Rethinking Genesis: Man Equals Mission

Why did God create you? What is the purpose of your life?

When I studied Genesis in 1980, I was taught that God created man for mission (Gen 1:28). Dr. Samuel Lee, the founder of UBF, came up with a catchphrase which I loved: “Man = Mission, Mission = Man.” This catchy phrase is found in UBF’s Genesis Bible study materials worldwide. Because of the grace of Jesus poured out on me, I wanted to give of myself for my mission from God, which was to devote myself to one-to-one Bible study with anyone and everyone. This has been my staple of Christian life for the last three decades of my life to this day. This is surely nothing but the marvelous grace of Jesus to me.

So why am I now rethinking the phrase “Man = Mission” which has revolutionized the purpose of my entire life?

Many of our Bible studies could be synagogue sermons. In my article “What is the Point of Genesis?” I argue that Jesus and the New Testament apostles testify that all the Old Testament Scriptures, including Genesis, are about Jesus and the salvation found in him (John 5:39; Luke 24:27,44; 1 Cor 15:3-4). So does teaching that Man = Mission point us to Christ and lead us to salvation? Edmond Clowney says that any sermon or Bible study that does not take into account the full drama of redemption and its realization in Christ is a “synagogue sermon,” one that a Jew would agree with. So if “Man = Mission” is the point of a Bible study or sermon, it might be agreed with by many a non-Christian, while they still remain lost in sin and bound for eternal condemnation.

A “Man = Mission” theology makes mission, not Christ, the focus our Christian lives. Furthermore, the teaching of “man = mission” might shape our Christian psyche in a way that may not focus on or emphasize the main point of the Bible, which is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). Mission-centered (instead of Christ-centered) Bible studies and sermons could subtly or implicitly idolize mission in place of worshipping God. Whenever anything becomes an idol, even something good like God’s mission, it stops glorifying God. Then our idolatry of mission, rather than God himself, becomes our practical identity and our self-worth as a Christian and as a church.

Mission as idolatry. Tim Keller defines an idol as making a good thing an ultimate thing. For instance, our children are among God’s best gifts to us human beings. But if our children become ultimate to us, knowingly or unknowingly, they become ab idol, taking the place of God). Then our joy is dependent on our children doing well and making us proud parents. We may unwittingly crush them, spoil them, even ruin them for life. Similarly, when our mission becomes our idol, our strongest joy and delight is not God (Ps 37:4), but how well we are carrying out our mission. The object of our glory becomes a fruitful, exemplary ministry with many growing disciples, growing church attendants, and missionaries being sent out. Then our disciples and members are regarded not as precious redeemed people, but as objects and tools for our glory, church growth, and mission. If any particular disciple in our church disappoints us, or “doesn’t produce,” or leaves the church, they become marginalized or stigmatized. They are labeled as selfish and worldly and are said to have “run away.”

Though mission is important, I do not believe that it can be the major driving force of any Christian individual or church. Even mission can become an idol if it, rather than Christ functions as the ultimate joy and meaning of our lives. So, according to Genesis, how might we rethink teaching the purpose of man’s life?

Before God gave man a mission, he created man for relationships (Gen 1:26-28). When God created man in his image, he wanted man to be a relational being. God created man in relationship to God, to himself, to others, and to the world, which was all broken when man sinned created man for relationships. Only Christ, through his redeeming work on the Cross, restores all our broken relationships. Tim Keller said, “If this world was made by a triune God, relationships of love are what life is really all about.” If we make mission rather than relationships as primary, we could be “faithful” to our mission while damaging precious and priceless relationships. What if I’m a so-called “exemplary, fruitful, influential Christian leader,” but my wife is not happy, my children don’t relate to their dad, my fellow Christians think I am unapproachable, and my non-Christian friends think that I’m arrogant and self-righteous. I guess you could still insist, “I am mission-centered.” Someone said, “It doesn’t please God to sacrifice our families on the altar of Christian mission,” or something to that effect.

Mission is ultimately the mission of God, not man’s mission. When I emphasize that “man is mission,” I think that mission is what I must do as a responsible Christian. If I do my mission “well,” I could be commended and honored, but if my mission is “not fruitful,” I could be regarded as unimportant. But is mission ultimately my duty, or God’s doing? Countless promises through out the Bible begins with God saying, “I will…” Therefore, God is the One who will fulfill His mission. When I realize that mission is really not my mission or man’s mission, but God’s mission, then all I need to do is to humbly and prayerfully jump on God’s bandwagon, and go along for the ride. God will fulfill his mission, with or without my participation or involvement, and regardless of my obedience or disobedience. Jesus said to Peter, “I will build my church” (Matt 16:18). It is really not up to Peter or me to ensure that God’s mission is carried out correctly or properly. It is nothing but the grace of Jesus that Peter or I or anyone else am enabled and empowered to participate in God’s mission.

Mission is ultimately completed by Christ. Tim Keller’s audio sermon entitled Made for Stewardship (Gen 1:26-2:2, 7-9, 15) explains man’s work and “mission” differently from UBF. Keller explains man’s work in relationship to rest, for God worked for 6 days and rested on the 7th day. God created us to live in a cycle of work and rest. But because of our sin, we lost our rest, regardless of whether we work or not. Also, our work becomes a burden and a curse. Even Christian service, serving God and living for God’s mission is a heavy unsustainable burden and a curse without finding rest in Christ (Matt 11:28-29).

Without understanding the rest purchased for us in Christ, our work, including our Christian mission becomes our sense of identity or self-worth. To Rocky Balboa, his “work” was to go the distance for 15 rounds in the boxing ring. The Jewish 100 meter runner in Chariots of Fire said, “I have 10 seconds to justify my existence.” Even someone like Madonna finds fulfilment and meaning only when she produces creative work over and over again. Otherwise, she feels useless and mediocre, saying, “Even though I’ve become Somebody, I still have to prove that I am Somebody.” Similarly, as a Christian, am I still trying to prove myself through my mission? Am I still functionally finding fulfilment only when I preach well, disciple others well, grow my church well, and am respected by others, etc.? But such a life of God’s mission is a life that is too heavy for me to bear. Furthermore, God did not intend for me to do so with such a mission driven or performance based attitude.

