Cursed Jesus

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13; cf. Deuteronomy 21:23).

The Gospel of Jesus Christ sets Christianity apart from everything else in the world, including all other religious systems. The good news according to Scripture is simultaneously ugly and beautiful, appalling and glorious. This is true on multiple levels, but the paradox is especially vivid at the cross of Christ.

Jesus is the perfect man, He is the obedient servant and the selfless king. There is none like Him. At the cross, however, Jesus becomes the most heinous sinner of all time. He is utterly righteous and morally pure, but something happens that we are not able to see with our eyes.

God the Father took all of the sin, rebellion, malice, hate, enmity, perversion, arrogance, indifference, greed, and lust from all those who would trust/believe in Jesus and put it on the Son. The perfectly pure One – Jesus Christ – was made to be shamefully guilty.

What unthinkable impropriety we see at the cross of Christ!

Ah, but this is the wondrous and mysterious beauty! That pure One was cursed in order that the cursed ones may be pure. The sinner is exceedingly guilty and, therefore, cursed by God. The sinner deserves God’s wrath, and God is perfectly justified in His vengeance. BUT, God redirects His intense fury! Instead of delivering it on the head of the sinner, God counts Christ as exceedingly guilty and, therefore, curses Him in the sinner’s place! Christ, then, received the justified vengeance of God’s wrath, and the trusting sinner is set free.

This exchange, the sinner’s guilt and Christ’s righteousness, is the very heart of the Gospel. This is the reason the Gospel is most precious to some and most ridiculous to others. To those who are being saved by it, it is most assuredly the power and wisdom of God.

Behold the wondrous mystery, and look to Christ – the hideous and glorious Savior!

Do you know the Gospel?

In short, the Gospel is the story of God’s plan to save sinners. Throughout human history, God has been actively involved in revealing Himself as both righteous Judge and gracious Savior. The story of God’s redeeming work may be best understood if we begin with creation and work our way towards Jesus. In fact, it is a good rule of thumb to always be in pursuit of Jesus.

You are a sinner.
God created everything good, but humanity sinned against God. Sin is any doing, saying, or thinking what God forbids or not doing, saying or thinking what God commands. For our sin, we were cursed with death (both physical and spiritual [Gen 3]) and are born with a wicked aversion to God or the things of God (Rom 3:9-18). The curse of God is fixed upon all sinners, and all sinners deserve no less than the full wrath and judgment of God (Eph 2:1-3).
God loves sinners like you.
God, demonstrating His love for His children, sent Jesus Christ to redeem us (Rom 5:8).
Jesus is unique.
Jesus, God the Son, was born, a man, without sin (Jn 1). He lived as a man and did not sin once (1Cor 5:21). He fulfilled and obeyed every law of His Father, God, and then was condemned to die (Matt 5:17).
Jesus took the place of sinners.
In Jesus’ obedience, He laid down His own life as a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of all those who would believe in Him (Jn 10:17-18). During His suffering for the sin of His sheep, He received the full wrath of God that they deserve (Rom 3:23-26).
Jesus overpowered death, and He is the risen Lord.
Upon His death He was buried in a grave, but shortly after was raised from the dead (Acts 2:22-33). Jesus’ resurrection assures all Christians that God the Father accepted His sacrificial work and that He is the Son of God.
The only right response is trust.
Because Jesus has died for all those who believe, we are grateful for the wonderful and beautiful sacrifice that He has made for us. We may simply call out to Jesus (Rom 10:13) and completely trust Him alone to save us from our sin and the penalty that comes with it (Acts 4:12).
God adopts sinners by His grace.
Because of the redemptive plan of God, the obedient life and death of Christ and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, all who trust in the promise of God to save them are united forever in the family of God (Eph 2:19-20).
If you have questions about the content and/or application of this post, I’d be glad to hear from you.

Jesus Changes Everything

The Gospel is the story of Jesus.

Jesus is the whole point of the Gospel. Rather than a message of self-help or religious structure, the Gospel is the story of a real historical person. Who He is and what He did (and does) is the essence of the Good News.

This news, however, is not just something we add to the overabundance of news we receive every day. No, this news changes everything… Jesus changes everything.

When we hear about a car accident across town, we are hopeful that there were no serious injuries, but we are not detoured from our daily activities. If someone tells us about a weather front that is causing flooding in another state, we are prayerful that there will be no fatalities, but our plans for dinner go unaltered.

