by Frank M. Severn
A Lutheran pastor from the confessional church, who had lived through the horrors of Nazism, was asked why the great body of Lutherans did not rise up against Hitler. He responded by saying, “We lost our sense of eternity.”
A Lutheran pastor from the confessional church, who had lived through the horrors of Nazism, was asked why the great body of Lutherans did not rise up against Hitler. He responded by saying, "We lost our sense of eternity."
The present generation of evangelicals lives dangerously close to accepting an earthbound agenda. On one side are those who have almost included conservative capitalism in their statements of faith; while the other side has made the transformation of unjust (mostly capitalistic) political structures the mission of the church.
One has to ask, "Is this world our home? Is God’s kingdom earth-bound? Do we transform the world into God’s kingdom according to our understanding of righteousness and justice? Where are the strangers and pilgrims? Is the future now? What is our agenda?"
There is no question that we live in a world of injustice. In many places the four horsemen of the apocalypse appear to be a present reality. Famine and malnutrition are not just future threats. The UN estimates that at least 100 million children go to bed hungry. Exploitation of man by man demonstrates the reality of sin which has transformed the "image of God" into a self-serving "child of Satan."
Are we to move through life blithely ignorant and indifferent to human suffering? Are we to snatch souls from the burning ship while doing nothing to put out the fire? None of us would answer in the affirmative. Of course we want to put out the fire! However, that very question which is used to place a guilt trip on "soul winners" also illustrates priorities.
When our youngest son was born we placed a decal with the picture of a baby on his bedroom window. In case of a fire, this is the first place the firefighters would enter our home. Given the choice, a firefighter will first snatch people from the burning building before dealing with the flames. Here is where a perspective of eternity is important. We could spend our lives making this world a better place by attempting to establish kingdom values and to transform social structure. We must beware that we are not guilty of helping people gain the world while they lose their souls.
One must admit that witness and mission cannot be done in a vacuum. Anyone who has lived in the Two-Thirds World knows the stark realities of poverty and injustice. Our evangelism takes place in the midst of human suffering. Shall I desist from proclamation in order to feed the hungry? That question becomes academic in the crucible of life. One must always respond to human need in the process of proclaiming the Gospel. The vital question is, "Who determines our agenda and priorities?" Without hesitation we say, "Our agenda must be set by the Word of God." The question becomes then, "Does the Word of God give us clear priorities?" Do we emphasize Luke 4:18-19 coupled with John 20:21?
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor" (Luke 4:18-19).
"Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you? As the Father has sent me, I am sending you’" (John 20:21). If we say that these verses give us a clear agenda, we must also ask, "What is the Good News? Who are the poor? Who are the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed?" Even further, "How was this Scripture fulfilled by Christ? What was the nature of Christ’s ministry?"
I am convinced that Christ has set our agenda. In his mission he did not overthrow corrupt governments, nor did he establish a just society. That portion of his work, which is in God’s cosmic plan of redemption, still awaits his second coming. He came "to seek and to save that which is lost." He came to "build his church." He came to die. He set his face toward Jerusalem. He came to be the Savior and the Redeemer. In the process, he promised that those who trust him and become his followers will be a kingdom of priests-the great foretaste of the coming Kingdom.
Because of the promised presence of his Spirit in his Body, the Church is to be a society where love (John 13:34-35), righteousness and justice (Col. 3) are to be lived out. It will be light in a dark world, salt in a decaying society, restraint in a world hell bent on destruction. The Church should transcend geographical, racial, cultural and political barriers (Col. 3:11). The community of the reconciled is also to be the reconciling community (2 Cor. 5). Above all, it is a "called out" community. As a called out community, it has been given a commission. Yes, the Church has a clear priority. That priority is spelled out by the risen Christ in each of the Gospels.
The clearest statement is found in Matthew 28:18-20. "Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.’"
After the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Church was pushed out into the world (Acts 1:8 ff). Wherever disciples went the Good News of Christ was proclaimed, new disciples were made and "called out" assemblies were formed. Slavery was broken at the communion table. Women were given a place of dignity. The poor gratefully found release from the personal sins that held them in bondage and were given dignity as part of the assembly. Rich men and women, transformed by the Gospel, made their homes the gathering place of followers of the Way.
A great social revolution was begun as the community of believers demonstrated God’s grace. Yet they were despised by the world and persecuted because they dared owe allegiance to no earthly king.
It is in the ministry of the early church that we discover the clear priorities for our ministry today. What was the ministry of the early sent ones? How did they live out Christ’s mandate? How did the authors of the New Testament canon interpret and expand Christ’s mandate? What was the nature of their mission?
One of the clearest accounts of the nature of the apostolic mission is found in the life and ministry of the apostle Paul. He lives out a biblical real-world model, which clearly demonstrates the priority of mission. That priority begins with a powerful proclamation of the Gospel, which calls people to a verdict concerning Jesus Christ. It ends with a proclaiming community that declares the Gospel by word and deed.
In other words, Paul’s priority was a powerful proclamation of the Gospel, which resulted in decisions to repent from sin and trust the Lord Jesus Christ. These new disciples were gathered and taught so they, in turn, became the agents of proclamation. Paul was making disciples of the nations as described by Christ. This is our mandate.
While fulfilling this mandate we must be ready with a cup of water. We must be ready to bind the wounds of the hurting as "good Samaritans." Our message must not be one of mere words.
However, we have not fulfilled our mandate until the Gospel has been powerfully proclaimed by word, and men and women have been brought face to face with a call to repent of their sins and trust the Lord Jesus Christ. We have not fulfilled our mandate until disciples are made who can and will be proclaimers themselves. This is the essence of the apostolic ministry so succinctly described in Acts and in the Epistles.
Paul called men to a blessed hope. This hope was not earthbound but centered in Christ. It centered on being with Christ in heaven. Paul prepared men to be citizens of heaven and by so doing they became better citizens on earth (Phil. 3:20). Paul’s agenda was not earthbound.
Paul’s blessed hope was not a Utopian, Marxist or capitalist society. Rather, it was a gathering around the throne of the Lamb, where sin is cleansed into perfection, where earthly glimpses of self-sacrificing love become the way of life, where justice rolls like a river.
Paul did proclaim an earthly kingdom where righteousness and justice would prevail. However, this kingdom will not be brought in by the liberation of the poor, but by Christ, the Judge and King who will come with the armies of heaven.
We must not allow guilt or the realities of human suffering to deter us from an aggressive proclamation of the Gospel and a commitment to make disciples. By so doing we are not burying our heads in the sand. We are not foisting a Western fundamentalist agenda on the Two-Thirds World church. We are being biblical and we are doing that which has eternal significance.
I, for one, refuse to accept the charge that we who hold to the primacy of evangelism are disinterested in the needs of the whole person. I have spent time planting rice, overseeing the production of mosquito nets, providing medicine and food where it was desperately needed. I helped to convince a church that the system of sangla (pawning one’s property) was essentially unjust. All of these things were part of life. The process of disciple-making is worked out in the milieu of life.
I have seen the power of the Gospel change people’s lives in the real world of the 20th century. All of the social help that was given was temporary at best. The life-changing Christ indwelling believers not only produces changes now, but for eternity. For the sake of the whole person, evangelism and disciple making must be primary. We must maintain our sense of eternity!
Frank Severn is general director of SEND International (Farmington, Mich.). He and his wife, Jane, served for 15 years in the Philippines, much of the time as church planters. He was also instructor in church growth at Asian Theological Seminary and Febias Bible College in Manila.
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