Saying “man is mission” is not wrong. But ultimately, it is not my mission or my work, but Christ completing his mission and his work, when he said, “It is finished” (John 19:20). Only Christ fulfilled perfectly “Man = Mission.” When I realize that Christ completed the mission where I failed, I find rest in Christ’s completed work. Then, and only then can I live a life of mission by His strength and grace alone with the utmost of gratitude, thanksgiving and joy.

Do we overemphasize mission when teaching Genesis? Should Genesis point to Christ who alone fulfilled his mission?


  1. Kevin Jesmer

    I agree that it all must point to Jesus and his finished work on the cross. But I do think that the whole “Man equals mission” thing had its point and served God’s purpose. It was in the eighties that I accepted Jesus and my identity to be not only a child of God, but a life long servant of God, as shepherd of God’s flock. Many of our most stable leaders have been brought up on this emphasis. I don’t know what to make of simply preaching the Gospel and God’s grace only. I do see things like, 1200 member churches with only 80 core members. I see lots of devoted Christians going to church once or twice a month. Is this what grace messages are creating? I don’t know the answer. I am still coming to terms with the whole grace and mission balance. Pray for me to have God’s guidance in this whole issue.

    • Thanks for your comments, Kevin. For sure, as I shared, the teaching that “man = mission” motivated my Christian life, and continues to do so to this day, which is nothing but the grace of Jesus.

      In your illustration of 1,200 members but only 80 core, I would suggest that perhaps grace has not been adequately proclaimed, but only assumed. Thus, grace has not permeated/penetrated deep enough in the 1,120. For if one is truly grounded in grace, he will work harder than all others (1 Cor 15:10).

      But if we emphasize mission, people may be motivated because of grace, as I am sure you and countless others have been. However we may also be motivated by personal ambition and self-glory, which is idolatry. Then a spirit of tribalism may result, so that even if one “lives for mission” God does not get all the glory, since I did it for “my mission.”

  2. Hi all,

    I enjoyed this posting. Shortly after I married, someone asked how he can pray for my new family. I said, “That we may be a mission-centered family.” He said, “That’s good, but I’m going to pray for you to be a Christ-centered family. Then you may become a mission-focused family.” I thought it was just semantics and didn’t say anything in response. I’ve learned over the passing years, however, that his perspective is really correct. When my mind is filled with all the things I must do in my mission to serve the Lord, I cannot do it, no matter how hard I try. But what happens when I step back and just spend time with Jesus, remember his grace and love to me, remember his wonderful sacrifice in my place, remember how even serving the Lord is a gift of his grace, and find my place in God’s wonderful plan of redemption through Christ? Amazingly, I find an eagerness, a willingness, and an ability to serve God’s mission more than ever before.

    How wonderful God is that when I fix my eyes on Jesus, He gives me strength and power to love and serve Him all the more! Jesus, all for Jesus.

  3. Thank you for the article, Ben. It reminded me of my this year’s key verse, Hebrews 12,1b-2a: ‘…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. LET US FIX OUR EYES ON JESUS, THE AUTHOR AND PERFECTER OF OUR FAITH…’ When I studied Genesis the last 10 years, I never focused on Jesus, who should be the main message of Genesis. My own sinful lifestyle or the mission has always been the central aspect. But God’s purpose when creating me was not to be a perfect missionary but to join in his love-relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit – to join their ‘dance of joy and love’ like Tim Keller once described it.

  4. Ben, I’m still digesting your article, but your point above speaks volumes: “Before God gave man a mission, he created man for relationships.”

    I think many of us have to ask ourselves whether we have been living with a box on our heads, thinking only in terms of a well-defined, logical box, all the while running around rather blindly and bumping into other people. Thank you for challenging our thinking!

    This paragraph is most convicting and probably should be added to any “mission statement”… “What if I’m a so-called ‘exemplary, fruitful, influential Christian leader,’ but my wife is not happy, my children don’t relate to their dad, my fellow Christians think I am unapproachable, and my non-Christian friends think that I’m arrogant and self-righteous.”

  5. Darren Gruett

    I have never understood what the phrase “man equals mission” means, nor can I recall anyone ever explaining it to me. So somewhere along the line I dismissed it as being just another UBFism. Perhaps I arrived too late in UBF to fully appreciate it.

    Speaking to the topic at hand, Scripture teaches that our mission comes from our relationship with the Lord. It is like the women fleeing the empty tomb to tell His disciples that He has risen. They did it because they were told to, first by the angels and later by Jesus Himself; but that obedience came from their love for Him, their relationship.

    On a personal note, my wife has told me on numerous occasions that she does not care about how prominent I am in the church, or how well I preach, or how many Bible studies I lead, or any of those external things; what she cares about the most is whether I am a man of God, about my relationship with Him.

  6. Darren Gruett

    I just read this morning on John Armstrong’s blog, and it seems timely in light of what is being discussed here.

    • Darren Gruett

      Correction on my typo: I just read this article this morning.

  7. I just want to quote one of Bill MacDonald’s commentary.

    “Jesus’ life, as set forth in the Gospels, is our pattern and guide. It is not a life which we can live in our own strength or energy, but is only possible in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our responsibility is to turn our lives over to Him unreservedly, and allow Him to live His life in and through us.”

    Bill listed seven principles of Christian discipleship.

    1. A supreme love for Jesus Christ.

    2. A denial of self.

    3. A deliberate choosing of the cross.

    4. A life spent in following Christ.

    5. A fervent love for all who belong to Christ.

    6. An unswerving continuance in His Word.

    7. A forsaking of all to follow Him.

    Challenged by these seemly impossible standards, Bill wrote:

    The writer realizes that in the act of setting them forth, he has condemned himself as an unprofitable servant. But shall the truth of God be forever suppressed because of the failure of God’s people? Is it not true that the message is always greater than the messenger?


