The word missional has become one of the great catch words in the church in the last decade. And I have appreciated what has been written to guide the church back to a more impactful, less isolationist emphasis. In the missional movement, we see people learning to engage their neighbors with the gospel. We see churches and ministries actively pursuing the opportunity to make change in the world. These are positives. And I’ve been glad to be part of the emphasis.
There is one way that some parts of the missional movement could be hindering the biblical mission. Many missional teachers talk about the story of Scripture. In order to give context to the mission, they outline the Scripture story of God as having 4 main chapters. They are: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. I think we all understand that the Creation chapter of the story would be found in Genesis 1 and 2. The Fall happens clearly in Genesis 3 with the temptation and sin of Adam and Eve. And the effects of the fall continue throughout the pages of Scripture. The work of Redemption begins with God’s promise in Genesis 3:15, that a deliverer would come and the enemy would be defeated. And we see that work of redemption continue through the death of Christ.
The pivotal question is, “When in Scripture, is the work of redemption complete and when does the work of restoration begin?” Your answer to that question will help determine the way you define mission. This can inform you where to put your resources and energies. It will define your missional success. And success is what we all want. You may not have thought about it this way, but this is not just an ecclesiastical question, it is an eschatological question. Our understanding of our part of God’s missoin is tied closely to our eschatologies.
Many in the missional movement have described the world as being in the Restoration chapter of God’s story. They assert that the work of redemption was completed with the death and resurrection of Christ. At the coming of the Holy Spirit, we have entered God’s final stage, the restoration of all things. This understanding fits within a post-millennial, or a-millennial perspective. In an a-millennial perspective, the kingdom is the rule and reign of Christ now. In post-millennial theology, most commonly, the church is the Kingdom of God on earth. And the church does the work of restoring the world in preparation for Christ’s second coming. At His return, he will receive a world that has been restored through the work of God’s people and the Spirit.
For those who hold to these views, gospel work is a work of restoration. Yes, they proclaim the gospel of hope in Christ, but they also spend considerable energies trying to transform and restore the systems of the world. So, whether you are building fresh water wells in sub-Saharan Africa, fighting for the oppressed in Detroit, or sharing John 3:16, you are doing gospel work. Actually, some today would say that sharing John 3:16 is probably the lesser work because our duty is to help the world experience the restoration that Christ promised. I believe this teaching can actually distract the church from her mission. It confuses the church about her primary calling. It can also discourage the church from mission, when the change we promise doesn’t bring about the restoration we hope to see for others.
Rather than striving to achieve restoration, let me posit, we are still in the part of the story called Redemption. Restoration is yet to come. This is a pre-millennial perspective. But I think it is most helpful when defining the church’s mission. I don’t see promises, nor expectations that things will grow better and better before Christ arrives for his grand entry. It is only the presence of Christ and His final victory over Satan that delivers the righteousness that finally overcomes unrighteousness. Only when Sin is finally judged and destroyed that true restoration and re-creation to takes place.
In history, we do see Christians making considerable positive impact. Countries, communities and individuals have been transformed by Christians who have been changed by the gospel. But we see that within a generation or two, the enemy undoes what’s been done, or he attacks from another direction, creating as much, or more havoc than was there in the first place. Satan is like a bacterial super-bug. When the church seems to find an antibiotic of grace that holds him at bay, he morphs and becomes resistant, more creative and even more aggressive than before. We have seen no country, home, nor generation where the work of restoration taken hold in more than 2,000 years. Even the church is absent of such a complete restoration.
If Christ is the Savior who has redeemed us, how are we still in the redemption part of the story? Am I saying that the redeeming work of Christ was not complete? No. Not at all. The work of the cross is complete. But the work of the cross is not the only part of the work of redemption. The redeeming work of God began with preparation. From Genesis 3:15 to Matthew 27:32, God prepared for the arrival and sacrificial death of his Son. His death would be the payment for redemption that God himself would pay (Galatians 4:4-5). Following the ascension of Jesus, with the sending of the Holy Spirit, God began the work of offering Christ’s work of redemption and its benefits to all humanity. We might call this the “application phase” of redemption. The redemption of Christ is applied to people through faith.
Eternal redemption has been secured by Christ (Hebrews 9:11-12). But the creation is still waiting for it to be experienced and it won’t be experienced until the redemption of our bodies takes place (Romans 8:18-25). This redemption of our bodies, at the resurrecton, is the final act of redemption. For now, we live in a season of hope. At the time of restoration, we will have complete fulfillment and hope will not be needed.
If we are still in the chapter called Redemption, then we have to ask, “what is the mission of the church?”
The mission of the church is to share in the work of redemption. I think this is what Paul understood when he spoke of the redemptive qualities of his own suffering. In Colossians 1:24 Paul wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church….” He joined in Christ’s work of redemption. Through him and his suffering the work of redemption continued. Our mission is to prepare the world for restoration by completing the work of inviting, offering and applying the work of redemption.
The question then is, “how do we participate with the Spirit of Christ effectively?” Here’s a few considerations for application.
1. This chapter of Redemption is moved forward as we make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Disciples who make disciples is the God-ordained process of applying the work of redemption. And disciples are made by going, by converting (as expressed in baptism) and by teaching people how to follow the commands of Christ. Transformed lives make the greatest impact in transforming new lives.
2. This chapter of Redemption is moved forward through proclamation (Romans 10:14-17). The message of the gospel must be received and responded to by faith. When Jesus sent out the 72 in Luke 10:3-9, their mission wasn’t completed until they said, “the kingdom of God has come near to you.” We must proclaim that Christ is the King of God’s Kingdom and in him is the gift of redemption and the hope of restoration.
3. This chapter of Redemption is moved forward as we live out love for God, for our neighbor and for one another. Our love is the authenticator of our message. It is the power of our message. But it isn’t a replacement for our message. As we love, people will come to know who we are. But our love will never define who He is and what He has done for the world. Only our consistent and loving sharing of Christ and his message will do that. In fact, I would say that our love is not complete until we tell them of Christ, his redemptive work and his invitation to grace.
Our friends, our families, our communities, and our world will only experience restoration when they have first, by faith, experienced redemption. This is the time of Redemption. Let’s do the work of redemption and leave restoration up to Christ. Christ’s coming will bring a restoration so complete, so as to show our efforts for what they are – whispers, hints, or vague glipses of the New Creation!
Let me close with this question. “Should we construct fresh-water wells in sub-Saharan Africa?” Of course we should. That’s what loving people do. But we should not equate this with the mission of God. His mission isn’t complete until we clearly bring them the Source of living water, preparing them for the restoration that will come at His return.
I’d love to hear how you understand the mission of God in the world.