Motives for Mission

The mission of the Church may be defined as “what God has sent the Church into the world to do.” This includes both evangelistic and social responsibilities. Many speak of our mission, but what about our motivations for mission? Scripture has much to say about not only our actions, but also about the reasons and motives behind these actions. It is God who tries (Jeremiah 12:3), knows (Psalm 44:21) and searches (Jeremiah 17:10) the heart. He does not judge by outward appearance. Indeed, even in our worship he discerns whether we are worshipping with both our hearts and our lips (1 Samuel 16:7; Matthew 15:8). In 2 Corinthians 13:3, Paul declares, “If I give away all I have and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” In Philippians 1:15-17, he acknowledges that the gospel can be preached from motives of goodwill and love as well as from envy, rivalry, selfish ambition and insincerity.

The Love of God
It should be understood that the Church’s mission is more than a good or even a great activity that the Church does. Christian mission springs from the very heart of the Godhead. Both the Old and the New Testament have much to say regarding the missio dei and both reveal God’s love for humankind in its spiritual and physical dimensions. The “love of God,” as a motive for mission, contains at least three elements significant for mission:

(1) God’s love for us,

(2) our love for God, which is proved by our obedience to God (John 14:15) and

(3) God’s love working through us to reach others.

The love of the missionary God is seen in the act of the Father giving up his only begotten Son in the incarnation, and his Son being willing to live a life of self-sacrifice and ultimately to die on the cross for humankind (John 3:16; Romans 8:32; Matthew 20:28). In 1 John 4:19 we are also reminded that “we love because he first loved us.” If our response is to truly love Christ in return for what he has done for us, we must obey his commands. God expects his disciples to be motivated by his love. We can do this because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts (Romans 5:5). Jesus, who commanded us to love one another, also promised that if we obeyed him, the world would know that we were his (John 13:34-35). 

This love is more than just a fleeting emotional feeling; it is an act of the will and a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:1). This love also compelled Paul in his mission (2 Corinthians 5:14). Jesus Christ said to his disciples “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). As disciples, we are obliged to follow his example. Our love for God must be shown in “incarnational mission.” We are to identify with those we seek to reach, entering their worlds, their pains and their sorrows.

Many Christians list obedience as being a primary motive for fulfilling the missionary task. I would agree; however, obedience should necessarily flow from our love for God. John R. W. Stott once said that “loving obedience to God and his Christ is the first evangelistic incentive” as obedience is “the fruit and proof of love.”1 If obedience does not come from a heart motivated by the love of God, there is a danger of the missionary task becoming legalistic and lacking God’s blessing.

The Fear of God
It is sometimes perceived that the “fear of the Lord” (meaning, to be concerned with a God of judgment) is not relevant for those living since the New Testament era. It is true that the fear of the Lord seems more prominent in the Old Testament than the New Testament. Nevertheless, the New Testament still concerns itself with this important subject. God is still holy (Hebrews 12:14; 2 Corinthians 7:1) and there is still a final judgment (Matthew 25:41).

The fear of the Lord means living our lives to please the Lord. While on earth, Jesus sought to please his Father. Christians must also seek to please God and live a life worthy of him (Colossians 1:10). In 1 Corinthians 5:9, Paul writes that it was his goal to please God. Why was he motivated as he was? Verse 10 says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” As a result, Paul encouraged his readers to “persuade men” (v.11).

Michael Green notes, “This fear of which he speaks is not the craven fear of the underdog, but the loving fear of the friend and trusted servant who dreads disappointing his beloved Master.”2 He goes on to write, “This fear was a contributory factor in the ceaseless evangelistic activity of the apostle Paul.”3 In seeking to persuade men, we can begin to understand Paul’s concern for those who were not in Christ. Paul saw himself as similar to the prophet Ezekiel, who had been called to be God’s watchman. Similar to Ezekiel, Paul declared to the Ephesian elders, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26). He believed he was “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (2 Timothy 1), a herald and teacher (1 Timothy 1:11) and an ambassador of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20).

He was like Isaiah, who having seen God in his awesome majesty, could not refuse his invitation to “go and tell this people” (Isaiah 6:9). Like Jeremiah, Paul could not hold in God’s Word. This holy compulsion was a combination of both the love of God for the people and a grave concern that the trust committed to Paul should be discharged (1 Corinthians 9:17). The Church’s mission should still be motivated by a healthy appreciation of the fear of God, which will give to the Church a sense of its own holy calling to reach the lost. The Church will then become fearless in the midst of fierce opposition. Paul the great missionary had to endure great sufferings in order to fulfill the ministry to which God had called him.

The Glory of God
Perhaps the greatest motive for mission and evangelism is for the glory of God. As with the love of God, the glory of God can have more than one dimension. The first is that we evangelize in order that God would be glorified. The second is that we evangelize in order to receive glory and praise from God (as opposed to man). Both motives are important and biblical. First, we will look at evangelizing to receive glory or praise from God.

John said of the Pharisees that “they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43). Jesus himself declared that he did not receive glory from men (John 5:41); rather, he was approved by his Father at his baptism (Mark 1:11) and exalted because of his obedience on earth (Philippians 2:9-11). The idea that we should not strive for a reward from God is unbiblical. The Bible is clear that all will be judged by Christ (Daniel 12:3; Romans 14:10,12; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:12,15). Though there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), it would appear that judgment for believers is for reward instead of punishment. Luke 19:17 implies there may be different degrees of rewards for believers for service rendered. Paul in his ministry was careful to build with quality material so he would not be put to shame when God put his work to the test (1 Corinthians 3:15). Whatever our reward may be, it should be a strong incentive for evangelism and mission.

We will now look at what I believe to be the purest motive for mission: that God himself would be glorified and honored. God the Father “exalted (Jesus) to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Philippians 2:9-10). Paul instructed the Corinthians that even ordinary things should be done for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 3:1). How much more should we seek to honor and glorify the name of Jesus Christ in the work of evangelism! The Church also seeks to win over those under the control of Satan, that they may serve and honor the true and living God. As Elijah declared himself to be “very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts” (1 Kings 19:14), so Paul also claimed that his own ministry was “for (Christ’s) name’s sake” (Romans 1:5). Likewise, the missional Church as the bride of Christ must be spurred on with a holy jealousy to bring honor to his name. M. Thomas Thangaraj rightly points out that “an adoration of God leads to a profound sense of love and gratitude to God, which in turn motivates us for engagement with others in mission.”4

The prophet Jeremiah warns us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure”(Jeremiah 17:9). It is not surprising that an assessment of motivations for mission should prove to have a sobering effect on the Church. The Church should therefore be prepared to listen to both the Word and the world in its criticisms of it, so as not to become self-deceived (Hebrews 4:12; Proverbs 18:13). The three positive motives for assessing mission listed above naturally intertwine like a threefold cord (Ecclesiastes 4:12). Mission and the motivation for mission should be seen as originating from God and should result in the Church following the example of Jesus, who in holy obedience, love and seeking to glorify the Father, came “to seek and save what was lost” (Luke 19:10).  

1. Stott, John. 1967. Our Guilty Silence. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 18.
2. Green, Michael. 1995. Evangelism in the Early Church. Guildford: Eagle. 29.
3. Ibid. 297.
4. Thangaraj, M. Thomas. 1999. The Common Task. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 149.

Andrew Kenny leads a youth outreach group in Belfast, Ireland, and is a part-time lecturer in evangelism at the Belfast Bible College, Northern Ireland. He studied theology at Open Theological College in Gloucester, England and obtained his masters degree in evangelism from Cliff College Sheffield University.