  8. Ben, thanks for a thoughtful piece. I deeply agree that human beings were not made for mission. We are not machines. We were made for relationship with God, with one another (beginning with one’s spouse, if married) and with the whole created world. God doesn’t need to have us around to get a job done; he could do any job himself much better than we can. But he does need to have us around if he wants to have a relationship with us.

    Mission is important, but it makes sense only in the overall context of right relationships.

    Another way to say it is this: Mission is properly motivated by love — love for God, love for others, and love for the world. God’s mission is a result of his love (John 3:16 — “For God so loved the kosmos…”) Our participation in this mission must be rooted in this love. If not, it eventually becomes ugly thing.

    Here is a great quote from John Stott:

    “The highest of all missionary motives is neither obedience to the Great Commission (important as that is), nor love for sinners who are alienated and perishing (strong as that incentive is, especially when we contemplate the wrath of God) but rather zeal — burning and passionate zeal — for the glory of Jesus Christ. … Before this supreme goal of the Christian mission, all unworthy motives wither and die.”

    (Stott, as quoted in the 2010 Cape Town Commitment from the Third Lausanne missionary conference)

  9. Thanks, Joe. It’s so great to hear from you again after a period of some absence. Are you tied up and not able to comment as often as before?

    I remember reading the great quote by John Stott before. Thanks for the reminder. I wish I had remembered it for this article itself. I will now save it for future reference.

    • No, I decided to take an intentional break from UBFriends and other things for a while to rest, reflect and retool. I will be back writing again soon, but at a less intense pace.

  10. I just did a google search. The quote is originally from John Stott’s commentary on Romans which I do have, and have been reading periodically over the past year. Here’s the quote with a little context:

    “If God desires every knee to bow to Jesus and every tongue to confess Him, so should we. We should be ‘jealous’ for the honor of His name—troubled when it remains unknown, hurt when it is ignored, indignant when it is blasphemed, and all the time anxious and determined that it shall be given the honor and glory which are due to it.

    The highest of all missionary motives is neither obedience to the Great Commission (important as that is), nor love for sinners who are alienated and perishing (strong as that incentive is, especially when we contemplate the wrath of God), but rather zeal—burning and passionate zeal—for the glory of Jesus Christ.

    Only one imperialism is Christian, and that is concern for His Imperial Majesty Jesus Christ, and for the glory of his empire or kingdom. Before this supreme goal of the Christian mission, all unworthy motives wither and die.”

    —John Stott, The Message of Romans (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 53

  11. Ben, thank you for your article. there is so much to learn for me…
    These days, i am listening to a course taught by the late Edmund Clowney and Tim Keller. Both of them are talking about preaching Christ from all of Scriptures. It is very insightful for me and i am learning a lot. It is somewhat scary to see how fast i became moralistic in my teachings and how fast i lost focus on what really counts.

    Joe, i love the quote by Stott! I agree with him that the supremacy of Christ must be the ultimate motivation. but i realized that preaching the glory of Christ can again become a very moralistic teaching. (in the sense of saying/teaching: we MUST, we MUST, WE MUST have zeal for the glory of Christ!!!).
    However, as John Piper pointed out: the more we enjoy Christ and the more we are satisfied in him, the more our lives glorifies him. We get the pleasure and He gets the glory. i am learning what it means to make this joy in Christ my primary motivation of serving him.

  12. Hi Henoch,

    I’ve actually saved the Clowney/Keller ?20+ lectures on preaching both on itunes and PDF file which is 189 pages. Feeling daunted, I haven’t looked at it. So, please do share with us the gems that you are learning. How far have you gotten?

    BTW, thanks for the excellent Keller Genesis sermons that you gave to Rhoel. I’m ravishing them almost daily, and blogging ( and preparing new Genesis sermons which are inspired by listening to them.

    I agree with you that virtually anything can become oppressive moralistic LAW, that only burdens, and that is ultimately unsustainable, including, “Love God, love your neighbor,” “You must glorify God,” or “you must live a life of mission, pray, read the Bible, come to church, make disciples, etc, … anything.”

    Only our own personal intimate love relationship with Jesus, by the work of the Spirit, primarily through the Word, will convert our MUSTs to our delight, and our utmost joy. We might fake preaching Christ, but we can’t fake our real relationship with Christ.

  13. James Kim

    Hi Dr Ben, thanks for the post. Man equals mission is a great statement. In the context of the meaning and purpose of our lives, God’s mission is good and holy. Before we know Christ we lived in the darkness, not knowing where we are going, for what we are living for. We did many evil things in the sight of God because of our ignorance.
    By God’s grace our vertical relationship with God was restored. In him we have new meaning and purpose of our lives. At the same time our relationship with our neighbors was restored, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. This new horizontal relationship, the Great Commandment, can be our true mission.
    David Bosch said in his book, “Transforming mission” that “Mission is not merely evangelism (more than evangelism). Mission is the church sent into the world, to love, to serve, to preach, to teach, to heal, to liberate”. This means our mission in broad sense is to love our neighbor as ourselves wherever we are, at home, in the church and in our working place.
    We are also in danger of idolizing mission (in narrow sense), like ministry success as Tim Keller pointed out. In UBF our concept of mission is more like narrow sense evangelism. I would say true mission in broad sense is much harder then narrow sense evangelism. It is not prominently conspicuous. God himself is doing his great mission work and we are only participating in his great work. And all the glory belong to Him.

  14. Thanks, Dr. James. I agree that even we Christians are always in danger of idolizing something.

    Before we became Christians, we idolize bad stuff like sex, drugs, rock and roll, cheating, money, etc.

    After we become Christians, we idolize “good” stuff, like our children, our church, our Bible students, even having Bible study, and of course our God-given mission.

    The problem with idolatry, whether it is of something bad or “good,” it makes us an idol worshiper, which is most displeasing and disgusting to God.

    So, when we idolize “mission,” which is a “good thing,” it makes us quite ugly to each other, and to the world we are praying to evangelize for Christ and his kingdom.

