Gary Millar’s Evaluation of Christopher J. H. Wright – Part Four

Introduction

This is the second post in a series critiquing Gary Millar’s “A Biblical Theology of Mission: An Evaluation of Chris Wright” delivered at the 2013 Gospel Coalition National Conference. This post will take one or more of Millar’s main sections, as outlined here, and further develop his content as well as offering critique when necessary.

Posts in this Series

Summary

What follows are Millar’s concluding remarks, which come as a rapid fire summary, and because of what they are this last post will take the form of bullet points of his concluding synopsis with limited critique or development. There are, however, a few points which necessitate an extended rebuttal.

Chris’ Argument Throughout the Book Summarized

  • Mission is the mission of God.
  • Mission is central to the whole Bible as God is central to the whole Bible.
  • The Bible is written on mission, it is the product of God’s people on this journey to perform his mission.
  • We need to read Bible through a missional lens, a missional hermeneutic.
  • If all the Bible is about mission, then we need to allow the whole Bible to shape our mission, not just the great commission.
    He argues that sin is all-pervasive, between individuals, between generations, in countries.
  • The paradigms for mission are the Exodus and the Jubilee. Therefore, God’s mission is all-embracing, setting all nations and all peoples free from the all-encompassing sin that we encounter.

Thoughts on Clarity

Millar then concludes his summary of Wright’s argument stating,

I hope I have represented him fairly. It is a very sweeping vision, or re-visioning of the idea of the mission of God. That’s what he argues, ok. Now, if you’ve never read The Mission of God that’s as clear as I can make it. It is not the clearest book that has ever been written.

This is similar to Millar’s sarcasm in dealing with his inability to understand Wright’s missional hermeneutic, I addressed this in the third post. Again these remarks cast doubt upon the spirit of Millar’s critique and this is especially the case as he gives no evidence or examples of what makes this volume so incomprehensible. Is it the volumes length? The structure of Wright’s argument? His emphasis of the whole Bible and not just the New Testament? Quite to the contrary this reviewer finds Wright’s volume quite easy to grasp and this is due both to the effort he has taken to outline his thoughts, the book begins with a table of contents and then an eight page outline of the books major points and supporting points, as well as the way Wright goes about explaining and illustrating his entire argument.

Some Things Millar Loves

Millar begins the following three sections by stating; “now I am just going to talk about the things I liked and didn’t like.”

  • The God-centeredness of the approach. Millar says that the God-centeredness of Wright’s approach is marvelous.

This is The Story that tell us where we have come from, how we got to be here, who we are, why the world is in the mess it is, how it can be (and has been) changed, and where we are ultimately going. And the whole story is predicated upon the reality of this God and the mission of this God. He is the originator of the story, the teller of the story, the prime actor in the story, the planner and guide of the story’s plot, the meaning of the story and its ultimate completion. He is its beginning, end and center. It is the story of the mission of God, of this God and no other (533).

Millar expresses gratitude for Wright’s emphasis here stating,

Chris is certainly correct to say that all mission is God’s mission, rather than what we do even in the response of God’s command. And in that I think the book is a game changer that helpfully corrects an error that we can easily slip into and we need to thank God for that.

  • The defense of the uniqueness of Christ in the face of religious pluralism “winsome clear and powerful.”
  • His insights into key Old Testament texts.
  • The discussion of Old Testament missiological texts. Millar states, “This is the most complete, comprehensive, and theologically nuanced discussion of mission in the Old Testament I’ve seen. . . What he does in this area is really without parallel.”
  • He clearly articulates what God asks of us.
  • At points he affirms that evangelism is at the heart of mission.

This is really an underhanded compliment. Millar goes on to read and ultimately dismiss several quotes and while he is thankful that Wright made these statements he questions whether this is actually the case.

Jesus sums up the whole message and point of the Old Testament as leading to himself, the Messiah, and to the mission of his disciples to the world (Lk 24:44-49). And that mission, in the light of his death and resurrection, was the evangelistic task of preaching repentance and forgiveness in Christ’s name to all nations. All this is readily granted and is at the very heart of the whole case I am making in this book (303).

Millar the quips, “I’d quibble slightly with that last sentence, whether or not it is at the heart of the case he is making in this book, but up to that point it’s a hearty amen.” He then offers another quotation from Wright,

Mission may not always begin with evangelism. But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the Word and the name of Christ, the call to repentance, and faith, and obedience has not completed its task. It is defective mission, not holistic mission (319).

Millar’s critique here has been adequately handled during Part One after the bullet point “Everything is Mission.” Specifically, the section on night blindness summarizes Wright’s understanding of holistic mission and explains why evangelism is always at the heart of mission, despite what Millar is underhandedly insinuating at this point in his summary. There is a very helpful section in Wright’s work on “social action without evangelism” that further refutes Millar’s challenge. Speaking from Israel’s history Wright explains,

To think that social action is all there is to mission, while failing to lead people to the knowledge, worship and service of God in Christ, is to condemn those whom we may, in one way or another, “lead out of slavery” to repeat the history of Israel. For the Israelites experienced the political, social and economic effects of God’s redemption, but many of them failed to enter into the spiritual requirements of the God who redeemed them. They would not acknowledge him as alone God. They repeatedly went astray in the worship of other gods. . . Without covenant faith, covenant worship and covenant obedience, Israel stood as much under the severity of God’s wrath as any other nation (286-287).

