An Open Letter from WRF Member Thomas Johnson to WRF Member Paul Gilchrist on the Subject, "The Ethics of Missions"

Below is an open letter to WRF member Dr. Paul Gilchrist from WRF member Dr. Thomas Johnson.  The link immediately below will take you to a .pdf version of hte letter.
Dr. Johnson can be reached at

An open letter to Dr. Paul Gilchrist, through the World Reformed Fellowship

Regarding “Christian Witness in a Multi-religious World: Recommendations for Conduct” published by the World Council of Churches, the Pontifical Institute for Interreligious Dialogue, and the World Evangelical Alliance.


Dear Brother Paul,

I am grateful for your thoughtful interaction with Thomas Schirrmacher on the questions surrounding the ethics of missions and religious persuasion. Thoughtful discussion is essential in order for this discussion to be appropriated into the Body of Christ.  It was only a couple years ago that Dr. Schirrmacher asked me to assist with developing materials on this theme, shortly after the World Evangelical Alliance, which we serve,  had joined these discussions with the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.  

On September 11, 2011, exactly a decade after the atrocious terrorist attack, I happened to fly from Paris to San Francisco, and that flight offered me an occasion to reflect again upon an important spiritual need of our world:  “What are the morally legitimate ways to convince people to accept a religion, worldview, or philosophy of life in our post 9/11 global village?” Surely no one reading this open letter will want to fly an airliner into a building to try to convince people to change their religion, but there is much more that should be said.  With this problem in view, it was fitting that Dr. Schirrmacher and I published our major background paper, “Why Evangelicals Need a Code of Ethics in Mission,” in the International Journal of Religious Freedom, not a journal of theology or missions; inappropriate approaches to the ethics of religious persuasion form an essential part of much of the religiously motivated violence, persecution, and discrimination that we are trying to address.

I came into this new task with a dual background, that of a church planter who then imitated the ancient apologists and taught ethics for 15 years in secular universities (in the US, central Europe, and the former USSR).  In both of these roles I paid serious attention to the ways in which Christians have made direction-changing contributions to many cultures around the world. Under the influence of J. Douma, I came to see these cultural contributions as a way in which Christians have been ministers of God’s common grace in a needy world.[1]  It is my hope that we Christians can once again exercise global leadership and contribute to international political culture in the realm of the ethics of religious and worldview persuasion, which we now call the “ethics of mission” in our internal evangelical language. We do not know the extent to which God may use such efforts to bring constructive change in the world.

As I have written about the ethics of persuasion and mission, I have consciously applied central methodological themes from John Calvin.  It may have some value if I articulate these themes for new students in our seminaries, for which I beg the indulgence of experienced theologians.  Some of these principles should receive more extensive treatment in the coming issues of the Evangelical Review of Theology, since it is now time for these themes to be discussed in our theology and missiology, as well as in our political ethics. The key questions related to the ethics of persuasion and the ethics of mission may be analyzed using Calvin’s precise distinctions among the three areas of spiritual insight, the three uses of the moral law (which assumes his law/gospel distinction), and the differentiated relation of faith and reason in relation to law and gospel. 

Calvin asked what reason knows of God:

We must now analyze what human reason can discern with regard to God’s Kingdom and to spiritual insight. This spiritual insight consists chiefly in three things: (1) knowing God; (2) knowing his fatherly favor in our behalf, in which our salvation consists; (3) knowing how to frame our life according to the rule of his law. In the two first points—and especially in the second—the greatest geniuses are blinder than moles![2]

Calvin distinguishes knowing what God is like (no. 1) from knowing how God relates to man in the gospel (no. 2). Though reason is not always completely wrong about God’s Being, statements on this topic by philosophers ‘always show a certain giddy imagination’.[3] But unaided reason is ‘blinder than a mole’ in regard to understanding God’s fatherly care and the gospel. To properly trust in God’s fatherly care, we need the gospel, Scripture, and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.

Though reason is worthless in the realm of the gospel, Calvin emphasized reason in area no. 3, ‘how to frame our life according to the rule of his law’. As we will see, this realm of insight connects especially with the civil use of God’s moral law, the natural moral law, and civil righteousness.

