Transformational Mission

The framers of the Cape Town Commitment of the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism in 2010 helpfully articulated the integrated nature of Christian faith, when they stated that ‘nothing commends the gospel more eloquently than a transformed life, and nothing brings it into disrepute so much as personal inconsistency. We are charged to behave in a manner that is worthy of the gospel of Christ and even to ‘adorn’ it, enhancing its beauty by holy lives. Transformation, in other words, refers to both who we are and what we are called to do. Transformation involves both words and our deeds.

That said, there are a few fears I would like to dispel about the notion of transformation. First, when we talk about transformation we are not saying that our deeds are equal to words or that the two are the same thing. We cannot preach the Gospel with our deeds. The Gospel is verbal, Scripture comes to us in verbal form, and it demands a verbal communication. Second, preaching the Gospel is a non-negotiable and essential aspect of the Church’s mandate in the world (Mark 16:20). Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God, not by the work of our hands.

However, there is nowhere in Scripture a dichotomy between our calling to preach the Gospel and our calling to embody the Gospel, our call to proclaim the love of God and our call to practice the love of God. Perhaps nowhere is this more explicit than in John 3. Though the focus of the famous vs. 16 is on belief that leads to eternal life, that life is further described as a present tense reality manifest in deeds of righteousness (3:21). The emphasis is not simply on knowing the truth, but rather on practicing the truth. Remember, Jesus Himself was a prophet mighty in word and deed. He wasn’t only the Word, but the Word made flesh. He was and is the Living Word who taught and who touched. He preached against sin and cared for the sick. He offered the riches of heaven and he met the needs of the poor. He commended those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and he fed those who hungered and thirsted for bread and water.

To understand the biblical idea of transformation, we must look at three very closely related concepts in Scripture, namely the Nature of Evil, the Kingdom of God, and the Purpose of the Church.

1. The Nature of Evil

Evil has steadily gained in popularity and influence ever since Adam and Eve’s first “unfruitful” act of disobedience. From the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, to the murder of 52 million babies in the US alone due to abortions, from Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery, to 12 million humans trafficked in the year 2010, evil has steadily gained in popularity and influence, and the church has sometimes forgotten that we are our brother’s keeper.

 2. The Kingdom of God

The Kingdom of God in Scripture refers to the rule and reign of Jesus over the whole cosmos and at the heart of the biblical concept of the Kingdom is the overthrow of evil. Thus, Jesus said, “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God then the Kingdom has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28). The coming of the Kingdom and the destruction of evil in every form are intractable and inseparable aspects of who Jesus is and what He does. Thus, when He taught his disciples to pray, he said pray like this: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

3. The Purpose of the Church

As Harvey Conn says, “the keys of the Kingdom are not locked in a drawer, they are given to the church.” Christ begets a people who are to be conformed to his very image. As Paul says, we are to be imitators of Christ (Eph. 5:1). As such, the Church is a visible sign of the invisible Kingdom. That’s what Jesus is getting at when He says “let our light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify our Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

The church of Jesus Christ then ought to exist as a microcosm of the future to which God is leading us. The call of every Christian is to not only preach about our heavenly destination, but to also in all truthfulness be able to point to the church and say with confidence and conviction, “this is a taste of what it will be like! This is where the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control abound. This is where healing and wholeness, love and compassion, justice and righteousness live.” Or, as one writer put it, “The Gospel is Good News concerning the Kingdom, and the Kingdom is God’s rule over the totality of life. Every human need therefore can be used by the Spirit of God as a beach-head for the manifestation of his kingly power” (Graham Cray in Mission as Transformation, 28).

To preach the Good News without embodying the good news declares loudly and unequivocally that we have not understood the good news.

But when the church embodies in practice the qualities of the Kingdom because we have spent time in the presence of the King, then we together show the world that our God is not a distant God who sits aloof in a far-away heaven, but a living and active God who steps into human history and brings about the transformation of all things. We give evidence that our words and the words of Scripture are not hollow products of our imagination but flow from an intimate connection with a God who both speaks and shows. And so we are admonished, as John says, “to not love with words or tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18).

When we practice the qualities of the Kingdom, then we set the whole world proleptically before the judgment seat of Christ. Evil stands condemned because the Kingdom has come and is coming and because the King dwells actively with His people.

To participate in the Kingdom is to live by the ethical demands of the King. The Prince of Peace does not beget a people unconcerned about the extension of Peace. Because justice and righteousness are the foundations of His throne, justice and righteousness must characterize the work of those who call themselves His subjects.