Wright has clearly outlined, using the history of Israel as an example, that social action, even when undertaken by God, will leave men condemned if they are not lead into ” the knowledge, worship and service of God in Christ” this does not match Millar’s description of an author who is belittling the importance of evangelism.

Some Things Millar Noticed

  • Confusing Terminology

“I was not ultimately convinced by his use of the term a missional hermeneutic. Nor am I still entirely clear what a missional hermeneutic is. I am not sure if it means any more than reading the Bible with an awareness that mission is important.” Millar’s criticism of Wright’s use of “missional hermeneutic” was addressed at some length in Part Two please reference that post for a rebuttal of Millar’s argument. Millar says more to emphasize his point here but again he offers more dismissive commentary which need not be handled here as his tone has been addressed at several points in this series.

  • A Tendency to Overstate the Case

One of the unfortunate characteristics of this book is that it elevates relatively minor themes at times to a status that the text itself doesn’t appear to warrant. So for example Chris does speak as if the missional nature of Israel is absolutely everywhere in the Old Testament.

Millar then offers several quotes and statements of summary as examples of this elevation of minor themes “to a status that the text itself doesn’t appear to warrant.”

First, “This universality of God’s purpose . . . is a recurrent theme and a constant theological challenge” (65). This first example is a rather peculiar choice. It comes in the context of the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. It is hard to imagine that any biblical scholar would consider the call of Abraham and God’s purpose in it a minor theme and yet this is exactly what Millar does at this point. In the immediate context of this quote Wright explains, “Israel’s election [in the call of Abraham and subsequent covenant] was not a rejection of other nation but was explicitly for the sake of all nations” (65). Millar’s claim that this is a minor theme elevated beyond the status of the text is completely untenable.

Second, “The exiles had a task, a mission no less, even in the midst of the city of their enemies” (99). This too is an interesting example. This statement comes near the end of a section where Wright explains the echoes of the Abrahamic Covenant in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles (Jeremiah 29). Contrary to their fears that they would die out in exile Jeremiah echoes the Abrahamic Covenant as he exhorts them to “multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jeremiah 29:6). Jeremiah then writes, “And Seek the shalom of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray on its behalf to YHWH, for in its shalom there will be shalom for you” (Jeremiah 29:7, Christopher J. H. Wright’s translation). Wright then correctly concludes; “So they were not only the beneficiaries of God’s promise to Abraham (in that they would not die out but increase), they were also to be the agents of God’s promise to Abraham that through his descendants the nations would be blessed” (100). As with the first example attempting to argue that the Abrahamic Covenant and its application to the exile is a minor theme is simply not a defensible position and yet this is precisely what Millar is claiming.

Third, Millar explains that in The Mission of God, “The nations are portrayed in the Old Testament as apparently waiting eagerly for the knowledge of the living God.” Millar is here objecting to what the Westminster Confession describes as the chief end of man “is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Wright explains that,

by confining ourselves to the human dimension: it is crucial to emphasize the point that knowing God to be God is the supreme good and blessing for human beings made in God’s image. Refusing or suppressing that knowledge lies at the root of all other kinds of sin, argues Paul in Romans 1:18-32. Conversely, knowing God in love and obedience is the source of all human well-being and good (Deut 4:39-40) (128).

This is the chief end of man, of the nations, and indeed the entire creation is eagerly anticipating the redemption of humanity.

Fourth, “The motivation for God’s people to live by God’s law is ultimately to bless the nations” (380). Wright makes this assertion near the end of a section discussing the giving of the law in Deuteronomy. Wright specifically highlights Deuteronomy 4:6-8,

Keep them [the law] and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?

There is a sense in which Wright may have worded his statement too strongly after all the text of Deuteronomy lists numerous reasons as to why Israel should live by God’s law but as evidenced in Moses’ opening address the nations are clearly in view as the law is given. For a further treatment of the law please see this.

Fifth, “The nations of humanity preoccupy the biblical narrative from beginning to end” (454). Again here is the larger context of this statement:

When they [the nations] are not in the foreground, they are there in the background. When they are not the subject of great international events, they are the object of divine inspection or accusation. When they are not the direct focus of God’s attention, they remain the surrounding context (for good or ill) of the life of God’s people. The obvious reason for all this is that the Bible is, of course, preoccupied with the relationship between God and humanity, and humanity exists in the nations. And where the Bible focuses especially on the people of God, that people necessarily lives in history in the midst of the nations (454).

From there Wright traces the theme of the nations throughout the entire narrative of Scripture from creation to consummation. Wright’s work here has demonstrated that the nations are not a minor theme and indeed do “preoccupy the biblical narrative from beginning to end.”

