A Message to the World Congress on Evangelism by a chaplain to the Queen of England
Last in a Series
Luke’s account of the Great Commission (24:44–49) differs from those of John and Matthew by appearing to be a general summary of the teaching rather than a particular utterance by Christ. John records what the risen Lord said during his first appearance to the Twelve on Easter Day itself. Matthew records his words on a later occasion when he met his disciples on a Galilean mountainside. That Luke summarizes what Jesus said on the overall subject is apparent; these six verses represent the sum of Christ’s teaching between the day of his resurrection (24:36–43) and the day of his ascension (vv. 50–53). If we had only Luke’s Gospel, we might get the impression that Luke thought the ascension followed the resurrection almost at once. But since he says in Acts 1:3 that forty days elapsed between the two events, we must conclude that he deliberately gives only a brief digest of the Risen Lord’s teaching about the Church’s worldwide mission.
In the account in Luke’s Gospel, the verb in verse 47 points to the nature of the Great Commission. This verb, translated “preached” in most versions, is in fact the Greek word kēruchthēnai, “to be heralded.” It stands first in the Greek sentence, and so receives the chief emphasis. Christ’s will and purpose are “that there should be preached” a certain message throughout the world. He made his Church the herald of his Gospel, to publish it abroad to the ends of the earth.
The commission of the Church, therefore, is not to reform society but to preach the Gospel. Certainly, Christ’s disciples who have embraced the Gospel and are being transformed by it are intended to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13, 14). That is, they are to influence the society in which they live and work, helping to arrest its corruption and illumine its darkness. They are to love and serve their generation, and play their part in the community as responsible Christian citizens. But the primary task of the members of Christ’s Church is to be gospel heralds, not social reformers.
Again, the commission of the Church is not to heal the sick but to preach the Gospel. Of course I am not suggesting that doctors or nurses give up their professions. Their caring for the sick accords with the principle of neighbor-love so beautifully illustrated in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I am simply saying that the miraculous healing ministry exercised by Jesus and to some extent by his apostles (that is, instantaneous and complete healing without the use of means) is not part of Christ’s commission to the Church. I do not doubt or deny that God can, and sometimes does, miraculously heal the sick. But the Church today has no authority to exercise a regular ministry of miraculous healing.
Supernatural healing was plainly part of Christ’s charge to the Twelve and to the Seventy during his early ministry; both these charges Luke recorded earlier in his Gospel (9:1 ff; 10:1 ff.). On these occasions the disciples were commanded not only to preach the Gospel but also to heal the sick and, according to Matthew 10:8, even to raise the dead. The Church cannot automatically assume, however, that these commands apply to it today, unless it is ready to obey as well all the other commands of the mission charge to the Twelve and to the Seventy. Are Christ’s twentieth-century disciples prepared, for example, to take with them on their evangelistic campaigns neither food nor money nor spare clothing? Are they prepared to forgo the use of public transportation and to walk barefoot, and indeed, to go only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6)? No. These commands, including the command to heal the sick and raise the dead, belong to Christ’s charge to those disciples who shared in his own healing ministry during the days of his flesh. Significantly, they were not repeated in the Great Commission of the Risen Lord. According to this commission, which is still addressed to us today, the Church’s primary duty is to be neither a reformer of society nor a healer of the sick but rather a preacher of the Gospel.
Having sought to establish that the Great Commission to the Church is to be Christ’s herald in the proclamation of the Gospel, we can consider the details of the proclamation. Five aspects are given:
1 It is a proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. Literally the commission reads, “that there should be preached … forgiveness of sins.…” This Gospel of Christ is good news of salvation for sinners, and the foremost meaning of salvation is the forgiveness of sins. This is confirmed by John’s version of the commission, in which Jesus declared, “Whosesoever sins ye remit they are remitted.”