There remains the third aspect of spiritual insight, that of knowing the rule for the right conduct of life. This we correctly call the ‘knowledge of the works of righteousness.’ The human mind sometimes seems more acute in this than in higher things. For the apostle testifies: ‘When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do the works of the law, they are a law to themselves . . . and show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their thoughts accuse them among themselves or excuse them before God’s judgment’ [Rom. 2:14-15]. If Gentiles by nature have law righteousness engraved upon their minds, we surely cannot say they are utterly blind as to the conduct of life. There is nothing more common than for a man to be sufficiently instructed in a right standard of conduct by natural law.[4]

When we are talking about the global ethics of religious persuasion (or most matters of public ethics and codes of ethics), we are in the third area of insight according to Calvin’s categories, that of “knowing the rule for the right conduct of life” in which it is common for people to “sufficiently instructed” by the natural moral law. If we have learned our ethics from Calvin (or from Luther), we must primarily refer to the God-given natural moral law for our standard of conduct in the public realm, whether that realm is secular or multi-religious.[5]  

When I, as a Christian, make moral claims that apply to public life and the lives of people who do not claim to be Christians, I think in light of principles taught by the Holy Spirit in both the Bible and in the natural moral law; I assume the Holy Spirit will bear direct witness to the truth of the natural moral law, even among people who do not believe in Christ (This is part of the common work of the Holy Spirit.). Following Calvin, I must also carefully phrase what I say so that it will be more easily grasped by the minds of people who do not yet believe in Jesus, assuming that such people have God-given reason that can partly perceive the moral law, even if it stands in tension with their professed faith (for example, Marxist, Islamic, or Postmodern faith), and even if, “The sinner tries to evade his innate power to judge between good and evil.”[6] This is, I believe, part of our God-given task as citizens of the various nations and states, being the moral salt of the earth, seeking the peace and well-being of the earthly city.  This is one of the arenas in which Christians have often made contributions to secular society and culture that have changed the course of history, as servants of both God’s special grace and his common grace.

Our tasks in this third area of spiritual insight must never be confused with a theology of mission, which is clearly in Calvin’s second category, related to knowing and making known God’s fatherly care and salvation, the realm of the gospel.  Our methods of reasoning must be clearly distinguished when we move from one area of spiritual insight to another.  Accepting Calvin’s distinctions is not dualistic, as if some dimension of life were separate from God; such differentiated methods of reasoning properly recognize the multi-faceted work of God in the world.[7]

Calvin’s distinction among three aspects of spiritual insight builds on his understanding of the distinction between law and gospel as well as the threefold use of the moral law which flows from the distinction between law and gospel.  The starting point for Calvin’s discussion is this:  if we are justified by faith alone, without works of following God’s moral law, what role or roles should God’s moral law have in our lives? This question forces a clear distinction between law and gospel on our minds, which Calvin saw as also being rooted in the very texture of biblical revelation. Once we know we are not justified by following the law, Calvin thought there are three proper uses of the moral law which we must teach, use, and apply.

The first of Calvin’s three uses of God’s law describes the role of God’s law in showing us our sin, the theological or converting use of God’s law, as an ongoing preparation for seeing our need for the gospel:  “The first part is this: while it shows God’s righteousness, that is the righteousness alone acceptable to God, it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness. For man, blinded and drunk with self-love, must be compelled to know and to confess his own feebleness and impurity.”[8]  Calvin compares the law with a mirror; as it shows the spots on one’s face, so the law shows sin, though with different results among believers and unbelievers. Unbelievers are terrified; believers flee to God’s mercy in Christ.

Calvin’s second use of the law compares with Luther’s civil or political use of the moral law, to restrain sin so that civilized life in society is possible, so we do not entirely destroy ourselves and each other.  “The second function of the law is this: at least by fear of punishment to restrain certain men who are untouched by any care for what is just and right unless compelled by hearing the dire threats in the law. But they are restrained not because their inner mind is stirred or affected, but because, being bridled, so to speak, they keep their hands from outward activity, and hold inside the depravity that otherwise they would wantonly have indulged.”[9]  Whereas Luther understood the moral law in its civic use as largely mediated through societal orders, whether the state, the family, the school, or the church, Calvin conceives of the civil use of the law as being largely unmediated, in the direct encounter of an individual with God.  Nevertheless, for Calvin, the civil use of the moral law is never separated from a person’s complete moral, social, and spiritual context.  The civil use of the moral law can become more or less effective, depending on how well people use reason to apply the natural moral law in society.

Calvin said the third use of the law is primary: “The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper use of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. For even though they have the law written and engraved upon their hearts by the finger of God (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 10:16), that is, have been so moved and quickened through the directing of the Spirit that they long to obey God, they still profit by the law in two ways.”[10] Calvin’s two ways in which the law helps believers are teaching the will of God, which believers desire to follow, and exhorting believers to continued obedience.

