Bringing Back the Great Commission? 

Just the other day I was behind a car that had painted on its rear, “Smile! Jesus loves you!”  I am not sure that the person who did that was really evangelizing, also known as obeying the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).  And I’ll explain why.

In order to do so, let me play devil’s advocate.  First of all, who is ‘Jesus’?  The public may have heard of Him as a religious and moral teacher who was the “greatest man who ever lived.”  According to that view, Jesus came to destroy, not affirm, the Bible [both the Old Testament and St. Paul] and to teach a gospel of radical moral relativism and sexual freedom.  I call him the ‘Jesus of the comment threads’ because I have the vice of surfing comment threads, and ‘this Jesus’ is frequently referred to by commenters.

Contemporaries of Jesus whose names these commentators might know are the emperors Augustus [né Octavian] and Tiberius.  And some [especially in Irvine] might know of Wang Mang, the reformer who temporarily interrupted China’s Han Dynasty.  Would I be particularly excited, or want to smile, if I were told that Octavian or Wang Mang ‘loves’ me – and in the present tense yet?  So why should I smile about being told that Jesus loves me, in the present tense?  And, what do you mean by ‘loves me’?  Affirms my lifestyle, whatever that might be, especially if I affirm [which seems to be how people understand ‘forgive’ or ‘love’ nowadays] the lifestyle of almost all others?

When I became a Christian in the early 1970s, the prevailing view seemed to be that God’s primary concern was the salvation of people so that they could enjoy eternal life on earth and heaven with Him.  Indeed, it seemed as if the big world of tinker, tailor, shoemaker, nurse, doctor, lawyer, and entrepreneur existed for only two reasons in God’s eyes:  to create relationships and opportunities to witness, and to earn money to support the sending of missionaries.

[Some also did interpret mission work as the building of hospitals and orphanages, fighting world hunger, and consulting on agriculture and financial stewardship; that being the social service side.  This was never entirely lost.]

So it seemed that the world existed for the sake of the Great Commission, and not the Great Commission for the world.        I have characterized this view also as ‘God set up the universe business, but like many a Christian businessman in a mid-life crisis, He retired to go into full time ministry’.  Among my generation, [yes, those Boomers] that seems still to be the prevailing view.  But the so-called Generation X, born 1961-1980, has taken over most of the church and moved it away from ‘Great Commission Utilitarianism’.  Great.

Sometimes I worry that we are forgetting the Great Commission altogether.

By different means, my wife and I got exposed to Kuyperian ideas.  In the Kuyperian view, our coming to Christ is for the benefit of the world, and there is no part of the life of the world about which Jesus doesn’t say “Mine!”  So, if I am converted to Christ and then educated, discipled, and formed properly, my conversion will be to the benefit of the older mandate of Genesis 1:26-31; 2:15; and 9:1-17.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.  And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

. . . The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.

Note that we should interpret the term ‘dominion’ as stewardship, and yes, this was not fully understood at times in the past.  This dominion was initially given to unfallen humankind, but it is repeated, eight chapters later, to fallen humankind:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.  The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea.  Into your hand they are delivered.  Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.  And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.  But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.  And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man.  From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.  Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.  And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.”

And by the way, if Jesus is really fully God, Jesus stands behind these words.

Note that this Noahic Covenant is declared after the Fall!  So it is a mandate given to fallen man.   And is it replaced by God’s later covenant with Abraham, “I will make you a blessing to all the nations”?  Maybe they both can work together.   An honorable and honest carrying on of this so-called ‘Cultural Mandate’ can be a positive witness to people who are not open to intellectual arguments [which is most people].  Pope Benedict XVI said something like, ‘The best witness to the truth of the Gospel is the Church’s art and its saints’.  And those who act in keeping with the Cultural Mandate effectively might not be ‘saints’ as traditionally understood, but their testimony is positive.

So the Cultural Mandate is helpful to the Great Commission, even though we must resist the error of Great Commission Utilitarianism that I outlined above.  But perhaps the Great Commission, if pursued rightly, improves our ability to carry out the Cultural Mandate.  Perhaps someone who understands the true nature of the universe will have an advantage over someone who doesn’t.  Perhaps part of the Great Commission is to make us into people who will be more effective in the world.

However, a ‘conversion experience’ or a ‘decision for Christ’ is not automatically going to accomplish this for us.  ‘Accepting Christ’ doesn’t instantaneously make us over.  If we were weird, we are now weird for Christ.  If Chuck Colson was ready to drive over his grandmother for Nixon, right after his conversion he was ready to drive over his grandmother for Christ instead.  It took time to progress beyond that.  And I think discipleship has to be about both information and practices.  [In the 1970s we did get a little legalistic about the ‘quiet time,’ but practices matter.]  I must admit that I’m a little biased these days against systems that try to hold to both ‘decisional regeneration’ [that is, God didn’t predestine you personally; you made a decision] and ‘perseverance of the saints’ or ‘eternal security’ [those who have made the ‘decision’ can never escape it and be lost].

