The Christian Mission: An Overview
As we approach the point which marks a two-thousand year lapse of time since our Savior left us on earth with a great task to accomplish, namely, the evangelism of the nations, it is imperative that we pause to consider what precisely we are striving to accomplish; how far we have advanced on our goal; and what strategies we have in place for the continuation and ultimate completion of our mission. Is it possible that, in all our zeal for the work of the Kingdom, we are hindered at points by a lack of essential clarity on exactly what that work entails, and how we might best go about it? It would seem, simply by the fact of the overwhelming diversity of ways in which various Christian churches and organizations would answer these questions, that the answer must at least in some cases be yes. If this lack of unity and vision in the worldwide Church poses certain obstacles to the accomplishment of the great commission, then how might we take a definite step towards overcoming those obstacles, and equipping the Church to pour out her energies in a united effort to reach the world? I would propose that we must first acknowledge the problems which inhere in our current situation, and then construct a full-orbed biblical theology of Christian mission; by which we may hope to address those problems which we have already recognized to be detrimental to our evangelistic efforts. This series of posts does not presume to be that biblical theology of mission; but it is my desire that they may at least serve to highlight a need for more extensive work in that area, as well as provide a few rough ideas for a direction to pursue toward that end.
In pursuance of our first proposed step, what may we adduce as more specific examples of the doctrinal or practical errors in the modern conception of mission? Of many possible answers, I will highlight three that seem to me more pervasive and damaging than most of the other problems we might bring up. These are, first, a man-centered view of evangelization; second, a narrowness of perspective in the evangelistic task; and third, an essential and practical fragmentation of the worldwide Church, as she pursues her global mission. In the remainder of this article, I will address in a little more detail what these problems involve, and lay out five foundational principles that should govern our attempts to seek a biblical-theological solution to the errors which confront us.
Under the heading â€œman-centerednessâ€, I intend to include two basic errors: the first is the tendency to make the good of man the supreme motivational force for our pursuit of evangelism. It is certainly true that, apart from the gospel, man is utterly wretched, and hopeless of any lasting good. Furthermore, it is true that, in the example of Christ, we are constrained to love our fellow men, and seek their good over our own. As the love of Christ fills our hearts, it must necessarily work itself out in a selfless pursuit of laboring for the salvation of the world of men who are in desperate straits, pitiably scattered abroad as sheep having no shepherd (Matthew 9:35-38). But if this motivation, as commendable as it is, is not grounded in a more foundational motivation to make much of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, it will prove inadequate to prepare us for the vast sacrifices which a life of abandonment to the ministry of reconciliation involves. If our only reason for evangelism is that men are in need, we will surely buckle under the immense pressures of the task, when the Serpent hurls his venom at us. But if our love for fellow-men derives from a deeper love of Christ, and if our most foundational motivation is the recognition that the Lamb who purchased us with his own blood, so that we might show forth the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light (I Peter 2:9), is worthy of worshippers from every kindred, tongue, people, and nation (Revelation 5:9-14); then the greatness of our vision and the God-centeredness of our motivation will be an immoveable rock in the face of innumerable difficulties. The second, more fundamental, aspect of the problem of man-centeredness is this: in effect, it places the worth and value of man on a higher plane than the glory of God â€“ which is basically idolatry. If the need of man is of more practical concern than the glory of God â€“ if manâ€™s salvation is not rather one great means to magnify the glory of Godâ€™s free love and sovereign grace â€“ then we have failed to recognize the biblical truth that redemption is ultimately designed for the universal display of Godâ€™s kindness toward us in the person of Christ (Romans 9:23-24; Ephesians 2:7), under whom he has purposed to bring all creatures, and in whom he has purposed to sum up all things (Ephesians 1:9-12, 20-23). If our evangelism is motivated by a subtle idolatry, how can we expect God to bless and empower our efforts?
