After reading across the Christian traditions, it becomes readily apparent the irreparable damage the combination of Revivalism + Dispensationalism + Arminianism (RDA) rendered to evangelical Christianity in North America. The unfortunate cocktail expunged the end and goal of redemption as God’s communion with his entire creation and replaced with a new proof-texted “Great Commission” reduction of redemption as the salvation of individual souls–which is an aspect of the overall mission of God. Protestant evangelicals, especially those not tied to a particular confession of faith, have been vulnerable to following the fads and personal emphases of popular and well-known leaders. For example, the phrase “the Great Commission” did not exist until the 17th-century, thanks to Enlightenment rationalism’s fusion with Christianity, and, as demonstrated below, was popularized by the good intentions of one person as essentially an ad campaign. As we arrive in the 21-st century, one could argue that RDA overtime inadvertently disconnected American Protestant evangelicals from nearly 1,700 years of Christian teaching about the eschatological role of love (Luke 10:27) and why love is the greatest thing Christians are called to do here and now (and in the world to come).
Even the revived emphasis on God’s sovereignty in the economy of salvation maintains the reduction of redemption as the story of the destination of individual souls when it is void of a theocentric eschatological cosmology. As a result, there has emerged an emphasis on “being right” (thanks, again, to the Enlightenment) about how souls “get saved,” which are important clarifications that need to be made, and, in recent decades, there has emerged a church-growth/church planting movement calling Christians into action on the basis of the “Great Commission.” Where is the call to love?
Some could argue that what was neglected was the emphasis on discovering eschatologically what it means to love properly here and now (and, by the way, save your “false dichotomy” comments). The love discourse was given over to the “liberals” while the evangelicals focused on being “Biblical” and being “right” about the gospel. We have also seen successive generations, post-WW II, increasingly walk away from evangelicalism in North America as the redemptive story was divorced from the destiny of the entire cosmos. Here’s the point: if kids don’t know what their salvation is for, if the destination of the entire cosmos is unclear, and don’t know why their day-to-day activities in the home and society matter eschatologically, here and now, should we be too surprised when each generation slowly walks away?
The Context of Good Intentions
The focus on limiting redemption to the salvation of individuals emphasized in recent years follows those who have strong interests in missions, revivalism, the Great Awakenings, and the like. These were admirable movements by faithful men and women in past who contributed greatly to the spread of Christianity throughout the world. While well-intentioned, it may explain why evangelical Christians often seem to treat those outside the church as evangelistic projects rather than people placed in the lives of Jesus followers for the purpose of loving well in deep communion in accordance with all of their needs as human persons–spiritual (their eternal state), emotional, social, material, and so on. Love became subordinate to fulfilling “The Great Commission” and the historical result is that evangelicals turned a blind-eye to the injustices of European colonialism, the African-slave trade in the Americas, slavery in the US, lynching in the Southeast during Reconstruction, the terrorism of African-Americans during Jim Crow, and sitting on the sidelines during the Civil-Rights Movement, and so on. William Wilberforce is often offered as counter-narrative but the fact his activities came in the late 18th-century should be an embarrassing indictment on British Christianity since Christians in Briton had been involved in the enslavement of Africans in 1520. There are some in the revivalist tradition today who tend to believe that the church as no role, as an institution or community, in participating in the establishment of the conditions that bring about change in local communities for the sake of their neighbors’ humanity, save a few issues like abortion and marriage.
Although the phrase, “The Great Commission” is found no where in the Bible, it has been defended by some as the core imperative of the Christian life. The problem exegetically, however, is that the word “go” in Matthew 28:16-20 is not an imperative. It’s a participle. The Greek grammar simply does not support “go” as an imperative command unless you are reading an agenda into the exegesis (i.e., D. Wallace draws the wrong conclusions). Properly translated, the verse should read, “Having gone,” or “As you go.” The aorist participle is not functioning as an imperative in this text and, therefore, the call to “go” is not a particular action by individuals although the church’s work in disciple-making is such a distinct call and an exegetical imperative.
