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The Convergence of the Missio Dei and the Imago Dei: A Way to Understand Discipleship

If churches (and thus leaders) would understand discipleship in this way, I believe it would help reframe the insalubrious discipleship practices and programs seen today.
The Convergence of the Missio Dei and the Imago Dei: A Way to Understand Discipleship
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I’ve had many conversations over the years with people affiliated with the church where I’ve asked them, “Are you a Christian?” to which they would respond, “Yes, of course.” Following their admission, I would ask them, “How do you know that you are a Christian?”

This is where it got interesting. Overwhelmingly, the majority of the time people would respond, citing “Christian activity” like baptism, Bible reading, praying, attending church, and tithing.

Here’s the problem: none of these activities make one a Christian. Yet, it seems that the church groomed a generation to think that way—whether intentionally or unintentionally. Therefore, we are now dealing with a Christian generation who understands Christian maturation more as assembly-line activities (or doing) rather than identity-forming awareness (or becoming).

What makes someone a Christian—a believer or follower of Christ—is his or her faith in the Lord Jesus to save them from their sin and to become his or her King. The reason I know that I am a Christian is because of a conscious decision I made around 30 years ago to confess my sins, to turn away from my sin of living life according to Josh, and to turn to Jesus as my Savior and King.

That’s how I know I am a Christian. And it is who I am that now informs and gives shape and formation to what I do (or how I live).

I want to share two baselines for helping churches and believers understand a foundation of discipleship and then offer up a definition and description of discipleship in an effort to help shape the discipleship conversation in the church.

Humanity’s Shattered Image

Almost every single person reading this article has used a mirror lately. Maybe it was to brush your teeth or your hair, to make sure your wardrobe matched, or to back out of your driveway.

Imagine the next time you go to use a mirror and you find it has shattered? In looking at the mirror, what do you see? A distorted, fractured, and fragmented image. As a result, the mirror no longer gives you a whole and complete picture. It’s not that it has ceased to be a mirror. It still offers a reflection.

However, rather than presenting a full and complete image, because it has been shattered, the reflected image is distorted and damaged.

Humanity was created to be the mirror of God. Human beings were created to reflect God’s image to the created order (Gen. 1:26). Christopher Wright states, “The image of God is not so much something we possess, as what we are. To be human is to be the image of God.”[1] John Calvin conveys that man will represent and reflect God’s image, which will shine forth in the mind, the will, and all the senses.[2]

However, when Adam and Eve fell (sinned) in the garden they shattered the imago Dei in their lives.

Keep in mind that we still are very much human. Sin did not destroy the imago Dei in humanity. However, sin shattered and thus distorted, damaged, and fractured our lives from giving a whole, complete reflection and depiction of God.

This shattered image plays out in a host of ways. Identity crises, image issues, sexual brokenness, racism, ethnocentrism, violence, abortion, etc. are all effects of sin shattering God’s image in humanity.

The Missio Dei Seeking to Restore the Imago Dei

At the time Moses wrote Genesis, kings and emperors would erect images throughout their kingdom signifying their reach and reign. Many scholars, therefore, believe that God intended to convey this message to humanity—that they were created to reflect his glory in who they were and how they functioned.

In other words, they were to reflect God’s character, nature, attributes and thus enact his kingdom on earth as it was enacted in heaven.

Such imaging is only possible when men and women are in a right relationship with God, fellowshipping and enjoying perfect communion with him. However, when Adam and Eve rebelled and sinned against God, they severed the perfect fellowship and communion with God, thereby shattering his image in (or on) them.

While men and women would still function as humans, the fundamental functions would, in fact, be distorted either by being misguided, misdirected, misappropriated, and mishandled. In other words, sin damaged the nature of who they were and thus damaged how they functioned.

Functionally, God wanted humanity to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth, subdue the earth, and have dominion on the earth (Gen. 1:28). G.K. Beale argues, “God’s ultimate goal in creation was to magnify his glory throughout the earth by means of his faithful image-bearers inhabiting the world in obedience to the divine mandate.”[3]Here are three headings to summarize the creation mandate into the fundamental functions of humanity: relational, cultural, and managerial (steward/overseer).

