A particular tweet from an influential doctor got my attention this morning for its unapologetic zeal when it comes to getting the world vaccinated:
“Reaching the unreached.” This sounds a lot like we talk in my Baptist circles when it comes to missions. And, like Dr. Frieden, I talk this way unapologetically.
Of course, we’re talking about vastly different things we want to reach the world with: Dr. Friedman wants to reach the world with a COVID vaccine. Not an ignoble goal. (And regardless of what you think about the aggressive efforts of world governments and the corresponding medical communities to get everyone vaccinated, this article is not first and foremost a critique of the vaxxers.1 ) On the other hand, I want to reach the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dr. Frieden wants to reach the world for vaccines; I want to reach the world for Christ.
At this point, I want to put the lens of my concern squarely on the church and pastors in particular. And in this Dr. Frieden is helpful. How so? By indicting gospel ministers for a lack of zeal when it comes to the issue of greatest importance, namely, the salvation of lost souls. Are we, as pastors, as earnest for conversions to Christ as Dr. Frieden is for “conversions” to vaccines? His evangelistic zeal for temporal health is commendable and forces me to consider if I am as concerned (if not more so) for the eternal health [read: salvation] of people. Dr. Friedmen’s Twitter bio reads in part, “Focused on saving lives.” Great. My concern is that too many pastors would be disingenuous in having that in their Twitter bio. Is the typical evangelical pastor “focused on saving lives” for eternity? Do we remember (or even know) what is at stake?
BAXTER AND THE MISERY OF THE UNCONVERTED
In a different era, but with a similar concern, the English Puritan Richard Baxter called his fellow clergy to reform. He dared to become their “monitor.” In doing so, Baxter understood the risk to his reputation as many of his peers would consider him arrogant and immodest for airing his concerns in plain English. Thankfully, Baxter counted his reputation less important than the glory of God, the welfare of the church, and the salvation of people. Baxter sought to crystalize in the minds of his colleagues the misery of the unconverted as a means of spurring his co-laborers on in evangelistic zeal:
We must labor, in a special manner, for the conversion of the unconverted. The work of conversion is the first and great thing we must drive at; after this we must labor with all our might. Alas! the misery of the unconverted is so great, that it calleth loudest to us for compassion. . . .They ‘are in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity,’ and have yet no part nor fellowship in the pardon of their sins, or the hope of glory. We have, therefore, a work of greater necessity to do for them, even ‘to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God; that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and an inheritance among them that are sanctified.’ . . . It is so sad a case to see men in a state of damnation, wherein, if they should die, they are lost forever, that methinks we should not be able to let them alone, either in public or private, whatever other work we may have to do. I confess, I am frequently forced to neglect that which should tend to the further increase of knowledge in the godly, because of the lamentable necessity of the unconverted. Who is able to talk of controversies, or of nice unnecessary points, or even of truths of a lower degree of necessity, how excellent soever, while he sees a company of ignorant, carnal, miserable sinners before his eyes, who must be changed or damned? Methinks I even see them entering upon their final woe! Methinks I hear them crying out for help, for speediest help! Their misery speaks the louder, because they have not hearts to ask for themselves.2
Do we hear the cries of the unconverted in our communities? In our churches? Pastors, in seems, are far quicker to engage in the latest social media spat, than to labor for the conversion of lost sinners. How many threads, after all, are serving the cause of the lost—the lost in our own churches or communities? Baxter’s rhetorical question is one the “social media pastor” needs to hear: “Who is able to talk of controversies, or of nice unnecessary points, or even of truths of a lower degree of necessity, how excellent soever, while he sees a company of ignorant, carnal, miserable sinners before his eyes, who must be changed or damned?” Some of us need to put our phones and laptops away, and actually talk to the unbelievers in our midst.
THE EVANGELISTIC ZEAL OF THE VAXXER AND US
Dr. Friedmen and his army of pro-vaxxers are something to behold. They are working tirelessly to get a COVID vaccine into as many arms and in the quickest timeframe as is humanly possible. By his own admission, he is giving his life to “reaching the unreached with vaccines.”
Can we say the same with respect to the gospel? Are we giving our lives to reaching the unreached for Christ? I have no hesitancy in saying that our gospel mission is greater than the pro-vaxx mission. Indeed, our mission has an eye to eternity. Is Dr. Friedman outworking us in his efforts for vaccines when compared to our efforts for the unconverted? Let us be able to say with respect to the world’s efforts to vaccinate what the Apostle Paul was able to say to the Corinthians with respect to the gospel: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).
To be clear about my perspective, I am not an anti-vaxxer. That said, I am uneasy with the (overly?) aggressive efforts to see that all people get vaccinated with various degrees of cultural pressure put on those people who are making principled and informed decisions to abstain from this particular vaccine (with all the unknowns given the rush to get this vaccine to market). I do not believe it is at all unreasonable, given what we’ve learned about COVID, to wait on a vaccine that has full FDA approval and more time to consider the risks.
Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Banner of Truth, 1656/1994), 94-95.