Avoiding the Great Declension

This past Tuesday our college dean Bruce Ashford delivered a compelling message on the Great Commission from Matthew 28:16-20. In his opening remarks he noted how some today tend to focus on the Great Commission as primarily the assignment for international missionaries who go to reach the unreached. I began to ponder the many ways the Great Commission has been handed off by believers to a select group of those deemed most appropriate to honor out Lord’s command. For a people so committed to the Great Commission, we as Southern Baptists tend to find ways to make the Great Commission seem more like the Great Declension. We generationally find ways to put limitations on those to whom the Great Commission primarily applies. And it has been so throughout history, with different Christian traditions losing a gospel passion by reducing the commission of our Lord to a part of the church’s obligation.

Legalism, for instance, thwarts the Great Commission by hammering the truth of God –or their particular version of it — while neglecting His love for humanity. Liberalism denies the need for the Great Commission by questioning its very point, the atonement of Jesus.

All my life as a minister I have encountered myriads of believers who want to reduce the Great Commission to the obligation of pastors, the hired guns of gospel work.  No, pastors are to equip believers, all of whom should have the mission of God at the forefront of their relationship with God. I remember a student telling me how he told the pastor search committee considering him, “I am going to be a soul-winner, so if you don’t want that, don’t call me.”  They called him. About a year later he told me what they obviously affirmed was his call to be a soul-winner while theirs was to sit back and watch.

When I was in seminary back in the 1980s, it seemed like the Great Commission primarily belonged to vocational evangelists and to those who had the “gift of evangelism,” although no such expression exists in the New Testament. There is the gift of the evangelist, but the proliferation of “spiritual gift inventories” led to some saying the Great Commission did not apply to them because they did not have that “gift.” I later met a graduate of Southeastern who told me of a guest speaker in an evangelism class who told the class he had the gift of teaching, so he taught evangelism in churches. But when asked about his own witness he replied that he never shared his faith because  that was not his gift.

That is just about the stupedest thing I have ever heard. And stupedest is not even a word.

The Great Commission is not the Great Suggestion. Nor should it become the Great Declension. While the Scriptures teach that believers have spiritual gifts, the same Scriptures do not limit the Great Commission to those uniquely gifted at sharing their faith. God uses harvest evangelists, and some believers have a greater propensity toward (or passion for) sharing Christ, but we have no biblical mandate to limit the Great Commission to evangelists or the gifted. Besides, why would we discourage believers from telling good news of salvation to the dying?

Today I fear that the call to fulfill the Great Commission has shifted from an overemphasis on evangelists and gifted witnesses to those called as missionaries to the nations. In his message this past Tuesday, Bruce Ashford made a case for the Great Commission to be for any believer regardless of vocation.

We dare not limit the Great Commission to the nations any more than we should limit the Great Commission from the nations. Our Lord made no such distinction.

We need to call people to fulfill the Great Comission in word and deed, in their church and in their daily lives.

We need to keep the Great Commission as central to one’s ongoing sanctification, and not just a task we get worked up for a couple of times a year.

We must be very careful not to turn the Great Commission into any form of a Great Declension by limiting the fulfillment of Christ’s mandate to a certain group or by a theological position. Are there Calvinists who do not take seriously the Great Commission? Yep, I have met some. And, I know non-Calvinists who are neither personally nor as leaders doing much to fulfill the Great Commission. I have known some Dispensationalists to be passionate about the Great Commission and some more passionate about charts of the end times. I personally love the expression gospel-centered and love the rise of interest in talking about the gospel. But if our talking about the gospel does not lead us to share it with those who are perishing, we have succumbed to a declension rather than embracing Christ’s commission.

Today we find ourselves in a specifically charged season politically with the presidential election ahead of us. Someone has said that all politics are local. Maybe so, but I know this, all things spiritual and biblical are ultimately also personal. So here is the question I will leave for you and for me: are you, by your theological position, your personal practice, or your leadership focus, advancing the Great Commission, or are you contributing to its declension?

 

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  1. michael white   •  

    Evangelism is only part of the Great Commission.
    Mat 28:
    And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

    Disciple making includes more than just Gospel witnessing. It includes teaching all that He has commanded us. Now what this commission does as we read more of the NT is give us roles to play by how the Spirit gifts us. There certainly is a responsibility of the Body to teach the commands of Jesus, one of which is to be His witnesses both near and far.
    I see the problem in the church as one where teaching is lacking and that leads to a lack of witnessing due to the ignorance [and fear] of the people as to how to respond to questions about their faith.
    When only the basics are taught, the knowledge of the people is shallow and without the needed depth to give them confidence to share the Gospel in an increasingly hostile world.

  2. Alvin Reid   •  

    I would certainly agree that the Great Commission includes more than gospel witnessing. But it does not include less, either. My point was not to dichotomize evangelism and disciple making as we tend to do, but to focus on the specific issue of “punting” the Great Commission to the “special team” of the church. We are all called to make disciples, which means both a verbal witness to and the faithful teaching of Jesus.

  3. Bob Cleveland   •  

    I think the Great Commission as such was given to the church as a body, so I’m not convinced that I have to go personally into all nations or, for that matter, personally baptize people. But Peter and John said in Acts 4:19 & 20: … “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” And they said that to the Sanhedrin, powerful men who hated them.

    I don’t see where we could claim it’s some sort of gift to be unable, now, to do the same. To tell what we have seen and heard, which is, after all, a pretty good definition of what a witness is called to do.

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