Theology of Mission

The Biblical Theology of Mission

The phrase ‘theology of mission’ is not the same as missiology. Though there be much carryover and perhaps interchange in the following analysis, ‘theology of mission’ attempts to understand the God of mission – i.e. how does understanding God and his work inform the Christian’s idea of mission and missions?

In agreement with Moreau et. al, a biblical evaluation of ‘mission’ ought to be observed through the metanarrative of Scripture – the “divine drama.”[1] Genesis begins with the transcendent God in his formation of the cosmos; and it is in the mentioned imago dei in man (Gen. 1:26-27) that God’s ultimate mission is first observed – i.e. man was created to represent God, to point to him. Therefore, the ultimate mission of God is the magnification of his glory. With the fall, however, mankind disobeyed and exchanged God’s glory for that of creation. The image of God in man was utilized to glorify creation rather than the creator. A subsequent end then accompanied God’s ultimate mission – i.e. the soteriological mission to bring man back into a relationship with God. Hints of this soteriological (broad term for redemptive, reconciliatory, etc.) mission are seen almost immediately after the fall in Gen. 3:15, often labeled the protoevangelium. As one continues through the narrative, it is apparent that there is some expectation of a deliverer (cf. Gen. 4:1; 5:21-29; 6:1-4); but God’s soteriological mission becomes more evident in his covenantal program installed through Abraham and his descendents, and more specifically, the nation of Israel. Without elucidating each epoch of God’s covenantal program in the Old Testament, a summation is provided in Genesis 12:1-3, which Kaiser Jr. called the ‘great commission of the Old Testament.’[2] The verse reads,

The Lord has said to Abram, “Leave your county, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all people on earth will be blessed through you.”

Most importantly, God’s soteriological mission includes the spread of his salvific blessing to all peoples, and he sought to accomplish this through the nation of Israel.

The New Testament continues God’s ultimate mission, but it is distinct in that the soteriological mission of God finds fulfillment and advancement in Jesus Christ’s institution of the new covenant (cf. Heb. 12:24). With the fulfilling person and work of the Messiah (Christ), Jesus restored the imago dei in man (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3), living a sinless life; but rather than boast, Jesus died for the ungodly (cf. Acts 2:23; Rom. 5:6; Gal. 3:13-14; Eph. 2:5), and he was raised to life (cf. Rom. 4:25; 8:34; 1 Cor. 15:3; Phil 2:9-11; Eph. 1:19-20), triumphing over sin and death, bringing about the new covenant that was for all peoples. As the ultimate mission continued on, the soteriological mission continued with the new covenant marked by the Holy Spirit and the church. God’s ultimate mission – his passion for his glory that defined all mission in the OT – is the same mission that empowers and motivates the mission of the church today.

In conclusion, a theology of mission firstly recognizes the ultimate mission of God – i.e. his passion for his glory. Within the divine drama, God constructed the soteriological mission as a result of man’s sin for the purpose of further emanating his glory. Jesus Christ is the climax of the soteriological mission, and Christian missions are defined by the Holy Spirit’s work through the church to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.

The Nature of God in the Theology of Mission

Observing a theology of mission, the very nature of God informs and motivates every part of the Christians’ understanding. The depth of God’s nature is a profound mystery, but Scripture communicates it best in the concept of the ontological Trinity. God is three-in-one, and it is furthermore explained, ‘God is love.’ The basic intimation is that God is communal and relational; and as man is his beloved creature, so also he is designed with relational intentions. It is this understanding of the nature of God as relational and communal that aligns one’s theology of mission – i.e. mission is not simply concerned with gathering more people for the choir in heaven; mission is an overflow of the ontological trinity, emphasizing the relational nature of God and his creatures made in his image.

Relationship to Theological Disciplines

Though theology is the ‘study of God,’ it is an exclusively human discipline. As a result, finite minds tend to systematize and compartmentalize that which is ontologically quite seamless and intertwined. Mission theology, for example, is simply a component of a holistic Christian theology, which consists mainly in the knowledge of God and knowledge of one’s self. ‘Mission’ as a distinctive discipline category within theology can cause some confusion. As soon as Christians start calling such and such ‘missions’, but such and such is ‘discipleship’, another thing is ‘evangelism’, and yet another thing is ‘worship’, one may lose sight of the full calling of every Christian. All of these disciplines and understandings – missions, evangelism, discipleship, and worship – are inextricably connected to one another; and a Christian is called to engage in each of them. A Christian who truly worships God also necessarily pursues discipleship; evangelism is the natural overflow for desiring to make disciples; and missions simply characterizes method and intentions in evangelism. Nevertheless, distinction precedes relation, and in the finite’s pursuit of relationship, it often lingers on the distinction and is sufficed with the clarification. The distinction need only be resolved in the relationship to the whole, therefore rendering the discipline as a part of the sum rather than the sum of its parts.

