The task is not a New Testament afterthought, peripheral to the work of the Church, but is basic to the fulfillment of God’s purpose for the world.

A persistent pursuit in the Church during the past two decades has been the search for an adequate theology of missions. This search is relatively new, though the solid foundation of the foreign-missions enterprise in Christ’s missionary mandate (Matt. 28:18–20) has long been acknowledged. What people are now coming to realize, however, is that such a momentous task as that of making disciples in all the world, backed by a proclamation as authoritative as the Great Commission, must be deeply rooted in the whole creative purpose as well as the redemptive plan of God Almighty. And if this is so, then his Church needs to study and understand that involvement. In a word, the foreign-missions cause needs to be seen not only as resting on the command of Christ but also as commanded, because of its fundamental relation to the purpose of God in creation.

The reason for the Church’s mission to the nations, therefore, ought to be formulated in terms of the whole theological structure of the Church—integrated into its theological framework and given a biblically satisfying statement that is properly related to Christian doctrine. This is necessary both for the proper understanding of the relation of the missionary mandate to the Church’s theological structure and for a theology of mission worthy of the name. The basis for such a formulation and integration is found, I believe, in the covenant concept of Scripture.

Recent archaeological discoveries have illuminated the meaning and use of covenants in early biblical times. G. E. Mendenhall has shown the widespread use of the covenant treaty form in the ancient Near East before and after Abraham’s time, its suzerainty-vassal nature, and its six-point pattern (“Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East,” The Biblical Archaeologist, May–September 1954). The customary covenant structure, he has pointed out, consists of: (1) the preamble, in which the suzerain is identified; (2) the historical prologue, in which the historical situation is set forth; (3) stipulations, the imposed requirements of the suzerain; (4) witnesses, the deities usually of both parties; (5) provision for the preservation and remembrance of the covenant; (6) cursing and blessing, for breaking or obeying. William F. Albright, in a 1957 introduction to his 1940 book, From the Stone Age to Christianity, has confessed that previously he “failed to recognize that the concept ‘covenant’ dominates the entire life of Israel.” Meredith G. Kline (“Law and Covenant,” The Westminster Theological Journal, 1964–65) and J. A. Thompson (The Ancient Near Eastern Treaties and the Old Testament, Tyndale Press, 1964) have made use of the new and fuller understanding of the covenant concept.

Article continues below

Traditional reformed theology has spoken of the first biblical covenant as the prelapsarian (before the Fall) Covenant of Works, or, as the Westminster catechisms designate it, the Covenant of Life. Although the word “covenant” does not appear in Scripture until Genesis 6, the idea—that of the sovereign Lord establishing a special relationship between himself and his servants and proclaiming the requirements doing his will—is evident before the Fall. The Covenant of Life is generally considered to have three elements—parties, condition, and penalty and promise. The material for it is drawn from Genesis 2, and its main emphasis is usually held to be the warning of forfeiture of life for all if Adam disobeyed, and the promise of retention of life through obedience.

Has not this traditional construction, however, viewed the Covenant of Life too narrowly and thereby missed an important part of its structure? Genesis 1:28 expresses the Creator’s first proclamation to his image-bearer, his first pronouncement of his mission for men, specifying in broad outline what man’s task on earth was to be: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” During this century, this pronouncement has often been designated the “cultural mandate” and given considerable prominence. But it has been viewed as something standing by itself, apart from God’s Covenant of Life with men. Should it not rather be seen to furnish the stipulations of that covenant? Does not its threefold requirement present the cultural task God imposed on man as man’s covenanted service, his mission in life? Man is thus informed in the Covenant of Life not only of the way to endless life (perfect obedience) but also of how to live in that life, what the obedience entails by way of a task and goal.

The covenantal nature of Genesis 1:26–28 is evident in the elements present there. The passage begins with God’s identifying himself as man’s Creator (“Let us make man in our image …”), and the historical situation leading to the covenant is that newly created man needs to be instructed as to the purpose of his creation (to serve God as his image-bearer, reflecting his glory) and the manner by which he is to fulfill it. Three stipulations define the cultural nature of the covenanted task. The God of creation (maker of servants by his productive Word), of providence (by his all-pervasive administration), and of universal sovereignty (by his powerful dominion), calls upon his image-bearer and vicegerent (or deputy) analogously (1) to produce servants of God, (2) to administer all things for God, and (3) to exercise dominion over the creatures. Thus man is to fulfill his cultural responsibility in his threefold office of prophet, priest, and king.

Article continues below

The two special trees in the Garden may fulfill the function of two other elements usually part of a covenant pattern. No deity witnesses are called for in a divine covenant of Scripture; yet the tree of the knowledge of good and evil stands as a solemn witness to God’s Word and the terrible sanction involved in breaking the covenant. The setting of the tree of life in the Garden gave a perpetual reminder of God’s gracious provision for life in the Covenant of Life. Finally, the curse of death and blessing of life for covenant-breaking and -keeping appear at the covenant’s conclusion in Genesis 2:17.

This Covenant of Life, with its cultural stipulations setting forth man’s mission on earth, was not abrogated with the Fall. The curse provision came into effect, bringing death upon the human race and a malediction on nature that was to make man’s cultural task far more difficult. The corruption that entered the human heart led men to refuse to render God service, to claim themselves, their offspring, and all creation for themselves, and to engage in cultural activity for self, not for God. Natural man’s work is not done in response to the Covenant of Life.

