Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Greatness of the Great Commission

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting a few essays that I've written elsewhere over the last couple of months. The first deals with the Great Commission. I contend that evangelicals have a truncated theology that leads them to misunderstand the nature of God's Kingdom. The Kingdom is a present reality, to be fully consumated with the return of the King. It also has social, in fact cosmic, implications. Many evangelicals, however, argue that God's Kingdom will only be manifested in the future, or they behave as though the Great Commission is merely a command for the Church to witness in a hopeless and dying world, snatching a few desperate souls from the fiery cauldron of the lake of fire. I think our God, and His Kingdom, are much larger realities.

The Majesty of the Great Commission

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20)

The contemporary Church largely ignores the Great Commission. Dr. Tom Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, found that 90% of Christians have never shared their faith with another person. Rainer concludes from his research that perhaps, “the most eye-opening discovery we made about the unchurched person's attitude towards us Christians is that most of them would like to hear about Jesus Christ from us. Yet the vast majority of the unchurched with whom we spoke have never had a Christian share their faith with them.”

Yet even when Christians muster up the courage to discuss the Cross, that is often where we stop. Today, there is a tremendous need for Biblical evangelism that surpasses tract passing and personal testimony. What is needed is a comprehensive program that brings the comprehensive message of salvation to every individual.

Evangelicals have an extremely narrow view of God’s Kingdom and His purposes. What is the purpose of the Great Commission? Is it merely direction to the Church to witness in a hopeless and dying world, snatching a few desperate souls from the fiery cauldron of the lake of fire? Or should Jesus’ directive give us hope that the Holy Spirit will empower the Church to promote salvation against the world and the evil one?

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus asks His disciples the BIG question that we must all answer—“Who do you say I am?” Peter responds by saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Next, Jesus tells Peter that upon his confession, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” The picture painted by our Lord is of a militant and empowered body of believers, taking the light of the Gospel message into the world and scattering the darkness. It is the forces of evil manning the barricades against the Church, not visa versa.

Though Satan is a mighty enemy, described as a roaring lion, Scripture gives us comfort that in light of Jesus’ victory at Golgotha, the strong man has been bound, and we are to plunder his house (Matt. 12:29) and occupy it until Jesus returns.

Thankfully, we have not been left powerless to fulfill our mission. We have the Word of God, which is sharper than a two-edged sword, and access to God through prayer. Most importantly, we have Jesus’ promise that He will be with us always in the person of the Holy Spirit, who was sent to be our counselor and minister.

Aside from the purpose of the Great Commission, Evangelicals also frequently misunderstand its nature as well. Is it merely individualistic, with the hope of saving individual lost sinners and training them in their private “walk with God” and public worship? Or is its goal to necessarily transform individuals with the expectation that they will make a difference in the world, creating a Christian culture?

Dave Black recently discussed the perversion of the “individualistic” Gospel. He writes:

One of the perversions of the Gospel I think needs eliminating today is the emphasis upon personal evangelism to the detriment or exclusion of any social emphasis. I do not question the fact that salvation is personal and individual, but it is far more than that. However, for many evangelicals the emphasis on the personal and individual has increasingly made salvation individualistic. The whole of the Christian experience is thought to be one’s personal relationship to God – often to the exclusion of one’s relationship with others or to the culture in general.

Salvation is both personal and social. Since sin is personal, each individual is guilty of sin and must be forgiven for his sin, not someone else’s. However, salvation is also social. Jesus is Lord of all. Politics, education, economics, the arts – all these are included under His divine Lordship. Thus Christians must come to understand that although salvation is individual and personal, the kingdom of God is far broader than just our personal salvation experiences.

In Genesis 1, God gives Adam the command, “Be fruitful, and multiply, replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

Man’s task in accordance with God’s command and our own nature, having been created in His image, is to exercise dominion and develop culture. As a “federal head,” Adam did not merely act on his own behalf, but as a representative for all of mankind. Thus his fall into sin was imputed to all humanity and perverted the God-given desire to exercise authority in God’s name, and replaced it with a desire to become God ourselves. Consequently, Christ’s representative and vicarious death was necessary to restore and renew the image of God of allow redeemed men to bring the creation into submission to God. Thus, there is an intimate connection between the Great Commission and the Cultural Mandate.

As Christians, our duty is not simply to fill our churches and drag new converts into the baptistery. We are to make disciples for our Lord, and teach them to obey everything God has commanded.

True Christian discipleship recognizes that every sphere of life is under the authority of God, and Christ’s salvation and healing is not merely for individuals, but also for the creation that groans under the impact of sin. As Gary North has written, “Nothing is to be excluded from Christ’s healing: not the family, not the State, not business, not education, and surely not the institutional church. Salvation is the salve that heals the wounds inflicted by sin: every type of wound from every type of sin.”

Let us rediscover the majesty of the Great Commission.

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