There are a multitude of headlines and news captions vying for our attention every day, but the message about Jesus is different. The message about Jesus is personal and serious. Jesus claims to be our King and our Judge, and this means that we are either in submission to Him or at war with Him. Jesus claims to be the singular remedy for our problem of eternal guilt, and this means either we enjoy His cure for our condemnation or we bear the judgment still.

Growing in Gospel Understanding = Spiritual growth

Christian spiritual growth is experienced as the believer comes to a greater understanding of the Gospel and grows in his/her conviction that the Gospel is actually true. Of course, every Christian believes that the Gospel is true. And yet, there is a progression in every Christian’s practical and active alignment with that belief.

We believe that Jesus is our King, but we still disobey Him in various ways. We believe that His love for us is overwhelming, but we still sometimes imagine that His rules are meant to steal our joy. There are numerous examples, but the point is that each Christian lives with a greater or lesser degree of consistency. We believe the Gospel is true, but we do not yet live exactly according to what we believe. Spiritual growth, then, is our increased understanding of the Gospel and its implications for everything.

Jesus Changes Everything

If Jesus is truly our savior and redeemer, then this changes everything! This changes our heart of opposition to a heart of gratitude. It changes our despair into hope, and our shame into freedom. The Gospel is not just news; it is THE NEWS, the best news, the greatest news, the news that changes everything!

Make no mistake; Jesus changes everything. The Christian life is lived as a daily renewal of perspective, desire, and activity.

Are You in the Dark or the Light?

In the Bible, God often uses themes and imagery to make His teaching clear. Light and darkness are presented to us in the opening pages of Genesis when God tells us that He created light to dispel darkness at His command (Gen. 1:2-3).

This theme is picked up throughout the Bible, and it is especially prominent in the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel presents a world of darkness, inhabited by wicked people who want to remain in the shadows rather than be exposed to the light.

We find this to be true in our own experience, don’t we?

When someone does something they know they should not do, they often try to hide their activity under the cover of darkness. Either literally or figuratively, wicked things are generally done in darkness (in secret).

Additionally, when these secret things are exposed (when the light shines upon them), the nearly universal response is to run away from the light. How many times have we witnessed people lying to cover up their wickedness? Do the lies stop when someone is caught in a lie? No! The lies continue and become increasingly complicated. This common experience is not only found in the activities of others; it is found in our own activities as well.

What we read about in John’s Gospel aligns perfectly with our own experience: wickedness loves darkness and hates light.

The world of darkness and its wicked inhabitants is disheartening, for sure, but there is hope to be found in the light. John’s Gospel also teaches us that God’s light is both exposing and enlightening. God’s light of truth simultaneously condemns wickedness and provides a clear path towards redemption.

The essential message of Christianity is not a message of personal improvement or moralistic ascendency… quite the contrary.

The good news of Christianity is that God has shown love and mercy towards those who are morally filthy and personally blameworthy. However (and here is the rub), the mercy God offers is only available to those who are willing to expose their own wickedness to the light of His judgment.

If you want to keep pretending that you aren’t as bad as you really are, then you may remain in darkness (at least until you stand before God at the final judgment). But, for those who will come into the light, expose themselves of guilty and disgraceful, there is a great hope.

The hope we may have is provided in the reality that Jesus Christ is the substitute for all who trust in Him.

Jesus (fully God and genuinely human) was born without darkness and guilt. He lived a life of perfect obedience to God’s law, exposing Himself as morally and personally pure in the light. However, when Jesus died upon a Roman cross, He was counted as filthy and blameworthy on behalf of all those who would trust Him as their substitute. In this way, God both exposes wicked sinners for who they are and provides hope for their escape from His righteous judgment.

Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free;

for God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me.

Since our first parents disobeyed God, creation (including humanity) has become dark. Truth and righteousness have been dulled and obscured in disobedience (Rom. 1:18), and humanity has happily sided with the darkness (Jn. 3:19). However, God’s light is an overwhelming beam (Jn. 1:4-5), both exposing sin and bringing life to those who humbly receive Him (Jn. 1:12-13; cf. Jn. 3:16-21).

May the light of Christ’s truth shine upon us today.

Who needs the Gospel?

