The Motive for Missions, according to J.W. Alexander

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James M. Garretson has written of James W. Alexander’s “passion” for missions which was “stimulated by preaching from Psalm 72 and his reading (in German) of [Ernst Wilhelm] Hengstenberg’s massive study on the christological passages in the Old Testament” (Thoughts on Preaching & Pastoral Ministry: Lessons from the Life and Writings of James W. Alexander, p. 103).

A powerful example of that passion is found in the sermon he preached before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Old School) meeting in Richmond, Virginia on May 23, 1847. Titled Love to Christ the Motive of Missions: A Discourse, he focused on the primary reason why the church engages in missionary labors. It is, simply put, “that the great motive to Christian Missions is personal love to the Lord Jesus, manifested in the desire and expectation of his reign over converted sinners.”

Acknowledging that missionary work results in many kinds of temporal and spiritual benefits to the redeemed — “they inform the Intellect, and enlarge the knowledge; they civilize and refine; they rescue from temporal evil, and they save the soul” —

Yet all these are but subsidiary to one grand intention, which is the glory of Messiah in his kingly power over redeemed sinners, as his satisfying recompense; and holy affection reaches forward, to accomplish by this means the mighty yearnings of an incarnate God, who is at the same time the Husband of His elect and loving Church. So that the subjection of man to our Redeemer, as the reward which He claims and waits for, is a result which true piety craves, with immeasurable love, and inexpressible longing.

Again and again, Alexander brings home the point that all that we Christians do to magnify and honor our King and our Redeemer on earth arises out of the love in our hearts towards him and the consequent desire to see him exalted by all.

  • “What is true religion? Not fear — not submission — not benevolence — not regard for being in general — not philanthropy — great and essential as some or all of these may be — but LOVE TO CHRIST.”

  • “Love to the person of Immanuel, God manifest in the flesh, a dying, reigning Saviour, is the mark and criterion of all the family in heaven and earth.”

  • “‘Lovest thou me? Feed my sheep!’”

  • “Here is the token of the missionary host; and the missionary spirit, whether in childhood or age, in the pastor or the apostle, looks up, from the cross and the sepulchre, to the crown and the second-coming; and sighs forth its expectant longing, and says to the Bridegroom, Priest, and Sovereign, ‘Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips; therefore God hath blessed thee forever.’”

  • The individual, and the church, glow with unspeakable desire for the universal acknowledgment, that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

  • “To behold this love, and the things therein freely given us of God, is faith, is eternal life: but it is also the prime motive to all individual effort, and to all the sacrifice and warfare of the church.”

  • “What has peopled these wastes, and pushed the tide of population even to the wintry coast of the inhospitable North? What has reared cities, and impelled the wheels of a thousand manufactures, and decked the earth with an agriculture unsurpassed among men? — The love of Christ. What has scattered schools, from town to town, and hamlet to hamlet, and founded universities, which, in spite of sectarian narrowness, are yet the pride of human learning? — The love of Christ. What has exchanged the misrule of Celtic chieftainship, and the feuds of warring tribes, for rational government and balanced concord? — The love of Christ. What has sent colonies, to become greater and happier and freer nations, in a late undiscovered hemisphere? — The love of Christ.”

  • “…we shall one day cry, ‘All Israel shall be saved, as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer!’ To this Deliverer, the whole missionary work is a tribute of love.”

Alexander also cites the words of his uncle and mentor, Dr. John Holt Rice, as quoted by William Maxwell, in an 1831 overture to the General Assembly to this effect:

In the judgment of this General Assembly, one of the principal objects of the institution of the Church, by Jesus Christ, was, not so much the salvation of individual Christians — for, ‘whosoever believeth shall be saved’ — as the communication of the blessing of the Gospel to the destitute, with the efficiency of united effort….The Presbyterian Church is a Missionary Society, the object of which is to aid in the conversion of the world, and every member of the Church is a member for life of said society, and bound to do all in his power for the accomplishment of this object.

If we love Him who saved us, we will desire the glory of his name to be exalted in us and by all those around us. This is the true motive for all kingdom work, according to our place and calling. But especially in the case of missions, where love compels us to speak to others of the love that set us free — His love towards his sheep. May the love of Christ stir us all up to do what we can on behalf of the kingdom of Christ, and for the good of the lost souls all around us. Read Alexander’s sermon here, and get a glimpse of the passion and desire of this 19th century minister for that very goal.