What good do missionaries accomplish in the wider culture when their primary focus is on calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus? In a recent blog post over at Desiring God, John Piper connects the dots between spreading the gospel and seeing renewal in societal structures and systems.

Piper points out that sociologist Robert Woodbury published his findings about missionary impact around the world after a decade of research. Woodbury found that the greatest change in culture occurred where “conversionary Protestants” had a presence. While Woodbury did not explicitly define “conversionary Protestants,” Piper concluded that they must  be “missionaries…who believe that to be saved from sin and judgment one must convert from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ.” I think this is a right definition.

In all the conversation about cultural renewal or societal transformation or whatever you want to call it, Christians are often divided on how best to go about it. Woodbury’s research provides outstanding insight. Piper sees a “significant implication” in the research, and he points out what the implication is. He hits the nail on the head:

[T]he way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. Or to put it another way, missionaries (and pastors and churches) will lose their culturally transforming power if they make cultural transformation their energizing focus.

There is a biblical reason for this. The only acts of love and justice that count with God are the fruit of conversion. If repentance toward God and faith in Jesus does not precede our good works, then the works themselves are part of man’s rebellion, not part of his worship.

If we understand mission, conversion, and cultural renewal this way, we will have an impact on culture, but we will go about it by seeking internal, Spirit-wrought, grace-driven internal change. We won’t neglect the social, political, and personal needs, but these things won’t consume all our energy–or even the majority of it. We will focus our time, energy, and resources on seeing people converted to Jesus. And as we see people turn from sin and idolatry to Jesus, we will see re-ordered love and re-ordered lives and pockets of culture changed for the better.

Take a minute and read Piper’s whole post.

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