The Distinguishing Marks of a Growing Faith

Published on, the personal blog of Dr. Alvin Reid, SEBTS Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism, and Professor of Evangelism and Student Ministry Click here to read this post on Dr. Reid’s blog.

By Dr. Alvin Reid

On September 10, 1741, Jonathan Edwards delivered a commencement address to Yale University.  Later that year he took the substance of this address and expanded to write a treatise called “The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Applied to that Uncommon Operation that has lately Appeared on the Minds of Many of the People of This Land: With a Particular Consideration of the Extraordinary Circumstances with Which this Work Is Attended.”  Understandably it is known best today simply as the Distinguishing Marks. The year 1741 marked a high tide in the rising revival known today as the First Great Awakening. Not everyone supported the movement of God’s Spirit. Some said it was merely a work of emotionalism, for instance. Edwards defended the movement as the work of God with this treatise.

I would like to offer a simple analogy from Edwards’ writing and apply it to short-term mission trips. A reach, to be sure, but his approach and his content offer helpful counsel in my view. Edwards offered two ways to look at movements of the Spirit. First, he noted those matters that proved nothing about God’s work. Some things were happening in the awakening that neither proved nor disproved the work of God. Just because someone got caught up in enthusiasm did not prove God caused such emotion, nor did it prove He did not. Just because people talk about religion a great deal fails to pass the test as well.

Short-term mission trips have become a staple in many churches today; I believe overall this is a good thing. Yes, there are plenty of poorly planned trips or glorified vacations to exotic places in the name of mission. But for most these trips provide a means for growth for those going and a help to those at the given destination.  Every year I go on such trips and have seen the impact on our children as they have gone to as many as four continents and several great American cities. Here are reasons NOT to go on a short-term mission trip:

1. Because going on a trip earns God’s favor. There is NOTHING you can do to earn God’s favor. Our God offers us grace through Christ’s work on the cross. We can do nothing to earn His love. If going on a mission trip provides you some sense of favor with God, beware. You may be that Christian (and they are legion in the U.S.) who wears himself out doing every activity possible in the church to prove that he really loves Jesus. One of the ways to know you understand the gospel and seek to grow in Christ is your ability to say no to need or opportunity when tempted to do so primarily to earn His favor.

2. Because going on such a trip shows your spiritual depth. I do believe a good mission trip can do more for your walk with God than a month of Sundays. But going on a trip so others will see you are spiritual is pure, bald pride. If you will go around the world on a mission trip to talk about Jesus but your neighbors do not know what you believe, you have missed the point.

3. To avoid being left out. Some may go on a mission trip because they have to be a part of anything and everything exciting in the church. I call this the American Idol Syndrome. Every year we see someone on American Idol who gets booted off who respond with something like, “If I don’t win American Idol, I can’t live.”  No, if you have to win American Idol to have a life, you do not have a life. Being a part of the next big thing or being included in everything that happens in a church will exhaust you and keep you from living the mission daily in the small areas of life.  As Tim Chester and Steve Timmis say in their book Total Church, we need more ordinary Christians doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality. THOSE are the people I like to take on short-term trips.

4. Because those poor (fill in the blank: heathen, poor people, or some other undignified term) need our help. I have been this person and I am ashamed to admit it. Then I saw a video (find it on youtube) called “I Need Africa More Than Africa Needs Me.”  An American sense of superiority does not help when embarking on these trips. We teach our teams the word TINA (“This Is Not America”). When a team member begins to demonstrate this attitude or some other American trait, we inject TINA into the conversation to remind them we are servants of Christ, not American imperialists.

After Edwards deals with the negatives features related to spiritual movements, he offers five positive marks to distinguish a work of the Spirit of God. I want to use these five to offer reasons you and I should go on such trips:

1. It raises our esteem of Jesus, born of a virgin, the crucified, sinless Savior. Because the love of Jesus has so changed us that we would make whatever sacrifice necessary to bring glory to His name, we go. Our love for Christ overflows to a love for people, for the nations, for His glory. When we consider how much Christ loves us and has done on our behalf, how can we simply sit in weekly services and live safe, comfortable lives? II Corinthians 5:10-21 reminds us that when we become new creatures in Christ, the natural result is to become ministers of reconciliation.

2. It works against the interests of Satan’s kingdom.  There is a specific application here for those considering a mission trip. Perhaps the biggest objection to going is financial. How can I raise the money? We talk about sending out letters for support, and the reply is, I don’t like asking for money. Pride. I have found over the years there are multitudes of people who love to give to those going on such trips. The problem is not in the raising of support, the issue is the crushing of our prideful spirit. The sin of pride is a root sin to so many others and is a dominant feature in the dark kingdom of the serpent. If money were no issue at all, would you go? If you say yes, then go. And let your faith grow. Then there is the issue of consumerism. Just how many things have you bought over the last year that you really do not need? Stop wasting money and start saving for that next trip!

3. It causes a greater regard for Scripture. How do you grow in the Scripture, and grow in your walk with Christ? By faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God. We walk by faith, not by sight. We bear the shield of faith and wield the sword of the Spirit, the Word. Faith is like a muscle, it must be exercised to grow. You can read the Bible hours a day and days on end, but it you never step out at act on what you read, you simply grow in head knowledge; you will not grow in faith. What are you trusting God for that only He can do? When is the last time you trusted God for something you could not accomplish without Him? I have watched people make quantum leaps spiritually and the Word come alive when they live out Scripture. Mission trips are only one way to do this, but they are an excellent way.

4. It leads people to truth, Edwards writes. One can easily give way to doubt in our secularized, post-Christian America. We can assume that the spiritually disinterested people around us are the same globally. No, go somewhere else and you will see God moving in ways He may not be at work where you live. Or go somewhere to see the blindness of religion in lands where the gospel has not been planted and be a part of that work.  Mission trips have a way of helping us to be honest with ourselves, recognizing the things that cause us great concern really are overblown compared to people we encounter who may not have hope for a meal the next day. The truth is most American Christians follow the path of least resistance to find God’s will. Getting out of our comfort zones and seeing God at work in a different context can help us to see the truth of God in a clearer light.

5. It produces a greater love for God and man. Mission trips offer an immersion experience in which we check out of the mundaneness of daily life and pour ourselves 24/7 into the mission for a season. Most people who go on their first mission trip return talking less about the places and more about the people. That little boy, the single mom, the homeless man, faces of real people in a real world becomes the memory most etched upon our minds. The Great Commission becomes for us an opportunity, a reason to sacrifice and go to the nations.

This summer I will be in Kiev, Ukraine, with people like Sergey and Natasha, the young pastor and his wife who love and lead the Open Hearts Church. I will see Oleg, Tania, Sveta, and others. I enjoy the soup there, I love the Ukrainian pizza, and I love to see the architecture. But the people, their stories, and the Story of the gospel of Jesus Christ, compel me to go. I pray it will compel you as well.

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The Great Commission Studies (CGCS) is the hub of Southeastern's Great Commission efforts, helping develop students and faculty members who are Great Commission servants of their local churches. The CGCS serves the Southeastern community in four major areas: academics, research, mobilization, and convention relationships.

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