To be Kingdom minded is to care about the things God cares about. It is to share our abundance with those who lack, to give alms to the poor, to make peace with our enemies, and to produce the fruit of righteousness. It is to empty ourselves, to give up our comfort and to go sacrificially to those in need. It is to lay down our lives for our friends.

To close, I’d like to share a quote I recently came across in book by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. The book is What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom and the Mission of the Church. In the opening pages of their book, DeYoung and Gilbert point out, rather helpfully, that there is a lot that Evangelicals can agree on when it comes to this issue of social justice or transformation. Here’s what they have to say:

 The gospel, is, at the very least, the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection; proclamation is essential to the chruch’s witness; heaven and hell are real; people are lost without Jesus; bodies matter as well as souls; and good deeds as the fruit of transformed lives are not optional. (p. 16)

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Is Priority the Right Question? Part III: Conclusion

“What we do when we weed a field is not quite different from what we do when we pray for a good harvest.” – C. S. Lewis.

In the above quote, I think C. S. Lewis is getting at much the same point I have been making throughout these last three blog posts: namely, that we are mistaken when we unnaturally separate that which God has put together. Life is holistic and God calls us to a fully integrated life that incarnates all that He himself embodied during His earthly ministry.

There is much more evidence than what I have presented in support of this point. I could have, for instance, shown that in Scripture the words in both the OT and NT that are used for ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are often used to mean the whole person, as are the words for ‘flesh’ and body.’  There are nuances and the two are not the same, to be sure. But we have to be careful that we don’t read into these words ideas that never existed in the mind of the writers. In addition, I might have pointed out that Paul had every opportunity to adopt a Platonic separation of the body and soul, and yet he never did. This doesn’t mean that he or Jesus never distinguished between the two, for surely they did. But what they didn’t do was elevate one above the other. I could have also shown how it has been largely philosophical systems, such as that of Plato and Aristotle and their influences on Augustine and Aquinas respectively, that have greatly influenced our theological tendency to exalt one aspect of the human self over the other. I could have given evidence that Christianity, following in the footsteps of the Enlightenment, has come to embody many of the precepts of modernity, precepts that furthered the chasm between the secular and sacred. But my aim, has not been to overwhelm anyone with evidence, but rather to simply help us to see that this holistic notion is in Scripture, and it is there in a pretty major way!

I also want to pause, and point out that this has been a journey for me. It is not something I have arrived at casually or, in some ways, even intentionally. In the course of studying other things (eschatology and church history, for instance) I have sort of stumbled across these things, and then as a result of what I found (more accurately, what others have found and written), I’ve felt compelled to look into this a little deeper. As a result, I am increasingly convinced that the biblical picture is holistic, that when Jesus said, “whatever you did not do to the least of these, you did not do to me,” that he was saying something of extreme importance for the Church about the external aspects of our faith, about the integration of faith and acts of service.

The thing is, and this may surprise you, but my own calling and gifts lie mostly on the proclamation/evangelism side of things. I am primarily a teacher/preacher with a deep interest in theology and apologetics (could you tell?). Those passages of Scripture that most resonate with me are those that show Paul using ‘persuasion’ and presenting arguments and evidence that help convince people of the truth of Christianity (see Acts 17:4; 18:4; 19:8). And yet, that said, I am convinced by Scripture that if my whole ministry, my entire Christian calling consists of nothing more than standing in a classroom and teaching, or sitting behind a computer reflecting on theological meanings, or even standing behind a pulpit on Sunday morning speaking to the mostly already convinced, if my Christian life never gets out into the byways, highways, and alleyways where the broken, the lost and the suffering live and struggle everyday, and if I don’t meet them there with the love of Christ, tending to them in body and soul, then I’ve missed something. I’ve come up short of what Jesus has called me to do. Because all theology is ultimately practical, and all of our faith must ultimately find its way to our hands and our feet, not just to our hearts and heads.

Even as I write this, I recognize how far away I am from this holistic biblical picture at times, and I am convicted. But, my prayer in all of this is that we would all take seriously these emphases in Scripture as we plot our course forward, that we might embody a faith in which preaching the good news and compassionate acts of service become as two cords twisted indubitably together, exhibiting a strength that neither aspect could ever have on its own. May we embody a Gospel faith, a loving and compassionate faith, a proclaiming faith, a teaching faith, a building faith, and in everything a serving faith. So that when the Lord of the harvest returns He’ll find us, as was He, always about His Father’s business.