    • Caleb Park

      It is my first time to visit this website. I just read your posting about mission and wrote about my opinion.

      I agree that mission issues must be understood neuturally as well as gender sensitivety issues. They are trying to include all genders to have balance.

      Likewise, I think balance of ‘relationship with God’ and ‘mission’ is important as Dr.James Kim said.

      I agree your comments that
      ‘The problem with idolatry, whether it is of something bad or “good,” it makes us an idol worshiper, which is most displeasing and disgusting to God.’

      If we emphasize ‘relationship with God’ more than God himself, it also can be considered idol worshiping in my opinion.

      Love relationship and mission do not conflict each other but go together.

      “Do you love me” Jesus said, “Feed my lamb/sheep”

      Let us praise God and worship God instead of worshiping ‘relationship with God’.

    • Thanks Caleb. Please do continue to contribute comments to challenge our cultural conditioning that may or may not be critically or correctly Christ centered.

      I agree with you that a love relationship with Christ and mission go together (John 21:15-17). I also agree that we can “worship relationships” even with God and others, that it becomes an idolatry.

      I and others are cautioning “mission as idolatry” because our emphasis in UBF for 50 years has been mission, often times at the expense of our relationships with one another. This causes “splits” into UBF chapter #1 and UBF chapter #2, and people “going out to pioneer” when the primary reason is a poor or broken relationship with someone in the original chapter.

      Thus my emphasis, which I believe is biblical, is that God made us for love relationships: 1st with God, next with one another. God did not make us primarily for mission. But mission will happen as a result of biblically sound and Christ centered relationships.

  15. GerardoR

    Great article Ben. I like your point: “Before God gave man a mission, he created man for relationships.”

    This is one of the central themes in a lot of Scott Hans books. That we wont understand who the bible, or who God is and our relationship to him, until we understand covenant theology.

    I think this perspective fits quite well with my own Christian background in Catholicism emphasizing the realness of the body of the Church as the Body of Christ, and the enduring relationships that are shared within all those who form his body (i.e., communion of saints).

    If God made us for relationships, why should my relationship with his saints cease as soon as they have entered heaven? I think all Christians would do well in keeping close in mind one of the most overused but under applied passages in all of scripture:

    “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears…And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

    I think we could easily throw in missionary work list of gifts of the Holy Spirit which Saint Paul was referring in the first section.
    “If If I can evangelize an entire country but have not Love, I am nothing.”

    Also, I think understand God in terms of relationships gives us a grasp of the nature of the Trinity and the ultimate glory which Christ will call us into.

    • Thanks, Gerardo, for sharing that the key of Christian fellowship is love. When the redeeming love of Christ transforms my fallen wicked heart, I am reunited with the Trinity, and empowered to love my fellow man, despite myself.

  16. Maria K.

    this article is reminiscent of something I’m confronted with since years ago…

    Every evening, since 2 years (or more) ago, my family comes together and worship and pray to the Lord. Our mother is the leader of all this and teaches us very often about the NT.
    She always remains us to have a heart of a child.
    Sometimes I think that I understand what she means.

    Jesus also said in e.g. Mtthw 18:3-4:
    “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

    also in Mtthw 19:14:
    “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

    I know that I have to be like a child in my heart which means that I have to accept some things I don’t understand as they are like a little child would do.

    But the problem is that I can’t make a ‘borderline’ between ‘to-be-mature’ and ‘to-be-a-child’. I know that I’m physically already a young woman and that I’m inside still like a child which has still to learn many things. I know that. But doesn’t even a child ask questions? The thing is, that my parents consider that we shouldn’t make such a fuss about the bible and about things we don’t understand. They said we should remain in our hearts as little children. It’s really hard to be childlike.

    I don’t know when I have to stop to discuss about bible-matters and questions. How do we know if a question is significant (?) enough to be answered? Like Ben Westerhoff said in his comment to the article ‘What is Good Communication?’ before, those who have a high power distance index are shocked and even angry if someone asks a simple question. My parents don’t read blogs or christian books as e.g. about christian discussions of the big bang theory, ‘cuz they say that they don’t need something like those things, for they believe in all what’s written in the bible. I know that my parents try to argue with quotations from the bible but that seems not to be enough for me. Is that wrong?

    What I want to say is, that I don’t know where the ‘borderline’ is between ‘I-have-to-know’ and ‘I-don’t-have-to-know’ . At the one hand I’m told not to be a birdbrained christian and at the other hand I’m told to have a heart of a child which accepts the bible teaching as it is written.

    I can remember something what Henoch has taught me: that there are three types of christians. Still, I don’t know what’s the good in all of this. Is it alright to discuss and discuss over the same or new things? I think, this is the problem which was already spoken on by Joe in his first article…
    (Sorry, I’m not good in English so please ask me if more/better explanation is needed)

    • Birgit (Heidelberg)

      Maria, I believe I can guess which Maria K. you are. If you like: Come for a visit to my house. I´m not as adept as most of the guys here in UBFriends, but maybe we can discuss a little bit and try to find answers to your questions.

    • Thanks, Maria. Your comments are fully understood and very thoughtful.

      As Christians, we should be like a child, but not childish. We should mature, by God’s grace, and not have any hint of arrogance or superiority, but remain “like a child.”

      I think that constant learning, reading, studying, digesting, thinking, reflecting is crucial for a Christian. Thus, studying and reading extra-biblical sources will help us understand the Bible better. I had previously written about this:

      When we learn and know more, God helps us to know God, ourselves, others, salvation, life, and our world far better.

  17. Hi Maria,

    Thank you for these very thoughtful questions.

    Jesus did say that we should become like children. I think it means that, just as children trust their parents’ goodness and love, we should trust God’s goodness and love. I do not think it means that we should have a naive, childish understanding of Scripture and matters of faith. God gave us wonderful minds. He wants us to sanctify them in Christ and use them 100%, not turn them off.

    Remember what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” As we grow, our understanding must mature. Asking tough questions is not rebellion. It is a very, very important part of spiritual growth.

