Remembering David Hesselgrave (1924–2018)

The longest shadows are cast just before sunset. David Hesselgrave’s life and work burned brightly while on earth, and he continues to cast a long shadow of legacy even after his death at age ninety-four. I count it an honor to stand on his shoulders as a Christian brother, missiologist, and servant in God’s kingdom.

Hesselgrave and his wife, Gertrude, served as missionaries with the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) in Japan for twelve years. After this time, he returned to the US to direct the missions department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS). Hesselgrave gave shape to the missions faculty, which in turn wielded tremendous influence within the world of evangelical missiology.

He held this post from 1965 until his retirement in 1991. Hesselgrave was also instrumental, along with Donald McGavran, in founding the Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS). This organization exists to catalyze missions leaders and scholars in order to advance the thinking and doing of evangelical missiology consistent with an orthodox biblical perspective.

In considering Hesselgrave’s influence and impact, his work has taught me four things.

1. Scholarship and missions go together.

Hesselgrave was one of the most significant voices in missiology in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. So great was his influence, Ed Setzer, who coauthored the book, MissionShift with Hesselgrave, has labeled him the “dean of evangelical missiology.” By Hesselgrave’s own admission, he was always writing. He published dozens of books, articles, and chapters all in an effort to equip the saints for faithful service in kingdom work.

I was introduced to one of his most well-known works, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, as a young seminarian preparing for the mission field. Known affectionately as “the blue monster,” it’s a classic in the field of cross-cultural communication. This book weds academic rigor with real-world application. All of Hesselgrave’s writings are filled with biblically based arguments that flow into practical application points. His desire wasn’t for academic prowess but for kingdom-equipping that facilitated gospel impact.

2. Proclaiming the gospel message is central to missions.

At every turn, Hesselgrave emphasized the centrality of Christ, the Bible, and proclaiming the gospel message. While there is a place for the social sciences (think anthropology, linguistics, history, and so on) in missions, these are secondary to the Bible and the gospel message. To borrow again from Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, he writes, “If the Christian mission were something to be played, communication would be the name of the game. As it is, the Christian mission is serious business—the King’s business! In it, missionaries have ambassadorial rank. Their special task is to cross cultural and other boundaries in order to communicate Christ.”

When discussing the use of common ground in evangelism and interreligious dialogue in his book, Paradigms in Conflict, Hesselgrave highlights the unequivocal uniqueness of Christianity and importance of declaring Christ.

After all, the Christian faith (in its revelation if not always in its practice) is absolutely unique. There is no other faith like it. No other God; no other Christ; no other Calvary; no other empty tomb; no other redemption; no other salvation; no other heaven. That being the case, when the objective is to convert and disciple people, communication often will be enhanced by pointing out differences.

Hesselgrave never wavered in his commitment to gospel proclamation. Without a focus on Christ and the gospel message, missions is robbed of its significance.

3. Humility and charity are vital partners in missiological discussion.

These virtues are on full display in all of Hesselgrave’s works and interactions. He consistently sought to understand opposing viewpoints and then responded with humility and charity. When reading Hesselgrave, one never finds a spirit of arrogance, nor does one find a belittling of other opinions.

“David Hesselgrave was a missionary and scholar in service to the church.”

His work in founding the Evangelical Missiological Society was an example of his desire to provide a place where differing voices could learn from one another in order that greater progress be made in Great Commission work. In Planting Churches Cross-Culturally, Hesselgrave reminds us that the aim of the Great Commission is gathered disciples: “The primary mission of the church, and therefore, of the churches is to proclaim the gospel of Christ and gather believers into local churches where they can be built up in the faith and made effective in service.”

For Hesselgrave the goal of learning from one another was to be better equipped to make disciples and plant churches.

4. Faithful legacy includes both private and public life.

Hesselgrave was always concerned with others. First and foremost, he demonstrated this in his private life. He and his wife were married for over seventy-three years. Throughout his life, Hesselgrave was a constant model of commitment and care to his wife and their family.

This care and concern also extended to future generations. In one of his later published essays, “Saving the Future of Evangelical Missions,” he notes a caution for the coming generations of students, professors, pastors, and missionaries.

[S]ound biblical theology must be allowed to effect its work in sending as well as receiving churches and missions. Retired pastor of Moody Church, Warren Wiersbe, states the caution well: “. . . doctrine and devotion have been joined together by God and . . . no man dare put them asunder. Our understanding of doctrine ought to lead us into greater devotion to Christ, and our deeper devotion ought to make us better servants and soul winners.

Once again, you see his commitment to the centrality of Christ, the Bible, and proclaiming the gospel message.

Hesselgrave served the church and fulfilled the Great Commission with integrity and humility. His life and work can be summed up best in his own words: “Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. Though in seemingly inconsequential ways by comparison, I too have loved the church and given myself for her.”

Hesselgrave was a missionary and scholar in service to the church.

We should be grateful for Dr. Hesselgrave—his life, work, and enduring legacy.

Greg Mathias is assistant professor of global studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.