Sixth, “It is God’s mission to the nations more than any other single theme that provides the key that unlocks the biblical grand narrative” (455). There are countless biblical theologians who offer some kind of unifying theme for the whole of Scripture. To a massive list including covenant, redemption, the glory of God, and countless others one can now add the nations as a proposed center for biblical theology. In this reviewer’s summation the majority of proposed unifying themes moves beyond the status given in the text. This would have been a helpful point for Millar to provide an adequate alternate unifying theme for biblical theology. With the myriad of proposed themes there is no reason why the nations, and Wright’s supporting arguments, should not be considered as a plausible unifying theme.

Millar then concludes,

Now do I have sympathy with every single one of those statements? Yes. Are the overstating the case? Yes. Similarly, the insistence that both the Exodus and the Jubilee have primarily a symbolic function or that the return from exile is one of the major movements of the Old Testament are going further, I think, than the Old Testament text itself claims.

Wright’s work in this area is absolutely fantastic as he traces these themes throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament demonstrating how they are intimately tied to the mission of Jesus and His church. There is much work done here in terms of both biblical references and external references that corroborate his position. It is interesting that Millar confines his critique to the Old Testament’s claims. Jesus’ ministry is filled with references to the Jubilee from his reading of Isaiah in Nazareth and the beatitudes to his teaching on forgiveness and debt. This is mirrored by ample New Testament themes that echo the Exodus and return from exile.

  • A Strange Aversion to the Idea of Going Anywhere

I know we’re all shaped by our past but it seems that Chris’ past has left him with a real discomfort for the idea of going anywhere to make disciples. He consistently argues that the Great Commission isn’t as important as we make it out to be and doesn’t really tell us to go anywhere, other than to the nations in some sense like Abraham. He seems oddly preoccupied with Matthew 28 and insists that it be relativized. However, he barely mentions Acts 1 verse 8, with its similar dynamic, driving people out to the furthest parts of the earth with the gospel. In fact the silence is deafening, in this book on the Mission of God, with the whole issue of relocating in the interest of gospel ministry. “It [the Great Commission] is not referred to as an explicit driver for the missionary expansion of the church in the New Testament after Acts 1.” He consistently underplays the Great Commission.

There are several things occurring at this point that must be addressed. First, Millar is subtly, yet quite erroneously, using Wright’s upbringing as a theological attack. Second, he is not honestly representing the content of The Mission of God in regards to its stance on Matthew 28, Acts 1, and relocating in the interest of gospel ministry. Finally, he is quoting, sorely out of context, a sentence from another one of Wright’s works.

First, Millar’s use of Wright’s past as an attack against this present work is  without warrant. Millar has consistently spoken of Christopher J. H. Wright during his talk using his shortened first name Chris. This would lead those in attendance to believe that they are apparently on a first name basis, have some kind of relationship, and therefore Millar is somewhat qualified to make observations in regards to Wright’s childhood, beyond what anyone would know reading the beginning of The Mission of God. This is not the case. As evidenced from the Q&A near the end of the recording Millar did not even have the courtesy to contact Wright and discuss his critiques beforehand. This whole line of critique is therefore quite faulty. Beyond that claiming ” Chris’ past has left him with a real discomfort for the idea of going anywhere to make disciples” is quite inaccurate considering that Wright has relocated for the purpose of gospel ministry and worked to train and equip other missionaries.

Second, Millar’s critique is both a gross misrepresentation of the intent and content of Wright’s work. Beginning with the intent of this work;

My major concern has been to develop an approach to biblical hermeneutics that sees the mission of God (and the participation in it of God’s people) as a framework within which we can read the whole Bible. Mission is, in my view, a major key that unlocks the whole grand narrative of the canon of Scripture. To that extent I offer this study not only as a biblical reflection on mission but also, I hope, as an exercise in biblical theology. . .

I have tried to identify some of the underlying themes that are woven all through the Bible’s grand narrative—themes that are the foundational pillars of the biblical worldview and therefore also of biblical theology: monotheism, creation, humanity, election, redemption, covenant, ethics, future hope (17).

Wright aims to unlock the Bible’s grand narrative and he is doing to by using a missional hermeneutic. He later asks,

We talk about the problems of “applying the Bible to our lives,” which often means modifying the Bible somewhat adjectivally to fit into the assumed “reality” of the life we live “in the real world.” What would it mean to apply our lives to the Bible instead, assuming the Bible to be the reality—the real story—to which we are called to conform ourselves (534)?

Wright is laying out the biblical narrative and then confronting the reader with that reality. That is his intent.

The content of this work then is The Story. Which he defines as,

The grand universal narrative that stretches from creation to new creation, and accounts for everything in between. This is The Story that tells us where we have come from, how we got to be here, who we are, why the world is in the mess it is, how it can be (and has been) changed, and where we are ultimately going. And the whole story is predicated on the reality of this God and the mission of this God. He is the originator of the story, the teller of the story, the prime actor in the story, the planner and guide of the story’s plot, the meaning of the story and its ultimate completion. He is its beginning, end and center. It is the story of the mission of God, of this God and no other (533).

