[I submitted this as a paper for my missions course in fall 2018. -Ger]
An Integrated Approach to the Application of the Great Commission in the Local Church
The final words of Jesus on earth to His disciples are found in Matthew 28:18-20, which reads, “And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’” This command is repeated more or less in Mark 16:15 (though this passage is disputed), and Acts 1:8, 9. To understand how to integrate this into a local church, one must have an understanding of what the mission of the church is, and what it means to make disciples.
Many in the church today believe that the church is a form of behaviour modification, to teach people how to be good people, so that they may earn a heavenly reward by their good deeds. If this proposition were true, it would make sense that we would need to right the wrongs perpetrated by groups within our society, and to bring “justice” to the poor. We would be justified in codifying our behaviour and enforcing compliance with dogma, much as other religions do by degree. However, this is not the mission of the Christian church, nor is it the job of the Christian Pastor. Before we can look at what the Great Commission to make disciples means, it is useful to dismiss several examples of what it is NOT.
The Gospel is NOT an effort to extend “social justice” to the world in an effort of either “kingdom building” or social reconstruction. The Gospel cannot be understood in terms of political ideology or agenda, of economic status, intellectual achievement, national or racial identity, nor sexual orientation or preference. The current version of social justice in our churches is nothing more than racking up points for declaring oneself more of a victim than everyone else. The practice is then to demand that the group with the least amount of points (notably and usually white males) glorify you and your race/cause/agenda because of the action (or inaction) of some past members of their group (who may or may not have actually done that of which they accused), long after their deaths. I have actually read the unimaginable statement that “no white person has ever understood or shared the true Gospel.” Paul responded to that statement about 2000 years ago when he wrote his letter to the church at Colossae. In Colossians 3:11, it speaks of how all things are renewed in Christ like so: “a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” I am certain that if Paul had penned that verse last week, it would have included the phrase, “…in Christ, there is no red, yellow, black, white, or brown,” because the statement already carries the sentiment.
The Gospel must also not be seen as “bringing justice to the poor,” a phrase I have heard guest preachers say in the pulpit of my own congregation. In this worldview, the poor are economically disadvantaged because the rich have taken advantage of them and stolen their “share” of wealth in the society. This argument suffers from what is known as confounding variables. First, being poor is not necessarily a function of some nameless rich person robbing you of your hard-earned money. I know of a fellow who was economically comfortable, and through unforeseen and unrelated circumstances became first diabetic and then a cardiac patient after a heart attack. Today, his family is supported by his wife, and two of his three children have serious mental health issues (Asperger’s and Borderline Personality Disorder). If you ask him, he will tell you – no one stole his share. I know this, because that man is me. This worldview, which is shared by the current Roman Catholic leader Francis, does not allow for wealth generation, a demonstrated fact of the free market system in Western Europe and North America (and Australia – New Zealand, Southeast Asia in countries with freedom for individuals where the state is not worshipped). This errant worldview also does not allow for being poor by misadventure, and it also does not see that what the poor need is mercy, not justice. This view does nothing more than blame the rich for the plight of the poor and then miscalculates on the solution; in reality it is actually nothing more than a Marxist dialectic in which two groups struggle (sometimes violently) against each other until someone wins to produce a new group. If you’re not familiar with Marxist theory, the Rich, Straight, Educated, or racially White represent the Thesis, the evil oppressors; the Poor, the LGBTQ+, the Uneducated, or the [insert disadvantaged group here] represent the antithesis, the group struggling against their oppressors; to produce in theory the Synthesis, a theoretically new and better form of society, although there really is no guarantee of this. None of this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, nor is it that God-given mission of the church to make disciples, both of which are key to any understanding of this God-given Great Commission.
To begin this Great Commission, we must first understand the Gospel, that great news of the kingdom; Jesus came to save. Scripture informs us that we are born from above (John 3:3) with a living hope (1 Pet. 1:3) by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8, 9) by the substitutionary penal atonement (1 Tim. 2:6) of Jesus Christ on our behalf – that is to say, He caused this heavenly rebirth in us – and further, we did nothing to earn it, or even deserve it. This has the direct implication of telling people this so that they may become disciples by this same divine grace: the very purpose Jesus commanded us to perform. The last command of Jesus to His body the Church begins to take on a different meaning in this light. Any program of making disciples must first find the people that God wishes to be disciples in this manner. This means we must take this good news of this new birth from God to people and present it to them effectively so that those who will may respond by grace through faith just as we did, to the Gospel (or good news) of Jesus Christ. This is the primary step in the purpose of the church.
In order to communicate this good news, the local representation of the Church, your congregation, must be taught the good news in all of its aspects. I have asked many people the following question: “How did you come to know the Lord?” You would be utterly shocked at how many of them could not give clear answers to that question, though each one of them noted that it was the most life-changing experience they ever had. Even though I only have my own anecdotal evidence, it is enough to tell me that many if not most Christians do not understand nor communicate clearly that saving Gospel message. They must be taught the components of the Gospel and how to accurately present them to others. That would be the job of that God-given gift to the Church, the Pastor/Teacher. So what are the elements of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? The first need is to make people understand that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Along with that sinfulness to which many will admit, one must explain the consequences of inaction – eternal separation from God. We don’t do that to scare people. We must explain the ultimate consequence of a life lived without redemption. There are a number of different ways that the sinfulness of man may be demonstrated, either by using the Law to show sin for what it is, or by pointing out sin in our culture (no difficulty at all). The second need is to explain how Jesus Himself met the first need, and in fact it is THE main point of Scripture. Both of these points are at least the initial job of the Pastor/Teacher until others can see and grasp it for themselves and be able to communicate it. The third need is repentance, and the congregation should be instructed on what that looks like from a personal perspective. This is something that the saved person has already done, but it is a useful skill to be able to demonstrate yours to others, and to recognize it when it occurs, because this is the gateway for further discipling and catechism.
