Why is Bible translation an important missions ministry?

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The Word of God must be at the core of all missions strategy. Without the Word of God, no ministry can be satisfactorily performed—

  • the Word provides the authority for ministry,
  • the instruction for ministry,
  • the power of ministry, and
  • the message of ministry.

To all of this nearly all agree. But what we too often neglect is how Bible translation fits into missions strategy.

Bible Translation and Evangelism

First of all, James 1:18 and 1 Peter 1:23 declare that the new birth itself is by means of the Word of God. That means that a missionary must speak from the Bible in the language of the people in order to evangelize. Even unbelievers need the Bible in their language—whether spoken or written. For many of the world’s languages that requires that someone translate the Bible into the heart language of the people to whom the missionary proclaims the gospel concerning Jesus Christ.

  • Without the conversion of unbelievers, there can be no believers.
  • Without believers, there can be no church.

The whole process of church planting requires beginning by preaching the gospel of Christ to unbelievers in a language they can understand. Even for Israel, the “word of Christ” produces faith (Romans 10:17)–the Word of God is indispensable to salvation for anyone.

Bible Translation and Edification of Believers

When the Holy Spirit regenerates the ungodly through the proclamation of the gospel of Christ from the written Word of God, the Bible, believers produced by that process need to be nurtured. God has provided His Word for building up the new believer (Acts 20:32), for sanctifying each one (John 17:17). God appointed the church as the institution for instructing believers through the teaching and preaching of His Word and He will cleanse His church with the washing of His Word (Ephesians 5:26). Indeed, pastors and elders whom God appoints over each church are responsible to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). How shall they preach, if they do not have the Word of God in the language of the people to whom they are preaching? Listen to the Word,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)

Bible Translation and an Effective Church

Paul encouraged believers to be “lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (Philippians 2:15–16). Thus we learn that we must all hold fast to the Word of God—obeying it, teaching it, living it—to fulfill what God has designed for His people, the Church. How can any believer hold fast to the Word of God without the Word of God in their own language?

As believers in the church, we must allow

the word of Christ [to] dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God. (Colossians 1:16)

Again, without the Word of God in the spoken language of a local church, the church cannot function as God designed it to function. The Word of God is at work in every believer in the church (1 Thessalonians 2:13)—something the Word cannot do if it does not exist in a language that each believer understands. In fact, the Bible itself comprises the one single written document that every church must have in order to fulfill the Lord’s mandates for His people in His church.

Bible Translation and the Missions of the Church

What is the mission of the church? It is to take the Word of God to others, just like those in the church at Thessalonika from whom “the word of the Lord sounded forth . . . in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:8). Therefore, in order for each new church to get involved in missions and church planting, they must take with them the Word of God. If the people to whom they go do not understand the missionary’s language, the missionary must either translate the Bible on the fly, extemporaneously, as he preaches in their language, or he must preach from a translation in their language.

Bible Translation as a Significant Challenge

In order to understand the enormity of the task of Bible translation, we must look at the thousands of languages for which there is not even a translated portion of Scripture. According to Wycliffe Bible translation statistics for 2016, out of over seven thousand languages spoken today only 636 have a complete Bible. A complete New Testament has been translated in only 1,442 languages. In over 2,400 languages men and women are actively pursuing Bible translation projects, endeavoring to make the Word of God available for more than 434 million people speaking those languages. That still leaves at least 1,800 languages representing 253 million people who do not have the written Word of God in their own language. Whom will the church send to accomplish this immense work? Unbelievers? Men and women without adequate training in the biblical languages, theology, Bible backgrounds, and other essential areas of preparation? Will we rely upon agencies who are not committed to the inerrancy of Scripture? Will we rely upon those who are unconcerned about excellence and accuracy in Bible translation—faithfulness to the original languages by which God gave His Word?

Conclusion

Here is our brief summary:

  • No one ever gets saved from their sins apart from the Word of God in a language they understand.
  • No evangelist and no preacher can fulfill the Lord’s mandate to proclaim His Word unless they are preaching from the Word of God in the language of those who hear their preaching and teaching.
  • No church can exist without the written Word of God in the language of the believers who comprise that assembly.
  • No church can fulfill the Lord’s purpose for His Church without taking the Word of God to other peoples in other languages—requiring that a Bible be translated into the languages of all the peoples to whom they go.

Indeed, I will be even blunter. The first requirement for all ministry is the Word of God in the language of the people to whom we minister.

  • There can be no evangelism without a Bible translation.
  • There can be no church planting without a Bible translation.

So why do churches treat Bible translation as something secondary or unnecessary? Why do they say, “We only send gospel preachers”? Or, “We only send church planters”? My dear brethren, those servants of Christ cannot do their work without the written Word of God in the language of the people to whom they go! Where are they going to get it? What will the churches do to get their priorities in a proper order?

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William Barrick

About William Barrick

Dr. William D. Barrick served as professor of Old Testament and director of Th.D. studies at The Master’s Seminary from 1997 to 2015. He remains active in ministry as a theologian and a linguistics expert whose service, writings, and translations have spanned numerous nations and languages. From 1981-1996 he served as a Bible translator, teacher, church planter, and administrator in Bangladesh. He is also the Old Testament editor of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary from Logos Bible Software. He is also involved as a director of Canyon Ministries helping to lead biblical studies trips in the Grand Canyon. For 19 years he has served as a lay elder and Bible teacher at Placerita Bible Church, Newhall, CA. He continues to teach seminars for various training centers with The Master’s Academy International and is secretary/treasurer for Lincoln Global Group (Albania). Bill and Barbara have been married 50 years and have four married children and fourteen grandchildren.