I recently finished reading the new biography of William Borden.1 He is not all that well known in Australia. Borden was an American millionaire from the turn of the twentieth century who was converted at an early age under the ministry of R. A. Torrey and set his heart on the work of cross-cultural mission. He was to go to the Muslims in northern China. His story is one of open-handed generosity, devoted discipleship, and a passion to see the lost won for Christ. After studying at Yale and then Princeton Theological Seminary, he stopped off in Egypt to work on his Arabic. While there he contracted meningitis and died. He never made it to the mission field. He was not quite 26 years old.
In many ways Borden’s story is extraordinary. He had extraordinary wealth and used it for the kingdom judiciously and without announcement at every opportunity. From an early age he had a clear focus on the need for gospel proclamation around the world and a deep desire to be part of that. His teachers, first at Yale and then at Princeton, spoke of his determination in his studies, not because he desired to pursue an academic life but because he wanted to be thoroughly prepared for the ministry that lay ahead of him. And though he would not make it to northern China, his character and conviction challenged many others who went out, not only to China but to other mission fields as well. Men and women on three continents mourned his loss and carried on his vision.
Borden studied at Princeton under luminaries such as B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen and Geerhardus Vos. Yet what is particularly interesting is that the exacting study which Borden undertook there did not in the slightest dampen his enthusiasm for cross-cultural gospel mission. He undertook extra classes, and was heavily involved in ministry both on and off the campus, but all of this was part of the preparation for long-term gospel work in what were most likely to be difficult conditions. He did not see theological education as an end in itself, but he knew that if he was to persevere in the work, maintain his gospel focus, and make the wisest decisions in trying circumstances, he would need a solid grounding in the teaching of Scripture and its faithful application to life and ministry.
Theological education is first and foremost about “learning God”. We study the Bible, the text and the languages in which it was originally given, and the long conversations about what it teaches and how that teaching intersects and guides life in God’s world today, in order to know God better and to make him known. We learn of the grace of God, his mercy and love shown to the human creatures who have rebelled against him, with its particular focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is through Jesus, as he is revealed and addresses us in God-breathed Scripture, that we are brought into relationship with our heavenly Father. God’s Spirit unites us to Jesus in faith and Jesus brings us to the Father.
The very first prerequisite for gospel mission, within a culture or across cultures, is to know God. If our desire is to introduce people to Jesus, their only hope of salvation and life, then we need to know him ourselves. We need to know the character of God and his purpose which is uniquely embodied in Jesus and demonstrated in what he has done. We need to be caught up in the awe of God and the deep confidence and joy that comes from knowing how he is towards us. Those involved in cross-cultural mission can know times of isolation and even loneliness. The great comfort in those times is not just knowing about God but knowing God.
This necessarily means that theological education must be about knowing God’s word, the Bible. The great Creator God who fashioned all things makes himself known in his word. He spoke human words in the Garden, to Abram in Ur, to Moses on the Mount, David on his throne, the prophets in the upheaval of their times, and through his Son. Jesus spoke the words his Father had given him (John 17:8) and entrusted those to faithful messengers to take to all nations until the end of the age (Matt 28:19–20). Their words are the means God uses to speak to us today. They are, in the end, his words and they are powerful and effective in redirecting lives (Heb 4:12), healing the deepest wounds, and nourishing faith, hope and love. If the Jesus we speak of is to be more than a product of our imagination, then he must be the Jesus of the Bible.
The second prerequisite for gospel mission is to know the word of God. Our own culture wants to draw us away from the biblical Christ to a Christ more amenable to its preoccupations and preferences. Often this is an anaemic figure, especially when compared with the one who stilled the storm, overturned the tables of the money changers, raised the dead, wept with the grieving, had compassion on the suffering, and finally burst a hole right through death in his resurrection. He counselled love and warned of judgment. He extended mercy even while hanging on the cross, and after his resurrection restored the man who had denied him three times just days before. Yet if the shapers of contemporary Western culture “cancel” Christ or replace him with themselves writ large, should we not expect other cultures will find their own ways to dismiss him or recast him? If we are to be resolute in our testimony to him, we need to know our Bibles.
Theological education is about knowing God and about knowing his word. Yet because the purpose of God we come to know about in his word is directed toward his human creatures, theological education is also about knowing ourselves. We need to understand ourselves as God sees us, firstly as his creatures, made by, through and for his beloved Son (Col 1:13–16). We do not make ourselves. We do not have a right to determine our own identity and plot our own course in life. Yet precisely because this is what we all try to do, we are shown to be not only his creatures but sinners. Our deeply engrained refusal to take this seriously can only be challenged by a sustained study of God’s word. God’s word shows us the intensity of sin and its universal scope. It exposes the insidious self-delusion generated by sin. But more important than either of these perspectives on ourselves is the testimony that in Christ we are loved, we are redeemed and we are offered life. Guilt, despair and judgment are not the final words sounded over us, but in Christ we hear of grace, forgiveness, freedom, joy, and hope.
The third great prerequisite for gospel mission is to know the world and its need. By this I mean to learn to see ourselves and those around us as God sees us. The word God has given us declares the profound and innate value of every human being. Every man and woman has been created in the image of God. Yet every man and woman has placed themselves in unimaginable danger by their determination to live on their own terms and refuse all accountability to the God who made them. We cannot save ourselves, and whether our condition of life is one of ample provision or desperate need, whether we feel secure or are terrified by what we have to face every day, we are all heading for a meeting with the living God and we are lost without a Saviour. The world needs to know Jesus.
There are other things that are necessary and many things that are desirable when it comes to gospel mission, especially in a cross-cultural setting. Some of those have to do with character. Some have to do with conviction. Some others have to do with gifts and abilities. Yet deep shafts sunk into the knowledge of God, his word and his world are indispensable. Amongst other things, these are the benefits of theological education.
A much earlier biography of Borden summarised the young man’s consistent attitude in words which cannot be found in any of the records he left behind but are often attributed to him: “no reserves, no retreat, no regrets”.2 He prepared thoroughly and well for the work he believed the Lord had called him to engage in. Part of that preparation was a serious immersion in the word of God in order to know God and to know the world and its need. Theological education is not an end in itself. It is a specific exercise of Christian discipleship which is meant to fit one well to reach a lost world with a message of salvation won at great cost but offered freely by grace.
1 K. Belmonte, Beacon-Light: The Life of William Borden (1887-1913). Fearn: Christian Focus, 2021.
2 G. Taylor, Borden of Yale ’09. London: China Inland Mission, 1926, p. 260.