It may shock you to learn just how many people think that they do not need the Gospel. Does everyone really need the Gospel? Do you? Does your family? Your friend? Your neighbor?

The message of the Gospel is often assumed or dismissed in my stomping ground. Therefore, you must allow me to briefly articulate the Gospel before I get to the actual meat of this brief article.

What is the Gospel?

The Gospel is the story of God’s reconciling work on behalf of guilty people. God created all things good and for His glory, but humanity rebelled against God’s good authority. Ever since our first parents disobeyed, all humans find it undesirable to submit to God’s good authority. For this reason, the human experience is marked by bad decisions, hurtful relationships, physical suffering, and ultimately death itself.

However, God did not leave humans to suffer without hope. God promised that someone would bring guilty, disobedient people into a gracious and good relationship with Him. God delivered on that promise in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth, the only man who is also God, lived a perfectly obedient life in order to earn God’s blessings. Even though Jesus is perfectly good, He was counted as utterly guilty and bad when God punished Him for the disobedience of others. Jesus was the substitute for all those who would trust Him for it.

God’s fury against rebellion was poured out on Jesus when He was crucified on a Roman cross in the first century A.D. After Jesus died, He demonstrated His power, His person, and His provision by coming back from the dead. Because Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, He gives hope to all humans who trust Him to rescue them from God’s wrath. Therefore, God has reconciled guilty people with Himself by delivering justice and offering gracious pardon at the same time.

So, who needs this message?

People who have never heard it need the Gospel. If someone has never heard the message of God’s redeeming love and grace, then they cannot know freedom from the bondage of guilt and shame. While some people might deny that they feel guilty over the bad that they have done, humans generally know that they are flawed. Such imperfections will pull and bite at the conscience of anyone who takes the time to consider them.

People who think the Gospel is irrelevant need the Gospel. There are a number of reasons a person might think the Gospel is irrelevant, but frequently this thought arises from a lack of understanding. If the Gospel truly is the story of how God reconciles guilty people with Himself, then this message is universally relevant. I would argue that there is no message more relevant to every person everywhere.

People who are unimpressed by the Gospel need the Gospel. I often talk with people who are unimpressed by the Gospel. These are normally people who are looking for an immediate remedy for some obstacle of life: financial trouble, parenting confusion, relational strife, health concerns, etc. Someone looking for help dealing with their tyrannical boss may not see any direct connection between their need and the Gospel. However, this betrays a person’s lacking consideration of the Gospel. The greater familiarity one has with the Gospel, and the deeper understanding one has of the implications of this supremely good message, the more he or she will realize that the Gospel impacts everything. The Gospel is incredibly impressive to those who give quality effort to thinking it through.

People who assume they know the Gospel need the Gospel. In the “Bible belt” (that portion of southern America that has as many churches as fueling stations) many people assume they know the Gospel. A large portion of the population recognizes the vocabulary words of the Christian subculture, and they assume that they know the meaning of the words as well. Additionally, these assumptions become increasingly dangerous when they are combined with the belief that general familiarity is tantamount to full inclusion. Those who assume they are Christians because they assume they know the Gospel are in the gravest danger, for they assume far too much.

In case you haven’t noticed the pattern, I believe everyone needs the Gospel. From ignorant pagans to long-time Christians, we all benefit from deepening our understanding of this greatest story ever told. The Gospel of God’s redeeming love is the joy and pleasure of all those who have come to love the God who authored it.

Where is Your Shame?

The sense of shame is universal among humanity. We all feel a deep sense of shame for our failures and our continuing inadequacies. The way we would seek to solve our problem of shame is to deny or embrace the sinful cause of it. Don’t you see that this is what we do all the time?

We deny that we feel shame, because we excuse what we have done as “normal” or “acceptable.”

Caught in sin, we feel the pain of our guilt – the shame of it. And we look around us to see if there is anyone else who has been exposed. “Look!” we say… “Look! There are many others who have done this thing and worse! I have no reason to be ashamed.”

Or, we embrace our sin; and we think this is how we rid ourselves of shame.

Our minds torment us, and our broken hearts sink deeper within as our guilt compounds – our shame is overwhelming. Then, we look around us to see that there are many others who do those same things we have done, and they do not seem to be ashamed at all. In fact, they are embracing and even celebrating their sin. “Look!” we say… “Look! There are many others who do these very same things! My shame is only in my imagination, and there is no reason for it!”