The difficulty here is that much of this work is out of the believers’ hands. It is God that draws them to Himself as Jesus informs us (John 14:6b). This says nothing of free will versus the doctrines of grace, either. Is this a decisional choice made by the penitent? Is this the Holy Spirit regenerating the sinner so that they may accept the irresistible grace that comes with election? Effectually, I’m not sure that it matters, because we end with the same result – a converted sinner in need of instruction – and so we need to be doing this either way.
Separate from knowing HOW to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Pastor needs to lead the way in spreading it to the community around the congregation. It should be a part of the regular network-building activity in which a pastor regularly engages. Programs of regular outreach with the gospel can and should be planned. Paul said as much to Timothy, when he told him to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5). Street witnessing in pairs, or door-knocking in the same fashion, testimony nights combined with movies, games, or karaoke are all useful. This author has even engaged in open-air preaching, although it is not my most effective witnessing technique. Promoting a culture of outreach and invitation in the congregation through provision of opportunities and good expository preaching on the subject should provide incentives that will help move the local gathering in the desired direction of evangelism.
When new conversions begin to result from this outreach effort, these new believers need to be discipled as a part of the Great Commission. The old confessional word for this is catechism, but whatever one calls it, it is the need to teach the new believer about their salvation and the accompanying lifestyle that goes with it (Eph. 2:10). This model is already set for us in Scripture. Luke records in Acts 2:41-42 that these new converts were first baptized as believers, and this should be properly explained to the new believer as the Christian’s first act of obedience, an answer to a good conscience (1 Pet. 3:21), the following of Jesus through the waters of Baptism as a symbol of our own death, burial, and resurrection with Christ (Rom. 6:4). After this, a deliberate plan of discipleship is revealed, and I believe instruction in these four areas to be paramount for new believers, and is shown in Acts 2:41-42, where it says that, “those who received his [Peter’s] word [sermon] were baptized, and that day there were added about 3000 souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread (which speaks of worship), and to prayer.” Think about this – this is the very first group of believers anywhere. They had only the Old Testament, and whatever sayings of Jesus the apostles communicated to them. And yet they not only flourished, but persecution caused even more to turn and believe Christ, and the church grew even MORE rapidly. We don’t live in that day, but the principles laid down there are still Biblical and sound – and NOW we have the whole of Christian Scripture, complete, inerrant, sufficient, and timeless – “God-breathed,” according to 2 Tim. 3:16. Teaching these things is squarely the job of the Pastor/Teacher.
What I have noticed over time (and through the exercise of this paper) is that there needs to be one singular individual in any given congregation that absolutely MUST be motivated by the so-called Great Commission – and that is the Pastor. It is the Pastor that teaches the people the gospel, often leading the effort to communicate it to the community around the congregation. That same Pastor needs to be able to explain the Gospel to others, needs to reflect it in his own life, needs to be able to convincingly and powerfully communicate it to unbelievers, needs to be able to explain and conduct resulting baptisms from these evangelistic efforts, needs to be able to disciple or catechize these new believers into the faith, and needs to teach and guide them into Christian maturity. The Pastor needs to do this in the hope that he can replicate himself and so continue the Great Commission that Jesus gave us as He was leaving the earth. In that self-replication, much like Paul did with Timothy, or John did with Polycarp, our ministry is completed, to begin again afresh, until the Lord takes us home to hear those immortal words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
With this foundation in place from a Pastor that is absolutely in love with the Lord Jesus Christ because of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit will do what He does – He will begin to magnify (make larger, bring to attention) Jesus Christ, and He will begin to work in peoples’ hearts to convict and convince them of sin to bring them to the point of repentance.
At the beginning of the Pastor’s tenure in a congregation, this may seem an overwhelming and impossible task. I have heard it described like piloting a big ocean liner that is headed at top speed for the rocks of the coast, and sadly off course. It takes quite a while to begin to turn the ship. In fact, I have seen as a congregant in a then liberal-minded congregation the result when there is active resistance to this kind of course change. However, that pastor was faithful, and the ship eventually righted its course. I am under no illusions that this will be an easy thing. However, I am persuaded that God will work if the Pastor who loves Him is faithful to the calling of God.
From the point where the Pastor begins to manage the direction of the congregation to the moment when his ministry for whatever reason is done, because of the following of the Scriptural pattern laid out in Acts 2:41-42, good works will begin to abound in that congregation, and will spill out into the world like an artesian spring. These are the very good works that God created beforehand that we should walk in that Paul wrote about in Ephesians 2:10. Wherever attention is paid to the sharing of the Gospel, the instructing of new believers, the growth of mature believers, mission work will flow out of that place because it must – into the world with that congregation as a starting point, just like it did that day in Jerusalem, to Samaria, to the rest of Judea, and ultimately to the rest of the world, and God will receive the glory for it all, because Christ is preached. Also, the servant of God, the Pastor, does not need to fear, but instead can look forward to what God will do, whatever that is, because our times are in his hand (Ps. 31:15), as he fulfils the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.