Serampore Reflections: Christ, the Grand Means of Conversion

This is the third of several posts reflecting upon the Serampore Form of Agreement, signed in 1805. Click here to read the first reflection and here for the second.

William Carey and his first convert, Krishna Pal

In addition to the Serampore missionaries’ emphasis on the value of souls as well as their willingness to forsake all for the sake of the gospel, their singular emphasis on preaching Christ should remind each of us that salvation is found in no other name. There may be other messages profitable to our hearers—there may be other causes worthy of our time and attention—but there are not other messages with the power to save.

The doctrine of Christ’s expiatory death and all-sufficient merits has been, and must ever remain, the grand means of conversion. This doctrine, and others immediately connected with it, have constantly nourished and sanctified the church. Oh! that these glorious truths may ever be the joy and strength of our own souls, and then they will not fail to become the matter of our conversation to others.

Added to this emphasis is their recognition that once they have led a soul to Christ, they have a responsibility to continue investing in that person’s holiness and growth in Christ. They wrote, “We must be willing to spend time with them daily, if possible.” The task of the missionary is not mere cross-cultural evangelism; the Great Commission instructs us to make disciples, not mere converts.

In so doing, the disciple is encouraged to grow in his knowledge of the Scripture and in his obedience to it. As he studies the Word of God and grows in his obedience, he is to be encouraged to cultivate his spiritual gifts.

The Serampore missionaries understood, “it is only by means of native preachers that we can hope for the universal spread of the gospel through this immense continent. . . . Let us therefore use every gift, and continually urge on our native brethren to upon their countrymen the glorious gospel of the blessed God.” As such, the missionaries’ aim was not the perpetuation of their responsibilities in India, but rather the development and maturation of their hearers to the point that they were able to establish autonomous churches in which indigenous pastors were called.

And in support of each of these endeavors—the conversion and discipleship of their hearers, the development of their spiritual gifts and the establishment of autonomous churches with indigenous leadership—the missionaries gave themselves unceasingly to the acquisition of languages and the translation of the Bible into native languages.

Though many of us reading this post will never find ourselves ministering in Serampore and living in India, the Serampore Form of Agreement contains a number of helpful reminders.

May the Lord remind each of us . . .

  • to set an infinite value upon men’s souls.
  • to acquaint ourselves with the snares which hold the minds of the people.
  • to abstain from whatever deepens the lost’s prejudice against the gospel.
  • to watch for every chance of doing the people good.
  • to preach “Christ crucified” as the grand means of conversion.
  • to esteem and treat those of every race always as our equals.
  • to guard and build up “the hosts that may be gathered.”
  • to cultivate their spiritual gifts, ever pressing upon them their missionary obligation.
  • to labor unceasingly in biblical translation.
  • to give ourselves without reserve to the Cause, “not counting even the clothes we wear our own.”

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Serampore Reflections: Cultural Exploration and Sacrifice

This is the second of several posts reflecting upon the Serampore Form of Agreement, signed in 1805. Click here to read the first reflection.

In addition to the infinite value of immortal souls, readers today can also take note of the Serampore missionaries’ emphasis on cultural exploration and personal sacrifice.

The Serampore Trio: William Carey, Joshua Marshman, William Ward

In much the same way that John Stott encouraged preachers to be “bridge-builders”—tying the biblical world to the contemporary world (See Between Two Worlds)—the Serampore missionaries emphasized the need to connect the world of Scripture to their missionary context. In order to do that, however, their context demanded their attention and exploration.

To know their modes of thinking, their habits, their propensities, their antipathies, the way in which they reason about God, sin, holiness, the way of salvation, and a future state ; to be aware of the bewitching nature of their idolatrous worship, feasts, songs, &c., is one of the highest consequence, if we would gain their attention to our discourse . . .

In addition to exploring and understanding their cultural context for the purpose of relating their thoughts concerning holy things to the Word of God, the Serampore missionaries sought to use their knowledge to diminish the likelihood that they would be unnecessarily offensive to the cultural sensitivities of those in India. As has been observed and stated so often before, the gospel may be an offense to those who are perishing; we need not be offensive in our communication of it.

These English missionaries understood that there would be some major cultural differences, but emphasized that, “Paul’s readiness to become all things to all men, that he might by any means save some, and his disposition to abstain from necessary comforts that he might not offend the weak, are circumstances worthy of our particular notice.”

Without beginning a new debate unnecessarily, at the very least, we should acknowledge that if the best reason one can give for participating in a given behavior that may be considered offensive (drinking alcohol or smoking cigars, for instance) is his freedom in Christ, perhaps he misunderstands entirely the manner Paul understood this freedom.

These missionaries, however, did not. Their willingness to jettison any cultural distinctions that may have been a hindrance to the lost hearing the gospel should inspire many of us to do the very same. They were interested in converting those in India to become biblical, not British, Christians.