When we come to a topic such as a public code of ethics or the ethics of religious persuasion (relating to people from many different religions and worldviews), I hope our speaking and writing may show someone his sin, leading to faith (the first use of the law according to Calvin).  And I suppose some Christians will be taught more about the will of God, which they desire to follow (the third use of the moral law).  But we are primarily dealing with Calvin’s second use of the moral law, the civil or political use which restrains sin in society, keeping people’s hands “from outward activity” that is destructive of other people.  In this second use of the moral law we never look for perfection, only for incremental improvements, which means reductions in the frequency and extent of violence in society. This realm is a matter of the hands, not a matter of the heart. I wish the hands of the people who martyred one of our seminary students in Turkey in 2007 had been restrained by some moral, legal, or social consideration, regardless of their heart attitudes.  And there is probably a wide range of actions we can take which will administer God’s moral law in this restraining function within the world at large.

When I think about the public ethics of religious persuasion, a major analogy I have in mind is the development of human rights documents, theories, and institutions.  Of course much of what we have to say about human rights grows from the Bible (the doctrines of the image of God and of sin) as appropriated in Christian moral philosophy, beginning especially in the thirteenth century. But by the efforts of a small group of people (especially the Lebanese Christian philosopher/diplomat Charles Malik at the United Nations), many themes from Christian doctrine flowed into the international human rights declarations.[11]  Of course there were other worldviews (including Marxism) that had a role in forming these documents.  And it seems to me that themes from these documents have been misused by various movements, including some parts of the “gay” movement and the “anti-defamation of Islam” movement.  However, overall, the recognized set of human rights documents has begun to set global standards by which the sins of armies and nations can be evaluated and already has a worthwhile role in restraining sin, even though people continue to misinterpret human rights because of the influence of various religions and philosophies.

Human rights declarations and institutions are in the area of life which Calvin called “the third area of spiritual insight,” the rules for the right conduct of public life.  People already have a significant knowledge of God’s natural moral law, and this knowledge becomes much more effective if it is informed by biblical insight into human dignity and human sin.  The efforts of Christians related to human rights have been used by God’s common grace to contribute new directions in political culture and have had a worthwhile impact in reducing sin and destruction. We would now like to see something similar related to the ethics of religious persuasion.

The themes in Christian doctrine which form the background for an ethics of missions and religious persuasion are the same doctrines which form the background for Christian teaching about human rights: the complementary principles of human dignity and sin.  In a previous article, Dr. Schirrmacher and I argued, "The truth of the need for the gospel is complementary with the truth of the God-given dignity of the people who hear the gospel.  People are alienated from God and in serious need of the gospel of reconciliation with God by faith in Jesus; people are created in God's image and therefore worthy of respect and able to take many responsible actions.  Both sides of the truth must be obeyed.  The complementary sides of the truth make an ethics of mission both necessary and possible."[12]  In a footnote we added, "Many of the contributions of Christians to political culture arise from their two-sided view of a human being, as created in the image of God but fallen into sin."  And if I wrote that text today, I would add that some people believe in both human dignity and human fallenness before they come to believe in the Trinity or the Incarnation, so knowing ourselves can lead to knowing God.[13]  What we say about the ethics of religious persuasion may become for some a step toward them being open to the gospel of Jesus.

As Christians we say, “People are worthy of respect and they need Jesus.”  If our neighbors of other religions could be convinced to say, “People are worthy of respect and they need. . .,” we might not have contributed very much to fulfilling the great commission, but we may have been servants of God’s common grace.


Thomas K. Johnson








[1] See J. Douma’s tremendous study, Algemene Genade: Uiteenzetting, vergelijking en beoordeling van de opvattingn van A. Kuyper, K. Schilder, en Joh. Calvijn over ‘algemine genade’ (Goes: Oosterbaan & Le Cointre B.V., 1981), 390 p.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), II, ii, 18.

[3] Calvin, Inst. II, ii, 18.

[4] Calvin, Inst. II, ii, 22.

[5] In the Westminster Confession of Faith terms like “general principles of equity” were often substituted for the term “natural moral law,” probably because the authors felt the ambiguity associated with the word “natural.” In my lectures I emphasize that the natural law is natural in the same sense as natural revelation because it is the moral component of general revelation.

[6] Calvin, Inst. II.  ii. 22.

[7] See my What Difference Does the Trinity Make? A Complete Faith, Life, and Worldview (World Evangelical Alliance, 2009), pp. 33-38.  Available as a free download at, then click “International.”

[8] Calvin, Inst. II, vii, 6.

[9] Calvin, Inst. II, vii, 10.

[10] Calvin, Inst. II, vi, 12.                                        

[11] For more on this theme see my Human Rights: A Christian Primer (World Evangelical Alliance, 2008).  Available as a free download at, then click “International.”

[12] IJRF Vol. 3:1, 2010, p. 25.

[13] I am repeatedly drawn to Calvin’s opening words in the Institutes, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.” I. i. 1.