Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 5)

In the last article of this series, I introduced the strange and novel idea of missionaries being evangelized by their converts. The Bible’s prototypical example appears in Acts chapter 10 in the encounter between Peter and the centurion Cornelius. That story, which is sometimes titled “The Conversion of Cornelius,” could also be called “The Conversion of Peter.”

Here I am using the terms “evangelized” and “conversion” in a broad sense. Peter was not receiving the gospel for the first time. He already was a genuine Christian in a personal relationship with Christ. But through his encounter with Cornelius, his character and faith were transformed again as he came to a new and deeper awareness of the gospel.

Before then, Peter had always assumed that belief in Christ should be accompanied by visible changes in lifestyle, changes that would turn people into devout, observant Jews like him. He had assumed that God’s mission was the same as bringing lost sheep into the church that he knew and loved, the merry band of Jewish disciples founded a decade earlier by Jesus himself. What Peter did not realize was that, as God was bringing sheep into the fold, he was also working powerfully to recreate the church. Peter’s previous knowledge of the gospel wasn’t wrong, but it was woefully incomplete.

In The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, missiologist Lesslie Newbigin writes about the meeting between Peter and Cornelius (pp. 59-60):

It is not as though the church opened its gates to admit a new person into its company, and then closed them again, remaining unchanged except for the addition of a name to its roll of members. Mission is not just church extension. It is something more costly and more revolutionary. It is the action of the Holy Spirit, who in his sovereign freedom both convicts the world (John 16:8-11) and leads the church toward the fullness of the truth that it has not yet grasped (John 16:12-15). Mission is not essentially an action by which the church puts forth its own power and wisdom to conquer the world around it; it is, rather, an action of God, putting forth the power of his Spirit to bring the universal work of Christ for the salvation of the world nearer to its completion. At the end of the story, which runs from Acts 10:1 to 11:18, the church itself became a kind of society different from what it was before Peter and Cornelius met. It had been a society enclosed within the cultural world of Israel; it became something radically different, a society that spanned the enormous gulf between Jew and pagan and was open to embrace all the nations that had been outside the covenant by which Israel lived.

This distinction between God’s mission and church extension is not a small matter. It has enormous implications for how we see and talk about ourselves and how we act toward others in a pluralistic and multicultural world. Before talking about that, however, we ought to first ask whether this view of mission is biblically supported. Do missionaries and converts truly evangelize one another? Or does the gospel flow in one direction as believers go out and make disciples, then those disciples go out and make more disciples, and the process continues ad infinitum until every nation has been reached and Jesus returns in power and glory?

In Acts 1:8, Jesus says to his apostles: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This verse is a mini-outline of the whole book of Acts. The apostolic witness began in Jerusalem (chapter 2), then it spread to Judea and Samaria (chapter 8), and eventually it went out to other nations (chapter 13). We see a linear progression as Jesus’ disciples made more disciples. But if we don’t pay close attention to how it actually happened, we will miss a key point that Luke is making throughout the book.

Many evangelicals think of Acts 1:8 as “the world mission command.” Indeed, in Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15, the Great Commission is given as a command. But Acts 1:8 presents it as a promise. Jesus states as a fact that it is going to happen, not by the volition of the apostles, but by the sovereign will and power of the Holy Spirit. And as we read through the book, that’s exactly how it happens. The apostles do not adopt Acts 1:8 as their mission statement and then formulate a strategy to carry the gospel to the nations. Rather, the entire movement is orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, it is the rushing wind-song of the Spirit that causes a great crowd to gather and makes them ask, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:1-12) The spread of the gospel to Judea and Samaria is precipitated not by an intentional decision by the apostles, but by persecution that broke out after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1). And the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas as missionaries was a direct response to the command of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2).

The church portrayed in the book of Acts is not an army of well trained soldiers executing a military-style campaign to conquer unbelieving nations with the gospel. Nor is it a board of corporate executives launching an advertising blitz to market the gospel to consumers. The church in Acts never fully takes hold of the mission, nor does it ever really grasp the mission, because the mission is not theirs. Moment by moment, the apostles respond in obedience as the Holy Spirit leads. But they are never qualified to direct the mission because they do not understand everything it entails. What they fail to realize that the mission is not just about discipling the nations; it is also about transforming them. As the Spirit is bringing new sheep into the fold, he is also prying open the minds and hearts of church leaders and members to welcome newcomers unconditionally as Jesus welcomed them. This process of assimilation is painful and awkward. It tests the limits of their faith and dependence on God. But through these birthpains, the Spirit brings forth an amazing new community the likes of which the world had never before seen. It is a community of genuine unity-in-diversity. A place where Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, truly connect with one another and become one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). A place of genuine, radical freedom, where ethical standards, laws and commands are replaced by love (Gal 5:14).

