How do justice and evangelism co-exist? How do we manage to accomplish both demonstration and proclamation without repeating the perilous mistakes of the missio Dei movement of the middle last century while also avoiding an extreme restrictivism that is all faith and no works (cf. James 2:14-26)?
I am what I call an integral prioritist. I believe in integral, holistic mission—both showing and sharing the love of Jesus. We need to be doing good deeds not only because God has commanded us to but also because part of the mission of the Church is to work for the betterment of our communities. Mission is not simply making disciples who affirm disembodied doctrines. Discipleship naturally produces a faith that is vibrant and active, that is rich in good works (1 Timothy 6:18). But how does justice not become the sole focus of the Church? I believe this lies in the prioritization of the unreached.
Jesus speaks frequently of reaching the lost, of proclaiming that the kingdom has come and that the good news of the kingdom is that He invites men and women to be born again into that kingdom (see for example Matthew 20:28; Mark 1:38; Luke 4:18-21, 43; 19:10; John 3:16; 10;10; 14:6). The greatest injustice ever committed was our sinful rebellion toward God and the greatest justice God has brought to the earth He has done in Christ at the cross, making the way for all to find saving faith in Him. The parable of the lost sheep in Matthew 18 gives a clear reminder of God’s prioritized desire to see lost people found. That too, should be our prioritized desire. It is from this orientation that the Church then works toward justice as a means of demonstrating here and now our certain hope of the future reign of Christ. The justice work of the Church is a foretaste of the justice brought at the return of the King.
If recent history sounds a warning, biblical history shows the way.
God’s missionary purpose is seen at Babel in Genesis 9 and 11. After the flood, God told his people to scatter and multiply (Genesis 9:1). Instead, they stayed together and conspired in one language to become famous (Genesis 11). We still battle the urge to remain huddled up and to make ourselves famous. God took away man’s ability to communicate with all people on the planet. In Genesis 12 through Abram God continued His mission.
Between Babel and Pentecost, Israel serves as the missionary to make His name known among the nations. In the Old Testament, God’s agenda was for people to come up to Jerusalem, as Isaiah explained, “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established at the top of the mountains and will be raised above the hills. All nations will stream to it” (Isaiah 2:2, CSB). The people of God in the Old Testament were to be on mission to bring the nations with them to Jerusalem to worship in the tongues of the nations the one true God.43 But this mission took a dramatic turn in the Book of Acts.
When people gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost immediately following the cross and resurrection of Jesus, something happened. Here, with a number of tribes and tongues represented (Acts 2:8-11), suddenly the message was heard in various tongues (see verse 11). Here God adds an outward thrust to His mission. When the people of God in the Old Testament did not bring the nations to God, He supernaturally brought the tongues of the people of many nations to Jerusalem for a supernatural moment. As I have written elsewhere,
“In the Old Testament, the nations came up to Jerusalem. In the New Testament, Jerusalem represented a turning point for the centrifugal (outward) mission. Now, the mission of God goes out from Jerusalem.”
When we prioritize gospel proclamation, and especially global missions, we witness the fulfillment of the vision of Revelation 7:9.
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.”
We cannot ignore the placement of the Revelation 7:9 vision in biblical history. This passage looks to the time when the gospel has reached every remote place of the globe, compelling us to give each person on earth the opportunity to hear in their own language, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” This vision clarifies the end and validates the means for God’s missional people. The people of this vision are a resurrected people, displaying the diverse tapestry that is the people of God, living in a moment to which we all look forward—when all of creation is renewed, death is no more, and the peace and justice of Christ reign over us all. It is to that glorious end we partner on mission with God.
The history (and, honestly, demise) of conciliar missions reminds us that precision with words matters. This is especially true when considering the impact of a term like missio Dei and its derivative terms, mission and missional. As L.A. Hoedemaker observed, terms like missio Dei function like “ships carrying a broad range of cargoes.” These words are easily filled with a wide range of meanings that have far-reaching consequences. Once conciliar theologians and practitioners agreed that God was already on mission in the world, there was no room left for the mission of the Church.
Likewise, missional is a tricky term—an inkblot test. We’ll see in the inkblot that which already has captivated our imaginations. Without a nuanced and biblical definition, our understanding of missional will reveal little more than the presuppositions we brought with us. These presuppositions, now validated by the term missional, can imperil the mission itself if not biblically grounded and historically informed. Our imaginations must be captivated by the arc and end of biblical history— the great story of God’s salvific work through His people. Only then will missional and missions find their rightful place in the mission of God.