    Here are two paragraphs that I wrote in a previous article that might help to explain further.


    The stance that some Christians adopt toward the Bible is reflected in the saying: “God says it, I believe it, that settles it!” They think it is best to approach the Bible without thinking too hard, without getting too complicated or too intellectual. If we read the text plainly and literally, just as it is, then shouldn’t the meaning and implications be obvious? If only it were that simple! The Bible is the inspired word of God, and it has an amazing capacity to speak to people of all ages and backgrounds. One does not need a Ph.D. in theology to receive understanding from the Bible and be transformed by it.

    But there is a flipside to that. If one does happen to have formal education, a background in theology, or a long history of personal experience and interaction with the Bible, then a plain, simple, uncomplicated reading of Scripture may not settle the matter at all; it may only raise deeper questions that should not be ignored, because they are the very questions that the Holy Spirit wants us to consider. The simple understanding that inspires and empowers early in our spiritual journey may be woefully inadequate later in life. That principle applies both to individuals and to communities. It is the very reason why we have to keep going back to the Bible, not just to reinforce what we already have learned, but to question it, to refresh and deepen our understanding and wrestle with the fundamental issues of faith.

  18. Sarah Annear

    Thanks for the post, Ben. I appreciate efforts to reexamine our UBFisms. It’s healthy for our church to know the meaning behind phrases we use and to weed through what is helpful or unhelpful. I agree that the “man = mission” catchphrase could be useful to explain Genesis 2 to specific people in specific contexts, but that a wholehearted focus on this as a refrain for our Christian lives is dangerous.

    I also would appreciate a greater effort to weed out the church’s use of gendered language. I know this was discussed already on this blog, and I am sorry for not commenting earlier. (I have been meaning to write an article for months!) In college sociology classes they teach that when we use the word “man,” intending to speak of humans generally, the vast majority of people will mentally picture a man. The result is that women do not consider themselves to be a part of the group “man.”

    UBF, like many American churches, uses gendered language in the vast majority of our messages and discussions. We also almost exclusively only hear male voices in our chapters’ leadership, and messengers disproportionately use male examples in messages. As a child I actually thought that the gendered language in the Bible were God’s words directly, and He therefore did not intend to include me when words like “man” and “brother,” were used. A fellow CBF member was rebuked at a conference when she memorized 1 Corinthians 15 to read, “Now brothers and sisters…” I am enjoying reading the revised NIV personally and I hope UBF will embrace it as well.

    My point is simply that our UBFisms like “man = mission” should be reexamined in in part as an effort to include women as essential members of the body of Christ.

    • Thanks, Sarah. I have to confess that my ears are not attuned to gender sensitive language. So when I hear “Man = Mission” I actually hear “Man/Woman = Mission.” You comment, I think, will help me to be more aware and conscious of using gendered language in the future. Thanks!

    • Birgit (Heidelberg)

      I’m happy that in German we have different words for human being and male person. Without having studied it intensely, I dare to say that in Old Testament generally the word for human being is used, except when male persons were refered to. In New Testament we often have “brothers” (without “sisters”).
      In my opinion we should go back to the original languages, Greek in case of the NT, and study thorougly the notions of the original words. Maybe the Greek or Hebrew word has the notion of including both, man and woman.
      Translations always “lose” something. But we should not blame the translators for that. I’m sure they tried their best. But concepts and ideas in different languages usually don’t correspond exactly. I remember my French teacher in High School. She was the first one who taught me this fact, taking the french word “repas” as an example, “Mahlzeit” in German, “Meal” in English. When you say “repas”, you think of entrée, main dish and dessert. But when you say “Mahlzeit”, a sandwich is ok.
      Therefore: If possible, let’s go back to the original languages and their concepts. I like so much the messages who clarify the meaning of original words. This enriches me so much.

    • Sarah, thank you for expressing your concern. In addition, to what has been said, i would like to add: to say “man” but to mean “all of humanity” might certainly be a relict of times where in which women were not treated with great respect and value. And in a case like 1 Corinthians 15, i would certainly endorse saying “brothers and sisters” because the context clearly indicates that Paul’s appeal was inclusive. However, there are certainly places were gendered language does NOT to justice to the original meaning of the passage.
      One classical example is “sons of God”. Even though this refers to men AND women, i would certainly not support a translation, which would say “children of God” (i think 2011NIV does that) or even “sons and daughters of God” because this does not represent the original meaning well. Instead, good exegesis requires us to go back in time and figure out what “son” actually meant in this particular age and time and place. And we would find out that it has something to do with status because being a son distinguished them from being a slave, for instance. And because at that time, sons were heirs in contrast to daughters (which is unfortunate and unfair, but reality in the ancient near-east). Thus, what the NT writer wanted to express is the status we have with God if we are in Christ.
      I thus agree with Tim Keller that women should in no way feel discriminated and left out, when the bible includes them in the term “sons of God” as much as men should not squirm about the fact of being called the bride of Christ. :) (And hopefully, no man will come up with the blasphemous idea that we should be referred to as the bridegroom of Christ).

  19. Great point, Henoch, on Gal 3:26. The ’84 NIV says, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” The 2011 NIV, in order to be gender inclusive, says, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”

    But as you pointed out, “sons” meant that even women could receive their inheritance from God, which they never ever could in their own culture where only men/sons received their ancestor’s inheritance.

    So, by being gender inclusive, by changing “sons of God” to “children of God,” we actually lost something in exegesis, which the author Paul, wanted to convey, which is that God’s adoption and election, which is by grace alone, and through faith alone, and in Christ alone, is far, far, far greater than receiving any human inheritance.

  20. Thoughts on translation from Gordon Fee and Mark Straus’ new book “How to Chose a Translation for All Its Worth”: “The goal of translation is to reproduce the meaning of the text, not the form.”

    • Sorry, it’s not a new book. It was published in 2007.