The second problem, a narrowness of perspective, may be viewed from two different angles: historical and geographical. With respect to the first, it is easy to lose the clarity of vision that may be gained by perceiving our era of mission as the culmination and continuation of a history-long movement which defines and gives impetus to our current task. When we are diligent to keep in mind the history of the gospelâ€™s spread from the days of the apostles to our own, we are better equipped to sort out the greatest remaining needs; to see how the historical mission movement has gone forward, and how we might derive impetus from the inertial forces which are currently at play; and finally, to be instructed as to what basic approaches and ideals are likely to be successfully employed by the enabling grace of God. But even beyond this two-thousand year perspective, we must be able to place the post-ascension missionary effort in a broader context of the movement of redemptive history from the first gospel promise of Genesis 3:15. A fundamental presupposition that should instruct our efforts is that all of history is a unified and divinely-planned movement towards the final realization of the full effects of Christâ€™s great work of redemption, which was prepared for and foreshadowed from earliest times. When we have this world-history-encompassing perspective, we are enabled to deal more intelligently with the purposes and approaches peculiar to this era; and furthermore, we have a philosophical license to be instructed in our mission efforts by the Old Testament examples of Israel, whose history in many ways foreshadowed the history of spiritual Israel in this age, and by the examples of whom we, â€œupon whom the end of the ages has come,â€ are able to be admonished (I Corinthians 10:11). The second area in which we may be benefited by a broadened perspective is that of geography, and the forces at play in the worldwide Church. If a missionary feels that he is called to reach out to a certain people, but is ignorant of the vision and work of the Church in other places, he may be cutting himself off needlessly from much helpful collaboration and synergy. For example, suppose an American Christian desires to evangelize an unreached people of Central Asia. If he is pursuing a worldwide perspective of the movements of the Church in other geographical venues, he may learn of the â€œBack to Jerusalemâ€ vision of the persecuted Chinese Church, and, upon consideration, may find it a more valuable strategy for him to partner with this Chinese Church, bringing to them logistical assistance and theological training, and otherwise facilitating them to reach out to this particular people with whom they might have more cultural and linguistic affinity. Hence, he might be better able to labor for the spread of the gospel in Central Asia by working in China than by going to the target people on his own. Or even if he decided to go to the target people, he would at least be familiar with a different geographical sector of the Church which is also targeting this people, and be able to start thinking about how they could support and sustain each other on their common field of service. When every isolated segment of Christianity is pursuing a task with respect to its vision alone, much helpful co-operation might be lost; hence, a worldwide geographical perspective may prove invaluable for shaping how we go about the particular task that the Lord has laid upon our hearts.
Our final problem is closely related to the former: and that is, the essential fragmentation of the universal Church as she pursues her mission. If, as Christ proclaimed, the unity and loving inter-relationship of all Christians is a non-negotiable apologetic and testimony to the world of Christ (John 13:34-35), then the myopic point of view which chooses to interact only with other Christians of the same denomination and philosophical orientation is a tragic obstacle to the completion of the great commission. Denominationalism and fragmentation are among the great evils plaguing the Church in this day. This is a problem which holds forth immense difficulties; for many professing Christians are false teachers, spreading doctrines of the devil (I Timothy 4:1), and many are insincere professors, holding to an orthodox formulation of the faith in lip-service only (I John 2:19). Furthermore, many genuine believers are plagued by doctrinal errors of such import that evangelistic co-operation may prove more detrimental than anything else. However, as we pursue our Church-wide task, it is imperative that we seek to overcome this hurdle by humbly confessing the sin which is the cause of our division; by seeking great discernment in knowing who to condemn as false prophets and who to admonish as weaker brothers; and by laboring to partner together with true believers in spite of secondary doctrinal differences, attempting to teach those who have doctrinal errors and humbly submitting to be taught by those who have been enabled to see the doctrinal errors which we ourselves retain. If all humble, evangelical believers, even in this country alone, were motivated to work strategically together, instead of each particular group operating within the confines of its own little kingdom, I am convinced that God would be pleased to multiply our fruits exponentially.
These problems, and many others like them, pose no little difficulty to the completion of the great commission. It is the burden of this article that they may be overcome, in Godâ€™s grace, only by an intentional and widespread examination of the entire biblical corpus as it pertains to the great mission of the Church. If we would begin to see the winds of change beginning to stir up another great missionary thrust into the final bastions of Satan in this world which must ultimately be brought before the throne of Christ, then let us labor to undergird our efforts with the foundations derived from a rigorous biblical-theological perspective on the world mission movement. And let us seek these foundational principles in true humility and fervent prayer. In order to lay the groundwork for such a monumental quest, I have compiled for consideration the following five underlying biblical principles, which I believe should motivate our shared goal of world-evangelization.
1. The accomplishment of redemption is the focal point of world-history.
As we begin to look for the single biblical principle which gives a proper perspective to all of history, we can find no more all-encompassing truth than the following: everything that God does, he does for his own glory. This is true both of his initial creation (Revelation 4:11, Isaiah 43:7), and of his ongoing governance of history (Isaiah 46:9-13). Because God is by his very nature glorious, we may reshape this principle into the following: everything God does, he does to display who he is (for example, see the oft-repeated purpose statement of Ezekiel, following an innumerable array of Godâ€™s proposed acts, namely, â€œthen you shall know that I am the Lordâ€ [Ezekiel 6:7,10,13,14; 7:4,9,27,etc.]). Now, it is equally clear that the greatest display of who God is occurred in the incarnation of Christ, and his subsequent accomplishment of redemption (Hebrews 1:1-3; John 1:18; John 12:27). If all of history is designed to display who God is; and if Christâ€™s work of redemption is the ultimate display of who God is; then the work of redemption must be the focal point and pinnacle of all history. It must be that for which all of history was designed, and co-terminous with the glorification of God.
