Conflating the Great Commandment and the Great Commission

After undergoing an intensive ordination process, completing a PhD in two diverse disciplines, and almost two decades of Great Commission service, only then did I begin to see how frequently Christians (and especially Great Commission servants) confuse biblical precepts and biblical promises. Only then did I realize how deadening it was to my soul to misunderstand and misapply the law of God and the gospel of God. Many presume the law is relegated to the Ten Commandments (specifically for OT Israel), while the gospel comprises the teachings of Christ to show us how to live a life of abundance and love for God (specifically for the NT church). And so, the popular notion proposes that the Great Commission and the Great Commandment are two sides to the same proverbial coin. 

The way Christians supposedly fulfill the Great Commission, therefore, is by transforming the world with the love of God in every sphere of society. And the way Christians truly love God and others is by living missionally, which means incarnating the gospel, which means being the face of Christ, which means pursuing love and justice, which means building Christ’s kingdom, which means loving on the least of these, which means engaging this cultural moment, which means leaning into the heart of Jesus for the world, which means… I don’t think anyone really knows. But such sloppy jargon and sappy sentiments inspire activistic laptop-warriors, hot-selling Christian best-sellers, multi-million-dollar conferences, and niche-marketed Christian experts to peddle their relics that have rock-your-world impact. Many evangelical thought-leaders have amalgamated the empathetic niceness of the Great Commandment with the be-a-blessing-activism of the Great Commission. This grafting has not produced the distinctive spiritual fruit that the big evangelical industrial complex has guaranteed.

The bottom line is this: The Great Commandment—love God and love others perfectly and perpetually—sums up all the law and the prophets. Essentially, the law of God is anything in the Bible where blessings, reward, and life are conditioned upon perfect and perpetual holiness that is explicitly required, suggested, implied, or assumed. And for those who don’t know the law from Scripture, it is any moral code written on the human conscience that corresponds to God’s standards of impeccable and infinite righteousness. Only by keeping this moral code fully and forever without one infraction and unholy inclination can we earn righteousness and have a ground on which to stand acceptable in God’s sight. And no, God does not grade on a curve because “He knows our heart.” That He knows our heart is actually terrifying news. Indeed, God expects us to be perfect as He is perfect. Yet, it takes no developmental psychologist to admit the universal human problem: there is none righteous, not even one. 

The good news of the gospel is that the righteous Man anticipated in the Hebrew Scriptures has come, has obeyed God’s law perfectly, and has suffered the consequences of the law in place of all sinners who will receive Him. And He was raised from the dead for our justification. Having been justified through faith, recipients of such grace have peace with God. So, now, out of gratitude, the grace-endowed church labors in the Great Commission to announce to all the nations that the God-Man from Galilee has fulfilled the impossible demands of the law written on everyone’s conscience. He has satisfied the wrath of God against law-breakers. And this announcement is a message of free grace for any who would receive it. There are no covenant stipulations or contractual conditions. All that is required of recipients? Nothing. The only thing we can give God is our debt. He pays the bill, but we have thereafter no debtor’s ethic. No paying back God. No obedience to maintain favor. So, the Great Commission is the glad-hearted charge to take that marvelous message to the nations and to make disciples who rest in grace through Word and worship.

This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, E.D. Burns, Seeds and Stars: Resting in Christ for Great Commission Service (Cape Coral, FL: Founders, 2023). You can pre-order the book here.

E.D. Burns, PhD, has been a missionary in the Middle East, East Asia, Alaska, and currently Southeast Asia, where he develops theological resources and trains indigenous pastors and missionaries. From his international location, he also directs the MA in Global Leadership at Western Seminary. He is author of the new book The Missionary-Theologian.
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