I often hear well-intentioned people equate The Great Commission with the Church’s role in God’s global mission. That is to say, they see “go and make disciples of all nations” as defining the mission of the church today. This view of mission, however, is incomplete. Jesus’ instructions to the 150 or so disciples who were present to watch Him ascend into heaven certainly apply to the church today, but it isn’t the entirety of our mission on this earth.
Let me explain:
Throughout the scriptures, God interacts with humans by sending them to accomplish His purposes. He rarely just pops into human history simply to say hello. He sends His people.
- “Go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1)
- “Go and speak to the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 3:1)
- “Who shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:9).
- “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (Jonah 1:2; 3:1)
- “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3)
The problem is that God send so often, we have to determine when He was sending all Christians for all times in all places, and when He was simply talking to an individual person. At times, God sent individuals (and sometimes groups) to do specific things in His name. In Luke 10, He sent 72 of His followers ahead of Him. In Luke 19, He commanded a couple disciples to borrow a colt for His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. While we recognize the broader application and meaning of these “commissions,” we don’t necessarily interpret these commands as being universal. The question is this: was Jesus speaking to the universal church when He commanded His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations?” The answer, of course, is yes. And no.
As Christopher Write points out in “The Mission of God’s People,” there’s little evidence that the Great Commission served as the primary motivator of the early church’s missionary expansion. In fact Jesus’ words in Matthew 28 aren’t referred to again in the New Testament.
So there must have been something else that compelled (and propelled) God’s people to deliberately cross cultures with the gospel. They certainly went out boldly proclaiming Christ– most of the apostles were killed for talking about Jesus.
Wright asserts that the “something else” was the early church’s understanding of who they were as God’s people. The disciples knew God’s story, and the Great Commission was their place in it. We find ourselves in that same story. Our sentness doesn’t just lie in Christ’s commands to go, but in our identity as His body and bride. He sent his disciples, (and sends us) just as the Father had sent Him.
In Christ, we are God’s called-out people who are then sent back into the world. Sent to do what? Yes, to make disciples. But also to be salt and light. To love our neighbors. To make peace. To care for widows and orphans. To build up the church. To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
We are a people on mission, but we have not only been sent once.
This is the second part of my response to Jason Bolt, who wrote that I am confused about cessationism and mission. For Part 1, see: Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 1
However, he immediately contradicts himself by saying, “Even if someone meets all the criteria for service, we cannot assume it is good to send him out.” Let me get this strait. The calling is secretly and mystically received by an individual, and then the calling is affirmed by the local church. However, the local church does not send the person based upon whether or not he meets all the criteria. Exactly what, then, is the role of the local church? Goodman does not say. What is clear is that Goodman believes the local church should send missionaries based upon something other than what is written in the pages of the Bible.
That’s me, a walking contradiction.
My point here is that our criteria for sending is not only some checklist of qualities and qualifications, but also a spiritual unity of the sending church. This is reached through prayer (and sometimes fasting), as the Spirit of God brings the opinions of the pastors in line with Christ (who is the head of the church). Paul and Barnabas weren’t sent out simply because they were good missionary candidates, they were sent because the Spirit “set them apart” and showed that to the church as they worshipped.
If a person meets all the criteria and wants to go, the local church should send him. It’s that simple. We don’t need mystic revelation to reach these wise and good conclusions.
What are the criteria for “missionary?” Where do these come from? What is the candidate is qualified, yet doesn’t want to go? What if he’s both qualified and willing to be sent, but he is needed in his local church? Why should we “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38) if God has nothing to do with the calling and sending of his people?
Scripture very clearly tells us that the mission of the Church is to teach all the nations to obey what Christ has commanded.
It sounds like Pastor Bolt is equating “the mission of the church” to the “Great Commission.” I’d encourage him to read more of the Bible (and not just the classic “sending” passages) in light of the Sending. In his book, The Mission Of God’s People, C. Wright points out that if the Great Commission is the totality of the church’s motivation for mission, why isn’t it mentioned again in the New Testament? I’m not saying that it isn’t a very succinct and central commissioning of God’s people on His mission, but the mission of the church is founded on more than one passage of scripture. We know from the whole counsel of Scripture that we serve a God who has always sent His people. With that in mind, the mission of God’s people is to obey Him in His mission to glorify Himself through the redemption of His creation.
