Sunday, August 02, 2015

E9. The Church participates in God's mission to the world.

This is the ninth post on the Church in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit on the Spirit and the Church was on the Holy Spirit.
The Church participates in God's mission to the world.

1. If the Church has as its highest and central task the worship of God, the Church has as its primary mission the reconciliation of the world to God. This task is, ultimately, God's mission rather than the mission of the Church itself. It cannot succeed without the Holy Spirit, who prepares the way for the hearing of the good news. God has made Christ the means of reconciliation. The atoning death of Christ is the ground of reconciliation.

But the primary method by which God is reconciling humanity to himself is through the Church. God has chosen "the foolishness of proclamation" as the normal method to save humanity (1 Cor. 1:21). [1]

2. Paul expresses the mission God had given him in 2 Corinthians 5:20: "We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us." What is this ministry? Paul and his co-workers had a "ministry of reconciliation" (5:18). In the Great Commission, Jesus charged his disciples to "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19).

This proclamation of the good news is one of the key tasks of the Church. Within the body of Christ, some are especially gifted to proclaim the good news. Ephesians 4:11 calls them "evangelists," and in the early church this was a primary task of the apostles. The apostles were those "sent" by the risen Jesus to give witness to the fact that he had risen from the dead indeed and been enthroned as king of the cosmos.  

3. What is the good news, the gospel? In Matthew, Mark, and Luke--the "Synoptic Gospels--the good news is the "kingdom of God" (e.g., Mark 1:14-15). [2] While he was on earth, Jesus preached the coming return of God's reign to the earth. This coming reign, which began in his ministry, would set things right in the world.

With the death and resurrection of Jesus, the role of Jesus as the king of the coming kingdom came into focus. It is the kingdom of our God and of his Christ (Rev. 12:10). The heart of the gospel for Paul is the fact that Jesus is the king of the cosmos and that he is coming again to return righteousness to the world. [3]

So the good news includes the implications of Christ's reign. The gospel is the good news that Jesus has been enthroned as king and all that his enthronement entails.

This enthronement includes salvation. The good news includes the possibility of eternal salvation for humanity. It includes good news for the poor who will not be poor in the kingdom of God. It includes good news for the creation, which will be liberated along with humanity.

4. The coming kingdom of God is good news for the poor, certainly when the kingdom is fully here. Christ has inaugurated the kingdom of God, but it is not fully in place and will not be until he returns. Nevertheless, while he was on earth Jesus modeled that the good news is good news for the poor now as well as in the future. [4]

Therefore, the good news that Jesus is king Messiah not only means that individuals can have eternal life and that the Church is called to proclaim this good news to the world. It also means that the Church is called to bring "good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed" (Luke 4:16-21Evangelism is the practice of proclaiming the good news to the world. That good news in the New Testament is not only that all can be saved. It is also that injustice will cease.

Any view of evangelism that does not have the lordship of Jesus as its primary message is off focus. And any view of evangelism that does not include "social justice" is an anemic understanding of the good news. Social justice is the biblical value of bringing the love of God to bear on the social and economic contexts of society. It is rooted in the Old Testament Law, reiterated in the Old Testament Prophets and Writings, pronounced definitively in the message of Jesus, and empowered in the New Testament by the Holy Spirit.

The Bible nowhere sees these two aspects of the good news in conflict with one another. The Bible never treats the resources of the Church in competition with one another, as if we must make a choice between saving souls and helping people. God calls the Church to do both, and no doubt he calls some more to be ministers of the one form of reconciliation and others more to be ministers of the other.

So while it is true that eternity is more important than our current social and economic circumstances, the Bible leaves no room for the Church to ignore social justice in the name of eternal salvation. And, in any case, those who think they are likely to see souls saved when their life situation is ignored are more likely hindrances to the good news than true evangelists.

5. Romans 8 indicates that salvation will go beyond human eternity, for most of the New Testament pictures eternity taking place on a new earth. The gospel is thus also good news for the creation. In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve the task to care for the garden (Gen. 2:15; cf. 1:28).

More than ever in history, humanity is now in a position both to care for God's world and to harm it. It is not the primary task of the Church to take care of the creation, but the Church demonstrates that it is redeemed humanity when it fulfills God's original intention that humanity be good stewards of the earth. Therefore, the authentic Church will be a positive force for the care of God's creation.

6. At any time and place, it will be more or less possible for the Church to influence its surrounding society for good. This is rarely a matter of force. Force does not truly change others, for change is a matter of the heart and the inside rather than the outside. In cases of concrete harm, the Church may exert pressure for change.

Nevertheless, the true Church always influences the world to become better. We should not assume that, at any time and place, our contexts are destined to get worse and worse or better and better. At times the Church will have a significant impact on the world becoming a better place. At others, we will watch the surrounding society deteriorate around us.

In either case, God's mission remains. God's mission is to reconcile the world to himself and then to see a redeemed humanity and creation flourish forever. God calls the Church to participate in that mission as agents of change.

Next Sunday: E10. The Church disciples and nurtures God's people.

[1] We have mentioned elsewhere the possibility that someone might be saved through Christ without having heard his name. Such a person would be judged "according to the light they have." However, this is not the ideal of the New Testament or the normal path to salvation. It cannot undermine the drive to go and preach the good news and surely the likelihood of turning to Christ is greater the more light one has. "Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17).

[2] Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the "synoptic" Gospels because they present Jesus in such a way that you can set them side by side and see remarkable similarities in wording and order. It is the consensus of scholars that Matthew and Luke in fact used Mark as a written source.

[3] See Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) and N. T. Wright, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes It Good (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015).

[4] The Gospel of Luke especially emphasizes this dimension of Jesus' earthly ministry (e.g., Luke 4:16-21).

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