by Gary Corwin
Theology divides, evangelism unites.” So goes the mantra of too many. Oh, there is a kernel of truth in what they say: too much majoring on minor issues can be divisive.
Theology divides, evangelism unites.” So goes the mantra of too many. Oh, there is a kernel of truth in what they say: too much majoring on minor issues can be divisive. But evangelism without agreement on core issues of theology is less than useless. It is an abomination to God and it is harmful to both the evangelizer and the evangelized.
So what is the proper role of theology in missions? In short, it is to enable people to understand rightly (though certainly not perfectly) the Triune God, and to relate properly to him. This is its vertical dimension, and it is as essential for first-time recipients of the gospel as it is for those who carry it to them.
There is also a horizontal dimension. Good theology is the indispensable prerequisite for believers to understand rightly and to relate properly to both their environment and to others. While relating to the environment is beyond our scope here, what it means for relating to other people is vital—in connection to other believers (body life) and to those who are outside of the faith (evangelism and mission). Both, of course, come under the rubric of loving our neighbors as ourselves, and both assume deeds of love and mercy as evidence of genuine faith.
A third dimension is that theology is central to the “all things” Jesus commanded us to teach disciples for obedience among all the peoples of the world (Matt. 28:19-20). This is done primarily by “teaching those who are able to teach others also”
(2 Tim. 2:2); hence the need for theological education and leadership training as vital aspects of missions.
But what are the particular truths that theology must clearly and forcefully declare to fulfill its mission in missions today? They are many, and while they are true for all places and times, their relative importance is to some extent contextually determined. In global missions currently the following theological tasks seem particularly relevant:
• To remind us whose glory it is we are seeking. Far from reveling in our own strategies and insights, theology reminds us that we are to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first (Matt. 6:33), and to declare his glory among the nations (Ps. 96:3).
• To make clear who it is that needs the gospel. “All have sinned and fall short of the Kingdom of God” (Rom. 3:23). “There is…no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:11).
• To declare with certainty that there is only one way of salvation. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name … given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
• To convince us concerning the fate of those who remain apart from Christ. “And the devil… was thrown in the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15).
• To make clear the nature of our task. “To make disciples of all nations (peoples)…” is the central and controlling command of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). It is also but one link in the chain of God’s will in mission revealed from Genesis to Revelation—God blessing the peoples of the earth through those who know him.
• To present the scope of biblical mission methods. Mission permeates the Old Testament and is the essence of the New. The Gospels and Acts are tracts to convince the unconverted, and the Letters of Paul are primarily letters to mission churches or leaders. While the Scriptures are more than a Holy Textbook of missions, it is that superbly.
• To assure us of victory in the task. “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). “… there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne…”(Rev. 7:9-10).
• To connect us to the source of our power. “I am the vine; you are the branches…. apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you…” (Acts 1:8).
• To comfort us with the knowledge of the One who is with us always. “And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b).
Short of God’s presence and blessing, there is nothing so essential to good mission as good theology. It is the foundation to establish its ground and scope in the light of who God is, what he does, and how he views the world. God, after all, is not a species we study; he is a master we emulate and obey.
Gary Corwin is associate editor of the Evangelical Missions Quarterly and a special representative with SIM in Charlotte, N.C.
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