Using statistics and ethnography to figure out where those nations are located is wise and good. Why do we need the Holy Spirit to secretly tell us to minister among a certain people when God has already told us to minister among all people?
I’m a little less trustful of human wisdom than the Pastor seems to be. Human wisdom was reflected in the number of men Gideon brought to battle before God reduced their numbers from 32,000 to 300 (Judges 7). Human wisdom values efficiency and effectiveness, neither of which are necessarily Kingdom values. We’ve all seen as much damage done by “It just makes sense” as by “God told me to.”
God has indeed told us to make disciples of all nations. Not to nitpick, but a single ministry to “all people” is not possible. You can’t reach out in every direction at once. With which tribe, language, or nation will you begin? How does a church determine where to allocate resources and where to pass up perfectly good opportunities? When is the work in a particular place finished? Like Paul, we rely on the Spirit to show us where to engage.
As I’ve explained here on the blog before, equating the biblical terminology “nations” to the modernistic concept of “ethnolinguistic people groups” is a relatively new thing. It makes perfect sense to define mission from this anthropological perspective if you believe that God no longer interacts with His people in real-time.
Evangelism: Goodman argues that the evangelist is supposed to say different things to different people and that the only way he can know what to say to specific people is for the Holy Spirit to mystically and secretly tell him what to say to specific people.
The great thing about the gospel is that you can communicate it in any number of ways. When He was questioned, Jesus would sometimes answer plainly, sometimes with a story or a question. Paul did the same, quoting local poets and citing cultural traditions in his presentations of the gospel. Some preach it from a pulpit, others share it one-on-one. Some start with our hope in Christ, others begin with “all have sinned.” How you present the gospel is a huge factor in how it’s received. The work of the missionary is to translate the universal, unchanging Good News into dynamic, ever-changing, sinful culture. This work is never finished (this side of heaven), and it takes a certain amount of skill to do well.
Fortunately, the eternal destiny of the nations does not depend on my speaking ability. I’m sure Pastor Bolt is pretty skilled at interpersonal communication, but I sometimes struggle. I depend on God to speak through me– to use the inadequate words of an inadequate man to communicate a universal, divine Truth.
However, orthodox Christianity teaches that the evangelist is to proclaim the gospel. He is to proclaim the gospel to man, woman, Jew, Greek, slave, and freeman alike. The Bible very clearly reveals what the gospel is, so there is no reason for the evangelist to seek extra-biblical guidance as to what to say to any specific person.
Which clear biblical presentation is Pastor Bolt referring to here? 1 Corinthians 15:1-8? John 3:16? Romans 3:23? There isn’t one single way to communicate that God sent His Son to die in place of sinful, undeserving people and rose again to the glory of the Father. This is why we ask God to give us the words (mystically or otherwise) that will clearly communicate the message to our audience.
Hopefully, all of this is beneficial to our readers.
Next: Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 3
I recently mentioned a blogger who has called me “confused” about cessationism and missiology. Jason Bolt, elder at Truth Reformed Bible Church in Golden, Colorado, is the author of that post, and he’s graciously offered to engage with me in a bit of dialog about the matter. Here is the first part of my response:
Goodman argues that Reformed missionaries take some “theological leaps” in order to arrive at their view of the sufficiency of Scripture.
I believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. I believe that it is the complete revelation of God for mankind. I also believe, however, that God does not leave us to our own devices in the interpretation of Scripture. Rather, He has given us the Holy Spirit, who illuminates the scriptures to us.
He then goes on to explain how the Holy Spirit orchestrates mission efforts by secretly and mystically communicating to individual missionaries.
Of course, I didn’t actually write “secretly” or “mystically,” that’s Pastor Bolt’s commentary on my position. God’s will is plain for all to read (where the scripture is available to them). It’s the understanding and application of that will that requires the intervention of the Spirit. As I mentioned in my post, this doesn’t happen “secretly,” but in the context of the local church. The church is the context for interpreting God’s Word and discerning how to respond in obedience.
Revelation is information about God. Illumination is about us; God shows us how to respond to His truth. It is why we pray for wisdom (which is also not “extra-biblical revelation”). Pastor Bolt may find this to be “mystical,” but the Bible refers to it as spiritual (Romans 8:2-6).
