Nothing is more distinctive in the Great Commission than what Christ actually sent his apostles to do in the world. They were to ‘preach the gospel’. The various relevant statements in the four New Testament Gospels and in Acts differ in language and emphasis, but they complement each other to provide what in modern parlance could be said to be the apostles’ job description. Our modern world has become meticulous in this respect, with laws and regulations promulgated to define duties and delimit responsibilities, for the guidance and protection of all concerned.
In the commission the Lord Jesus, exercising the authority committed to him, laid down once and for all his job description for the apostles: preaching the gospel was to be their chief work, to which they were to devote all they had in gifts, energy and time. They could not have been entirely ignorant of what this meant, for they had seen the Lord himself doing the very same thing since day one of their relationship with him. Throughout that time they must have been impressed as much by the message as by the preaching of it. Though the cross and resurrection were still to come, the gospel Christ preached had in it all the elements of grace and mercy, for these qualities were embodied in himself. In his native Nazareth he had quoted Isaiah’s prophecy and said he had been anointed ‘to preach the gospel to the poor … heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord’ (Luke 4:18-19). In essence, this was the gospel of grace which, with a greater understanding following the resurrection and the power bestowed on them at Pentecost, the apostles were commanded to preach, and this they did to their dying day.
All else subservient
This is also the task that all who follow the apostles in faith and practice are required to carry out: their supreme business in the world is, and must ever remain, the same gospel and the same preaching, with every other interest and activity subservient to both. No amount of effort or sacrifice in any other respect can compensate for any weakness or failure in obeying the Lord’s ultimate charge to his people. That there is weakness and failure none familiar with the current state of Christianity can possibly doubt. It is no exaggeration to say that almost anything but preaching the gospel has become the vogue in wide sections of Christendom, including professing evangelicalism. The main reason is that the gospel itself has been lost in the mists and maze of human opinions. The word ‘gospel’ itself has come to mean different things to different people, all of them having no discernible relation to the sovereign grace of God and the unique atoning work of Christ.
We cannot enter here into a comprehensive treatment of the New Testament gospel in all its implications but some aspects must be noted because of their bearing on the Great Commission and on its fulfilment.
The gospel of God
First and foremost is the fact that it is the gospel of God; the one true God is its sole Author and Architect. It is his one and unique means of saving ‘a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues’ and bringing them to everlasting glory. The crux of the matter is that God sent his Son into the world to take the sin of this innumerable multitude upon himself and suffer its punishment in his own person on Calvary’s cross, thereby infallibly securing their eternal redemption.
Proclaimed to all
It was this truth, this message, this gospel, that Christ entrusted to the apostles. With the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, they were to proclaim it to all the world, and ten days later Peter was doing just that to the large crowd gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. With economy of words he traced the divine origin and historical preparation for this gospel, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, all of which had been for ‘the remission of sins’. Despite violent opposition, Peter and his fellow apostles persisted in preaching this gospel and, under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, committed it to writing so that all the world might know that ‘Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God’ (1 Peter 3:18).
Nothing to do
The apostle Paul’s gospel was not a whit different. Having been the outstanding practitioner of external religion of his generation, he was brought to know the one in whom, as he later wrote, ‘we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins’ (Colossians 1:14). Many other passages from the epistles of Paul and, indeed, all the New Testament writers, are unambiguous and wholly convincing that the gospel which Christ charged his apostles to preach is supremely concerned with divine salvation from sin and its consequences, leaving nothing for men and women to do except to repent and believe, and even this is the result of the Spirit’s work in the heart.
No other message
It is with this gospel that the true Christian church must ever be occupied if it is to fulfil its great and unrivalled mission in the world. There is no other message like it, and there never will be. Jesus Christ and his salvation is God’s last word to a fallen world; by this message all who believe can, and will, be eternally saved, but by this too ‘He will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising him from the dead’ (Acts 17:31). Nothing can be allowed to deface, still less replace, this gospel; there must be no dilution of it and there can be no substitute for it. ‘Let God be true but every man a liar’ (Romans 3:4). If this gospel is tinkered with in any way, Christianity itself is lost to mankind.
A high view of the gospel
What is needed above every other interest among professing Christians in these late twentieth-century days of double-speak and looking both ways is to recover that high view of the Christian gospel which is so characteristic of the New Testament. In his letter to the Philippians, the great apostle Paul epitomizes that view so conclusively. While he anathematized those who were troubling the Galatian believers, he could rejoice in his imprisonment in Rome that some were ‘bold to speak the word’, even though it was ‘from envy and strife… supposing to add affliction to my chains’ (Philippians 1:14-16). The crucial factor was the gospel, which was being perverted among the Galatians but was being preached in Rome, even though the motives of some were dubious: ‘Whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice’ (Philippians 1:18).
For the furtherance of that gospel Paul accepted that ‘My chains are in Christ’, and that he was ‘appointed for the defence of the gospel’. Accordingly he exhorts the Philippian believers to be ‘with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel’ (Philippians 1:13,17,27).
Restoring the biblical order
This high view of Christ’s gospel, which has also been a characteristic of times of prosperity for the church, has become somewhat jaded among many professing Christians today – where, indeed, it has not been almost entirely forsaken. The particular and free nature of salvation has largely given way to a belief in universal salvation or other kindred heresies, such as a second chance, annihilation or salvation by works.
What may be called popular Christianity, in Britain and elsewhere, is wholly devoted to a salvation which is social and temporal, it being assumed that there is no hell and all will finally be found in heaven anyway. What remains therefore for the church and its members to do is to work for the relief of the world’s millions who are suffering in famine, disease or deprivation of one kind or another. With the vivid and unflagging help of the media, this ‘liberation theology’ has become the preoccupation of established Christendom and not a few evangelicals have been roped into the enterprise. There are some Christian missions that have been redirected to caring for bodily needs rather than for those of the soul. It is as if the Great Commission has been modified for this time, with the gospel of eternal salvation for lost sinners changed to a gospel of liberation for oppressed and famine-stricken multitudes who in any case will not be eternally lost.
A glorious offer
Evangelical Christians should not find it difficult to distinguish between, on the one hand, the glorious gospel of saving grace and its merciful implications in this afflicted world and, on the other, that spurious social gospel so acceptable to a fallen humanity which is ever ready to try to save itself by its own works of kindness and charity. Certainly, none more than those in whose hearts the love of God is shed abroad should respond to those graphic reports of starving children. But those hearts, moved with pity for famished bodies, should not be less moved for the souls of countless millions who have no knowledge of God and are without hope for this world and the world to come. He who is Lord of heaven and earth was more aware of, and concerned for, the deprived multitudes of all ages than his followers can ever be, and he it was who sent his people, not to become social workers among those multitudes, but to preach the gospel to them, make disciples of them and be witnesses to them of Christ and his salvation, so that though they may suffer grievously in this world, they shall be saved for eternity.
T. Omri Jenkins
Extract from the book The Great Commission published by Evangelical Press