I have been thinking about J. I. Packer’s assertion in the last chapter we looked at (Sons Of God), and I had a possible insight about the “Great Commission” that I would like to develop.
Packer’s point as I see it is the jewel of the Gospel is that we are sons of God. That is the end of redemption and everything else is a means to get to that end. This is one of the many points Packer brings out in Knowing God that hit home to me this time through. It has been reverberating in my thinking for several days as I worked on the current lesson and today as I did some reading.
Contrast that statement with Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:
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[a] 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.” Matthew 28:18-20
I had always been taught and generally assumed that Jesus’ words were a command to spread the Gospel. It was evangelistic in nature. But now I am not so sure. Before I go on let me be extremely careful to say that I am not denying the need for evangelism. It an essential part of the work of the Church as Paul notes in Romans 10:14 the need for evangelistic preaching.
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? Romans 10:14
So, spreading the Gospel by active presentation of the one they should believe in is a biblical mandate. The question, however, is whether the Great Commission passage includes that mandate. Today for the first time, I don’t think it does.
As I took apart the elements of the commission I noticed that they are all actions in response to people who have already been born again.
1. Discipleship. Making disciples is taking the raw material and helping to develop it into mature believer. Discipleship is spiritual growth, not spiritual birth.
2. Baptism. We baptize people who are already believers, or in the case of paedobaptists, the babies of believers.
3. Teaching. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the natural man. We purpose to teach the faithful to aid them in their discipleship.
Okay. Let’s say you agree with me, that this is a faithful interpretation and application of this passage. Why is it important? Glad you asked.
The Great Commission has always been presented as the universal call to the whole church. I can agree with that and when I think about it, all of us fit into its charge in some way, whether discipling, baptizing, or teaching. However, it doesn’t call us to evangelism, to call souls into new birth. Why not? It may be because the harvesting of souls (the image used in Luke 10) is done by specific workers and rather than admonishing his disciples themselves to begin harvesting he said:
He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Luke 10:2
While the work of the Great Commission is the work of the whole Church, the work in the harvest fields is done by specific workers that the Lord of the harvest calls to that task. Acknowledging this difference frees the rest of us from feeling guilty about not evangelizing the world. It does not mean that we do not have chances for evangelism and that we are not called to respond to those opportunities, we are (see my posting on gleaning which addresses this issue). But this allows us to can stop beating ourselves up for not being the one standing on the street corner or in the foreign land speaking out the offer of the Gospel. It is God who adopts, by his will and by his Spirit in action and it is the job of the skilled workers he sends into the ripe fields to harvest what he has brought to life.
If I am correct then, that means that we who remain, the great mass of the Church, have no excuse for not engaging in discipleship, seeing that believers are baptized, and teaching where we are able. We all are called by Jesus to do that as part of the normal course of our Christian lives, as part of being a member of the family of God. Freed from the need to evangelize, unless that is our specific calling, we now need to focus on fulfilling the commission we have been given, a commission that is part of our birthright as sons of God.
Every time I study Knowing God I gain some new and often significant insights. I find this one particularly provocative. I want to ask you, my brothers and sisters, is my understanding accurate? Do you agree or disagree with my conclusions? An inquiring mind wants to know. After all, as iron sharpens iron, so does one man sharpen the understanding of another.
Grace and peace to your day and may you always be Berean, testing everything against the Word of God.