Wright’s primary interest is not in telling the reader to “go” because mission belongs to God, it is His mission and He calls His people to participate in His mission. Wright intends to give the reader a biblical theology of mission and he does just that. He explains “‘the whole counsel of God’—the plan, purpose and mission of God for the whole creation” (532). That narrative is about God and what God is doing to reconcile the whole of creation to Himself “through Christ by the Cross” (532). This has implications for redeemed humanity’s participation in God’s mission but the narrative of Scripture is fundamentally about what God has done, is doing, and will do. This is what Wright explains as being a biblical indicative. This expresses the reality of who God is and what He is doing. This then naturally leads to the biblical imperative “go, therefore and make disciples of all nations.” As Wright himself states, “we need, then, both a missional hermeneutic of the whole bible and its great indicatives as well as committed obedience to a major imperative text like the Great Commission” (60). By explaining the grand narrative of Scripture from creation to new creation Wright is setting forth the great indicative of redemptive history that forms the foundation of our obedience to Scripture’s missional imperatives. This does not underplaying the Great Commission this grounds the Great Commission in the identity and historical mission of our God. Millar seems to entirely miss Wright’s explanation of biblical indicatives and biblical imperatives; that relationship will be further explained in this series’ final post.

Third, Millar cites a quotation that is not from Wright’s The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative rather it is from The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission. I will not speculate as to how this mistake was made but in regards to this reviewer’s position it is quite fortuitous as this quote, when understood within its larger context, completely undoes Millar’s assertion that Wright “has a strange aversion to the idea of going anywhere.”

Millar quotes Wright, “It [the Great Commission] is not referred to as an explicit driver for the missionary expansion of the church in the New Testament after Acts 1” (Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, 36). and then immediately laments, “He consistently underplays the Great Commission.”  The quote comes near the beginning of chapter 2 entitled, “People Who Know The Story They Are Part Of” which sets out to outline the narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation particularly as it informs the people of God about their mission. Wright then begins to establish a starting point for the chapter explaining, “It’s a natural instinct to start there [the Great Commission] because it chimes in with so much else that the New Testament has to say about Jesus and his followers, and about Paul and the early Christians” (The Mission of God’s People, 35). He then quotes N. T. Wright explaining how mission confronts the reader throughout the gospels and only grows in intensity through Acts and the epistles. But then he makes several important observations first asking, “Why? What was it that made Christianity a missionary faith from the very start? What made the first followers of Jesus so passionately, courageously and unstoppably committed to telling the world about him” (The Mission of God’s People, 35)?

He then begins to answer this question first with observations,

Well you might respond, because Jesus told them to. . . And that would be true, given the endings of Matthew, Luke and John . . . though we should remember that the Gospels were not written until well after the church’s mission had been going for many years. . .

If this simple obedience to the Great Commission were the major reason in the consciousness of the early Christians, it is surprising that it is never mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. Don’t misunderstand me here. I am not suggesting for a moment that the Great Commission never happened, only that it is never referred to as an explicit driver for the missionary expansion of the church in the New Testament after Acts 1 (The Mission of God’s People, 36).

He then asks the reader a follow-up question, “So what compelled the first followers of Jesus, Jews as they were, to make the world their mission field” (The Mission of God’s People, 36)? With that he moves to answer his inquiry more directly and to establish a starting place for the reader to understand the story of Scripture and the mission of God’s people.

‘Jews as they were’ — I Slipped that in there because it is key to the answer. That is those first believers knew the story they were in. And they knew the story because they knew their scriptures. . . They understood the that the story had just reached a decisive moment in Jesus of Nazareth, and they knew what the rest of the story demanded (The Mission of God’s People, 36).

The rest of the story demands missions; the Old Testament narrative demands the active pursuit of fulfilling the Great Commission. Wright then provides three examples of this the Jerusalem Council, the ministry of Paul in Pisidian Antioch, and the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching after the resurrection.

After explaining the situation which led to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 Wright exclaims,

One could easily imagine Peter standing up to say to the critics, “Listen, friends, Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all nations and that is what Paul and Barnabas are doing. So back off!” But instead, James settles the matter by reference to the prophetic Scriptures. He quotes from Amos 9 and affirms that what the prophet foresaw is now happening: the house of David is being restored and the Gentile nations are being brought in to bear the name of the Lord. That’s where the story pointed, and that’s what was now happening (The Mission of God’s People, 37).

Wright then notes how Paul entered into Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13 and began teaching through the Old Testament narrative in the synagogue. When the Jews became jealous and rejected Paul he rebuked them with Isaiah 49:6, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” Wright then explains,

Paul could easily have said, “Jesus commanded us to bring this good news to you Gentiles.” He could even have referred to the specific missional command that he, Paul, had personally received in his conversion-commissioning encounter with the risen Christ on the way to Damascus. But instead, Paul points to the Scriptures and the story they tell—the story that leads inevitably to the gospel going to the nations. And he took that “story-yet-to-come” aspect of the words of the prophet and heard in them a command from the Lord himself (The Mission of God’s People, 37).

