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What Is the Basis of Risk?

Risk is “an action that exposes you to the possibility of loss or injury.” (“Risk Is Right” in Don’t Waste Your Life, 79.) “Possibility” is a key word. If you know what you will suffer, it’s called sacrifice, not risk. God requires both from us. God demands a life of intentional sacrifice (Philippians 2:4-8), and he demands risk for the gospel—in smaller ways of dying daily (1 Corinthians 15:31), and possibly in the bigger way of martyrdom (Luke 14:26).

The basis of that demand for sacrifice and risk is the absolute, God-given assurance that in the end there is no ultimate risk. We risk life now that we may gain it forever. Risk persecution for Christ’s sake, “for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). Risk the loss your goods, “for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14). Risk being treated unjustly, for “vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). Risk being counted as sheep for the slaughter, for nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:36, 39).

The promises of God that all things will work together for our ultimate, Christ-exalting good is the basis of our risk (Romans 8:28). And corporately the basis of global missions, with all its risks, is the total assurance that “the kingdom of the world [will become] the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). The mission cannot fail.

Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost write in The Faith of Leap:

It seems correct to say that God took something of a risk in handing over his mission to the all-too-sinful human beings who were his original disciples—and all the sinful disciples beyond them. We wonder what Jesus must have been thinking on the cross, when all but a few powerless women had completely abandoned him. Did he wonder if love alone was enough to draw them back to discipleship? The noncoercive love of the cross necessitated a genuinely human response of willing obedience from his disciples. Given our predispositions to rebellion and idolatry, it is entirely conceivable that history could have gone in a completely different, indeed totally disastrous, direction if the original disciples hadn’t plucked up the internal courage to follow Jesus no matter where (36–37, Locations 464).

The view of God embodied in this quote from Hirsch and Frost is

  1. false to the Scriptures;
  2. built on a false philosophical presupposition;
  3. damaging to the mission of Christ in the world;
  4. and belittling to the glory of God.

1) False to the Scriptures

Their view of God and Jesus is that they are so little in charge of the success of the Great Commission that “it is entirely conceivable that history could have gone in a completely different, indeed totally disastrous, direction if the original disciples hadn’t plucked up the internal courage to follow Jesus no matter where.”

This is false. God is fully in control of his mission on earth: a) Jesus did not wonder if it would succeed, b) God can be utterly counted on to finish it, and c) every person ordained to eternal life will be drawn into the mission.

a) Jesus did not wonder if the mission would succeed.

He promised: “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).

He has all authority and will be with us to the end (Matthew 28:18, 20). And he said, with this absolute authority, “I will build my church, and the gates of the hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). He is not uncertain of the success of his mission. He will do it.

b) God accomplishes all his purposes in the mission.

“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isaiah 46:9–10).

When a disciple “plucks up the internal courage to follow Jesus,” it is God who put it there. “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

When missionaries accomplish great things for Christ they say, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience — by word and deed” (Romans 15:18).

No saint will say in heaven: The mission succeeded because my will was decisive in taking risks and making sacrifices. Rather, the saints will say, “God equipped us with everything good that we might do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever” (Hebrews 13:21).

c) There was not the slightest chance that the mission of God could have gone in a “disastrous direction,” that is, could have failed.

When all gospel influences have come into a person’s life, the decisive word over their lives is the word of Luke after Paul’s preaching in Acts 13:48: “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).

2) Built on a false philosophical presupposition

Their false presupposition is that for God’s love to be genuine (“non-coercive”) and for humans to be humans, man’s will must be ultimately decisive in bringing about obedience to the mission. If God’s will were ultimately decisive, then his love would not be genuine but coercive, and humans would not be humans but (presumably) robots.

They say, “There were no guarantees that [the disciples] would make the right choices. If this were not the case, then we are not human precisely at the point where we must be most completely human” (37).

The reason I call this a philosophical presupposition is that it does not come from the Bible, but from the human mind. Nowhere does the Bible say or imply that ultimate human self-determination is the prerequisite for human responsibility or divine love. That presupposition is an alien idea.

What the Bible does show over and over is that God’s will is decisive in all affairs (Daniel 4:35), and humans are truly responsible and God is truly loving and just. The Bible lets this paradox stand. So should we.

3) Damaging to the mission of Christ in the world

When they imply that the success of the mission depends decisively on disciples “plucking up internal courage to follow Jesus,” they rob the mission of its most precious and empowering promises.

Jesus empowers us for risk and sacrifice by purchasing on the cross the promises of the new covenant. “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me” (Jeremiah 32:40).

How do I know that, if I follow him to the riskiest place, I will be able to persevere in faith? Hirsch and Frost lay the burden of perseverance decisively on us. God lays it on the blood-bought “everlasting covenant.”

The mission is damaged where the promises of God’s decisively enabling grace are denied.

4) Belittling to the glory of God

When the success of God’s mission is made to depend decisively on humans, humans get the decisive glory. But when all is made to depend decisively on God, God gets the glory.

Whoever serves, [let him serve] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 4:11).

[God works] in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen (Hebrews 13:21).

[I pray that you will be] filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (Philippians 1:11).

It is hard to exaggerate how important it is for the mission of the church, in reaching the unreached peoples of the world, to have a fully biblical vision of the greatness and the sovereignty and the glory of God. Knowing him as he really is, as revealed in the Bible, is the foundation of mission-finishing risk and sacrifice.

John Piper is founder and teacher of DesiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For over 30 years, he served as senior pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. John is the author of more than 30 books, and more than 25 years of his preaching and teaching is available free at DesiringGod.org. John and his wife, Noel, have four sons, one daughter, and an increasing number of grandchildren.

