[Editor’s note: I originally wrote this in 2012. Based on many current discussions, I decided it would be good to revisit it.]
What is the mission of the church? What is shalom? What is the church’s role in the pursuit of social justice? Pastors Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert address these and other related questions in their book, What is the Mission of the Church: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission.
There have been many books and articles written and many sermons given on the topics of mission, social justice, shalom, flourishing, and the great commission. Some say that the mission of the church is to continue the work of reconciliation that Jesus started, especially in the realm of unjust social structures. Others say that the mission of the church is to proclaim the good news that Jesus has saved us from our sins. Some say that the gospel message isn’t complete unless the church is pursuing the peace and prosperity of the city. Others say that the gospel message is simply that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification.
Given the diversity of opinions on these issues, it isn’t surprising that Pastors DeYoung and Gilbert felt called to write a book that addresses the topic of mission from a solidly Reformed perspective. The book is not a heavy theological treatise. Rather, it is aimed for the average person or pastor who is interested in understanding the current discussion on mission. The biblical exegesis is clear and easy to follow.
Early in the book, the authors explain that the book was written to answer the question: What is the mission of the church? Particularly, they write that part of their purpose is to correct “an overexpansive definition that understands mission to be just about every good thing Christians could do as a partner with God in his mission to redeem the whole world” (20). Their concern is that this “overexpansive definition” runs the risk of marginalizing the mission of making disciples, which they argue is what “makes Christian mission Christian mission” (22) and also places considerable guilt on Christians who feel “the church is either responsible for most problems in the world or responsible to fix these problems” (23). The authors are careful, though, to point out that their book is not a critique of their brothers in Christ in the Acts 29 and Redeemer networks (20).
So what is the mission of the church? According to DeYoung and Gilbert it is:
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. (62)
Seems pretty simple, but very profound.
In order to understand the mission of the church, it is necessary to understand the overarching story of the Bible. The first three chapters of Genesis serve to set up the main problem that man has: alienation from God. All other problems, disease, broken relationships, decay, suffering, injustice, are results or symptoms of this underlying problem. The question, then, at the heart of the Bible is: “How can hopelessly rebellious, sinful people live in the presence of a perfectly just and righteous God?” (69) The book explains that:
The “whole story” is not, as one author suggests, about us becoming “conduits for him to bring healing to earth and its residents.” It’s not about our call “to partner in a restorative work so that the torch of hope is carried until Christ returns.” The story is not about us working with God to make the world right again. It’s about God’s work to make us right so we can live with him again. (89)
The next topic the book addresses is the gospel. If we are called as believers to proclaim the gospel, then it’s important for us to understand what that is exactly. It has become increasingly popular to talk about the “whole gospel” or the “gospel of the kingdom.” The idea is that the proclamation that Jesus died for the sins of His people is only part of the gospel. According to some, the whole gospel or gospel of the kingdom is the good news that Jesus has broken into history and has inaugurated his kingdom which has cosmic redemption as the goal. To this group, to be about the work of spreading the gospel we must participate in this work of reconciling all things.
DeYoung and Gilbert believe that there really are two different, legitimate, approaches to how one views the gospel. The first they call a “wide-angle lens” view. This view sees the whole package of blessings that come from Christ as encompassing the whole of the gospel message. This would include the redemption of God’s people and the restoration of the created order. The second view they call a “zoom lens” view. According to this view, the heart of the gospel is the good news that Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead (106). As long as both views understand that the reconciliation of God and man through the death and resurrection of Christ is the basis for all the other blessings received through Christ then both are legitimate expressions of the gospel:
Because the broader blessings of the gospel are attained only by means of forgiveness through the cross, and because those broader blessings are attained infallibly by means of forgiveness through the cross, it’s entirely appropriate and makes perfect sense for the New Testament writers to call forgiveness through the cross – the fountainhead of and gateway to all the rest – “the gospel.” That’s also why we never see the New Testament calling any other single promise of God to the redeemed “the gospel.” For example, we never see the promise of the new creation called “the gospel.” Nor do we see reconciliation between humans called “the gospel.” But we do see reconciliation between man and God called “the gospel” precisely because it is the one blessing that leads to all the rest. (109)
Having addressed the topics of the gospel and what the story of the Bible is, the book moves on to the topics of social justice, shalom, and good deeds. The first misconception that it covers is the concept of doing “kingdom work.” First, “non-Christians do not do ‘kingdom work’” (112). This is because:
[Y]ou cannot “expand the kingdom” by bringing peace and order and justice to a certain area of the world. Good deeds are good, but they don’t broaden the borders of the kingdom. The only way the kingdom of God – the redemptive rule of God – is extended is when he brings another sinner to renounce sin and self-righteousness and bow his knee to King Jesus. (121)
In addition, DeYoung and Gilbert caution against an overly optimistic view of what the church can reasonably be expected to accomplish in this age of already and not yet:
We are afraid that many church leaders are doing their people a disservice by leading them to hope too much for the betterment of society in “this present evil age,” which still languishes in bondage and futility. Mission statements like “Transform the City and the World” and “Change the City, Change the World” express a commendable desire, but simply go too far beyond what the Bible tells us we should expect to see in the world during this age, before Jesus returns. (129-130)
This is not to say that the church and believers should act like the world around them doesn’t matter or that they can’t have a positive effect on their community or environment. These are important things and are beneficial, but they are not “kingdom work.”
Social justice is another hot topic in evangelical circles. Because the term is often used to mean widely disparate ideas, DeYoung and Gilbert spend a full chapter on defining justice from a Biblical standpoint. Their exegesis of popular proof texts is excellent and worth the read. The result of their study is that Biblical justice and injustice have specific meanings:
Doing justice is not the same as redistribution, nor does it encompass everything a godly Israelite would do in obedience to Yahweh. Injustice refers to those who oppress, cheat, or make judicial decisions with partiality. Doing justice, then, implies fairness, decency, and honesty. (161)
They summarize the Bible’s teaching on social justice as “no fraud, no favoritism, help the weak, freely give as we have abundantly received” (171).
