This post is a much belated entry in the Prologue to Missional Discussion Synchroblog.
I think I am three weeks late answering this question, but the powers that be have not emailed any since then, so maybe I’m golden.
Here are the questions for this round of the synchroblog: Is there a “primary” concern in the mission of God? Is that evangelism, making disciples, societal transformation, or something else? Or, are they of equal value?
I believe there is a primary concern in God’s mission, and that is for persons to know him relationally, to be personally forgiven of their sins and be reconciled to him. The question behind the question is really this: Which is more primary, the gospel of personal salvation or the gospel of the kingdom? This sort of presupposes these are separate concepts. I do believe they are not the same thing, but disagree (with qualifications) that they are separate. Clear as mud, I know.
I believe the gospel, as Tim Keller says, is both one and more than that. But you cannot properly receive and enjoy the “more than that” without the “one.” This is to say that the gospel of the kingdom (which some try to say was Jesus’ gospel) and the gospel of justification by faith (which some say is Paul’s gospel, as if ne’er the twain shall meet) are degrees of magnification of the whole. This is something I explore a bit more fully in my current book in progress, so I don’t want to steal its thunder. But suffice it to say, I would say the kingdom gospel presupposes and succeeds justification by faith.
I don’t think the church enacting “social justice” is the gospel. It is an implication of the gospel, our living as if the gospel is true. But I do think God restoring all things is the gospel. The big hinge difference is that none of the works of our hands can be gospel, but they can be means of proclaiming the gospel. Yet not the primary means. The gospel is news to be articulated, and its implications are to be demonstrated. This is of course, in some strong sense, “proclamation” as well, but it cannot replace or even take precedent over verbal proclamation.
So, again: I would say the priority of God’s mission is evangelism/discipleship, but this is not to say that acts of mercy, societal transformation, or whatever you want to call it are optional. The best means of pinpointing this distinction comes from Scripture’s strong words about faith and works. Faith alone justifies but faith is not alone. You cannot separate works from it or it is not faith. In the same way, I do not see how we can urge evangelism as the whole of mission, given all we see just in the synoptic gospels. In Acts, we see the personal gospel taking hold of individuals, which grew the counter-culture of the church, which resulted in all sorts of cultural and social fallout, from care of the poor to the bankruptcy of idol-makers.
But the priority is there from God’s creation of Adam and Eve for relational closeness, of which subduing the earth was the outflow. And in his carving out Abraham to himself (through Abraham’s faith) in covenant, of which the building of a people, a nation, that is like the sands on the beach or stars in heaven was the outflow. And in the prophets calling Israel to repentance of sins, of which the prosperity of the covenant people was the outflow. (At the heart of all the covenant people did throughout the Old Testament beat the blood of the sacrificial system, atonement for sins and reconciliation with YHWH.) And in Christ calling the twelve to him, of which the kingdom ministry was the outflow. And in Christ proclaiming riches for those spiritually poor, of which the kingdom blueprint of the Sermon on the Mount was the outflow. And in Christ commissioning the disciples to make disciples and baptize, of which the explosion of the kingdom-witness of the church was the outflow.
He has come to seek and save the lost.
Acts of mercy, caring for the poor, bringing God’s justice to bear, ministering to widows and orphans, and all other good works are integral ways to seek and demonstrate God’s saving purposes, but none of them save somebody’s soul, which Jesus seems fairly preoccupied with in Mark 8:36.
I am uneasy with the implicit reductionism in Vance Havner’s famous statement, “If social gospel had been around in the prodigal son’s day, he would have gotten a bed and a meal but never returned home,” but I affirm the spirit behind it. I would perhaps reframe it to ask, “What would it profit the prodigal son to receive a bed and a sandwich but lose his soul?”
I am on board the mission to live and proclaim the gospel of the kingdom. I am only concerned that many who want to do this do so as if this kingdom has a King behind the curtain, that embracing the yoke of God’s sovereignty in the gospel of Christ’s cross and resurrection is a minor note. It at least sounds that way.
To return to the question, “Are [evangelism/discipleship and social transformation] of equal value?” I would say, no, they are not of equal value. But neither is either of them optional.
I am not a fan of an individualistic gospel. But there is no gospel without the first importance of a personal gospel for individuals. God’s plan for “Creation/Fall/Redemption” in fact encompasses and is contingent upon the working of “God/Man/Christ/Response.”
Here are a couple of angles on this subject I have found helpful . . .
The first is this recent blog post from Ken Prater of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan on Preaching the Cross to Its Fullest Dimensions.
The second is this video interview of Mark Dever by Ed Stetzer on the gospel and social transformation.
I agree with both of them.
Others participating in the conversation:
Rick Meigs: The Blind Beggar
Bill Kinnon: kinnon.tv
Brother Maynard: Subversive Influence
David Fitch: Reclaiming the Mission
Tiffany Smith: Missional Mayhem
Jared Wilson: The Gospel-Driven Church
Jonathan Dodson: Creation Project
Feel free to explore and read their takes on the question. So for the sake of conversation, leave a comment with your own answer to the questions, “Is there a “primary” concern in the mission of God? Is that evangelism, making disciples, societal transformation, or something else? Or, are they of equal value?”