Over the past several decades there has been considerable debate among Christians regarding this question, “Should the term “mission” be used exclusively to refer to the task of evangelism and disciple-making, or can it be broadened to include socially-oriented activities?” Some missiologists, for example, see mission as “as everything God wills to do in the world, whether through the church or outside it.”[i] It can include anything that people do that reflects God’s will for creation including “the pursuit of justice, the furthering of human dignity, the reconciliation of hostile groups, [and] the care of the environment.”[ii] Others narrow the definition considerably, insisting that mission must involve the proclamation of the Gospel, but calling for a “holistic” approach that also includes “the alleviation of human suffering and the elimination of injustice, exploitation, and deprivation.”[iii] In this view, the twin concerns of Gospel proclamation and social action work in equal partnership in mission like “two blades of a pair of scissors.”[iv] Others, however, have argued that while believers should not be indifferent to suffering in the world and that they should look for practical, creative ways to express the love and mercy of Christ to those around them, the specific mission of the church—the singular task which Jesus sends his church into the world to accomplish—is making disciples of the nations.[v]
Reflecting on Mission through the Lenses of the Reformation
While the question of the Church’s mission is complex and must ultimately be answered through a careful exegesis of Scripture, it can be helpful to consider the issue through the lenses of the Reformers’ rediscovery of the fundamental truths of Christianity. The Reformation was, in essence, a recovery of the two most important truths of the Christian faith: the Gospel and the authority of Scripture. Matthew Barrett states: “At the center of the Reformation was a return to a gospel-centered, Word-centered church. No question about it, this was the great need in the sixteenth-century church. In the twenty-first century, the church’s need has not changed.”[vi] Barrett is right. The meaning of the Gospel and the final authority of Scripture had been all but lost in the medieval Church, and nothing was more important for the life of the Church than their recovery. So although the Reformers didn’t develop a theology of mission, per se, they did helpfully identify the core truths of the Christian message—the message that the Church is called to proclaim to the nations. Historically, the Reformers’ emphasis on the centrality of the Word and the Gospel has been expressed in the so-called five “Solas” of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Sola Gratia, and Soli Deo Gloria. In the following paragraphs, we’ll learn what these truths can teach us about the Church’s mission in the world.
The Gospel Alone
The doctrine of Sola Fide, “by faith alone”, responds to the question, “How can a person be right with God?” The answer is that God declares us righteous, not on the basis of any merit of our own, but solely through the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ which we receive by faith. The Reformers considered justification by faith alone to be the essential truth of the Gospel. Martin Luther saw justification as “the first and chief article of the Christian faith.”[vii] John Calvin called it “the main hinge upon which religion turns” and the “sum of all piety.”[viii] While one may disagree with Luther and Calvin about the relative priority of justification among other elements of the Gospel message, we cannot disagree with the assumption that lay behind their emphasis on justification, namely, that man’s greatest need is to be reconciled to his Creator.