Finally he addresses the teaching ministry of Jesus and asserts that even Jesus views the Old Testament as the foundation of the Great Commission. Looking towards Luke 24 Wright explains how Jesus commissions his disciples after the resurrection by teaching through the Old Testament narrative.

What we find here is certainly not, as Millar claims, Wright consistently downplaying the Great Commission. Rather Wright sets the Great Commission within redemptive history, provides a robust foundation of Old Testament prophecies and promises upon which the Great Commission rests, and points to the tremendous emphasis which Jesus and the Apostles placed upon this Old Testament foundation in regards to: proclaiming the gospel, clarifying issues of praxis, silencing critics, and encouraging the church. This does not downplay the Great Commission it magnifies it!

  • An Annoying Habit of Using Straw Man Arguments

The final thing Millar noticed was Wright’s apparent use of straw man arguments. After reading several quotes Millar summarizes:

If you read through the book you gradually build the picture of someone who is obsessed with three verses in Matthew, insists that the gospel is only spiritual application, denies that the Old Testament says anything relevant, deliberately attacks little birdies, and refuses to lift a finger to help anyone other than to preach the Gospel. I think that’s a straw man. Perhaps Chris has met many people like that; but I have to be honest and say that I haven’t. In fact I’ve met far more people who would rather do anything in the name of Jesus than talk to people about Jesus. Rather than those who are trying to exclude everything under the sun from the category of mission other than personal evangelism.

Millar takes the numerous errors that Wright is attempting to correct, lumps them into one individual, and then declares that this is a straw man. And if this were correct that would indeed be a straw man, but that is not what Wright is doing. Wright is correcting a plethora of different errors advocated by different individuals and groups. If Millar’s critique here were true then every systematic theology in existence would be one big straw man argument, because of the countless heresies and errors they address.

As singular errors these are all realities that exist and must be corrected. First, there are those in both the church and the academy whose missiology is based solely upon a few New Testament texts and even those with a more robust New Testament theology of mission might not be capable of elucidating the Old Testament origins of mission. There is a real drought and lack of emphasis in this area and the church should be thankful for works like Wrights’ to function as a helpful correction.

Second and third, Millar’s critique of Wright’s claim that many simply spiritualize the gospel and deny its real world application and that others proclaim a spiritualized personal gospel without acts of justice and compassion is an ironic choice in Millar’s case as he has displayed a great deal of discomfort with Wright’s argument for holistic mission. He seems quite uncomfortable with mission that goes beyond evangelism and addresses a host of relational, social, and physical issues as well. Millar has consistently pressed for a spiritualized view focusing solely upon evangelism and now here he apparently changes his position and embraces holistic mission.

Fourth, there are several schools of thought that would see discontinuity between the testaments and cancel out much of what the Old Testament says on mission, among many other things, with New Testament teaching.

Fifth, the sparrow bit was quite funny and it is doubtful that anyone has “dissed sparrows.” The humor there misses Wright’s point as there are those who will reference passages such as II Peter 3:10 to deny the importance of creation care. Again creation care is a concept that Millar seems to be quite uncomfortable with, especially as he critiques the breadth of Wright’s definition of mission.

Millar concludes,

Perhaps Chris has met many people like that; but I have to be honest and say that I haven’t. In fact I’ve met far more people who would rather do anything in the name of Jesus than talk to people about Jesus. Rather than those who are trying to exclude everything under the sun from the category of mission other than personal evangelism.

This may very well be the case but this cannot become a battle of competing extremes. The response to those who would rather do anything than talk to people about Jesus is to correct them. What they are doing is not mission it is incomplete. It is equally incomplete and dysfunctional mission to proclaim the gospel and show no concern for environmental, relational, and social issues. Mission requires both.

This covered the first four sections of Millar’s concluding remarks. His final section and concluding summary will be the subject of the next post.

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Gary Millar’s Evaluation of Christopher J. H. Wright – Part Three

Introduction

This is the second post in a series critiquing Gary Millar’s “A Biblical Theology of Mission: An Evaluation of Chris Wright” delivered at the 2013 Gospel Coalition National Conference. This post will take one or more of Millar’s main sections, as outlined here, and further develop his content as well as offering critique when necessary.

Posts in this Series

Summary

The Mission of God Overview

Summarizing Millar’s overview. Millar mingles overview with critique so it is helpful to begin by distilling his overview into a positive summary of the four sections contained within Christopher J. h. Wright’s The Mission of God. This is both helpful in understanding Wright’s work and the broader context into which Millar’s critique fits.