“No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” (1 Corinthians 2:11b-13)
The Spirit doesn’t give us some new, secret revelation. He guides us in our understanding of what God has already said. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he heard he will speak.” (John 16:13)
Left to our ourselves, our sinful minds misunderstand and misinterpret the Scriptures. We twist and distort the truth at our convenience and we naturally “exchange the truth about God for a lie.” This is why Paul greets the Ephesian church by praying that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.” (Ephesians 1:17-18)
With Goodman’s insistence on seeking the revelation of God’s secret will outside of the Bible, he rejects the sufficiency of Scripture in practice. If he believed the Scripture to be sufficient, there would be no need for him to seek God’s secret will outside of the Bible.
And so we come to the question of mission. If we conclude that the Spirit of God is silent today, how would one ever come to interpret Matthew 28:19-20 as motivation to move to Northern India? Based solely on a human reading of scripture, how does a church determine where to focus their efforts in mission? How does a church come to prioritize one need over another unless God helps them interpret “as the Father has sent me, even so I send you”? This is why Paul reminds the Roman church that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are Sons of God.” (Romans 8:14)
The point of my original post was to explore why some of my favorite reformed theologians continue to promote an anthropological view of mission. If they believe that the Spirit does not communicate to His people today, it makes sense that they would approach mission as a list of names to be checked off of a list. The problem is that this approach to mission is not demonstrated anywhere in Scripture.
Perhaps Pastor Bolt may be able to help me understand. But in the meantime, I can’t help but think that it’s due to a certain amount of Modernism that they’ve adopted; one that values human logic, effort, and scholarship over the the Lord’s leadership.
Next: Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 2
As I think about the Christmas story, I can’t get Galatians 4:4 off my mind.
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”
The fullness of time.
Dr. Thom Wolf says that the “fullness of time” relates back to Ecclesiastes 1:9- “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun;” That humanity had progressed as far as we ever would; there would be no new worldviews, philosophies, or ideas (maybe “improvements” and syntheses of old ones). Once we had tried everything, literally exhausted our options at attempts at godhood, Christ entered the picture.
Look around. There really aren’t any new ideas. Looking for salvation, even a temporary one, people still turn to the lusts of the eyes and the lusts of the flesh. While chasing after these things may be easier than ever, they are no more functional as saviors than they were in Jesus’ day.
Jesus’ arrival in the manger so long ago meant salvation for humanity- a salvation we had tried so desperately to earn, invent, discover, buy, steal, or create. God’s timing was this: when we were at our end, He stepped into history to provide a way.
Thank you, Jesus, for lowering yourself to our level.
Happy Christmas, everyone!
This is my 9th post in a series on developing a new missiology.
Previously: Access Isn’t Everything
The truth is, our missiology comes down to our understanding of who God is and how active He is in the spread of the gospel.
What is the goal of missions? For some, it’s a crusade against other world religions; the Christianization of the world. For others, missions is the ultimate act of compassion, a rush to save people before they die and go to hell. Still others might say it’s about fulfilling our responsibility to preach the good news; what “the heathen” does with that is between him and God.
Most missiologists since Ralph Winter say that the goal of missions is to reach unreached people groups. This anthropological approach to missions gave rise to prioritization of “sowing fields” over “harvest fields.” Somewhere along the way, this perspective was mashed up with John 24:14 (“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”), and the goal became “to bring Jesus back.” Then John Piper jumped into the fray with his book Let the Nations Be Glad, encouraging the church to refocus missions on giving God “the most glory.” “Missions exists,” he wrote, “because worship does not.” Then came the sliding scale of the degrees of glory.
The problem is that most current missiologies were formulated from the “limited divine involvement” perspective. All the mapping, categorizing, and prioritizing was done as the church’s attempt to do what they were “left” by God to do. Even John Piper’s take on missions (and yes, I’m treading lightly here) seems to assume much free-agency on the part of the church when it comes to missions (sorting out which activities and strategies would bring God the most glory). But Jesus’ promise to go with us must be key to our missiology; he often leads His people in very specific ways, and more often than not, those ways are counter-intuitive.