This is precisely where Sola Fide speaks to the question of the Church’s mission. Unless we keep the salvation of man’s soul in sharp focus as the ultimate priority of the Church, a myriad of other real and felt needs quickly blur our mission’s focus. These needs may be important, but none of them is as pressing as man’s need to be right with God. Michael Reeves and Tim Chester explain:
The biggest problem facing humanity is God’s justice. God is committed to judging sin. And that means he is committed to judging my sin. This is our biggest problem because that means an eternity excluded from the glory of God…Christianity brings many blessings. It is right that Christians be involved in the pursuit of neighborhood renewal and social justice. But if one day God’s righteous judgment will be revealed, if in the meantime we are storing up God’s wrath against ourselves, if no one can be declared righteous through his or her own righteousness, then every person on earth faces a massive problem: God’s judgment. And this problem dwarfs all the other problems we face. Nothing matters more than justification.[ix]
Sola Fide, then, helps us to keep God’s reconciling work in Jesus front and center in our mission. It guards us against mission-drift that can very quickly distract us from what people need most. As D.A. Carson warns, “The relief of immediate suffering, as important as it is, may so command our focus that we fail to remind ourselves of Jesus’s rhetorical question, ‘What good will it be for you to gain the whole world yet forfeit your soul?’”[x]
Solus Christus, “through Christ alone”, points us in the same direction. By affirming that “there is salvation in no one else” (Acts 4:12), and that Jesus is the “one Mediator between God and man” (1st Timothy 2:5), it reminds us that what the Church offers people is Jesus and His saving rule over their lives. Solus Christus teaches us that God’s gifts and blessings for man are not given apart from the person and work of Jesus Christ. He alone is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), and it is only “from his fullness [that] we have all received, grace upon grace” (verse 16). God’s grace comes to mankind only through Jesus, and therefore, like Paul, we proclaim nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Likewise, Sola Gratia teaches that the grace offered in the Gospel is, specifically, saving grace. This doesn’t mean that grace doesn’t express itself in acts of kindness, mercy, and justice. But it does mean that salvation of man’s soul is its chief manifestation. God’s grace in Jesus is ultimately a grace that opens blind eyes, softens hard hearts, and enables dead people to receive the Gospel message (Acts 16:14). All of this serves to remind us that there is ultimately no help or benefit that we can offer the world apart from Jesus Christ and the transforming righteousness that comes to us by grace through faith. As Andreas Köstenberger puts it, “There is no true lasting social transformation apart from personal conversion through repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”[xi]
Some have insisted, based on passages like Luke 4:16-21, that the Church’s mission of grace must include social action, specifically, as it is directed to the poor. As the argument goes, our mission is “to extend the kingdom by infiltrating all segments of society, with preference given to the poor, and allowing no dichotomy/y between evangelism and social transformation.”[xii] But it is a mistake to think we’re “extending” or ushering in the Kingdom of God without introducing people to the King. The blessings of Isaiah 61 mentioned by Jesus in Luke 4 are best understood as soteriological blessings. The Kingdom that Jesus is offering is a redemptive Kingdom, and the “poor” He speaks of are the poor in spirit—those who recognize their sinfulness and spiritual destitution before God. DeYoung and Gilbert helpfully explain: “Jesus’s mission laid out in Luke 4 is not a mission of structural change and social transformation, but a mission to announce the good news of his saving power and merciful reign to all those brokenhearted—that is, poor—enough to believe.”[xiii]
Sola Fide, Solus Christus, and Sola Gratia center/ our Gospel message in God’s transforming grace in people’s lives. It is true that though Jesus God will someday redeem all of Creation and usher in a new, fully restored earth that is free from injustice, poverty, and suffering. And it is also true that as believers we should take the opportunities that God gives us to minister the love and grace of Jesus to those around us. “True religion”, after all, expresses itself in tangible ways like visiting “orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). But the pursuit of justice, shalom, and social reform should not be understood as the mission of the Church. These things are good and are legitimate activities for individual believes, they’re just not the specific task that Jesus gave His disciples as He sent them to the nations. They are, in fact, the natural byproduct of changed lives. As lives are transformed by the Gospel, injustice, poverty, and suffering will be addressed. Andreas Köstenberger helpfully summarizes: “The way the kingdom of God is extended in this world today is through regenerate believers acting out their Christian faith in their God-assigned spheres of life: the church, their families, their workplaces, the societies in which they live (Ephesians 5:18–6:9; 1st Peter 2:13–3:7).”[xiv] As the gospel is lived out in the lives of Christ’s disciples, the other needs will be addressed.
The Reformers’ recovery of the final authority of Scripture also helps us sharpen our understanding of the church’s mission. Sola Scriptura was the Reformers’ answer to the medieval Church’s contention that the Bible and church tradition are how truth is known. The Roman Catholic Church asserted, and still teaches today, that Scripture and tradition stand together as “two distinct modes” of divine revelation that “are bound closely together and communicate with one another.”[xv] The Reformers, on the other hand, argued that Scripture alone is our final source of authority.