2. The work of redemption was powerful enough to secure all of its intended effects.
We have already determined that world history is defined by the accomplishment of the work of redemption. Now, we must make the corollary point that Christâ€™s work of redemption was powerful enough to secure all of its intended effects. There is no room for potentiality in the reality of a blood-bought throng of worshippers from every kindred, tongue, people, and nation as a consequent to the reality of Christâ€™s completed redemption. Redemption in all of its intended effects is a certain thing from the foundation of the world, and as sure as the immutable word of God: those whom he foreknew, he unfailingly predestinated, called, justified, and glorified (Romans 8:28-31). This consideration has the effect of assuring us that all of history is indeed the divinely planned and unassailable movement toward the perfect accomplishment and application of redemption. History is not an often-frustrated attempt to prepare for, accomplish, and spread the great work of redemption; on the contrary, it is the actual progression, in every detail, of that mighty unfolding plan. Hence, even evil, in all of its ugly manifestations, is perfectly within the will of God, and is used by him to achieve a greater glory for his name, in the person of Jesus Christ. Of which truth, the most striking reality is that Godâ€™s plan to accomplish redemption was carried out by the humans means of wicked hands and motives (Acts 2:22-24; 4:26-28). So then, all of history is in very fact the divinely planned advance of the work of redemption, from the stage of preparation and foreshadowing, on to the actual accomplishment, and then on to the final securing of its every intended effect. It is vital that we keep this in mind: for when we understand this, we are able to make sense of all the obstacles and seeming failures in the Christian mission movement. Every setback is in fact working for a greater victory than could have been won without it. Indeed, it is impossible to understand any event of history, whether biblical or that which is commonly perceived to be secular, without relating it to its function in the advance of the work of redemption.
3. Christian Mission has as its goal the actual realization of the full effects of Christâ€™s great work of redemption.
When Christ left us on the earth, it was with the explicit task of carrying the message of his accomplished redemption to every nation on earth (Matthew 28:18-20). As we have just seen, the accomplishment of this task is the purpose of God in history. Therefore, we are laboring to accomplish what God is in certain actuality accomplishing through us. This means that, in our pursuit of missions, we are actually pursuing, first, Godâ€™s glory, or the worldwide display of who he is; and second, manâ€™s good, or the fulfillment of his divinely intended purpose of enjoying everlasting fellowship with him. Christian mission, therefore, is the attempt to actualize the original purpose of man, as stated in the Westminster Catechism: to glorify God and enjoy him forever. This gives us a perspective on mission which is universal and fundamental to all of reality.
4. Christian mission is the all-encompassing task of believers on the earth.
It is instructive that Christ left us with the command, not merely to evangelize the nations, but to disciple them. The purpose of the church is to display the glory of God by reflecting his own holiness and the image of his Son (I Peter 1:15-16; 2:9; II Corinthians 3:18); and also, to gather together all the elect throughout the world, so that they too might display his glory. The Christian mission, then, involves, not only the calling of the nations to repentance, but also working towards a greater Christlikeness both in them and in us. Hence, every Christian discipline is rooted in Christian mission: evangelization has as its goal the ingathering of a multitude who will reflect his worth and sing his praises, and is thus in pursuit of the realization of the necessary effects of redemption. But furthermore, the laboring for doctrinal precision and practical purity is also in pursuit of the realization of the effects of redemption, and may therefore be subsumed under the general heading of mission. In other words, the Christian mission is one and the same thing as the pursuit of the blood-bought effects of redemption, and is an all-encompassing task. This has clear implications for how we go about the task of spreading the gospel: edification is as fundamental an aspect of mission as evangelization.
5. The Christian mission must ultimately be successful.
This final principle is very clearly derived from those which precede it. But as obvious as it is, it is easy to lose sight of; and a failure to keep it in the forefront of oneâ€™s mind has been the occasion of much discouragement and despair. As we prepare to labor for the task of Christian missions, we must ever be mindful of the fact that it is the work which God has determined to accomplish, and that its ultimate success is grounded in his purpose and not our own efforts. This should afford the greatest consolation to those who are laboring in difficult and resistant fields. No matter how grim the battle may at times appear, the outcome is certain. Even by means of apparent failures â€“ martyrdoms, apostasies, political oppositions, and so on â€“ God is working a great and irreversible triumph. As God exhorted the apostle Paul, let us take courage: for he certainly has many sheep in the very difficult and hostile unreached peoples among whom we labor (Acts 18:9-10). We may not see them in this lifetime, but we will surely meet them some day, and learn how our seemingly wasted labors were being used to accomplish a great in-breaking of the eternal Kingdom of Christ.
With these foundational principles undergirding and informing our pursuit, we hope by Godâ€™s grace to pursue throughout the next several posts what we may learn of the history-comprising task of Christian mission from the various epochs of history, beginning with the first gospel proclaimed immediately after the fall, and proceeding to the modern era; and furthermore, how we may use this biblical-theological model of mission to inform our understanding of the practical concerns of modern mission, such as persecution, contextualization, prioritization, and so on. Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.