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Daniel Mcghee

commented on Sep 17, 2011

Well, this article effectively dismantles all of the underlying presuppositions of most "Seeker-Driven, Seeker-Oriented" churches who continuously come up with new, more innovative, "risky" ways to reach the lost. The only "risk" they take involves bringing shame to the Gospel in their man-centered approach. The guy who stands in front of his church with his ripped jeans and Abercrombie shirt shouting "We will risk everything to win people to Jesus" to the cheers of all the young, naiive hipster "Christians" knows NOTHING of the real risk Jesus calls us to... He calls us to risk being HATED by the world, not loved by it. He calls us to risk losing our lives (literally) for the sake of the Gospel.

Jimmie Don Willingham

commented on Sep 17, 2011

There is a wonderful security in the reality that God is in complete control of everything. Jesus, commanding the wind and the sea, "Peace! Be still!", provoked the disciples to ask, "What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

Jeff Burr

commented on Sep 17, 2011

@McGhee, You might also consider that the man who stands up every week to preach in his three piece suite, singing songs written decades before anyone under the age of 30 was born and preaching a sermon that requires a lexicon for proper exegetical interpretation has mistakenly taken an extreme converse approach to the "seeker-sensitive" one you disdain. That man has - in fact - simply chosen a different "man-centered" approach. That "traditional" preacher has chosen his preference. Do not mistake either for Godliness. While I do not deny some of the weaknesses in the "seeker-sensitive" model, I am weary of men defending preference as though it is sacred. What a preacher wears, how he styles his hair and what tempo of music he sings does not automatically effect the Gospel preaches. To quote a much more mature Christian than either you or I -- "I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some." [1 Cor 9:22b] -- Christians (of all strips) need to stop considering style as an indicator of stronger or weaker content. Style is simply the wagon the message comes on. Different "wagons" reach different people. The message of the Gospel is too important to leave it solely in the hands of either "style" crowd.

Brian Phipps

commented on Sep 18, 2011

Does anyone really think that Alan and Michael were trying to make a theological point with their comments? They are trying to make a practical one... today's leadership needs to do more than maintain their little parishes... they need to lead and they need to march against the gates of hell with the gospel proclamation. It may have been sloppy theologically, but the point that they are making should be heeded. The majority of Christian leaders are impotent in carrying out the gospel that has been purchased by Jesus and empowered by God's Spirit. If they aren't playing it safe (or not taking enough risks) then they are either lazy, misguided, under-informed on being a leader, or disconnected from God's power due to lack of time with him or some form or moral compromise. Personally, I am tired of people who make a theological quibble about little things when the point is a practical one. Theological debates are a safe place to wage a war... the lives of seekers and believers learning how to connect with God's Spirit isn't. Get in the game boys...

John E Miller

commented on Sep 22, 2011

If you read the quotation from Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost carefully it is abundantly clear that they were trying to make a theological statement. The problem is that their theology is false. God is omniscient. This can be said of the Triune God and is equally true of all three Persons of the Godhead individually. The mystery of how God works, why He does certain things and the certainty of His great eternal purpose cannot be understood but must be believed. To start inventing the possibility that things might have turned out otherwise than God intended is foolish to say the least and heretical at worst.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Sep 22, 2011

Brian Phipps, I agree with you that too often, we engage in theological debates over minor issues rather than participating in the mission God has given us. BUT, there is no such thing as a purely practical point. All practice has it roots in theology, whether we are aware of that theology or not. Our theology may not be perfect; in fact, given that we are fallen human beings it is assured that our theology will NEVER be perfect this side of God's kingdom. But we can't simply dismiss sloppy theology, either. Theology is what we believe about God, and we need to make sure we get this as right as we possibly can. Because WHAT we believe about God (theology) will determine HOW we participate in his mission (practice). And HOW we do things is just as important as WHAT we do and WHAT we believe. So, yeah, I understand Mr. Hirsch's and Mr. Frost's practical point: we have been given a great responsibility, and we need to be willing to take great risks. But the victory of our mission has been guaranteed from the foundation of the world, and there is no reason to pretend otherwise just to motivate us. I believe a better motivation, and a more theologically and biblically correct argument, for that practical point is that God's victory is assured; and if we decide simply to sit in the sidelines and not "get in the game", as you say, WE are the ones who lose out, not God. We can take risks BECAUSE God DOESN'T. We can take risks BECAUSE whether or not we win or loose this particular battle, the war has already been won!

Brian Phipps

commented on Sep 26, 2011

Fernando, I believe you are correct and have a balanced picture of this. I am a firm believer in the absolute sovereignty of God in all things. In that regard, there is no REAL risk. The only truly risky thing we can do is to disobey God. But, for centuries, obeying God has put many into very difficult situations. From our perspective they are "risky." I have followed God into some places I knew He was leading me and they have been costly. They were, from my earthly vantage point, practically risky. I knew going in, however, that there was no real risk theologically. Which is reality? BOTH. I believe some of the posts on here ignore the practical for the theological, which is theologically silly.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Sep 26, 2011

Brian Phipps, your point is well taken. Theology which does not find expression in practice is just as useless as practice which does not have its roots in theology. And even though we shouldn't excuse sloppy or imprecise theology, I also realize that none of us are perfect, and we don't always speak or write as precisely as we should; so I'm willing to give Mr. Hirsch and Mr. Frost the benefit of the doubt. By the way, I suspect that some earlier post may no longer be up...is that so?

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