  • Part 1: The Bible and Mission – The main argument here is that mission is God’s mission, mission is central to the whole Bible, the bible was written on mission, we need to read the Bible with a missional hermeneutic, and the whole Bible should shape our mission.
  • Part 2: The God of Mission – There are two key locations where Israel comes to know their God, the exodus and the return from exile. He defends monotheism, discusses idolatry, and critiques religious pluralism.
  • Part 3: The People of Mission – Here he argues for the primacy of mission in the election of Israel, this is the controlling idea in the Old Testament. He then demonstrates how the Exodus and the Jubilee encapsulate the heart of God’s missional agenda. Finally, the priesthood of Israel is also presented as a controlling idea in the Old Testament.
  • Part 4: The Arena of Mission – Here he begins to spell out how this affects how we do mission today particularly as it pertains to creation, the image of God, and the nations.

Examining Millar’s overview. Now we will work through Millar’s summary, of parts two through four, both to develop his content and offer critique when necessary. Part one was covered in the previous post, available here.

  • Part 2: The God of Mission – There are two key locations where Israel comes to know their God, the exodus and the return from exile. He defends monotheism, discusses idolatry, and critiques religious pluralism.

Millar explains that part two of The Mission of God, “is much more straightforward and offers really helpful engagement both with the biblical text and along the way with some key methodological and missiological issues.” In what follows Wright argues that there are two key locations where Israel comes to know their God, the exodus and the return from exile. Millar notes that Wright then builds on much of his previous work to deliver “an excellent defense of biblical monotheism, a really helpful treatment of idolatry, and a critique of religious pluralism. In doing this Wright is working out a radical God-centered vision of mission in the church and in the world.”

  • Part 3: The People of Mission – Here he argues for the primacy of mission in the election of Israel, this is the controlling idea in the Old Testament. He then demonstrates how the Exodus and the Jubilee encapsulate the heart of God’s missional agenda. Finally, the priesthood of Israel is also presented as a controlling idea in the Old Testament.

Before diving into part three, which Millar describes as generally very helpful, he begins with a few quibbles as he puts it. The first of these is on page 195. Where Wright describes the fall saying, “the soil comes under the curse of God and the earth no longer responds to human touch as it should.” Millar goes on to say that Wright’s explanation, “makes the fall sound like a minor inconvenience for market gardeners than anything else.” He goes on to explain that these quibbles are the exception and explains that Wrights link between the Tower of Babel and the call of Abraham is brilliant. Again this is another misleading and dismissive remark that must cause the review to seriously question the validity of Millar’s critique.

If that was indeed all that Wright said about the fall then Millar would be correct in pointing out that this description fails to capture the pervasive and devastating effects of the curse. Within its immediate context it is clear that Millar is painting a less than accurate picture for the hearers of this lecture.

The result of this human seizure of moral autonomy is radical fracture in all the relationships established in creation. Human beings hide from God in guilty fear. Men and women can no longer face one another without shame and blame. The soil comes under the curse of God and the earth no longer responds to human tough as it should (195).

So indeed Wright has a very comprehensive understanding of the effects of human rebellion upon all of mans relationships. Man is at enmity with his creator, his fellow man, and the creation. This reviewer would have preferred stronger language here, as well as an explanation of man being at enmity with himself, but it is not as inadequate of a description as Millar would have us to believe.

Moving on, Wright’s argument in part three is the primacy of mission in the election of Israel, meaning that Israel was chosen for mission. Wright argues that this is the controlling idea in the Old Testament. Millar responds that these arguments sound thin and lack exegetical support. Specifically Millar is concerned with Wright’s view that the Exodus shapes our approach to mission and would rather us see it as a spiritual reality fulfilled in Christ. Millar explains, “He argues that a model of exodus which sees it simply foreshadowing the redemptive work of God in Christ, it’s not so much unbiblical it’s not biblical enough.” As an example he quotes Wright,

It would seem more appropriate to link the exodus to the cross not so much in terms of release from slavery to our own sin (which of course is gloriously also part of this reality) but in terms of release from slavery to all that oppresses human life and well-being and opposes God (278).

Millar then concludes, “So if we are to be involved in the mission of God, which began in some sense at the exodus, we don’t simply need to deal with people’s sin we need to deal with ‘all that oppresses human life and well-being and opposes God.’”

Wright then, in similar fashion to the Exodus, argues that the Jubilee encapsulates the heart of God’s missional agenda serving as another repeatable paradigm for mission. Furthermore, the priesthood of Israel is also a controlling idea in the Old Testament. Wright does a fantastic job defending all of these points and establishing why the cosmic effects of human rebellion and sin are met with an equally cosmic redemptive mission from God and he does so by addressing the issue biblical theologically. Millar however moves quite quickly through this summary and while offering some critique he does not take time to counter Wrights supporting arguments.

  • Part 4: The Arena of Mission – Here he begins to spell out how this affects how we do mission today particularly as it pertains to creation, the image of God, and the nations.