Sola Scriptura has important methodological implications for our mission. For the Reformers, Sola Scriptura was an immensely practical doctrine with far-reaching ministerial and pastoral implications. The Bible, they argued, must be the center of the life of the Church. This meant that true Christian ministry is Word-centered, grounded in the careful, systematic exposition of Scripture. Many of the Reformers practiced Lectio Continua, the systematic verse-by-verse preaching of the text of Scripture. This exposition of Scripture was not simply a ritual that replaced the rituals of the medieval Catholic Church. It was the way that Christian ministry was to be carried out. In other words, for them, the exposition of Scripture is the primary means by which disciples are made.
Sola Scriptura reminds us that mission is not just about securing the eternal salvation of the soul. It is also about teaching converts to observe all that Christ has commanded (Matthew 28:20). Teaching the “Word of Christ” (Colossains 3:16) as recorded Scripture is what mission is about. Sola Scripture grounds our mission in the authority of the risen Christ (Matthew 28:18), centering the entire enterprise of disciple-making among the nations in the proclamation of his authoritative Word. If the nations’ great need is to hear God speak and to encounter Jesus, then the preaching of Scripture must be paramount in our mission. The Reformers believed that when the Word is proclaimed, God’s voice is heard and Christ is encountered. “Have we God’s word? At leastwise have we it preached purely?” Calvin asked. “Then is Jesus Christ as it were in the midst of us, and showeth himself as it were hanging upon the Cross, witnessing what he did for us when he suffered death to reconcile us to God his Father.”[xvi] For Calvin, this implied that the true pastor must be marked by importunitas, a “ruthless persistence” in his exposition of Scripture.[xvii] The same is true for the Christian missionary. The missionary must be doggedly persistent in the exposition of the text of Scripture in all areas of his/her mission. Regardless of his/her particular activity or mission strategy, unfolding Scripture must remain paramount. Why? Because according to Jesus, making disciples who obey everything that he has commanded is paramount. Carson concludes, “Ministers of the gospel ought so to be teaching the Bible in all its comprehensiveness that they will be raising up believers with many different avenues of service, but they themselves must not become so embroiled in such multiplying ministries that their ministries of evangelism, Bible teaching, making disciples, instructing, baptizing, and the like, somehow get squeezed to the periphery and take on a purely formal veneer.”[xviii] Sola Scriptura, like Sola Fide, Solus Christus, and Sola Gratia, helps us to “keep the main thing the main thing.”
God’s Glory Alone
The Reformers understood that by centering the life of the Church in the authority of Scripture and in the true proclamation of the Gospel, they were giving to God the glory that He deserved. Word-centered, Gospel-centered churches exist Soli Deo Gloria—for God’s glory alone. The same is true in mission. How does mission achieve God’s maximum glory? By accomplishing that mission His way, through His gospel and the preaching of His Word. Soli Deo Gloria.
[i] Keith Ferdinando, “Mission: A Problem of Definition,” Themelios 33.1 (2008), 49.
[iii] Ibid, 53.
[v] See Ferdandino, 54-58. For a more comprehensive defense of this position, see Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).
[vi] Matthew Barrett, “The Crux of Genuine Reform” in Matthew Barrett, ed., Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary (Wheaton, Crossway, 2017), 60.
[vii] Quoted by Korey D. Mass, “Justification by Faith Alone” in Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, 512.
[viii] Quoted in Michael Reeves and Tim Chester, Why the Reformation Still Matters (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016). Kindle loc., 374.
[ix] Ibid., Kindle loc. 387-390
[x] D.A. Carson, “Editorial,” Themelios, 33.2 (2008), 2.
[xi] Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Twelve Theses on the Church’s Mission in the Twenty-first Century,” in David J. Hesselgrave and Ed Stetzer, eds. MissionShift (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010), Kindle loc., 1513.
[xii] James F. Engel and William A. Dyrness cited in What is the mission of the Church?, 64.
[xiii] Ibid., 40.
[xiv] Köstenberger, Kindle loc., 1508.
[xv] Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994), 26.
[xvi] Reeves and Chester, Kindle loc., 732-734.
[xvii] Barrett, “Crux,” 58.
[xviii] Carson, 2.