At the root of this conversation is the question of God’s participation in the spread of the gospel. Scripture says that God wills that none would perish (2 Peter 9), yet we know that many have, are, and will. Does a people group’s destiny depend on us? On one end of the spectrum, we find the “Their blood is on our hands” crowd who love to quote Ezekiel 3:18-19 (however out of context). At the other extreme, we have the Particulars who say, “When God pleases to convert the heathen world, He will do it without your help or mine.” Is God limited to the means He’s established for the spread of the gospel, (namely, us)? Or is He a relentless sovereign who will accomplish His will whether or not His people obey Him?
If you see God’s role as limited (whether that limitation be self-imposed or otherwise), it makes sense that you would be driven by compassion to get the word out as effectively and efficiently as possible (and at all costs). If, however, you believe that He is saving the elect, and will do so with or without your help thank you very much, then your motivation to mission is less about the need and more about the fact that we have been sent.
Of course, we need both compassion and obedience. We need plans and strategies, preparation and wisdom. Not to over simplify, but two views prevail: either you believe that God gave the Church this task of reaching the unreached and has then left us to get the job done, or you believe that God is orchestrating the spread of the gospel from person to person (or, if you prefer, people group to people group,) and sends us as important but ultimately expendable means.
To truly understand the kind of Spirit-led, callsourced missiology that I’ve proposed here, we must assume God’s micromanagement of the spread of the gospel to all nations. As Ezekiel 36:26-27 says, “I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my ways.” We have not been left to invent a winning strategy that will accomplish God’s purposes for Him, nor is He helplessly waiting for the church to “finish the task” so that He can return. No, God’s Spirit guides, directs, and leads us into His redemptive work among the peoples of the earth. Our part– our blessing– as sent ones is to obediently go and to stay in tune with Him enough to hear His voice and follow His direction.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how we market missions. I know there are lots of people out there trying to advocate for unreached people and raise support for missionaries working among them. But usually, it seems that missions marketers (they prefer the word “mobilizers) appeal to the “doing” side of things. They cite statistics and show pictures of unreached peoples in an effort to motivate people to action.
What I rarely hear, though, is the “being” argument for missions. That followers of Jesus will constantly be frustrated spiritually until they get on mission. You’re not a real Christian unless you’re a going Christian.
The value of marketing missions as “being” is that it moves us away from worldly metrics (how many, how difficult, how lost), and toward Godly ones (obedience, Christ-likeness, prayer). Missions as being helps people understand who they are in Christ. It establishes a posture for every aspect of life. Framing the conversation around being changes the way we think about missions. Instead of focusing on what missionaries do (construction, medical care, preaching, evangelism), we can focus on who missionaries are (sinners who obediently move in and between cultures to incarnate the gospel). We often hear “I don’t want to do that” but rarely would someone say, “I don’t want to be that.”
I’m convinced that ministry these days is far too pragmatic. Missionaries desperate to see tangible results busy themselves searching for “what works.” Missions strategies and approaches to ministry are almost always based on whether or not they seem likely to produce results.
On a pretty regular basis, I receive advice from colleagues and supporters on how we should proceed in ministry. They usually begin with “I think I have an idea that would work in your context…” They’re probably right. I’m sure that there are many things that would “work” here. But I’m not only looking for what works.
I’m looking for God’s guidance. If something I do results in bad fruit, it’s obviously not of God. But in order for me to participate in the production of fruit (fruit that will last), I must be obedient. Sometimes obedience makes for some effective ministry. Sometimes, the fruit is not so obvious, and the allure of measurable results is a temptation away from doing what God leads us to do.
So when I read about believers who justify all sorts of nonsense by saying, “Hey, it works.” I get frustrated. When missionaries develop their strategies based on what might “reach more people,” they have gotten ahead of God.
Rarely does God do what would, by our standards, be the most efficient, effective, or wise. Seriously. Look at the scriptures. Rather than writing them out himself and giving humans magic decoder sunglasses, He chose to use regular people. Time and again, He limited Himself, He held His tongue, He left things vague. Jesus let people believe He was a fake when He could easily have proved His might. If God never values “effectiveness” or “efficiency”, why do we?
Talking about Jesus can be a strange thing to do. Sometimes, when speaking to an unbelieving friend, I make passing mention of Him just to gauge their reaction. A knowing nod makes me feel at ease; I’m put on guard when I note a disapproving purse of the lips.