    • For me grace is the greatest incentive to mission.
      I’ve often heard it said that the doctrine of sovereign election is a disincentive to mission. You know, if God chooses who is to be saved, then there’s nothing else for us to do. Yet, the opposite picture of is seen throughout scripture–that God’s sovereign grace is an incentive to mission. One instance of this is when Paul, apparently feeling discouraged in Corinth, received the following message from the Lord:

      <<9One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” 11So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.>>

      Paul stayed for a year and a half with renewed strength, engaging in mission, because the sovereign grace of God was his incentive to mission. Just as God has determined the “ends” (outcomes), he has also determined the “means” (methods of getting there)–and that method is the preaching of the word (the gospel). Just as God chooses who is to be saved, he also chooses the means of gospel preaching/ministry to achieve that goal. The Bible makes it so clear that mankind’s corrupt, fallen, sinful state so prevalently and totally affects his/her entire set of creaturely faculties (reason, emotion, physiology, etc.) that, if it weren’t for the sovereign grace of election, no one would come to the Son of God (John 6:40)–moreover, if not for sovereign grace, I would abandon mission because my basis for mission is not a belief in the likelihood that men and women will respond to the message–Jesus says no one CAN come to him unless drawn by God–but my basis for mission is the belief that God “has many people in this city”–prepared, chosen, elected through distinguishing, sovereign grace.
      <<10For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”>>

      A belief in the utter sovereignty of our gracious God results in praise, not suspicion. There is an amazing stabilizing effect of the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace on the Christian’s life of faith. Sure, sovereign grace, as I have shown above, is often misread: we—without thinking about it—read man’s characteristics into the character of the transcendent, holy, good God, resulting in a view that God is something like a mean puppet player. But God is not like a human. We can’t help thinking like this sometimes because of the noetic effects of sin (our intellect fails at reasoning clearly), which means that God must disclose himself to us; we’re not Christians because of our reading/reasoning ability: we’re Christians because God, in his loving grace, has drawn us by His Spirit unto His Son—when he could have passed us by and left us in our fallen state—with fists clenched in rebellion and hatred toward him—justly deserving his eternal judgment. But grace—God’s grace—means that he loved me—in spite of me—and the reason for this love is found in Him—not in me—it is a self-referenced love: he loves because he loves. And I benefit from the saving work of His son—now and forever—simply because He loves.
      Misunderstandings are so prevalent in the confessing Christian church about sovereign grace and it takes such an amount of time to lay foundations and unpack concepts about this that I often have hesitated to address these doctrines—even to those closest to me.

      I also think that in discussions like this, there are at least half a dozen differing renderings of what the word “grace” means. My use of it above is aligned with its usage in Ephesians 2–broadly. Therefore, coming to terms with the terms we use will be of utmost importance for clarity when trying to illustrate our various viewpoints.
      An excellent introductory treatment of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, including sovereign grace is A.W. Pink’s “The Sovereignty of God.” For those who are a bit more entrenched within the reformed tradition, but would like to see how several canonical misunderstandings to sovereign grace are rebutted, it may be good to read George Whitfield’s reply to John Wesley’s sermon, entitled “In answer to Mr. Wesley’s sermon, entitled “Free Grace.”” Both of these are available as free .pdfs online.

  21. Thanks Ian for sharing with us with the Reformed (Calvinist) position, which focuses on the centrality of the doctrines of grace (Acts 20:24). Since I began sharing this over the last few years, I realize that not every Christian frames their faith in these terms, even if they are genuine and sincere Christians.

    For instance, in UBF, we have primarily studied and taught Genesis, not necessarily by pointing to Christ (John 5:39, 46), but by using the narratives as examples or principles or morals to be followed or avoided, to be emulated or shunned. Though this is not biblically incorrect, many biblical scholars believe that this fails to keep in view the one single story of the Bible which focuses and centers on Christ through his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and 2nd coming, especially his death (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2).

    What I found to be of utmost importance is that we love one another (John 13:34), even if our perspectives and opinions differ. It is absolutely crucial that we “Calvinists” do not criticize others who hold different opinions. Even people in my own church have some “trouble” with the way I now share and teach Genesis, simply because they have studied it differently over the last few decades of their life in UBF, as I have. So I learn that I should not argue but enjoy and embrace each other (and laugh especially at myself) in our differences.

    God bless your seminary studies, Ian.

  22. Correction– John 6:44, 65– <<if it weren’t for the sovereign grace of election, no one would come to the Son of God (John 6:40)>>
    And thank you, Dr. Ben!

  23. That’s why gospel ministry is technically the most “stress free” job in the world. A good result is always because of God. Any screw up is totally your fault! Yet, God is always gracious to forgive all our messes, big and small. Thus, Jesus yoke is always easy and his burden is light (Matt 11:30). Oh yes, and he’s also the best Boss ever!!!

  24. Tim McEathron

    Dr. Ben,

    Sorry to resurrect an old post but I’m interested in your (or others) idea on this. Great article in rethinking Genesis which is so necessary. I remember P. Teddy saying once during a Bible study for Conference Bible teachers, “ok, we all know this passage and we all know the old answers, but lets try to find the new answers” or something to that effect. I also have always had a problem with Genesis Bible study, as I desperately want to hurry and finish it so that I can introduce Bible students to Jesus, the whole point of Bible study or the Bible for that matter. I’ve often felt (especially with kids) that it is a big morality study; however, how do you teach morality without first teaching them that Jesus is the only way they can be righteous? However, I understand the flip side which is that modern people have no absolute sense of right and wrong, so in some sense you have to make them a Jew before they even understand what they need saving from… 

    But anyway that’s not my question, just why I thought this is a good article. My understanding of Man(or humans)=mission is that without mission a man isn’t a man. I always took it to be–in fact you explained it to be–not an imperative but  an observation about the nature of mankind; in other words man isn’t a man unless he’s working hard at his mission. In the beginning the first thing God did for man and woman was to give them a mission. Since it’s directed to man and woman, I’m not sure at what point God said it but even that aside, when God made man he put him in the garden with an express purpose to take care of the garden, even in paradise he was given a mission. Man was made for God’s purpose. Eph 2:10, Col 1:16 I remember Jennifer Stumph once saying what a revelation it was to her that man was made to work hard! I’ve also heard several preachers speak about how we will have work in heaven. Rev 22:3, Mt 25:21