Millar finds this to be the most problematic section of the entire work. Here Wright asserts that we need to operate with an understanding of the relationship between God, humanity, and the earth. The Genesis 1:27 mandate to work and serve the earth is ecological and mission to the non-human part of creation is still mission. Millar explains this later in his evaluation but it is important to note here that according to Wright mission must include evangelism and the declaring of God’s Word, a call to repentance, faith, and obedience. If one were to engage in a purely ecological mission then Wright would consider that kind of mission to be incomplete and defective.

Again Millar quips that the vast amount of biblical literature covered makes this book difficult to understand and to critique. While he made the assertion earlier that Wright’s arguments were thin and lack clear exegetical support Millar now moves to complain that this section’s abundance of exegetical support make it difficult to grasp. The continued use of such dismissive statements, while failing to dissect Wright’s actual arguments, is not helpful in any sense. If Wright is incorrect please do not dismiss his argument take the time to demonstrate its error.

Wright is concerned that we must develop “a radical and comprehensive understanding of sin and evil” (429). Which Wright goes on to explain, “Sin spreads horizontally within society and sin propagates itself vertically between generations. It thus generates contexts and connections that are laden with collective sin. Sin becomes endemic, structural, and embedded in history” (431). Millar concludes that while Wright can express himself beautifully he doubts whether or not there is biblical warrant behind these formulations. Again Millar has reduced Wright’s argument for the sake of a quick dismissal. Wright devotes an entire chapter to the topic of mission and creation and demonstrates the validity of this assertion by describing how Scripture describes sin as spreading horizontally, vertically, and how it “becomes endemic, structural, and embedded in history.” Furthermore, he then counters arguments against this position and provides the example of AIDs to show how “only a holistic missional approach [can] even begin to address the issue” (439). Millar has left the audience with the impression that Wright has not done the exegetical leg work to support his thesis and is relying upon his eloquence to support his point when this is not the case.

He then moves to explain how Wright understands of the connection between God and the nations; quoting Wright, “The nations of humanity preoccupy the biblical narrative from beginning to end” (454). Millar then attributes the following quote to Wright, which was actually taken from Duane L Christensen’s definition of “Nations” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, “The nations are the matrix of Israel’s life, the raison d’être of her very existence.”

In the end Millar concludes that while this section is very helpful, “there is a sense in which Chris is putting a positive spin on a wealth of fairly negative material. He does have a tendency to view all passages regarding the nations as intrinsically positive.” He notes that Wright’s treatment of this topic is not proportionate to that of Scripture as he devotes one page, in a fifty page section, to the judgment of God upon the nations while Scripture seems to spend far more time on the topic. “To put it bluntly when the judgment of the nations is mentioned it is either skimmed over or relativized by going straight to the judgment of Israel too.”

As at other points Millar is being profoundly reductionistic here as well. Wright divides his section on the nations into two chapters “God and the Nations in Old Testament Vision” and “God and the Nations in New Testament Mission.” Within the chapter on the Old Testament Vision he begins by addressing “The Nations in Creation and Providence” where he begins by working from creation to new creation explaining how the nations and all of their diversity is a glorious reality that will be carried over into worship before the throne of God. After establishing the glorious reality of this diversity and God’s sovereign control over the nations he moves to explain how all nations exist under the judgment of God and the Old Testament reality that any nation can be the agent who carries out God’s justice. This takes several pages rather than the one page that Millar describes in his talk. And from this Wright concludes “the overwhelming message is consistent. All nations are in the hands of YHWH, the living God” (460). “Against such a bleak background, God’s mission to bless the nations and the mission of God’s people as the vehicle of such blessing constitute very good news indeed” (458). This is not a skimming over of judgment but a vivid description of the imminent judgment of God. The rest of the material is positive as he looks toward the fulfillment of the covenant promises as the nations witness the good and bad of Israel’s history, as the nations partake in Israel’s blessing, as the nations worship Israel’s God, and as the nations are included in Israel’s identity. All of this before he begins to look at the nations in the New Testament mission. This reviewer agrees the tone here is positive. But why wouldn’t it be? God is sovereignly bringing about his purposes through judgment and mercy, blessing and curse, God is redeeming a people for Himself and removing the curse from the whole of creation; this is indeed good news. It is a wonder why this disturbs Millar.

This concludes Millar’s overview of The Mission of God. His closing summary and remarks will be the subject of the next post.

Discovering Jesus in the Old Testament Law

On Sunday mornings we are doing a class entitled Jesus on Every Page; these are my notes from those classes.

I. Law in the Context of Grace

A. Freed unto Worship

  • “Before God gave Israel his law he gave them himself, as their redeemer. . .  In his grace and in faithfulness to his covenant promise, he had acted first and redeemed them.  He had not sent Moses with the ten commandments under his cloak to tell Israel that if they would keep the law, God would save them.  Precisely the other way around.  He saved them and then asked them to keep his law in response. . .  Obedience flows from grace; it does not buy it.”[1]

B. The Testimony of Scripture

  • The Nature of the Promise

16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. 17 This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise (Galatians 3:16-18).

