Book Review: The Gospel Commission
By Michael Horton
Reviewed by Bobby Jamieson Print
Baker Books, 2011.
320 pages. $19.99
Are evangelicals being distracted by mission creep? That is, are we allowing lots of other good things to creep in and crowd out the central task Jesus sends the church into the world to do?
On the one hand, the rising groundswell of interest in social and cultural engagement among many evangelicals likely reflects the flowering of a robust biblical view of creation and the Bibleâ€™s command to love our neighbor. And many Christians are engaging these issues in a way that keeps the message of the gospel front and center in their lives and in the lives of local churches.
On the other hand, many voices insist that if the church as church is not engaging (insert favored social problem or cultural activity here), then itâ€™s not fulfilling its mission. Such critics assert that evangelical churches are too preoccupied with â€œmember maintenanceâ€ to pay attention to the real mission of Jesus among the poor, in the inner cities, and in the places where culture is made.
A whole lot of theological issues are wrapped up in this question: the definition of the gospel, the distinction between the church as a â€œgatheredâ€ institution and the church as a â€œscatteredâ€ organism, the nature of the inaugurated kingdom of God and its implications for the present age, and, not least, the contours and scope of the mission Jesus gives to his church.
AN EXPANSIVE THEOLOGICAL EXPOSITION OF THE GREAT COMMISSION
Driven by the concern that evangelicals are in fact being distracted by mission creep, Michael Horton has addressed these issues and more in his new book The Gospel Commission: Recovering Godâ€™s Strategy for Making Disciples. At its heart, this book is an expansive theological exposition of the â€œGreat Commissionâ€ of Matthew 28:18-20. Along the way, in addition to the issues mentioned above, Horton engages with cultural pluralism, theological inclusivism, and a number of influential facets of evangelical piety and practice which he finds to be troublesome.
Hortonâ€™s thesis is summed up in one sentence early on: â€œThe central point of this book is that there is no mission without the church and no church without the missionâ€ (14). Over against those who would denigrate the churchâ€™s regular ministry of â€œWord and sacramentâ€ as a hindrance to mission or as an irrelevant sideshow, Horton argues that the churchâ€™s regular means of grace are at the very heart of Jesusâ€™ missional mandate. Therefore, the church is a missionary institution by nature and calling.
A RADICALLY CHURCH-SHAPED VISION FOR DISCIPLE-MAKING
In other words, Horton argues for a radically church-shaped vision for disciple-making. In my estimation, this is a timely, biblical corrective to evangelicalsâ€™ general neglect of the institutional church and to the particular way that recent â€œmissionalâ€ emphases have sometimes tended to denigrate the institutional churchâ€™s ministry. This church-shaped vision comes to fruition in chapters six and seven, in which Horton unpacks how the churchâ€™s ministry of preaching, teaching, administering the sacraments, and practicing discipline fulfills Christâ€™s mandate to make disciples of all nations.
Further, Hortonâ€™s view of the churchâ€™s mission is grounded on a lush depiction of the Bibleâ€™s teaching on the kingdom of God. In chapter 2, â€œExodus and Conquest: the Gospel and the Kingdom,â€ Horton expounds the gospel as the eschatological exodus and conquest which secures our salvation and brings the age to come crashing into the present, opening up a â€œcreviceâ€ between the ages in which the gospel is proclaimed to all nations.
Thus, this book contains Hortonâ€™s answer to current debates about the relationship between gospel and kingdom, and itâ€™s a compelling one. Building upon careful exegetical and biblical-theological work, Horton argues that â€œJesusâ€™s proclamation of the kingdom is identical to Paulâ€™s proclamation of the gospel of justificationâ€ (75). Further, â€œThe kingdom of God in this present phase is primarily audible, not visible. We hear the opening and shutting of the kingdomâ€™s gates through the proclamation of the gospel, in the sacraments, and in disciplineâ€ (67). In the same vein, â€œOnly if we hold in slight esteem the forgiveness of sins, rebirth into the new creation, justification, sanctification, and the communion of saints can we fail to revel in these present realities of Christâ€™s reignâ€ (68).