Finally on this point, their willingness to forsake all for the sake of the gospel should inspire us today.

Let us give ourselves up unreservedly to this glorious cause. Let us never think that our time, our gifts, our strengths, our families, or even the clothes we wear, are our own. Let us sanctify them all to God and his cause…. Let us continually watch against a worldly spirit, and cultivate a Christian indifference towards every indulgence. Rather let us bear hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, and endeavour to learn in every state to be content.

May God grant each of his children such a singular resolve.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Serampore Reflections: The Infinite Value of Immortal Souls

This is the first of several posts reflecting upon the Serampore Form of Agreement, signed in 1805.

It is absolutely necessary that we set an infinite value upon immortal souls; that we often endeavour to affect our minds with the dreadful loss sustained by an unconverted soul launched into eternity.

Two great concerns are foundational to any missionary endeavor or evangelistic effort: a love for God and a concern for souls. As the famed C.S. Lewis once wrote in The Weight of Glory (1949), “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

The first statement demonstrated the Serampore missionaries’ utmost commitment—to seek the salvation of the lost in their midst. Far too many pastors have become distracted by the needs around them and have lost focus. As my childhood youth minister would often say, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

The fourth item on the list reads, “To watch for every chance of doing the people good.” Service and care are important aspects of the missionary duty. They are, however, not the ultimate priority.

Increasingly, it has become common to see churches with established programs to feed the hungry, build homes, partner with clean water ministries, and any number of other service-oriented programs while lacking an evangelistic impulse. This must not be. Community needs and societal justice are important, to be sure. But not most important.

Like the Serampore missionaries, our first concern must be that the lost around us are given the opportunity to hear the gospel. As I have been told the late Roy Fish said, in 100 years, the only thing that will matter is where a person stands with Jesus. Building from that statement, we must remember that in 100 years, a person will either be standing with Jesus or suffering the torment of hell.

And the Serampore missionaries’ efforts were spurred, in part, by the the reality of hell. To speak of eternal punishment in our culture is to draw the ire of many—among Christians and non-believers. It is not a pleasant thought, but it is an inescapable thought if we are to take the words of Jesus seriously. The existence of a place of eternal torment should motivate us to share the gospel, and to do so with urgent appeals that the lost respond to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith.

If hell is real (and it is) and hell is hot (and it is) and those enter into eternity apart from Christ go there (and they do), then the value of each soul demands our unceasing efforts. This was evident in the Serampore mission and must be so among us as well.

As John Stott was careful to remind us, however, “The highest of missionary motives is neither obedience to the Great Commission (important as that is), nor love for sinners who are alienated and perishing (strong as that incentive is), but rather a burning and passionate zeal for the glory of Jesus Christ.” The value of souls should be a driving motivation, but not the ultimate motivation.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

The Serampore Form of Agreement

I am often encouraged and inspired by the actions of the men who participated in the Baptist Missionary Society during the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Their commitment to the gospel serves as an example worthy of emulation.

In 1805 (twelve years after William Carey had initially sailed to India), nine missionaries gathered and added their signatures to William Ward’s initial draft listing their shared commitment. William Carey’s name was affixed first, followed by Joshua Marshman and William Ward. Below their names, those of John Chamberland, Richard Mardon, John Biss, William Moore, Joshua Rowe, and Felix Carey (William’s son) were added.

Respecting the great principles upon which the brethren of the Mission at Serampore, think it their duty to act in the work of instructing the heathen.

  1. To set an infinite value upon men’s souls.
  2. To acquaint ourselves with the snares which hold the minds of the people.
  3. To abstain from whatever deepens India’s prejudice against the gospel.
  4. To watch for every chance of doing the people good.
  5. To preach “Christ crucified” as the grand means of conversion.
  6. To esteem and treat Indians always as our equals.
  7. To guard and build up “the hosts that may be gathered.”
  8. To cultivate their spiritual gifts, ever pressing upon them their missionary obligation, since Indians only can win India for Christ.
  9. To labor unceasingly in biblical translation.
  10. To give ourselves without reserve to the Cause, “not counting even the clothes we wear our own.”

Such was their devotion to these principles that the signers committed to reading the agreement publicly at each mission station at least three times per year.

In my reading, perhaps what stands out most is not that their endeavors were unique, but instead how applicable these policies are to our present-day missions and evangelistic efforts. Simply by substituting our present contexts for India, every church—every believer—should be eager to advocate for such policies.

In upcoming posts, I hope to explore some of the theological commitments that seem to have undergirded this statement, but before doing so, it seems worth asking,

What about these principles stand out most to you?

Posts in this series

*Historical note: The list appears to be drawn from the headings provided by Samuel Pearce Carey (1862–1953)—grandson of both William Carey and Samuel Pearce.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.