Many today deny that the Gospel is essentially an offer of forgiveness. Some even dare to assert that “man come of age” is no longer so conscious of his sins as were his guilt-laden forebears, and that the Church must grow out of its agelong obsession with sin. But biblical Christians cannot even begin to agree with this modern tendency to softpedal sin. Jesus Christ has sent them to all nations to be heralds of the forgiveness of sins. This means that all men of all nations are guilty sinners under the judgment of God and stand in need of forgiveness.
In this task the Church seeks not only to obey the forthright command of Christ but also to follow the example of his apostles. They were faithful to their commission. In the first Christian sermon ever preached, the Apostle Peter cried to a conscience-smitten crowd, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins!” (Acts 2:38). “Let it be known to you, therefore, brethren,” said the Apostle Paul in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, “that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:38).
2 It is a proclamation of the forgiveness of sins in the name of Christ. Literally the passage reads, “that there should be preached upon his Name … forgiveness of sins.” The preposition means not “in” his Name but “on” his Name, epi. This indicates that the Name of Christ is to be the ground or basis upon which the offer of forgiveness is made.
What this means is explained in the preceding three verses. “Then he said to them, ‘These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead’ ” (Luke 24:44–46).
The Christ upon whose Name forgiveness of sins is to be heralded is the Christ who once suffered for sins and then rose from the dead. He died to bear men’s sin and curse in his own body. He was raised to show that his death had been satisfactory for the removal of sin and to apply its benefits to future generations of sinners. Thus Jesus Christ is to be presented by the Church to the world as the crucified and risen Saviour of sinners. The Church has no authority to stray from these two central events in the saving career of Jesus. Nor can it presume to offer men forgiveness on any other ground than that of the Name of the Christ who suffered and rose. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The Church’s message was, still is, and ever will be that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures …, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures …” (1 Cor. 15:3, 4).
Moreover, this message that the risen Lord entrusted to the Church is consistent, he says, with his earthly teaching, with the teaching of the Old Testament, and with the future teaching of the apostles. He states that his post-resurrection instruction is identical with “my words which I spoke to you while I was still with you.” Further, this was “that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” What the Old Testament writers said, the earthly Jesus endorsed; and what the earthly Jesus endorsed, the risen Christ further confirmed. After the resurrection, he had no need to contradict or even to modify what he had taught in the days of his flesh.
Furthermore, the apostles would bear testimony to him because they were “witnesses of these things” (v. 48). They had a unique competence, for they had been eyewitnesses of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. They could bear witness to Christ (Acts 1:8) in a way no one else would be able to. This their witness is preserved in the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament. We have, therefore, the risen Lord’s own authority for believing in the unity and consistency of the Bible. The fundamental message of the Old Testament and of the New Testament—of the law, the prophets, and the other Old Testament writings and of the Gospels, the Acts, the Epistles, and the Revelation in the New Testament—is the same. It is the offer of forgiveness to sinful men and women on the ground of the Name of the crucified and risen Christ. There is no other message but the offer of forgiveness, no other ground but the name of Christ. This is the good news the Church is commissioned to herald. It is the Gospel according to the Scriptures, and it will never change.
How To Help A Man Making ‘A Touch’
Many ministers and church workers, especially in downtown churches, have experienced the difficulty of turning down a person asking for money. Always there lurks the fear that the asker might really deserve help.
One church has found a way of solving this problem. When an obviously poor man comes into the church and asks to talk to a minister, he is introduced to a staff member. The man says: “I wonder if you could help me out with some money for something to eat. I haven’t had any food today and I’m in pretty bad shape.” The staff member sincerely desires to help a worthy person. But he is unwilling to be taken in by a professional panhandler, and so he proceeds in this way:
“Are you looking for work or for a handout?” (The word “handout” is used deliberately. It has a bad connotation and will probably draw out a reaction.)
The man answers: “Oh, I’d like to get work, but there just aren’t any jobs. I’ve looked all over.” (Observe: he has admitted willingness to work, but another step must be taken.)
“Maybe you aren’t physically up to working, so it wouldn’t do much good to get a job.”