Hortonâ€™s thesis that â€œthe kingdom is the gospel and the gospel is the kingdomâ€ (79) displays the many facets of the gospel in all their gleaming, soul-stirring radiance. Further, Horton offers a robustly biblical account of the kingdom of God that precisely details those aspects of the kingdom which are inaugurated in the present age and those which await the last day for their realization. With these theological convictions at its core, Hortonâ€™s blueprint for the churchâ€™s mission preserves the primacy of the proclamation of the gospel and the churchâ€™s mandate to make disciples.
Building on this work, in chapter eight Horton has a clarifying and, I would argue, largely satisfying discussion of the relationship between â€œthe Great Commission and the Great Commandmentâ€â€”that is, the relationship between evangelism and social justice. Horton proposes that the way to fulfill both mandates is for the church as an institution to devote itself to proclaiming the gospel and making disciples, which equips individual Christians to fulfill both commissions in their â€œmyriad callings in the worldâ€ (231). Then, in chapter nine, Horton addresses the touchy issue of mission creep, analyzing several â€œdichotomies that distort the Great Commission and distract us from the strategies that Christ gave usâ€ (252 ff.). Similar to his Westminster West colleague David VanDrunenâ€™s work in his recent book Living in Godâ€™s Two Kingdoms (Crossway, 2010), Horton carefully argues for the unique, biblically circumscribed role of the local church as an institution. This is a crucial theological guardrail for preserving the churchâ€™s faithfulness to our Masterâ€™s marching orders.
A VALUABLE, SUBSTANTIVE, AND CLARIFYING CONTRIBUTION
Iâ€™ve spent most of my time letting Horton do the talking because I think that this book makes a valuable, substantive, and clarifying contribution to the current evangelical discussion about mission, and I want his arguments to be heard.
Hortonâ€™s theological work on gospel and kingdom is clarifying and pointedly edifying. Moreover, he glories in the inauguration of the kingdom of God and the hope of the restoration of all things while carefully guarding against an over-realized eschatology. Further, his massive emphasis on the centrality of the institutional church in fulfilling the Great Commission is a much-needed rallying cry. He muscles out room for the church as institution and then points out that this is how we must fulfill the Great Commission because thisâ€”the local churchâ€”is the means Jesus established for carrying out his mission on earth. And Horton carefully deprograms several common misconceptions that keep evangelicals from rightly understanding and carrying out the Great Commission. Among these are a consumeristic understanding of contextualization (114-132), the idea that we â€œlive the gospelâ€ (266-285), the claim that the institutional dimensions of the church are inimical to mission (285-290), and a misconstrual of the relationship between the church and the kingdom (290-293).
I have to register a few representative disagreements for the sake of conscience, but these by no means vitiate the bookâ€™s value. At times, Hortonâ€™s claims about what is representatively â€œevangelicalâ€ strike me as somewhat tendentious. I was not persuaded by his polemic for infant baptism. I donâ€™t think he gets the Sabbath and the Lordâ€™s Day quite right. And Iâ€™d raise questions about some of his language about the sacraments.
But in all of this, I appreciate that Horton is fleshing out a biblical vision for mission in the muscles and ligaments of the institutional church. Horton is dead right that the local church is at the heart of the Great Commission, and that the Great Commission provides us with â€œthe message, mandate, and methods that Christ has ordained for his continuing mission in the worldâ€ (20). I hope that Hortonâ€™s example of fleshing out this churchly vision for mission within his own convictional and confessional framework will inspire many evangelicals to do the same.
This book is theologically rich, carefully critical, and it throbs with a missionary heartbeat. Reading it will both instruct and inspire you to go and make disciples of all nations.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks.
The Gospel Commission: Recovering God's Strategy for Making Disciples by Michael Horton - Available at Monergism Books for $12.95
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