The church is supposed to be a place where we are taught and equipped both to save people [not just ‘souls’] and train people to contribute to ‘human flourishing’ in a Christian way.  If Christianity is true, our ideas on ‘human flourishing’ are better than the others.

At the same time, we need to devote attention to apologetics broadly defined, or “destroying strongholds” as Paul put it (2 Corinthians 10:3-4).  One part of that is probably prayer meetings, where we express our dependence on God to accomplish our Godly purposes.  But how we present ourselves does too.

One of the biggest apologetic obstacles right now is the ‘Jesus’ of popular culture.  This ‘Jesus’ came not to forgive our sins, but to validate them – except sins of ‘intolerance’, which cannot be forgiven.  Or as I have put it, the gospel of this ‘Jesus’ is that we may now become scribes and Pharisees while yet continuing to be tax collectors and sinners.  I’m not sure that that was what the Jesus of the Bible said to the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ that He spent time with.

Another obstacle is that if Jesus is really God the Son, we must affirm that the Bible is not just the word of ‘God’, but the actual word of Jesus – and point out how He deferred to the Scriptures, sometimes reinterpreting them, but never denying their authority.  We also have to affirm, I think, that Paul speaks for Jesus.  Yes, some portions of fundamentalism, particularly those that held to ‘Dispensational’ or ‘Pretribulational’ interpretations did neglect the ‘red’ parts of the Bible.   But Jesus did not come to destroy the black parts – the parts that He did not speak while He was incarnate.  The ‘Jesus’ of popular culture [of the comment threads] comes to destroy the Bible, except for the parts He speaks – and even that is often rather selective.

But on the other hand, C. S. Lewis points out [and this is something that I may have neglected in some of my political activity] that a right sense of sin is essential to Christianity.  However, to convict people of sin, Lewis says we must focus on things that (a) our audience already believes are wrong, but (b) they actually do anyway.  In his day he warned against trying to preach on fornication and drunkenness; the working class of Lewis’s time was not drunken [some of the younger working class today, from what I read about Britain, is now drunken again]; and the general public, now that contraception was a reality, no longer believed that fornication was a sin, because it was much less likely to give a woman an unwanted child.  Look up C. S. Lewis’s essays in God in the Dock: Christian Apologetics” and the title essay, “God in the Dock.”  These are actually my source and inspiration for most of this essay.  They explain how we actually have to talk to real people.

But, for all the talk about moral relativism, postmodernism, and all that, we are now a society obsessed with morality.  A theory has been developed by Jonathan Haidt and others called “Moral Foundations Theory,” and it posits six ‘foundations’:

Care vs. Harm
Fairness vs. Cheating
Liberty vs. Oppression
Loyalty vs. Betrayal
Authority vs. Subversion
Sanctity vs. Degradation

They argue that the ‘educated’ classes tend to affirm the first three and reject the last three, at least as things that can be enforced by the state.  Moral ‘conservatives’ affirm all six.  Views on economic issues, however, tend to depend on the interpretation of ‘fairness vs. cheating’; the economic left views fairness as a matter of ‘equality’ or ‘equity’ and the economic right as a mere matter of ‘proportionality’.

Actually, if you look at the Web, you see evidence of a culture obsessed by sin!  The site Reddit started a thread called Am I The Asshole (AITA) in which people ask if their behavior to others has been wrong.  This section has become very popular in the last few years.  And Buzz Feed has no end of listicles containing pictures of badly behaved and entitled people.  [Entitlement, as I have said elsewhere, is a root of many sins, from theft to anger.]  Of course, some of these things may be different according to culture.  For example, the rules about eye contact differ from culture to culture, and therefore are issues of ‘manners’ rather than ‘morals’.  And, we need to remind ourselves of C. S. Lewis’s distinction between ‘morality’ and ‘propriety’, which he makes in Mere Christianity.  Propriety is relative, and morality is not.  In particular, I remember a time when racial and other slurs, for example, were considered impolite, but still printable.  Today the proprieties are reversed.  Consider how racial slurs slurs are unprintable and practically unforgivable, whereas the old four-letter words are now mild oaths.

So, to repeat:  when we focus on the sins of unbelievers, we must focus on the sins they actually commit that they already know are wrong.  But we also must be careful to distinguish between morality, which is universal, and propriety, which is relative and a matter of ‘manners and customs’.  In either case, our primary concern is that we are doing our part in fulfilling the Great Commission:  “making disciples,” as Jesus has called us to do.  

[Perhaps in a follow-up essay I will enlarge on C. S. Lewis’s remarks in these essays, about word usage and how to articulate the Gospel.]

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