    I was at a children’s ministry conference recently where a majority of the speakers were talking about grace in such a way that we need to just love kids and welcome them as we are and have fun, and hang out and be a good example without getting hung up on their lifestyle or burdening them. The last speaker, a preacher from a church in Wheaton, got up and said that he didn’t know why he was speaking at this conference and that his message was not going to be popular. He said that the reason for the breakdown of the family is that the family has no mission and is only completely self-centered. A family that is not reaching out to the world will only produce self-centered kids that don’t see any relevance in the gospel. He then proceeded to teach from Genesis to Revelation about how God has called all of us to mission (it was quite fascinating as he blazed through the Bible completely from memory!) His very thought provoking conclusion was that Christians can turn the tide of family break down by accepting the Great Commission as a family. I found it to ring true, just one example is the exemplary family of Young Lee in Chicago, who said he treated his kids as ambassadors and his family as embassy workers, ie they were all in it together and they all participated as they conducted Bible studies in the middle of their home with kids coming and going and listening and playing with Bible students. It bore good fruit. Having mission gave purpose to their kids Christian lives. It made their relationship with Christ dynamic and it had an impact on the world around them–something which modern young people are very interested in, they want to make an impact.

    I’m constantly fascinated with the area of vocal technique and read a lot about it. I was captivated by the work of Seth Riggs and Bret Manning, the pioneers of the Speech Level Singing technique which has become incredibly popular in recent years at teaching vocal release. I transformed my voice by using it. However, when I tried to apply it to voice students I had almost no success. When I began reading around about it, many said that it only works if you are an accomplished singer already. The thing is that when you’ve trained hundreds of muscles in your body to respond a certain way when you sing, you begin to take a lot for granted. Therefore, what seemed like a really easy technique that is so much simpler than all the stuff I labored to learn in music school, was not really easy at all. It was the icing on an already well made and developed cake.

    What I’m saying is, that sometimes when we’ve learned a lot we take basic things for granted. When we’ve learned the deep theology of grace we can say that grace should be the only motivator but the reality is that people are lazy and selfish even when they know Jesus’ grace. Willow Creek said several years ago in a survey of their church methods, that the seeker friendly movement, while bringing in many people, produced very few committed disciples. I believe that it is because they weren’t given mission. Without mission a man is wandering in darkness wondering what meaning there is to life (I was). I believe this is because it is hardwired into the soul (I’m not so sure it’s built into our flesh) to have mission. We always feel best after we worked hard, our bodies even release endorphins when we do. We like our job when it’s challenging us and we are growing. We become depressed when we feel we are not developing, and growing or that there is no purpose to what we are doing. I think it’s safe to say that without a mission a man (or woman) fails to be a man. I know that the times when I had nothing to do I degenerated to being like a dog or cat (sleeping all day).

    I believe that teaching people of our time who have been taught the gospel of fun and self-indulgence all their life, man=mission, is necessary. Not as an imperative but as the intention of God. Because even though they love Jesus, it is so hard for lazy people to come out of their lazy lifestyle and do something, even though they really want to. I am lazy, really, really lazy if I allow myself to be. Just as God commanded us to worship Him, or to sacrifice for Him because these things actually make us very happy and fulfilled, so also I believe mission is something that cannot be separated from what it means to be human.

    This is especially relevant to me, because of my teaching kids. If I teach the only grace only relationship message which has become so popular these days, and never teach kids any disciplines, I’m not so sure they will ever do them. Or at best, they will at some point begin to feel they need to get deeper in their relationship and then find it’s really hard to deny themselves. Whereas if they had been taught to these things from a young age, they could be like boy David. I mean that teaching Man=mission at first shapes a persons idea about their relationship with God as being an active one and as they come to know him more they naturally flow into service to him which is eventually motivated and then really deepened by grace. Anyway, I’m going on too much and breaking the commenting policy on length wide open…but this is my question/rambling comment.

    • Hi Tim, I know you directed this at Ben, but I’d like to share some thoughts too. I find your thinking reasonable and enjoy reading how you express your ideas. (I think you should submit an article :)

      I find myself agreeing with your points. I think Apostle Paul summed up the grace and mission issue in Romans 1:5 “Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.”  

      I believe the word “and” is key. Christian life is about both grace and apostleship. If we lean too much on the grace side of life, we become unbalanced, as you point out. Also if we lean too much on the apostleship side, we become unbalance the other way and become legalistic.

      I did a word-count study recently to find out the most popular words in the Bible. I expected the most popular word to be something like “love” or “God”. Indeed, the most used word that has immediate meaning is “Lord”. But a Jewish blog I read recently pointed out that the word “and” is mentioned more times than “Lord” and should not be overlooked. The blog pointed out that the word “and” is a very important theme of the Bible, and that understanding “and” is key to be able to understand the Bible’s messages correctly. We received grace and apostleship. The greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbor. Jesus was full of grace and truth, etc.

  25. Thanks, Tim, Brian. Personally, I love living a mission-centered life. This is nothing but the grace of Jesus to me. Mission is absolutely good. But it is not ultimate. It is the result of God’s grace to us through Christ. When a good thing (mission) becomes ultimate, it becomes an idol, and replaces Christ as our center. The Pharisees were very “mission centered”–so mission-centered that they killed Jesus to carry out their mission.
    Regarding lazy people, this is what I blogged on 1/1/2011: Paul himself confessed that his hard work was purely the result of grace (1 Cor 15:10), not his human effort or self-discipline.