The man usually answers: “Oh, I’m okay. I can work, but I just can’t find any.”
“Maybe you’re too fussy and want only a white-collar job.”
Usually the man says again that he’d take any job. He may add that he hates to be asking for help.
The church worker says, “Let’s see, You say you would work if you could find work. You say you are physically able, if only you could find work. You would take almost any kind of job, if only you could find one. Well, come back in about an hour. Meanwhile I’ll see if I can find a job for you, to help you through the day. We can usually find cleaning jobs, some floors to scrub or wax. I want to help you. So come back in an hour and maybe I’ll have some work for you.” Before the man leaves, the worker mentions the love of God and has a brief prayer, in case his visitor does not return.
Observe: the worker has not turned the man down; he has offered help. He has given him a way of escape, thus making it unnecessary for him to lie to get away. He has also stopped the common argument—“not able to work.” And, what is most important, he has given the man a chance to prove whether he is sincere about needing help.
You might ask, “What if the man does come back, and the church worker doesn’t have a job for him?”
The worker should have sincerely inquired into a job possibility. And if the man comes back, the vital question of his sincerity has been established. Then it is time for the worker to offer a meal, help meet the other needs of the moment, and also, if possible, provide a job or other aid.
Through this method of elimination, if the “handout” seeker does return, a very wholesome relation is set up. It is conducive to more permanent help than “bread and butter.”—NELS STJERNSTROM, LeTourneau College, Longview, Texas.
3 This proclamation of the forgiveness of sins is grounded upon the Name of Christ and made on condition of repentance. Literally, the passage reads, “that there should be heralded upon his Name repentance and remission of sins.” The Gospel offered is not unconditional. It does not benefit its hearers willy nilly, “whether they hear or refuse to hear” (Ezek. 2:5). It is clear that sinners cannot be forgiven if they persist in clinging to their sins. If they want God to turn from their sins in remission, they themselves must turn from them in repentance. The Church is charged, therefore, to proclaim the condition as well as the promise of forgiveness. Remission is the gospel offer; repentance is the gospel demand.
Some modern evangelists shrink from this part of the Great Commission. They distinguish between the acceptance of Christ as Saviour and submission to Christ as Lord, and insist that the former does not include the latter. Submission is something that comes only later, they say. Although the best advocates of this view at least argue from a good premise, their deduction, I believe, is incorrect. With their premise that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone I wholeheartedly agree. They argue, however, that to add repentance or submission is to introduce works by the back door. So, determined at all costs (and rightly) to repudiate any contribution by works to salvation, they assert that only faith is necessary, and not repentance and submission to Christ as Lord.
Let me say again that I fully accept the reason for their concern, namely, the principles of sola gratia and sola fides. But I cannot accept their logic. The object of faith is Jesus Christ crucified and risen, crucified Saviour and risen Lord. One cannot cut Christ into pieces and believe in one part of him but not in the other. There is but one Christ, whole and entire, God and man, Saviour and Lord. And it is because Christ is one that faith is one. Faith can no more be divided into its constituent elements than Christ can be divided into his constituent elements. In other words, saving faith is an unreserved commitment, a total yielding to a total Christ. Paul called this response “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5, 16, 26), for he recognized that saving faith includes an element of repentant submission. Indeed, it is inconceivable that a sinner should trust in Christ for salvation and at the same time withhold a part of himself from Christ. Salvation is indeed by faith alone, but saving faith includes repentance.
This is clear also from the apostolic example. The apostles were faithful in their demands for repentance and continually linked it with remission. Notice Peter’s first two sermons: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,” he said. Again, “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 2:38; 3:19). Truly, as Paul said to the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill, “God commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). This is an authentic note of gospel preaching that the Church urgently needs to recover today.