Nevertheless, in all of this, the shame remains…

These foolish and feeble attempts to be without shame are all around us, and our lives are likely characterized by them.

But this is not the solution found in the Gospel! The solution for shame in the Gospel is altogether better. Consider the wisdom of God and be amazed by the richness of it!

God has looked upon the world of condemned sinners, sickened and oppressed by their shame. He has specifically observed you, and He knows what is hidden deep in your soul. He knows the secrets you keep, and He is well aware of your shameful sin. There is nothing in you that is not known to Him.

He knows that you deserve nothing but His righteous fury. He knows that your life of rebellion and wickedness should be exposed and scrutinized and condemned at this very moment. He knows that there is absolutely no reason that He should not drag you in front of His judgment seat without delay.

With all of this in His full and open view, He sees you cowering in darkness. Like your father, Adam, before you, He sees you hiding from your Creator.

And yet…  And yet…

This Ancient of Days, the One in whom there is no darkness (1 Jn. 1:5) has put on human form and entered into your shadowy gloom! The God who is called “light” has shamed Himself among your darkness! In the person of Jesus Christ, the King of glory became the suffering and shameful servant!

Christ is the lofty and incomparable expression of God’s grace towards you! He has lived a life of perfect righteousness, earning a shameless standing before God. He is the only human to ever deserve to be called “not guilty.” But this same Jesus has taken your guilt and shame and made it His own.

Where is your shame, you sinner?! I will tell you where it is! It is exposed! It is already on display, but it is not your face upon the body of it. Christ Himself, He has carried it! He has borne it fully… all of it… not a bit left out.

On a Roman cross, Jesus endured the full judgment and wrath of God. Your sinful shame was placed upon Him, and every wicked thing you have ever thought, said, or done was exposed to God’s righteous fury.

Christ was counted shameful, bearing all of your shame, so that you may be counted utterly free!  Truly free!  Really free!

So, then… Those who believe, those who practice truth, those who trust in this gracious Savior, can come into the light. We may leave darkness without shame.

Death is Life’s Definitive Equalizer

Last weekend was emotionally demanding. I received phone calls from two different sources, and each reported the death of a person I knew. A 92-year-old man had been part of my church family for years, and I had spoken with him several times about his impending death. When he died, it was no huge surprise, but it still stings.

The other news of fatal events focused upon one of my younger brothers. He was 29 years old, and he died of a gunshot wound on Saturday.

Saying it out loud and typing it here still feels strange… My brother is dead.

On Saturday night, I was lying in bed beside my 9-year-old son and my wife. I was making some last minute adjustments to my notes in preparation for officiating the older man’s graveside funeral service on Sunday afternoon. My wife and son were playing and talking beside me, and they were not trying hard to keep from distracting me. Once I finished, we talked a bit and prayed together, and then I carried my son to his bed.

Coming back to my own bed, I returned a call from my dad that I had missed a short time earlier. He relayed the terrible news, “Eric was shot, and they could not save him.”

Thoughts raced through my head. I recalled having said (on more than one occasion) that my brother would likely end up dead or in prison if he remained on his current path, but understanding the logical progression does not prepare one to absorb the decisive reality. Eric had been on a path of self-destruction for many years, with varying degrees of vigor. It seems this end, for him, was inevitable, but it is not welcome.

And yet, the middle-class, war veteran, upstanding citizen, nonagenarian still faced the same end as my brother. Of course, the means were quite different. My brother faced an abrupt end while he felt he was at the height of his life’s energy; and the old man died while he rested peacefully in a hospital bed after his days of vitality had long passed. But, the fact remains… Both men died.

This is the haunting reality that every person cannot escape. I will die. You will die. We will all face that dreaded and immediate removal of all of our illusions of power and grandeur. While we may pride ourselves on our ability to elude that final foe thus far, his stamina and success is sure.

This is what makes death life’s definitive equalizer. No matter what you do, you, like everyone else, will face death on equal footing – with your feet planted firmly in midair.

What will you do with this knowledge? How will you ease your anxiety?

The Bible tells us why all humans experience death, and why we all face such an enemy without hope of escape. All humans die (sooner or later) because of our collective rebellion against God’s divine authority (Rom. 5:12). All humans remain under God’s condemnation because of our collective disobedience (Rom. 5:16). Therefore, we are equally guilty before God, and we will face the judgment we deserve – no matter how much we tried to make ourselves believe otherwise in this brief mortal life.