I try never to assume that people know Him like I know Him. But that means talking about Him as though I were trying to set someone up on a blind date with Him. “I know a guy who’d be perfect for you!”
My tendency these days is to use a certain level of informality when I talk to God. I don’t mean any disrespect, sometimes I just want to remind myself that He’s a real person. I pray with my eyes open. I’m not afraid to sprinkle in questions, suggestions, or frustrations. But I always wonder if doing that in public might be taken the wrong way. I’m also learning to deal with my own baggage when it comes to talking about Him. I try not to use clichés (“the Man Upstairs”) or foreign languages (Jahovah Jireh), and I’m careful to explain what I mean when I say whatever it is I say.
There’s a strange pressure when the people around you learn about God through your relationship with Him. I want to differentiate my God from all the other ones out there. He’s not impersonal. He doesn’t care about the stuff that most people think He cares about. How do you introduce people to someone they think they’ve met (and are sure they don’t care for)?
I’ve always been taught to do what Jesus would do. So much so, that the question of “what” Jesus would do completely eclipsed the concept of “why.” Jesus was selfless and always put other people’s needs before His own. He spent time in public with people who were known as sinners and drunks. Jesus kept the law, turned the other cheek, and kicked the capitalists out of the temple. Why did He do these things?
“What?” is the question of the obedient. “What do you want me to do?” “What is right?” “What does the Bible say?” It is vital that we know the “what,” but for the past couple of years, it’s the “why” that’s haunted me.
“Why?” is the rebel’s question. It implies conditional obedience pending personal approval. That’s why frustrated parents answer “why?” with “Because I said so!” Leaders answer it with “Because I’m the boss.” People who are interested in maintaining the status quo consider “why?” to be disrespectful and insubordinate.
“Why?” threatens the authority of a leader (especially if he doesn’t know the answer!) Addressing it can be difficult, time-consuming, and can reveal shortcomings and inconsistencies. Nevertheless, “why?” is a question we should be asking, because the power is in the “why.”
Asking why is how we come to know God in a personal way. We don’t really know Him until we begin to understand why He does what He does.
Once we start asking “why,” we shouldn’t ever stop. Too often, we settle on a reason or explanation and never revisit the question. We accept a logical and well-presented argument and move on. This is why people in the pew believe that we should do missions will bring Jesus back and why people on the field buy into the lie that anyone’s eternity depends on missionaries. Questioning “why” protects us from legalism, complacency, and meaningless tradition.
Why not ask “why?”
In my experience, people who are less modern tend to be more fatalistic. We don’t normally believe that what we do will make a difference in the world. Sure, I’ll keep on recycling, but because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s going to save the environment. I don’t believe that buying a cheeseburger for the homeless guy on the street will end global hunger (I don’t even believe it will end his hunger), but I do it anyway, because Jesus talked a lot about it. I vote, but hey, I’m registered in California. A lot of this is about doing what’s right because it’s right and not because it works, but that’s another post.
Lately I’ve started to wonder if maybe this fatalistic attitude (which most Christians decry) is why the doctrine of predestination makes so much sense to me. Now I’m not talking about Calvinism, mostly because I don’t want to be lumped in with that crowd, and because I won’t pledge my allegiance to any guy who started a Christian Taliban in Switzerland. For me, I recognize that though I should do the right thing, and I want to do the right thing, I probably won’t. Even if I were to do the right thing, it wouldn’t really make any difference anyway. Thankfully, the eternal destiny of the world doesn’t depend on me.
So, if it is God who chooses us, and not the other way around, by what criteria does He choose? That question is just so, well, modern. I really never stress about that. In fact, I find beauty in the mystery, and I’m humbled that He elected me. (Proof that being handsome, smart, or nice aren’t among the criteria.) Predestination is fatalism with a face, and in case you haven’t heard, Grace is the new Karma.
If I truly believe that people’s salvation doesn’t depend on me, why am I here on the field? (I figure that of my small audience, there’s got to be at least one person wondering about that.) I’m not here to make an impact on “lostness,” or to “finish the task,” because I couldn’t if I tried. Not even all of us, working together in Christian unity could do those things. No, I’m here because God called me to go. Perhaps you could say it was my destiny.