compellingly to others.

As a seminary president, this is the primary reason I want students to come to seminary: so that they will be deeply and convictionally rooted in Christ and in God’s word. That is why Southeastern Seminary helps churches equip deeply rooted missionaries, deeply rooted pastors and church planters, and deeply rooted parents and business leaders who all take seriously Jesus’s command to go make disciples.

Missions and theology go together, and it is only in our ignorance or sin that they become divided. Missions keeps the theologian’s heart warm, and theology keeps the missionary’s head clear. Together, they produce a life of rootedness and fruitfulness to the glory of God.

This reality is a reminder to churches and seminaries that holistic biblical training should foster doctrinal fidelity and Great Commission faithfulness. Churches and seminaries should not be interested in producing theologians who lack a heart for the nations, and they should not mobilize missionaries who lack theological depth or clarity.

The goal is men and women like Paul who break out in doxology when contemplating the deep realities of Christ (Rom 11:33-36) and who eagerly take the gospel to the nations — even at great sacrifice. The goal is men and women who allow the truths of Scripture to enflame their hearts for the nations and who engage the nations with a passion to know and teach the full counsel of God’s word. The goal is men and women like Jesus — men and women so compelled by the love of God in Christ that they treasure his word and proclaim his glory to the ends of the earth.


Danny Akin is the president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.