And yet, there is hope. Not a hope in you or me, but hope that comes from God Himself.

God sends grace instead of justice, and provides genuine hope for all those who will trust Him, in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:21).

Jesus, the Son of God and God the Son, was born perfect, and He lived perfectly obedient to God’s authority. This morally pure God-man was counted as the vilest rebel before God who ever existed when He hung on a Roman cross. God poured out His unbridled fury against rebellious sinners on Jesus Christ, and this incomparably gracious substitute died. Jesus died. He, like all humans, died. Ah, but His death was the death of death itself!

In the death of Jesus Christ, the ultimate penalty for sin was paid. All those who look to Christ (who trust in Him as Rescuer, Redeemer, and Ruler) may rest assured that Christ’s death counts for them. Furthermore, Jesus Christ conquered death by resurrecting to eternal life. Indeed, He promises that all who love and trust Him will enjoy the same resurrection He experienced, and such a glorious end is the bedrock of hope.

So, what will you do with this knowledge?

I know what I do with it… I cling tightly to this Christ who has loved me so. I ache to know Him more and long to be with Him in eternal glory. Daily, I recount His promises, contemplate His work, and ponder His character. In times of greatest trial, when I am tempted to despair and even disbelief, I squeeze tighter to the divine hands that always maintain their grip on me.

Do you think too little of Jesus? Possibly…

In our day of 140 character tweets and eye-catching promos, we are accustomed the seeing just about everything through the lenses of reductionism. “Reduce what you want me to know to the least possible amount of information so that I will be able to quickly assimilate, assess, and (of course) accept or reject it.”

Even in Christian circles, it has become tolerable and sometimes admirable to reduce the Gospel itself to some minimalistic form. Just ask several Christians to describe who Jesus is according to the Bible, and you are likely to hear what I mean. “Jesus is the savior of sinners;” “Jesus is the lover of the outcast;” “Jesus is the Son of God;” and one of my personal favorites, “Jesus is my homeboy.”

Christianity centers upon Jesus Christ (just think of the first five letters of “Christianity“), so it is critical that the Christian think deeply and thoroughly about Jesus. Who is He? What did He do? What does He still do? What has He promised He will do in the future?

There are many dangers of thinking too little of Jesus, but consider the following:

If we think only on the babe in a manger, then we forget that God the Son was with the Father before the world began. We forget that the Son is the One through whom all things were created and the One in whom all things exist.

If we focus too much on Jesus’ obscure childhood, then we venture into pure speculation, and tread on ground that God did not provide for any sturdy follower.

If we see Jesus only as the tender friend to sinners, then we may be surprised to catch a glimpse of Him beating and throwing out the money changers.

If we attune our ears to Jesus’ words of love and peace, such that we cannot hear the fullness of their meaning, then we may forget that God disciplines those He loves.

If we affix our eyes upon the suffering Savior, hanging upon that Roman cross, we may be tempted to think that He has lost His power to rule the world.

If we celebrate only that Jesus arose from the dead, then we may lose sight of His miraculous ascension and think little of His intercession on our behalf this day.

If we idly await the day when Christ returns, and think only of Him as a distant King, then we may forget that He is right with us through the good times and bad in this life.

If we only refer to Jesus as someone we invited into our lives at some point in the past, then we may be surprised to learn that He is our Lord, King, Master, and Savior at this very moment.

We may see, then, that knowing Christ is much more encompassing than most of us might imagine. Cover to cover, the Bible speaks of the person and work of Christ. We ought to love and know Jesus as fully as we are capable; for our joy is made complete in the knowledge of Him.

T4G Reflections: John Piper

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Together for the Gospel 2016. I have also enjoyed reflecting upon some of the messages I heard over those three days, and I have posted some brief articles on a number of them (see my “T4G Reflections” articles).

John Piper spoke about the bondage of the human will in sin and the perfect freedom the Gospel provides. Below is a recap and my own considerations concerning the speaker and the topic.

I have a sort of love/hate connection to John Piper. Much of what I hear or read from him is inspiring, challenging, and solid. Piper is truly a man who has been gripped and gifted by God. On the other hand, some of what I hear and read from Piper is frustrating, confusing, and seemingly incongruent with the afore mentioned good stuff.

