Dr. R. C. Sproul, Jr, writes:
It is false to say that what we don’t know can’t hurt us, especially when it comes to the Bible. If ever there were anything we need to know, it is the very Word of God. That said, what is in all likelihood worse than what we don’t know about the Bible is what we do know that just isn’t so. Consider the Great Commission.
Go Into All the World
This, of course, is something we ought to be infinitely familiar with. These are not just the words of Jesus, as if that weren’t enough, but the “last” words of Jesus, His parting command just before He ascends to His heavenly throne. Not only that, but, as we might expect, what He commands is of eternal consequence. Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to wash behind their ears or to remember to send thank-you cards after Christmas. No, Jesus tells His disciples to bring in the lost, to go to the four corners of the world that all the elect might be redeemed, forgiven, adopted.
And that’s where we stop. It is not only true, but a vital truth, that the Great Commission includes the call to preach the good news, to tell others about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, to call all men everywhere to repent. It is also vitally true that this is not at all the whole of the Great Commission.
Our Gospel is Too Small
Perhaps because we are selfish, or perhaps because we live in an era of cultural decline, too many in the church have adopted a narrow view of the gospel. Jesus, I am told, came to save my soul. Once that is accomplished, my sole calling is to be used by Him to seek the salvation of others. If God should so bless, these new believers in turn have as their sole calling the winning of still more souls. The good news, under this perspective, is that Jesus came to save sinners.
Yes, of course, Jesus came to save sinners. However, He did not come just to save souls. He came to save bodies. He came to save families. He came to save churches. He came to save communities. He came to save nations. He came to save, to redeem, to remake the whole groaning creation. He calls us, the church, His bride, to be the Eve to His Adam, a help suitable to Him in the great work of dominion.
We need not leave the Great Commission to see this. The command, along with the fullness of the gospel, is there already. We are called here to make disciples of the nations. Now some might argue that this still focuses on the winning of souls. “Nations,” in this view, isn’t the political or cultural institutions of a given land. Instead, it refers to the need to take the message to the outermost parts of the world. We are not to sit on our haunches, content that we and our kindred are redeemed, but we are to cross land and sea, seeking by the Spirit to make children of hell into the children of God.
Discipling Nations in Obedience
Fair enough. Even if this part of the Great Commission is focused on soul winning, what do we do with the next part — “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded”? Jesus certainly commanded throughout His earthly ministry that we repent, that we believe on His name. But is that all that He commanded? Did He not also command us to be meek, to be peacemakers, to mourn? He commanded that we should hunger and thirst for righteousness. He, in turn, told us where to find that righteousness, reminding us that not one jot or tittle of the law would pass away. He taught us to pray that His kingdom would come on earth as it has in heaven. How would we know such was happening? Because His will would be done here, as it is there.
Our labors, then, in instructing the found, in calling them toward godliness, in pursuing obedience, are not distractions from the Great Commission but fulfillments of it. Of course, we must seek His righteousness, that righteousness that can become ours only by the faith He must first give us. But we are called also to seek His kingdom. That kingdom, as the Lord’s Prayer demonstrates, is not just an invisible realm within the hearts of believers. Rather, it is everywhere, especially where His own joyfully confess Him.
Discipling the nations, teaching them to observe all that He has commanded, then, isn’t polishing the brass on a sinking ship. It is instead cultivating the mustard seed. A failure to disciple the nations even as we evangelize them, on the other hand, isn’t to be about the most important work. It is instead to run the ship aground.
The social gospel was all social and no gospel. Mere pietism, on the other hand, is impious. We are to proclaim the lordship of Christ over our souls, over our bodies, over our families, over our churches, over our communities, over our nations, over the whole of the groaning creation. So, let us repent and preach the good news, that the kingdom of God has come, that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of the Father, and that of the increase of His government there will be no end.
This post first appeared in Tabletalk magazine, June 2012.