Charles Spurgeon famously commented, “Of two evils, choose neither.” Well, to borrow from the prince of preachers, I’d like to argue: Given a choice in a false dichotomy, choose both.
Recently, an scholarly evangelical voice took to the web to denounce what he termed “Great Commission Christianity,” defined loosely as “a truncated view of the gospel, the kingdom, and redemption” marked by a “hyper-focus on saving individuals.” The author argues that evangelicalism since the modern missionary movement has been too focused on conversion-focused evangelism to the neglect of a broader biblical theology of the kingdom of God and its fruit in society.
Hence, the author contrasts Great Commission Christianity with “Cosmic Redemptive Christianity,” for which he appeals to a definition offered by Tim Keller: “Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.”
One major flaw of the article is its straw-man argumentation. It is not difficult, frankly, to paint a caricature of a certain stream of the Christian church, assign it an arbitrary label (“Great Commission Christianity”), and then turn and extol the advantages of an alternative view (which, as defined by Keller, is quite robust. But my purpose here is not to dissect the logic of the article, nor correct its misapprehensions of the modern missionary movement. Foundationally, it is true that there is a breed of evangelicalism that focuses on individual conversion, revivalism, and pietism to the exclusion of an all-of-life Christianity soaked in the lordship of Christ.
Rather, my purpose is to show that with regard to cosmic redemption and the Great Commission—what God has brought together—such things we must not tear asunder. And further, since half of all churchgoers don’t even know Jesus’ final marching orders, I would contend that we need more Great Commission Christianity, not less.
Seed and Fruit
The relationship between the Great Commission’s gospel-preaching, disciple-making mandate and the New Testament kingdom promises is not one of dichotomy; rather, it is the relationship between seed and fruit.
The conversion experience implied in such words as “disciple” and “baptize” yield the harvest of “observing all” Jesus has commanded, from the privacy of the prayer closet to the public square. Preaching salvation in Christ is no more the enemy of cultural labor than planting apple seeds is the enemy of pie.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul delivers what some might call a “truncated” gospel—that is, one centering almost entirely on the death and resurrection of Christ to accomplish forgiveness of sins (vv. 1-4). But as the chapter unfolds, we realize that this redemptive work—with the salvation of individuals as its focal point—is the germ in the old creation that produces the defeat of all of Christ’s visible and invisible enemies (vv. 24-26) and the accomplishment of the final resurrection itself (vv. 50-55). The gospel that saves individual sinners from the wrath of God is the mustard seed that sprouts into all the fruits of the kingdom, the pebble that swells into a global mountain, the leaven that makes the whole loaf rise.
It’s no mistake that the Great Commission seems to echo the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28. The first Adam and his wife received rulership of creation and plunged it into ruin; the second Adam and his bride, the church, redeem the world by means of the gospel in anticipation of the final consummation.
This is not just a clever analogy or an abstract exercise in biblical theology; this is the literal outworking of the fact that all heavenly and earthly authority has been given to Christ (Matt 28:18)—or, as the Apostle John phrases it, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev 11:15).
An All-Encompassing Mandate
It should be noted that what we simply do not find in Christ’s mandate is anything like our stripped-bare, modern theology of decisional regeneration and all its accompanying sales tactics. Discipling panta ta ethnē means knees bowing, not just aisles walked. Baptizing in the name of the Triune God means swearing allegiance to King Jesus publicly—every head not down, every eye not closed, no hands raised, contra to the introspective revivalism the author associates with the Great Commission.
Matthew 28:18-20 is more than an evangelistic mandate, especially in the narrow sense in which contemporary Christians conceive evangelism. After asserting his cosmic, cultural, and kingly authority (v. 18), the risen Jesus commands the discipling of the nations—that is, the bringing about of total subjugation to the gospel and law of Christ in every place, among every people. And as all the nations repent and embrace Christ, forgiveness of sins is implied (cf. Lk 24:44-46) but isn’t the end. Conversion is the beginning, but Jesus also enjoins his apostles to baptize and teach total obedience.
All or Nothing
The problem is that the New Testament won’t allow us to aim for kingdom fruit while bypassing the gospel of the kingdom itself. Church history recent and modern bears out that those who exclusively emphasize a Christian social ethic inevitably to lose both those societal effects and the gospel which alone can produce them. Conversely, it is those who focus explicitly upon conversionary evangelism who often, even inadvertently, impact whole cultures. As evidence, we need look no further than the corpse of mainline Protestantism and its so-called social gospel. If we aim for the root, we’ll get both the root and the fruit; if we simply aim for fruit, we’ll get neither.
Dr. Robert Woodberry is one scholar who has documented the effects of conversionary protestant missions in shaping much of life itself in the West. Dr. Vishal Mangalwadi, whom Christianity Today dubbed India’s foremost Christian intellect, is another scholar drawing attention to the undeniable fruits of the gospel in society—including, notably, the effects of William Carey’s missionary efforts on modern India, which the aforementioned article sidesteps.
But the type of Christianity that bears this long-term fruit is not obsessed with slick contextualization, appealing to the prevailing cultural norms, and contorting every issue from criminal justice to community gardens into “gospel issues.” Rather, lasting fruit is achieved by those who keep the gospel pure, heralding the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and drawing out the implications not only salvation but also his rule over all of life—the very faith once for all delivered to the saints.
What gives the yeast of the kingdom its leavening power is not human sociocultural savvy but the fact that yeast is alive. The life in the gospel that brings about fruit in society is the power of the Spirit that transcends and subverts and political philosophy or critical theory. Paul reminds us: “For Christ did not send me to baptize”—or preach cultural transformation as a end in itself, we might add—“but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor 1:17).
Whether or not one holds to an optimistic, culture-redeeming eschatology, historically, the gospel that has in fact transformed societies is a “narrow” gospel of Christ, cross, empty grave, repentance, cross, justification, and reconciliation—not a gospel of social change. This is not to say that those who hold the evangelical gospel have never erred; rather, it is simply to hold that the gospel alone is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:6). Our problem is not that we are emphasizing the cross and its power to save sinners too much. If anything, our problem is drifting from this gospel.
The cosmos will be redeemed, but not through our scholarly snobbery which claims to have liberated its from the oppressive, individualistic hermeneutic of those old-time-religionists. “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14) through the spread of the gospel and the planting of churches focused upon all-of-life discipleship, not through a politicized Christian intellectual class.
A full-orbed biblical theology of the gospel and of cosmic redemption leads us to the conclusion that we need more Great Commission Christianity, not less. What God has joined together, let no man separate.