The dominance of the “The Great Commission” as clarion call for the work of the church in the world is a product of Baptist missionary, William Carey. As Robbie Castleman observes:
It turns out that this passage may have got its summary label from a Dutch missionary Justinian von Welz (1621-88), but it was Hudson Taylor, nearly 200 years later, who popularized the use of “The Great Commission”. So, it seems like Welz or some other Post-Reformation missionary probably coined the term “The Great Commission”
While the intentions were good, the attempt to make “the last thing Jesus said” an imperative is neither in the Bible nor in the history of the church across the traditions and has been misused unfortunately to shame and manipulate Christians into much legalism–not to mention the aphorism presents a truncated view of the Christian life and a truncated view of the progress of redemption. I have always wondered why I never really heard Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists and so on, preaching to people about the need for individuals to “go” and participate in evangelistic activities or call people to live a life of disciple-making outside of the normal work of the church in order to fulfill the “Great Commission.” Now I know why.
The foundational importance of Matthew’s Great Commission for modern mission cannot be under-estimated, although as Johannes Nissen points out, “it has been demonstrated that it [Matthew’s ending] was not used as a basis for mission until the end of the seventeenth century.”1 Even though the Reformers did not consider the “Great Commission as binding, no biblical texts appear more frequently in the Anabaptist confessions of faith and court testimonies than the Matthean and Markan versions of the Great Commission … They were the first to make the commission mandatory for all believers.”
Bosch identifies the Great Commission as the most important biblical motif for understanding the Enlightenment paradigm. He claims that William Carey must be credited “with putting it on the map so to speak,”3 and that it assumed significance for Protestant, especially Anglo Saxon, missionaries from the late 18th century onwards. In particular, it encouraged an expansionist approach to mission, and given that “civilisation” or socialisation into Western culture was an important missionary task, meant that imperial powers recognised that missionary activity often complemented imperial policies.
The use of the phrase “Great Commission” is complex and needs to be studied further but we can say that for American evangelicals the Great Commission has inadvertently drowned out perhaps the greatest imperative and command in the entirety of God’s special revelation in the whole of redemptive history: to orient the Christian life toward loving God and loving neighbor. The gospel is a means to freeing people so that they can be people of proper love. The pursuit of holiness is purging one’s life of anything that prevents someone from properly loving God and neighbor as the church goes about her regular work in the world in word, deed, and in offering the sacraments. This includes evangelism. Christians should desire that every person be in union with Christ so that they can be set free to properly love. As David Jones explains, the goal of the Christian life is the glory God and the motive of everything that God’s people are to do in this world is summarized in one word: love.
The call to love (Luke 10:27) includes concerns about personal atonement and how the church functions but points us to much more. The call to love cannot be reduced to God being in communion with individual souls. The story of redemption, the eschatological purpose of love, is a story of God being in communion with his people and his entire creation. The entire cosmos. “It’s comprehensive,” writes William Edgar. The thriving and flourishing of God’s world now and in the world to come is proportionate to the degree that God’s people learn how to love, hence the centrality Jesus’ command that is initiated first and foremost by God’s unmerited act of love. That love, as commanded, will be perfect some day but not yet. However, love is the direction of the Christian life with the Triune God as the end for which love was created.
God’s communion with his creation and his people is the end history and will be finally consummated when Christ returns. Now we understand better why “all things” are being reconciled to Christ (Col 1:15-20). That is, the story of redemptive culminates in the eschatological unity of every dimension of cosmos–all of it. Excluding the cosmos from the plan of redemption is neither found in the Bible nor in the Christian tradition save a few rationalistic Enlightenment, revivalist evangelicals who have no theocentric cosmology. Perhaps, them, it is time for American evangelicals to re-align themselves with nearly 1700 years of Christian teaching rather than a missionary ad campaign inspired by the Enlightenment.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:13).