One cannot overestimate John Piper’s influence upon the “Reformed Resurgence” we are experiencing in American Christianity today, but I have actually had a limited exposure to John Piper over the years. Still, there is much to be thankful for and much to celebrate about John Piper, his ministry, and his contribution to Christ’s Church in our day. Piper’s address at T4G 2016 was on a subject that played to his strengths, and for that I am supremely grateful. When Piper is strong, he is uniquely gifted and powerful.

Piper’s talk on the bondage of the will of fallen man was powerful indeed. He began by pointing out five pictures of bondage in Scripture, and he explained each one from at least one passage.

First, Piper mentioned the bondage of “Legal guilt and Divine condemnation” (Rom. 3:9-10; Jn. 3:36). This is the condemnation that comes from Adam to all his posterity; God places legal guilt upon all in Adam.

Second, Piper pointed out the bondage of “Love of Darkness and Self-Glorification” (Jn. 3:19-20, 5:43-44). Humanity, he explained, is in bondage to his own affections for that which binds him/her. The chains remain because the sinner loves them and takes pride in them.

Third, Piper spoke of the bondage of “the Hatred for the Supremacy of God” (Rom. 8:6-8). Not only does the sinner fancy himself as god, he hates the notion of any other beside him. The venom of a sinner only increases when God almighty asserts His throne over that of the fallen man.

Fourth, Piper pointed out the bondage of “Spiritual Death” (Eph. 2:1-3). This bondage might be said to be the summation of the first three, but the distinction is worthy of note. This state of death, in which sinners now live, is the direct result of Adam’s sin. God promised that this would be the consequence of disobedience in the Garden, and Adam disobeyed anyway. This spiritual death is the classification under which we find such damnable things as divine condemnation, love for darkness, consuming pride, and hatred for the supremacy of God.

Fifth and finally, Piper spoke of the bondage of “Blindness to the Glory of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:13-14; 2 Cor. 4:4). Each of these taken by themselves are tragic beyond words, but this one is truly heart-rending. Not only is the sinner in bondage to so many things that will utterly destroy him by self-inflicted torments; here we see that he is utterly blind to the one and only hope that he might have for reprieve, joy, peace, freedom, and life. Even the beauty of Christ is veiled to the sinner who remains in bondage under sin.

And yet, as Piper went on to explain, the Gospel of Christ looses each of these binding chords with supernatural power and effectiveness.

Christ bore our sins and guilt upon the cross (1 Pet. 2:24; Is. 53:6)! God gives sinners the gift of repentance (2 Tim. 5:22-26), and His Spirit empowers the sinner to declare “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3)! God makes dead sinners alive (Eph. 2:4-8); and He shines the light of the glory of Christ into the sinner’s heart (2 Cor. 4:6)!

With the Apostle Paul, we may proclaim with utter joy and heart-felt wonder:

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33–36).”

Coalescing Churches and Missionaries

The Church – the universal body of Christ – is a unique institution made up of people rather than materials or mechanisms. Established and sustained by God Himself, the Church acts most like she should when she fulfills the role for which she has been created. The oft-quoted passage at the end of Matthew’s gospel contains the commission of the Church – her purposeful assignment and the promise of her providential Lord. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says to His disciples,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Mark Dever (commenting on this very passage) says, “Jesus’ command to go ‘to the ends of the earth’ [or ‘all nations’] reminds believers that Christ is Lord over all, that he loves all, and that he will call all to account on the great day. Therefore, Christians today have a responsibility to take the gospel around the world.” Dever also understands that congregations (local expressions of the universal Church) are bearers of this same responsibility, because congregations are made up of individual Christians. “Christians together can pool wisdom, experience, financial support, prayers, and callings and direct them all to the common purpose of making God’s name great among the nations…” Dever leaves no room for individual Christians or assembled groups of the same to remain unengaged from this Great Commission when he says, “Witnessing the glory of God proclaimed around the globe in the hearts of all his people should be an end and purpose for every local church.”[1]

Involvement in this intentional activity is no peripheral matter for any local church, and many congregations have been purposefully working at it for a long time. However, recent research and contemporary conversations are revealing that a disconnect may have developed over time between the two prongs that have formed the spearhead of this Christian commission. Local churches in America seem to have been allowed to understand missions as something that is done over there – anywhere but here – by someone called a missionary. Many local churches support “missions efforts” with their financial backing, giving a portion of their budget to some kind of cooperative program that distributes funds to local and international missionaries. Sometimes local churches may even call a special prayer meetings with a “missions” emphasis, but taking ownership of particular missional efforts appears to be lacking at best. In addition, the perceived distance between missions and local church ministry has permitted most American Christians to remain personally unengaged from the Great Commission. This is a tragedy.