The mission is never the property of the church; it is always missio Dei, God’s mission. Newbigin writes (p. 61):

At this point the church has to keep silence. It is not in control of the mission. Another is in control, and his fresh works will repeatedly surprise the church, compelling it to stop talking and to listen. Because the Spirit himself is sovereign over the mission, the church can only be the attentive servant. In sober truth the Spirit is himself the witness who goes before the church in its missionary journey. The church’s witness is secondary and derivative. The church is witness insofar as it follows obediently where the Spirit leads.

That is exactly what happens in Acts chapter 10. Peter didn’t approach the home of Cornelius with the intention of giving him the gospel. The Spirit carried a hesitant Peter there to show him what he had already been doing, something which Peter never imagined. Peter’s job was to obediently share what he knew, to observe what the Spirit did, and to welcome the new Gentile believers as they were.

The distinction between church expansion and God’s mission is not a small matter. It is fundamental to grasping the nature of the gospel. The distinction is especially important as we reach out to the next generation. Young people have been taught to frame history, politics and religion in terms of power struggles between groups. They believe that racism, bigotry, and war result whenever one group believes it is superior to other groups. So if you approach a young person and talk about your faith, she does not see you as an individual person talking to her. She sees you as a member of one group – say, a religious conservative Christian – trying to bring her into your group in order to expand your group’s membership rolls to increase its prestige and power. That is why so many have grown skeptical and weary of all evangelists and of all “organized religion.”

And who can blame them? Throughout the centuries, Christians of many stripes have tried to carry the gospel throughout the world. And so often, those efforts were confounded with military campaigns, colonialism, economic opportunism and cultural imperialism. They were tainted by the desire to build up one church, organization or denomination at the expense of other groups while violating the dignity of individual persons (e.g., through conversion and baptism by force). When today’s young people hear us equate God’s mission with the expansion of our own church, they react against it strongly and viscerally. When they hear us speak of God’s mission in paramilitary terms as conquering the nations and religions of the world (e.g., Muslims) they will have none of it. When they hear us speak of evangelism and discipleship in terms of saving those who are poor, ignorant, blind and disobedient by transforming them into Christians who so conveniently happen to resemble ourselves, they will have none of it. They instinctively feel that it is not the gospel. And they are correct; it is not the gospel.

The gospel does not elevate Jew over Gentile or Gentile over Jew. It does not elevate a denomination that is better, purer or more faithful over another denomination that is liberal, worldly or compromised. It does not elevate a Christian over a Muslim, Hindu or atheist. The gospel brings everyone to the foot of the cross where the ground is absolutely level, where salvation comes to all by the grace of God alone.

What today’s postmoderns instinctively know is something that the church has too often forgotten: that God’s mission is not equivalent to church expansion. Yes, the mission does involve welcoming new sheep into the fold. But it is also about continually reforming and recreating the church into something new and more beautiful, a preview of God’s rule and of the glorious world to come. None of us knows exactly how that ought to look. If we try to invent that new community by ourselves, we build something that too closely resembles us, the creatures that we are right now rather than the creatures that Christ wants us to be. That is why we can never fully set the course of our own mission. Yes, we must remember what God has done and faithfully build upon the foundations laid in the past. But we must also be willing to put aside our current ideas and follow the Spirit wherever he leads, because the mission always belongs to him.


  1. Abraham Nial
    Abraham Nial

    Amen and Amen! May we, in the grace of God, “be willing to put aside our current ideas and follow the Spirit wherever he leads, because the mission always belongs to him.”
    Thanks Joe for this article. In fact, I have been keenly following this series of articles about the theology of mission: Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission. I am glad you mentioned about Donald A. McGavran and Lesslie Newbigin. Both of them have been blessings to my land and to the international Body of Christ, but in specific ways to me recently. In the past months, I was exposed to their works through  Peter C. Wagner and others. Reading your articles, I was reassured of my convictions and reminded to listen and follow the Spirit’s leading ever more.
    My last comment stirred up a lot of emotions and it is understandable. This time, I hope and pray that we will pay more attention to the point you have made in your article. God bless.

    • Joshua Yoon

      Abraham, good to hear your voice again. I am glad to hear that articles about Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission are reassuring your convictions and reminding you to follow the leading of the Spirit. I have been also very blessed by this series a lot. May God fill you with the spirit and power of Elijah as you serve God’s mission with burning passion for His Kingdom.

    • Abraham Nial
      Abraham Nial

      Thank you M. Joshua for your encouragement and prayers.