  26. Hey guys, thanks for the great discussion so far. Thanks for the great input from Tim. Let me add something.
    The works, fruits and practices are crucially importent in reformed theology. I really love Luther’s quate, that man is saved by faith alone but not by the faith which stays alone. And Jonathan Edwards express something really similiar about the grace and practical life. He pointed that the best and in some case the only evidance that you are really experiencing the grace of God is your practical Christian life. He said that graceful affections are always practical.
    And I want to add two my reflections. For experiencing the life you need to really live the life. For expiriencing the Christian life you really need to practice Christian life. And there is just not any way for enjoing the grace of God except practicing Christianity inspired by this grace of God.
    But I still will be very aware of equality of the man with mission in the terms of justification and identity in God’s eyes. If you will really idetify yourself with mission – how can you come to God then? Will the mission justify you? Will you feel discomfort coming to God when you failed in mission? Will you come to him in the full confidence if you got some success in your mission? If this is not the justification by works, what is it then? I just want to say here that I think we really need to learn how to come to God only through Jesus Christ.
    The other issue with mission is this. How do you really know what is your mission? Can you have the one mission during the one time and another later? Which mission had Moses while he was shepherding sheep during the 40 years? Was he thinking that God will use him for saving his people etc. I don’t think so. 
    And while studing 1 Pet, which we do really love, after the 2:9 I just did not found nothing really special about mission. I found very simple things – be a good people, good and fathful workers, good husband and wives, good citizens, good church members, love your enemies, forgive. Very basic and simple things. Not something really special.

  27. Tim McEathron

    Brian, Ben, David, thanks for your feedback. Good point Brian “grace AND apostleship.” It’s clear that mission is part of his calling, however as you’ve all pointed out it cannot become an idol, it cannot become Christ. How many times have I made my 1:1 number my pride and joy–so ridiculous–now I don’t even report my 1:1’s and people accept that this is what is right in my faith, and I feel better not having mixed motives. In that, I understand why you wrote this article Dr. Ben, as I know many have made mission an idol and their joy and spirit is completely dependent upon its success, they are a victim of their circumstances, just in a godly-looking sort of way–good point about the Pharisees! I like your other article Dr. Ben, actually I still am trying to work out what you taught me about keeping high standards yet showing grace by setting a high bar and yet embracing people when they fall short of it–this is really, really hard to do. Still, I’m just not yet convinced that grace alone is a strong enough motivator for people of our time…I’m just not sure people (I) have enough basic discipline (I’m referring to myself first please don’t take this personally anyone), to do what their heart is telling them even if they are totally moved to their core. 
    David, great quotes from Luther and Edwards, you guys are really inspiring me to read more! I completely agree that there were things about the suffering servant Jesus I could never have understood if I didn’t begin to do his work. In that sense mission is the greatest blessing outside of God himself, and the grace of salvation because it helps me to know him, know myself and be sanctified constantly.
    I completely agree with all the points about getting mission and grace out of balance or mission trumping Jesus. I guess my point was Eph 2:10. I beieve that we are hand crafted by God not randomly, but with specific gifts that God is excited to see us use to their full potential. I believe that God lovingly handcrafted us for specific works he prepared in advance for us to do and we are only happiest when we are doing what we were made for. Mt 25:14-30, the parable of the talents clearly shows us that if we have a lot of talent or a little, God expects the same thing, that we put it to work and develop it even more. He regards burying the loving gift he personally and joyfully crafted into every fiber of our being as a great sin worth of great punishment. So, my point is that man=mission is just an observation about being human. I just don’t think you can separate man from a mission. I think we desire purpose deep in the core of our being. They say the #1 killer of elderly is retirement. Dr. Ben at the outset of West Loop you shared Ps 29:18 which really was profound, I found that it is an essential element of leadership that we must give vision, which is why people like a strong leader. This verse of course is divine vision or revelation so how much more we die without mission from God. However, as David pointed out, I think that word mission carries a lot of baggage. In one season my “mission” was to be a good student, in another be a good musician and develop my gift, in another be a campus Bible teacher and only by God’s grace he used me for a time there, but when he called me to children’s ministry, I found a profound peace and it just seemed to click, I believe it was God’s calling. Who’s to say he may not call me somewhere else. But throughout the week God is making appointments for me and calling me to do this or that good work and I think that a Christian life that has a retracted antenna and no mission is in fact missing what it is to be human. God’s creation, created by him and for him. Col 1:16

    • Thanks, Tim. I love reading your reflections, though long, yet engaging. Just a typo: it’s Prov 29:18, rather than Ps 29:18. There is surely nothing more sustaining and inspiring that God’s gift of his vision, hope and revelation through his grace.

  28. From a different post, I’m glad Gerardo regards me as promoting a non-denominational framework and ecumenism. Perhaps, it’s because I regard as “open hand” issues the differences between Catholicism and Protestanism, and the differences between “pro-UBF” and “anti-UBF” conflicts. Personally, I love Reformed Theology/Calvinism, for they touch/connect with me more profoundly than say Armininism, especially the verses on election, predestination, adoption, justification, and especially grace.

    A reason I wrote this post was because the way I taught Genesis did not point to Christ, but to imperatives that command obedience, such as “Live a life of mission.” This is taught in the Bible. But the way to do so is by personally realizing grace through the gospel (Acts 20:24), even from studying Genesis (Jn 5:46,39; Lk 24:27,44).

    Finally, a quote from John Stott about living for mission: “The highest of all missionary motives is neither obedience to the Great Commission (important as that is), nor love for sinners who are alienated and perishing (strong as that incentive is, especially when we contemplate the wrath of God, Rom 1:18), but rather zeal — burning and passionate zeal — for the glory of Jesus Christ.” [The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), 53.] One who is moved by the grace of Jesus will be most filled with the glory of God, and thus live the “best” life of mission.


    David Bosch said in his book, “Transforming mission” that “Mission is not merely evangelism (more than evangelism). Mission is the church sent into the world, to love, to serve, to preach, to teach, to heal, to liberate”. This means our mission in broad sense is to love our neighbor as ourselves wherever we are, at home, in the church and in our working place. Out of deep thankfulness to God’s grace, we want to share his grace with others (in many different ways) willingly and joyfully, and it gives us real meaning of our life and it gives glory to God.