Recently I spoke with a missionary who works among an unreached people group in North Africa. During our conversation, he shared concerns about what seems to him to be the most common missiological strategy among all the organizations in his region—if not all the world. In his words, the principles of simplicity and reproducibility have become the twin guardrails of most mission strategists. “If your discipleship is simple and your disciples are reproducing,” they say, “you know you’re doing the right thing.”
Over the years, I’ve heard other missionaries say, “If something works, don’t question it. You can’t argue with results,” or “If a ministry or method is bringing people to Jesus, then it’s clearly from God.” Statements like these reveal that growth and reproduction aren’t only understood as the ultimate goal of missions; they’re now the standard by which ministries are evaluated and new strategies are developed.
My concern is that simplicity, reproducibility, and results-driven multiplication models are not bearing true spiritual fruit. True transformation comes because it’s wrought by the Spirit.
Superficial Boasts or Spiritual Fruit
Results aren’t everything. Consider Paul’s opponents at Corinth. They were missionaries who boasted in the product of their work (2 Cor. 5:12). They viewed themselves as apostles of Christ and servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:13–15). Yet Paul called them out for judging merely by outward appearance, living according to the flesh, and encouraging obedience to God’s law that didn’t emanate from an accurate understanding of the gospel. They were leading people to the Scriptures and to Moses, but theirs was a different Jesus, a different gospel, and a different spirit (2 Cor. 11:4). Whatever boast they were making was based on a purely superficial evaluation. The righteousness of their disciples, according to Paul, wasn’t the righteousness that comes by faith. Therefore, it was perfectly appropriate for him to argue with their results.
For Paul, the ultimate question isn’t whether there are visible products to someone’s ministry, but whether or not those results are born by the Holy Spirit. According to Paul, what makes his new covenant ministry so glorious is the Spirit’s presence. The law of Moses had a measure of glory, but it was passing. The Spirit brought permanent glory through an internal change of the heart that resulted in the genuine fruit of enduring righteousness. Apart from the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life, more commands only produce condemnation and death (2 Cor. 3:4–11).
For Paul, the ultimate question isn’t whether there are visible products to someone’s ministry, but whether or not those results are born by the Holy Spirit.
This is my missionary friend’s primary frustration with current missiological strategies. Their discipleship models and content focus primarily on obedience. In his experience, the gospel is easily obscured by such methods. He’s concerned by Muslims who, when coming to Christ, are merely converting to a different system of works. They may pray and give differently. They may even elevate the commands of Jesus and pass them on to others. But they’re simply continuing in a modification of works-based religion. They may have mastered obedience, but he wonders if they know Christ and have the Spirit.
Central to Paul’s defense of his new covenant ministry is the reality that, through the Spirit, true righteousness was being revealed (Rom. 3:21). That righteousness was objectively found in the work of Jesus who lived a life of full obedience and gave himself as a substitute for sinners, the righteous for the unrighteous (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 3:18). This good news is the foundation for all our obedience.
But the Christian life of righteousness isn’t merely started by faith and the Spirit, with the flesh pulling us across the finish line (Gal. 3:3). Spiritual transformation from beginning to end, along with increasing conformity to the image of God, takes place through the ongoing act of beholding the glory of God in the gospel (2 Cor. 3:18). The result is that new covenant believers demonstrate a harvest of abiding righteousness in their lives (2 Cor. 9:10).
The contrast here is crucial. Paul’s opponents were also calling for righteousness and obedience. But obedience to what end? Righteousness by what means? Paul didn’t quibble with whether or not their ministries were “fruitful”; he challenged whether they were faithful. If my missionary friend from North Africa is correct, then a version of that old Corinthian problem is still a danger in much of the world today.
Paul didn’t quibble with whether or not their ministries were ‘fruitful’; he challenged whether they were faithful.
Our missionary ambition cannot simply be a strategy of reproduction. Even if we see growth, we must not evaluate ministries merely by outward appearances or mission practices by worldly values. We must not judge according to the flesh.
The call to make disciples isn’t merely a call to make sure people obey God’s Word. The letter of recommendation for every missionary and their hope of one day receiving God’s commendation are found in the visible results of lives transformed by the invisible Spirit—not merely evidenced in conversion but through those who continue in righteousness and reject falsehood. That is our aim, and we must recognize the means of that mission.
It’s the Spirit’s sanctifying work in all of us as we behold the glory of the Lord reflected in the face of Jesus. Gazing upon the gospel—not just committing to obey—is how we’re increasingly changed into his image from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18).