The entrance of the new dimension of sinful rebellion in mankind meant that God would have to introduce a new dimension into his Covenant of Life if his desire that men should bring out the potential of creation for him was not to be frustrated. An addition to the covenant extended it into the area of merciful forgiveness, making it a covenant of redemptive grace as well as of cultural service. By God’s salvation, men are restored to God’s service; by the redemptive provision, they are restored to the blessing provision of the Covenant of Life and its cultural endeavor for God. The principle of redemption, by substitutionary atonement, of men of God’s choosing, bringing pardon and restoration to God’s fellowship and service, was gradually revealed, as different covenantal proclamations reminded God’s people of the covenanted nature of their life.

Article continues below

The message of hope is first given in Genesis 3:15. Restoration to the blessing of the Covenant of Life is hinted there in the Adamic Covenant, the first presentation of the redemptively extended Covenant of Life. In the patriarchal age a new administration of the covenant was given to Abraham, and he and his offspring were promised the covenant blessing and a Seed through whom the blessing would come to the nations of the world; the sign of circumcision was given as the seal of the covenant (Gen. 17:1–14; 22:17, 18; Gal. 3:7–16). God renewed the covenant to Moses, in the setting of his great deliverance of his people come of age as a nation (Exod. 2:1, 2). In ten commandments he gave his sovereign stipulations for the perfect life of the covenant. Personal obedience to these laws was not offered as a substitute for the redemption of the Seed of the covenant of promise, as the ground of life in the covenant. But in revealing the standards of holiness required by the covenant life, the commandments showed the hopeless imperfection of human effort. Thus they pointed anew to the need for the perfect obedience of the Redeemer, the One to be given “for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles” (Isa. 42:6).

The New Covenant, the final administration of the Covenant of Life in its redemptive extension followed the Mosaic Covenant and came into force with the death of its Testator, Christ. Where, however, is it proclaimed in the New Testament? It would be strange if we could identify the other covenant presentations in given passages but could find no such presentation of the New Covenant. It does appear, however, in the giving of the missionary mandate, Matthew 28:16–20, even as the Covenant of Life was presented in Eden with the giving of the elements of the cultural mandate. What would be more natural than that the Lord of the Covenant, standing on the threshold of the international era before his chosen representatives who were to carry on his mission for men to the whole world, should renew the covenant to them in new terms for the new age?

The typical covenant pattern appears here, beginning with the identification of the risen Jesus as the one who had appointed them to appear there. The historical situation is his impending departure and his restoration to all authority in heaven and earth. The stipulations are that his disciples are to go into all the world to make disciples, baptizing them in the triune name and teaching them all the Lord’s instructions. The blessing is to be the continuous presence of the Lord, with the only curse being Mark 16:15, “he that believeth not shall be damned.” Luke reminds us of Jesus’ words that those who had received the power of the Holy Spirit are to be the witnesses of the truth of the covenant message (Acts 1:8). Our Lord gave a very definite provision for remembrance of the covenant when he instituted the Lord’s Supper and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; this do in remembrance of me.”

Article continues below

With the giving of the New Covenant we have the final proclamation for the fulfillment of God’s purpose that men should serve him as stewards of his creation throughout the world. The “cultural mandate” and the missionary mandate are thus vitally related. Behind the often emphasized unity of the “Covenant of Grace” lies the unity of the Covenant of Life, the unity of God’s purpose since creation—that men in all the world should glorify him by rendering full obedience and by serving him through the fulfillment of his cultural task for them. Men are not to render their service just on certain days of the week, or just by giving a certain portion of their income for God’s work. They are to serve God in all of life’s activity by being continually aware that they are covenanted people, held responsible before God to strive to subdue nature and self to serve the true advancement of man and creation, for the glory of God. This must include seeking to make men disciples of Christ; indeed, for unsaved men this must be our primary effort, for they cannot begin either true advancement or cultural service until they desire to be Christ’s disciples.

In the Covenant of Life, with its postlapsarian redemptive extension (the last administration of which is the New Covenant of this gospel age) and with its presentation of the way to life and the way of life, we have the unifying concept of Scripture, the design of the program of God in history, his mission for men. By means of the missionary mandate men learn how to be saved to begin their life of witness and service for God; and by means of the “cultural mandate” they learn the broad outlines for that service. Both together are involved in the Covenant of Life. The implications for missions in this covenantal missions-culture relationship need to be studied thoroughly.

Article continues below

In this understanding of the content and relation of the divine covenants of Scripture, and in this integration of the missionary mandate into the covenant framework, we have, I believe, a basis for a real theology of missions. The missionary task, viewed in this way appears in its proper perspective. It is not a peripheral part of the work of the Church, not just an appendix to its effort, not a last-minute New Testament thought after all important matters of church worship and life were settled; rather, it is basic to the fulfillment of God’s purpose for the world—that men should serve him in every effort, bringing all things into subjection for his glory. Since the fall, men themselves have to be brought into subjection first, made captives for Christ, in order to render his prescribed service. To achieve this end, the New Covenant, with its missionary mandate, the Great Commission, was given. Our Lord says to his church “Go,” because he desires disciples made in all the world to live by the stipulations of his gracious Covenant of Life in loving service.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.