Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 12)

In the last installment, I argued that a major theme of Paul’s epistle to the Romans is divine election. Paul didn’t answer all the questions that people have about Calvinism versus Arminianism. His writings are less about theology than they are about history.

In a nutshell, Paul says that God hardened the hearts of most first-century Jews to reject the gospel message of righteousness by faith. The remnant who accepted the gospel did so by the grace of God alone. And the Gentiles who accepted the message did so by the grace of God alone. Paul also expressed his hope that someday the Jews, seeing God’s work among the Gentiles, would be aroused to envy, believe the gospel and be saved.

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Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 11)

When modern Protestants study Romans, we tend to focus on justification by faith. Our eyes are drawn to Romans 1:17, which many have said is the key verse of the whole book. In light of church history, this is understandable. Children of the Reformation will read the Bible through Reformation goggles. Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the teachings of St. Augustine, and his resolution of his own personal struggle through Romans 1:17, was the spark that ignited renewal in the 16th century.

Reading Romans to learn about justification by faith is a useful exercise. But it is also helpful to take off those Reformation goggles to see what Paul was actually saying to Roman Christians in the first century. If we do so, then we may find that the central teaching of Romans is not justification by faith. Rather, I believe we will find that the key idea is divine election.

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Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 10)

In the last installment, I argued that the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 should not be taken out of context and made the preeminent motivator and description of evangelism. Those verses appear at the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel, and their meaning cannot be discerned apart from a careful analysis of the whole gospel.

Similarly, the world mission command of Acts 1:8 functions as an outline for Acts, and its true meaning cannot be discerned apart from the entire book. As I have previously noted, this verse is not a command but a promise. Jesus said 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.” What Jesus promised came to pass. The apostles became witnesses of the risen Christ, and the gospel did go out from them to Jerusalem, to all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. As I explained in part 5 of this series, this propagation of the gospel did not come about through the apostles’ visionary planning, effort and zeal. It happened just as Jesus said it would, through the power and initiative of the Holy Spirit.

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Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 9)

Election is a controversial concept for many Christians because, in the way that it is often presented, it appears to contradict human freedom. The Bible upholds both election and freedom without attempting to fully explain or resolve the tensions between them.

The word elect simply means “chosen.” In the Old Testament, God chose the people of Israel and made a special relationship with them. If we examine how this choice is portrayed, two aspects are emphasized. First, the Israelites were not chosen because of their inherent goodness; election came to them by grace alone. Second, election did not confer on them any claim of superior status before God. On the contrary, their election placed them in a position of responsibility and servantship toward other nations. Their failure to live up to God’s covenant led to captivity and humiliation, and that should have further prepared them to receive the gospel of salvation by grace.

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Mission Versus Sanctification

In a comment on the article Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 8), Joe pointed out that in UBF we rarely preach about sanctification. In Reformed theology, sanctification is an essential part of the process of salvation; it follows justification and precedes the glorification of the saints. Instead of talking about sanctification, we tend to focus on mission. We present mission as the purpose of our salvation and the defining feature of our lives in the world.

I found that statement pretty interesting, and I have been personally wrestling with this issue for some time. Although many things have already been said in articles and comments on this website, I decide to write a piece about the relationship between mission and sanctification, in order to clarify these things in my own mind.

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Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 8)

Many Christians have characterized the mission of the church only as winning individual souls. I argued in the last installment that this view of the gospel misunderstands the nature of the human person. People are relational beings made in the image of the Triune God. We find meaning and purpose in loving relationships with God, with other people, and with the created world. A gospel of individual rescue is a reduction of what the Bible actually teaches and misses much of what God wants to accomplish in us.

God cares about relationships. When Jesus ascended to heaven, he didn’t leave behind a book of writings. He left behind a community of witnesses who were filled with the Holy Spirit and entrusted the preaching of the gospel to them (Acts 1:8). As members of this community proclaim the gospel, they invite others to become part of God’s family where their true personhood will be realized. That family is not equivalent to a church organization. It is the body of all people who belong to Christ, the “communion of saints” that is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed. Evangelism that fails to call people to join this body is alien to the New Testament. Jesus never intended his disciples to be lone wolves. Nor did he intend them to live in small, isolated, parochial clans whose members remain suspicious of everyone on the outside (Mk 9:38-40). He prayed for all his followers to be one, to experience among themselves the loving oneness that has with his own Father in a highly visible way, so that the whole world would see that the gospel is true (John 17:20-23).

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Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 7)

At the end of the last installment, I mentioned the doctrine of election. When we hear that word “election,” our minds immediately turn to the 400 year-old debate between Calvin and Arminius. That debate helps us to wrestle with some of the deepest mysteries of our faith, especially the tension between human freedom and God’s sovereignty. But that debate misses a great deal of what I want to talk about here.

Here I want to focus on some aspects of election found in Romans chapters 9-11. Paul didn’t write those chapters to settle modern theological debates. He was expounding on the relationship between the Gentiles and Jews. He was trying to explain why the nation of Israel, which had been created and chosen by God to receive the gospel and carry it to the world, rejected Christ and failed to carry out its mission. And he was relating that explanation to his teaching that righteousness must always come by faith alone, not by observing the law. I imagine that if we could ask the Apostle Paul about the merits of Calvinism versus Arminianism, he would respond with a very puzzled look, not because he never heard of Calvin or Arminius, but because to him this debate would sound very odd.

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Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 6)

One overarching theme in the book of Acts is that the mission of the church is directed by the Holy Spirit. The church cannot fully set its own direction, because she doesn’t grasp the totality of God’s plan. Christ is concerned about reaching lost people. But he is also concerned about recreating his Bride, making her beautiful and fit for the world to come. Because we don’t yet envision the people and community that God intends for us be, we don’t know how to achieve that goal. The Spirit can lead us where we need to go, places of which we are not yet aware. When the purpose of a church reverts to expansion — keeping the ministry exactly as it is, only making it bigger — it is a sign that God’s plan is being thwarted and the Spirit is being ignored.

Sending missionaries is a laudable goal. But a church cannot measure its success, or its degree of obedience to God, solely by the number of missionaries it sends. If we say, “Our mission is to send missionaries,” then we are merely running in circles. We need to clarify what the missionaries are supposed to do. If we say that the missionaries are supposed to make disciples, and those disciples are supposed to make more disciples, then we are again running in circles. The church cannot exist only to replicate itself.

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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.

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A Question from Ray

Dear friends: Today a comment arrived from one of our readers. It was originally addressed to Joshua Yoon in response to this:


Because of its length and scope, we have decided to run it as an article. Take a look and see if you can offer him any advice. Thanks!

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