4 The Church is charged with a proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, on the Name of Christ on condition of repentance, to all nations. The charge is now no longer to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” but “unto all the Gentiles” (a legitimate translation of the words). This aspect of the Commission receives the greatest emphasis. The Church has been sent, according to the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel, “into all the world” to preach the Gospel to “all the creation” (16:15). This ministry would quite naturally begin in the city of Jerusalem and in the province of Judaea, but would then move on to Samaria and finally “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). All this implies a recognition that Jesus of Nazareth was no mere Jewish teacher who founded a Jewish sect, but rather the Saviour of the world who summons all nations of the world to his allegiance.
The Church, in other words, is fundamentally a missionary society, commissioned and committed to proclaim the Gospel of salvation to the whole world. As long as any inhabitants of the globe have not heard the Gospel, the Church should have a heavy conscience. Christ has sent it to herald forgiveness to all the nations. But it has not done so. It has failed to fulfill his final command. It has been disobedient to its Lord.
There is still time to make amends, however. As the world population explodes, the Church’s task might seem to be getting harder and the goal of world evangelization more remote. But as the means of mass communication increase, and as the Church humbly seeks fresh spiritual power, the task once again appears possible.
5 The Church is to proclaim the forgiveness of sins on the ground of Christ’s Name and on condition of repentance to all the nations in the power of the Holy Spirit. Verse 49 reads: “And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.”
It is essential to see this promise of the Spirit’s coming, and this command to stay in the city until the Spirit had come, in their historical context. Jesus was referring to the Day of Pentecost, for it was then that he sent the promised gift from heaven (Acts 2:33). But because this day of Pentecost had not yet come, the disciples were told to tarry. Christians living today, however, have no need to tarry. The Christ who on that Pentecost day sent the promise of the Father to the Church gives the same promised Spirit to every believer today. The gift of the Spirit is one of the major blessings of the New Covenant in fulfillment of God’s word to Abraham: “that in Christ Jesus … we … receive the promise of the Spirit by faith” (Gal. 3:14).
Yet this sure truth of the gift of the Spirit to every believer needs two qualifications. First, the Church, for its life and its evangelistic task, needs an ever fresh experience of the power of the same Spirit. Second, in days past and perhaps still today, the sovereign Spirit has come in exceptional measure upon certain evangelists, mastering them, clothing them, anointing them, and empowering them for the proclamation of the Gospel.
Without the work of the Spirit, whether in his general operation or in his special ministries, the Church’s work and witness are bound to be ineffective. While the Church may be faithful in preaching to all nations remission and repentance in the Name of Christ, it is only the Holy Spirit who gives power to the preaching. It is he who convicts sinners of their sin and guilt, opens their eyes to see Christ, draws them to him, enables them to repent and believe, and implants life in their dead souls. Before Christ sent the Church into the world, he sent the Spirit to the Church. The same order must be observed today. Here, then, are the five aspects of the Great Commission as summarized by Luke. The Church is called to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, on the basis of Christ’s saving Name, on condition of repentance, to all the nations, in the power of the Spirit. Confronted by these terms of its commission, the Church must readily confess that at each point it has been guilty of some failure. At times it has distorted the message of forgiveness, or forgotten the Name of Christ, or muted the summons to repentance, or enjoyed its comfortable privileges while ignoring the cries of the unevangelized nations. And at times it has had a sinful self-confidence and neglected the spiritual equipment promised by its Lord. Those who are sent to call others to repentance need to repent themselves.
In summary, then, the Risen Lord’s commission to the Church as recorded by Matthew, Luke, and John tells us that:
Our mandate is the command of Christ to go forth as his heralds; our warrant is the lordship of the Christ who bids us go;
Our Gospel is the forgiveness of Christ, who died for sinners and rose again; our demand is repentant faith in Christ our Saviour and our Lord;
Our authority is the Name of Christ in which we preach; our assurance is the peace of Christ that garrisons our hearts and minds;
Our method is the example of Christ, who sends us into the world as he himself was sent; our equipment is the Spirit of Christ, breathed upon us and clothing us with power;
Our task is to be witnesses to Christ to the ends of the earth; our reward is the presence of Christ to the end of time.
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (www.langham.org), a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."
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