What is worse is that missionaries, having such a strong commitment to go and tell, are continuing to do so without an essential and healthy attachment to a local church or churches. “The problem is that there are now missionaries all over the world with virtually no connection to local churches to love and care for them, shepherd them, and join them on mission.” To compound the loss, “there are also local churches full of laypeople talking about being ‘missional’ without the benefit of learning from those who are actively crossing cultures with the Gospel. They are talking about mission without the input of missionaries (emphasis added).”[2] If one is to understand what it is to be missional, it is imperative that one understands what it is to be a missionary.

Ed Stetzer helpfully defines the term “missional” in his standard-setting work on the subject of “missional churches.” He says, “Missional means actually doing mission… adopting the posture of a missionary, learning and adapting to the culture around you while remaining biblically sound.”[3] With this definition in mind, it is helpful to consider that missional living may only realized in the local church context as missionaries and their efforts are appropriately known and celebrated in the local church.

The bringing together of missionaries and the local church is a combination that regains the benefits of the multi-membered body of Christ. If the missionary is the extended arm of the local church, then the local church is the core, which lends stability, resources, and strength to the missionary. Just as the arm needs the core to function properly, so the core needs the exercise, reach, and functionality of the arm in order to remain healthy. There are many more aspects of local church ministry that may not include a direct relationship to missionary efforts, but all of what the local church is and does should center around the idea of living missionally in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – both in the context of its own community and in the world at large. These two distinct branches of missional engagement (missionaries and the local church) are so intertwined that each compliments the other in multiple ways, particularly when they are both functioning healthily.

The pervading goal of the missionary is the same as the local church, namely the Great Commission – make disciples, baptize them, and teach submission to Christ to the glory of His great name. If this directive is embraced and acted upon, the result will inevitably be a plurality of baptized disciples who will be life-long learners who grow in their submission to Christ. This plurality of Christians, if the missionary is properly focused on the task, will be formed into a local church themselves. “The result of [the missionary’s] work should be biblical, local, independent churches that reflect the soil in which they are planted.”[4]  Therefore, the missionary is most effective when he is planting local churches with those baptized disciples who have benefitted from his proclamation of the Gospel.

These locally planted churches will be better churches if they resemble the same kind of local church(es) that have cultivated a quality relationship with the missionary who facilitated their own rooting and grounding. If missionaries and local churches work in tandem (as it seems they were designed to do), then the cycle will simply continue. Aubrey Malphurs says of church planting and its ultimate goal,

“We are not to start just any kind of church; they should be Great Commission churches. These are churches that take most seriously Jesus’s command to make disciples! Making disciples begins with evangelism and continues with edification or the building up of the saints in the faith with the ultimate goal of their attaining spiritual maturity (Col. 1:28–29; Heb. 5:11–6:1).”[5]

Malphurs’ statement brings us back to the beginning; the Church acts most like she should when she fulfills the role for which she has been created. The goal of newly planted church is the same as the missionary, and it is the same as the established local church congregation. When the established local church is healthy, she will serve her role well as a support structure for the missionary and a model for the church plants that (by God’s grace) result from his efforts. When the missionary is healthy, he will serve his role well as an evangelist and facilitator for the eventual indigenous church plant(s) as well as a motivation and inspiration for the congregants who support him. When the indigenous church plant is healthy, she will repeat the cycle with new missionaries and fresh groups of newly converted Christians.

There are so many benefits to this relationship that a brief work such as this cannot explore them all. Suffice it to say that the coalescing of churches and missionaries is a recipe for enjoying vibrant, Great Commission assemblies of vigorous, missional disciples of Christ – both locally and globally.

 

[1]Dever, Mark. The Church: The Gospel Made Visible. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012.

[2]Crider, Caleb, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2013.

[3]Stetzer, Ed. Planting Missional Churches. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

[4]Crider, Caleb, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2013.

[5]Malphurs, Aubrey. The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting: A Guide for Starting Any Kind of Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.