And they caution that:
It’s too easy to wield “social justice” like a two-by-four to whack every middle-class Christian who tithes, prays, works hard, deals fairly with others, and serves faithfully in the local church, but doesn’t have time to give to or be involved in every cause. If we need fifty hours in every day to be obedient, we’re saying more than the Bible says. It is hard to prove that most evangelical Christians are guilty of grave injustices towards the poor. Let’s not stir up guilt where it doesn’t belong. (192)
They encourage believers to focus on love rather than social justice:
[A]s we see the physical needs all around us, let’s motivate each other by pointing out salt-and-light opportunities instead of going further than the Bible warrants and shaming each other with do-this-or-you’re-sinning responsibilities. We would do well to focus less on prophetic “social justice” announcements and more on boring old love. (193)
Next, DeYoung and Gilbert tackle the concept of “shalom.” Shalom ultimately means something like “wholeness, completeness, soundness, well-being” (197). The book explains that shalom is used in more than one way in Scripture to describe more than one type of peace. Specifically it is not always used to indicate eternal peace. The danger in confusing the types of shalom is forgetting that “[t]here is no shalom between God and man apart from the cross, and we should take care not to imply otherwise” (200). Eternal shalom is only possible through the reconciliation between God and man through the atonement of Christ. It is not something that comes from our efforts to fix social structures.
One of the examples the book gives is the Jeremiah 29 passage that is often quoted as the model for modern, city-focused mission. Despite what many authors have used it to say:
The Israelite exiles were not seeking any long-term shalom of the city, much less the ultimate, eternal kind. In fact, their ultimate hope for Babylon was that it would be not at all peaceful, but completely destroyed (Jer. 50:2, 29). Through chapters 50-51 Jeremiah prophesies the downfall of Babylon, not just as bare fact but as something the Israelite exiles are to look forward to and hope for. … [I]t’s simply impossible to maintain the meaning of Jeremiah 29:7 – “Seek the welfare of the city” – that so many modern authors want to give it: that it is an Old Testament statement of the mission of the people of God, namely, that we are to be working toward the eternal blessedness of the cities in which we live by engaging with their social structures. That reading of that particular verse entirely misses the point of what Jeremiah was commanding. The Israelites’ ultimate hope was not in their efforts to “bring peace to the city”; it was rather in God who would, in fact, bring something quite different from peace to that city in due time. And in the meantime, they were to settle in and seek the welfare of their captors – not even primarily for Babylon’s sake, but for their own sakes. (202-203)
This, then, is also a reminder that peace and judgment both come from God, by His hand not ours. God is at work as He has always been. When the time is complete, He will bring about the new heavens and new earth. “The new heavens and new earth are not something that we build for ourselves out of the ruins of our fallen world. They are a gift from God to his redeemed people” (206).
The mission of the church, then, is very important. We are to proclaim the gospel message to all the nations, imploring people to be reconciled to God because it is only through reconciliation with God that anyone will experience eternal shalom:
The most important thing we can say about shalom and about the new heavens and new earth is they are only to be obtained by those who have been redeemed through the blood of the resurrected Lord Jesus. Therefore, even if we could wrap an entire city in shalom and push it over the threshold of eternity, the citizens of that city would not go with it unless they had heard it from our lips and believed the gospel of the Lord Jesus. (219)
DeYoung and Gilbert anticipate the next question that readers of their book may have: if the mission of the church is not partnering with God to redeem the cosmos, then why should believers do good deeds? What will motivate the church to help others? Christians are to do good works because God calls us to do them, and we are to obey God out of love (224). We do good works because we are to love our neighbors as God has loved us. We do them because our good works illustrate God’s character and glorify Him. We do them because they our the fruit of the Spirit’s work in us (227). And we do them because our compassion for a person’s physical or emotional needs may win us a hearing for the gospel:
Sometimes the argument is made that when Christians do good things for other people and then share the gospel with them, they’ve pulled a bait-and-switch trick. … But that’s really a terrible way to think about evangelism. Evangelism is the act of telling other people about the plight they are in and how they can be saved from it. Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ is an act of deep love and compassion for that person. (228)
Finally, the authors remind Christians that it’s important to remember where good works fit into Christian theology and not to get confused:
But when you do those things (good deeds), you also need to know and admit that you are not fulfilling part of the church’s mission, you are not “expanding the borders of the kingdom,” and you are not “sharing the gospel without words.” You are simply doing things that redeemed human beings do. You are living as a human being who has been saved and regenerated by the grace of God. (229)
There is a very real danger if the church forgets or confuses it’s mission:
Since hell is real, we must never think alleviating earthly suffering is the most loving thing we can do. Since hell is real, evangelism and discipleship are not simply good options or commendable ministries, but are literally a matter of life and death. (245)
We should remember that:
[T]here is something worse than death and something better than human flourishing. If we hope only for renewed cities and restored bodies in this life, we are of all people most to be pitied. (23)
Our priorities must be kept straight:
Universal shalom with come, but personal redemption comes first – first in temporal sequence, first in theological causality, and first in missions priority. God will make all things new, but our job in the world is to help all peoples find a new relationship with God. We are not called to bring a broken planet back to its created glory. But we are to call broken people back to their Creator. (248)
I really appreciated this book. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have addressed concerns that I have had with the direction of current discussions. I would highly recommend that everyone read the book and think through the implications of the mission of the church, to proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ has achieved our reconciliation with God.