The sum of theology is worship, which is larger than church sing-a-longs, but entails a life defined by practical obedience. God reveals himself so that his creatures may worship him. The same must be said for the revelation concerning his mission – i.e. he reveals his passion for his glory manifest in the salvation of all peoples through the gospel of Jesus Christ so that he may be worshipped. Notice how this theological statement transforms ones view of missions. The discipline is thus no longer compartmentalized, but it is united with other disciplines as a means to God’s ultimate mission. Nonetheless, mission has a unique relation to all other disciplines of the Christian life. Just as worship is contained within each discipline of the Christian life, so mission is the subsequent end of all Christian disciplines. A Christian engages in evangelism as a form of missions. A Christian desires to make disciples who make disciples, where mission is an absolute necessity. A Christian’s worship is manifest by his passion for God’s mission. All in all, the relationship between the theology of mission with other theological disciplines is emphatically interwoven.

Motifs of Mission: Blessing and Sending

The theme of the book of Genesis largely concerns ‘blessing,’ and in the ‘great commission of the Old Testament’ the theme of God’s blessing certainly dominates the passage. It is apparent: God desires to ‘bless’ his creatures. How truly magnificent is this declaration? Despite man’s sinful rebellion against his creator, God still pursues man as to bless them. This consolidates one important clarification to the theology of mission: although God is passionate for his glory, such a pursuit gloriously entails God satisfying man with himself. In the classic words of John Piper, ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.’ Importantly noted, God’s passion for his glory ought not be understood as some zealous self-centrism in the human sense. God is not hard at work to outplay mankind for his self-promotion. As God is the ultimate good, all that is true, and all that is worthy of worship, his glory is his creatures’ satisfaction. Mankind, however, is banned from such selfishness, but it is solely because mankind is not worthy of such a focus. God, however, is the source and fountainhead of all that is good and beautiful; therefore, a God-centric affection suffers no charge of selfishness in the human sense. Therefore, God’s passion for his glory is primarily manifest in his desire to bless his creatures; the two are not combative, but complementary. Man’s end is not soteriological, but doxological, yet the former serves to accomplish the latter. Conclusively, God’s commitment to blessing all peoples of all nations is rooted in his ultimate mission of receiving glory.

Furthermore, a second motif of mission concerns ‘sending.’ Mission connotes a crossing of cultural boundaries, and thus it concerns a ‘going.’ Yet, what is even more important, the person who ‘goes’ is one who is also ‘sent.’ This is not some inconsequential nicety, but it is an important characteristic regarding the paradigm of Jesus Christ’s incarnation and atonement. Just as Jesus Christ was ‘sent’ into the world, so also his followers are sent to proclaim the gospel. John 20:21b stated, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” The mission concerns a response regarding the sending of God, leaving cultural comforts, and obeying God’s will with servant-like submission. ‘Sending’ essentially conveys the authority of God as the Christian’s master; and is a paradoxical humility, this slaveship to God’s sending is the Christian’s establishment of authority.

Conclusion

To summarize, a theology of mission concerns the God who is passionate for his glory in the salvation of his creatures through the gospel of Jesus Christ. In regards to several theological implications, this theology of mission additionally carries practical ministry relations. However, as one marks the practical implications, it is a general truth that all practicum is informed and empowered by theology. Everything is, in a sense, theological and has a direct impact on practical outworking.

The missionary must have a deep and intimate relation to the theology of mission. Unless the missionary understands that missions is a means to worship and that missions is unified with evangelism, discipleship, and worship, etc., the missionary will lead a compartmentalized ministry. Such a lacking will produce a mere external Christianity decorated with forms and creeds; but missions contextualized alongside evangelism and discipleship (informed by the subsequent nature of all three, as seen in the theology of the mission) leads to a proper implementation of ministerial missions. Likewise, church leaders must have a working and practical theology of mission. Church leaders often mobilize missionaries to engage in the field. Such motivation and influence must be fueled by a well-communicated and correct theology of mission. The ‘lay people’ are no exception. A theology of mission is the only means for providing a correct focus and methodology for a practicum of mission.

[1] A. Scott Moreau, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee, Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey, Encountering Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 27.

[2] Cited in Moreau et al., Introducing World Missions, 32.

 

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