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June 20, 2011Missiology

Why We Should Use the Phrase "Incarnational Mission" (Part 1 of 3)

Words have meaning--but they have meaning to groups.  For example, "justice" means something very different to the people who read Tim Keller than it does to the people in the United Church of Christ.  It's possible to argue that because there are differing understandings of the word, Tim Keller should not use the term "justice" at all.

That, of course, would be a mistake.

Such is the case with the word "incarnational."  While I can find many bad uses of the the word, I can more easily find poor uses of the words "gospel," "grace," and "missional." Just as I am not about to abandon the use of those words, I am convinced that the word "incarnational" and the idea behind it is so helpful we need not run away from it--though we do need to explain it. My explanation will take a few separate posts, so stay with me and join the conversation in the comments.

The doctrine of the incarnation explains how the eternal Son of God came into the world as fully human in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the fully-realized hope of "God with us" as he is fully God and fully man. The incarnation is one of the core doctrines of the Christian faith that separates us from other religions and faiths. As the Apostle John said, "every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God," and, "For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist." (1 Jn. 4:2; 2 Jn. 1:7). Here we are talking about the hypostatic union (the union of the divine and human natures in Jesus) and its purpose.

Historically the extra-biblical term, incarnation, has been helpful to us as the church as we have sought to be clear concerning the person and work of Jesus. More recently some have begun to use the term "incarnational" to point to one aspect of the church's mission and life, and this has received some push-back.

The concern that some have in using "incarnational" to apply to the mission of the church is that it has the potential to detract from our understanding of the incarnation of Christ. John Starke blogs about his concerns over the use of this word at The Gospel Coalition blog. His is a serious concern and well articulated (full disclosure: John communicated with me about it in his research process and I found him insightful and irenic, though we end up with different views).

If we lose our grasp on the doctrine of the incarnation we lose the gospel itself. However, I believe it is not only helpful to use the term to apply to the mission of the church, but that it is also biblically justifiable. In fact, the more we understand the incarnation, the better equipped we are to live incarnationally as the church reflecting the glory of our Savior while obeying the Great Commission.

Part of the problem is that this pushes Jesus as the model of our mission into the forefront of the discussion of mission, while most evangelicals prefer to use Paul as the sole model. We would do well to allow both persons and all of Scripture inform and guide our approach to mission.

In the next post I want to point out that just as there are many theories of the atonement, and we must carefully weigh those theories to find which ones reflect Scripture most accurately, there are also various perspectives on "incarnational mission." It will do us well to understand these different perspectives.

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