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Gentlemen, this is the Mission of the Church

By Fred G. Zaspel –


Our generation of Christians ought to be marked by a distinct note of gratitude to God for his mercy in raising up multiple, clear voices from so many quarters of the Church to call us — Christians and churches alike — back to that which ought to be the central mark of the Church everywhere and at all times. Ministries such as The Gospel Coalition, Together For the Gospel, countless conferences, and now a seemingly endless stream of books have in the good providence of God helped us to see again that the gospel of Jesus Christ is what we are all about. This — the gospel of Christ — is of central importance and significance. It is what shapes our identity, and it is what defines our reason for being.

Enter DeYoung’s and Gilbert’s What is the Mission of the Church? Their title reminds me of the story of Vince Lombardi’s locker room lecture to a faltering Green Bay Packers football team. Sensing the need to return to basics, he held up a football and said (so the story goes), “Gentlemen, this is a football.” So also DeYoung and Gilbert call the church to consider the very fundamental question of its purpose, its reason for being. As they phrase it, “What in the world does Jesus send us into the world to do?” And to that question they provide a gospel answer.

The bulk of the book is Part Two (six chapters) which is given to an examination of the Bible story itself, its over-arching kingdom motif, the many “great commission” passages, and the various “social justice” passages in both the Old and New Testaments. These chapters provide a very helpful and concisely-stated exegetical, theological, and biblical-theological framework for the discussion. The exegesis is lucid, and the treatments of both the mission passages and the social justice passages are exceedingly helpful, answering many questions that come from all sides of the discussion. DeYoung and Gilbert make careful distinction between the mission of God and the mission of the church, and they clarify such biblical concepts of kingdom, shalom, and the new heaven and new earth in relation to this present world. And, more to the point, they demonstrate how all this establishes and informs the obvious gospel shape to the church’s Christ-given mission.

Part Three of the book seeks to apply the biblical findings to the church and its various efforts and involvements. Of particular significance here is the helpful distinction DeYoung and Gilbert make between the individual Christian and the church. Of course these categories overlap significantly — you cannot have the one without the other. But the responsibilities and functions of the one are not always those of the other. Individuals are not called to observe the Lord’s supper on their own, for example, only the gathered church. The corporate church is not called to love my wife as its own body. And so on. And so to identify individual responsibilities enjoined on us in Scripture is not necessarily to identify the church’s mission. The church is called to give its attention to gospel discipleship. It is of course free to address various social causes. But the more attention the church gives to horizontal considerations the further it strays from its stated mission and reason for being. Efforts in social causes on the part of the church ought only to be with gospel ends in view. A biblical “balance” is heavily weighted to the one side. As the authors conclude after surveying the relevant biblical passages,

The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father (p.62 and 241).

In a word, What is the Mission of the Church? would benefit every church in shaping its self-understanding. And it would serve wonderfully well as a guide for a popular series of Sunday School or small group studies. It deserves the attention of church leaders — and their churches — everywhere.

Earlier this year (2011) when this book was released I followed some of the controversy that it generated in the blogosphere. Now, finally having read the book myself, I cannot for the life of me understand why there should be any controversy at all. DeYoung and Gilbert have in no way demeaned the importance of social involvement and helping our societies see improvement in the various needed ways. They have affirmed its rightful and biblical place — for the Christian and for the church. But they have also called the church back to its redemptive and gospel-centered identity, and that is surely right and needed — particularly in a generation when social action has been mistaken for that gospel. They have very effectively called us to a Biblical and eternal perspective to see what is of utmost importance.

Christianity is a redemptive religion (as Warfield so often said). “Christ crucified” belongs to its very essence. Its first concern has not to do with things temporal but things eternal, not with the horizontal but the vertical. Christianity exists to proclaim the good news that God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself. Redemption is the very reason Christianity exists. It is above all else a redemptive religion. This is what Christianity is, this is what it is for, and this is what it is about. And if this is so, then we might press the question: If a church should become marked by a distinctive other than gospel discipleship, what right would it have to the name “Christian”?

Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Continuing Relevance of Divine Law (1991); The Theology of Fulfillment (1994); Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History (1996); New Covenant Theology with Tom Wells (New Covenant Media); The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two grown children, Gina and Jim.

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