  2. I once was asked by a spiritual mentor: Are you primarily involved in building God’s kingdom or expanding your personal “ministry” empire? He also asked whether I would be willing for my ministry empire to crumble if that meant the Lord could build His kingdom anew from the ashes and rubble of my crumbled ministry empire.
    I will always remember this gentle, life-transformative rebuke.
    Nevertheless, I confess my continual prayer seems to be in practice:
    “Father in Heaven, Your Kingdom Come…but say, I was thinking…can your kingdom come while also expanding my ministry empire? That can’t be too much of a request, is it? All for YOUR glory of course. But is it too much to ask if I shared in a little bit of THAT glory? Either way, YOUR kingdom come. Even if it means my empire must decrease, may your kingdom increase!……I guess.”
    As you can see, this prayer is in the process of being sanctified by the Spirit to be a bit more beautiful to God…

  3. Joe, thank you for this series and for these valuable insights. It is very shocking for me to see how little i know about missiological theology and how little interest i used to have in these things.

    Since you are talking about Acts so much, i was wondering… Last week we studied Acts 19 (which might belong to the Top 25 favorite passages in UBF :) ). What struck me was that the uproar in Ephesus by Demetrius was not directly caused by Christians or the gospel. Rather, it was due to financial reasons and thus indirectly caused: the gospel had transformed the face of the city so radically that people in the city displayed a changed value system and changed consumerism. Furthermore, the uproar was quieted by the speech of the city clerk. It is evident that this city clerk was NOT a believer. Yet he still defended Paul and his followers by saying that these people had neither robbed the temple nor blasphemed their goddess.

    i think that this statement speaks volumes about the church of Ephesus in terms of their sensitivity towards the culture they were evangelizing in. Despite the fact that the gospel was running absolutely counter-cultural against the idolatry with which the Ephesians identified, Christians must have evangelized with uttermost care avoiding any needless offenses and insults.

    in comparison to the early Ephesus Christians, i fear that my way of doing mission might have more resembled a bull in a china shop.

  4. Congratulations to Henoch! He has just posted the 1000th comment on UBFriends.

    • Yongha Lee

      Hi Admin,

      Is there any prize for Henoch? Congratulations to Henoch and all who did comments!!

  5. His prize is to serve as a UBFriends contributor and editor for the remainder of his life.

    • Surely a prize exists for the one who most often comments on his own comments that also comments on another comment of his own comment.

    • Yes. That person  shall also  serve as a UBFriends contributor and discussant for the remainder of his life.

  6. So, I am now comment # 1006!
    Based on reading theologians such as Michael Horton, this idea or impetus of man doing something (or carrying out his mission) to expand the kingdom of God and the church for God came from Charles Finney, the main person of the 2nd great awakening. Today, there are biblical scholars who regard him as a heretic.
    Besides some questionable doctrine, Finney promoted the idea of revivalism orginating from man. It comes across as though man and not God is at the center of the expansion of God’s kingdom. When it is up to man, rather than God, to expand God’s kingdom, then “those efforts (were) confounded with military campaigns, colonialism, economic opportunism and cultural imperialism.”

    • Prize for #1006: To serve as a UBFriends contributor and discussant for life.

    • Dear Admin,
      As humble commenter #1006, this is far more and far better than I deserve! Quoting Mary, I submit myself as the Lord’s unworthy and ever erring servant, and “May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38, 1984 NIV), or “may your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:39, NIV 2010).
      May God bless and use this website for His glory alone, and for the advancement of His kingdom!

  7. Joshua Yoon

    I agree to John’s words of admonishment, “we must remember what God has done and faithfully build upon the foundations  laid in  the past. But we must also be willing to put aside our current ideas and follow the Spirit wherever he leads.” What should we do if the foundations laid in the past have flaws? Isn’t it necessary to fix them first before adding more on the faulty foundations? If our life and ministry are  grounded in something else other than the solid rock, Christ, expanding the church would result in crumbling down someday. It would be good to check on which foundation we are standing. Then putting aside our past, current ideas which are contrary to inspiration and revelation from God, welcoming new ideas and following the Spirit would be more smooth and natural. As seen in Peter’s case, we usually do not initiate the change, especially the radical one but the Holy Spirit does. All we need to do is to discern the guidance of the Spirit and obey Him, even if it requires radical, foundational changes and even if it causes confusion and pain for a while. If you read my comments and questions, you may have noticed some of the changes that had occurred in my view and thought. I can testify that it is the result of the work of the Spirit who lives in me and guides my steps, for even a few years back  I had never imagined myself what I would be. I see the same things happening in some people. The Holy Spirit is working hard to bring changes! I hope we will all obey Him.

  8. Thanks, Joshua. I love your point that the foundation in Christ must be right and continually reassessed. If we build upon a “method” that is fixed and inflexible, we will soon get off base, even get off Christ. Your comments have been quite encouraging and uplifting because you are not assuming anything from your past, but re-discovering and finding over and over again our solid rock in Christ. If you are able to meet me in Chicago on Thu 2/24, call me at (312) 363-8578.