These three functions are alive and well within the human race today. Although these functions are to be practiced with the glory of God as the aim, they are not because of the Fall. Because of humanity’s shattered image, these functions are misguided, misdirected, misappropriated, misunderstood, mishandled, and misused.

We live in a fallen world, with a fallen race (humanity), and with a fallen race, comprised of damaged image bearers, you will find broken and fractured relationships, corrupted culture, power-craved individuals and peoples, and overall bad stewardship of life.

All of this is found both on the micro and macro level of humanity, and we all (at some time) have been guilty of breaking and fracturing a relationship, corrupting culture, abusing power, and having bad stewardship.

Enter the missio Dei. At its core, the mission of God is to create a people for himself (from all peoples) that would reflect his glory in all spheres of life (see Adam, Israel, Jesus, the church, and New Creation). Therefore, the missio Dei, at the core, aims at restoring and renewing the imago Dei in men and women .

Francis DuBose in his work, God Who Sends, highlights the relationship between the imago Dei (image of God) and the missio Dei (the mission of God). DuBose argued, “To recover the lost image of God in humanity is what the Bible is all about. And one of the major salvific themes of the New Testament is how that image has been restored through the redemptive work of God in the Second Adam, Jesus Christ.”

The Apostle Paul, in a few places, captures this notion of redeeming and renewing God’s image in man (Col. 3:10; Rom. 5:12-21; 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:45-49; 2 Cor. 3:12-18).

As Dubose put it, “just as God’s first mission (“the incipient sending”) was to deal with the problem of the broken image of God in the first family, so God’s final mission in Scripture (the ultimate sending in Jesus Christ) was to restore that image of God in the new family of the redeemed.”

Defining and Describing Discipleship

Matthew 28 contains Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations.” There were two parts of disciple-making—baptism and teaching. Baptism was this obedient act of identifying with Jesus. Teaching all that Jesus taught them was the way they would instruct believers about their new life in Christ.

Disciple-making, in sum, is the convergence of the missio and imago Dei. Therefore, discipleship could be defined as the restoration process of learning what it means to be truly human after the likeness and image of Jesus.

In his book, Simply Christian, N.T. Wright expresses, “Learning to live as a Christian is learning to live as a renewed human being, anticipating the eventual new creation in and with a world which is still longing and groaning for that final redemption.”

For those who like formulas, here’s a sequential discipleship formula based upon the above information and definition:

Who I Am (IDENTITY) + What I Do (IDENTIFIERS) = Who or What I Reflect (IMAGE)

This formula is extremely important. Why? Because if we get the formula wrong or we put the identifiers before the identity, the product will be a distorted image. [Note: This is what happened at the Fall!]

For instance, if we focus on the identifiers as activities that feed one’s identity, then one or two things can happen—particularly for “Christians.” First, they will be tempted to see their activities as what “makes” them a Christian. This may cause them to have a form of Christianity that’s grounded upon a works-based salvation.

Second, they might have a tendency to forget who they are because they struggle with keeping up with all the activities. Thus, missing a devotion here, a service there, a prayer there, might lead to doubt, depression, and discouragement.

True Christian discipleship is rooted in Christ’s identity. Paul says, “For I am crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

I’m a Christian, once again, because I’m in Christ, Christ is in me; I died to myself, and rose to new life in Christ. Because my new life is hidden with Christ (Col. 3:3), I surrender my life (all facets and spheres) to allow Him to live through me. My behaviors, functions, and thus my identifiers flow from of my identity.

The end result? As I am shaped into the likeness (and identity) of Jesus, my life reflects the glory of God and his Kingdom—that which it was meant to do all along.

If churches (and thus leaders) would understand discipleship in this way, I believe it would help reframe the insalubrious discipleship practices and programs seen today. And this will be greatly needed as we navigate a post-COVID world.

[1] Wright, The Mission of God, 421.

[2] John Calvin, Calvin Commentary Series, ed. Rev. John King, The First Book of Moses called Genesis (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2009, reprint), 96.

[3] G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 82.

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Josh Laxton currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, Lausanne North American Coordinator at Wheaton College. He has a Ph.D. in North American Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The Exchange Team contributed to this article.

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