What is Paul’s point here?  How does he explain the relationship between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants?  Paul is explaining that God’s promise to Abraham, like the one in the garden, finds its fulfillment not in Abraham’s offspring in a general or plural sense but specifically in the singular offspring who is Jesus Christ.  Jesus will possess the gates of his enemies and in Christ all the nations of the earth will be blessed.  Because this promise came before the promise to Moses it supersedes it and therefore law keeping cannot be a means of obtaining the inheritance.

  • Grace and Redemption Precede the Giving of the Law

1On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai.  2They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness.  There Israel encamped before the mountain, 3while Moses went up to God.  The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  5Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel” (Exodus 19:1-6).

  • The Law Comes as a Result of the Promise

20“When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ 21then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt.  And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.  22And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes.  23And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers.  24And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day.  25And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us’ (Deuteronomy 6:20-25).

Because of His promise the Lord rescues His people from bondage and gives them the law.

II. Principles for Discovering Jesus in the Old Testament Law

A. The Law Keeping is Not, Nor was it Ever, an Alternate Way to Establish Relationship with God

  • “The law of God is not a system of merit whereby the unsaved seek to earn divine favor but a pattern of life given by the Redeemer to the redeemed so that they might know how to live for his good pleasure.”[2]  Tim Keller puts it this way,

Traditional religion teaches that if we do good deeds and follow the moral rules in our external behavior, God will come into our hearts, bless us, and give us salvation.  In other words, if I obey, God will love and accept me.  But the gospel is the reverse of this: If I know in my heart that God has accepted me and loves me freely by grace, then I can begin to obey, out of inner joy and gratitude.  Religion is outside in, but the gospel is inside out.[3]

So we must be careful not to confuse the religion of the Pharisees with the gracious giving of the law to Israel.

B. Because of His Grace and in Fulfillment of the Promise Christ Keeps the Law on Our Behalf

  • We have seen this clearly outlined for us as we have gone through the Gospel of Luke.  From His birth, circumcision, baptism to His desert triumph over the Tempter and teaching; Luke presents Him as the keeper of the law as the true Adam and faithful Israel.  Jesus lives, dies, and is resurrected on our behalf.

C. The Division of the Law into Moral, Civil, and Ceremonial is Arbitrary at Best

  • The Ten Commandments set forth how we are to image and worship God then “after stating the law in broad, prescriptive, and principial terms, Moses begins the process of applying the Ten Commandments to the historical situation of Israel.”[4]  The law is therefore to be viewed as a unified application of the Ten Commandments to the whole of Israel’s life.  This “is what we find in the teaching of Jesus.  It was not just a repetition of all the laws, like a shopping list.  Nor was it a new law that disregarded the original.  Rather, he restored the true perspective and essential point of the law.  He brought back the urgent appeal of Moses for a single-minded, uncomplicated loyalty to God.”[5]
  • There are differing views on this.  David Murray, the author of Jesus on Every Page, argues that the moral law was given to Adam and Eve and is imbedded in the human conscience and was given to Moses in written form.  The ceremonies prescribed by the Ceremonial law were abolished as Christ has replaced the tabernacle and temple.  The civil law of Israel ceased to exist with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.  I do not, however, find Murray’s argument to be convincing.

D. The Structure of the Pentateuch Anticipates a Time of Eschatological Fulfillment

  • “The outlook is eschatological and anticipates a time when that which the law did not achieve in Israel will be the reality.”[6]  From the rebellion of Adam to the golden calf and culminating in the covenant in Deuteronomy the narrative structure of the Pentateuch points to a fulfillment beyond itself (cf. Deuteronomy 30:1-10).

III. Encouragement Along the Way

A. Looking Beyond the Covenants Thus Far

  • “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
  • With the mention of heart circumcision as a divine enabling to fulfill the greatest commandment the Pentateuch closes and anticipates something beyond the covenant with Abraham and the covenants with Moses/Israel.

IV. Examples of Jesus in the Old Testament Law

  • The Confirmation of the Covenant – The covenant is inaugurated with the building of an altar, the burning of a sacrifice, and the pouring of blood upon the redeemed covenant community of Israel (Exodus 24:1-8).  What was spread upon the doorposts at Passover in poured out upon the covenant community with the confirmation of this covenant and as redemptive history unfolds and the anticipation of a greater covenant grows so does the apparent need for a greater sacrifice.
  • The Patient and Gracious Covenant Lord – “The inescapable truth is that the grace of God continues to shine upon a people whose major claim to fame is the suicidal ability to break the covenant.”[7]  “21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.  For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.  This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  26It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:21-26).
  • The Curse of the Law – The covenants were structured with blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience.  Galatians tells us that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13).

 


[1]Christopher J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1992), 192-93.
[2]J. A. Moyter, “Biblical Concept of Law,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter E. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984), 624.
[3]Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 47.
[4]Michael D. Williams, Far as the Curse is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 164.
[5]Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, 191.
[6]Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 165.
[7]Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture,158.

Discovering Jesus in the Old Testament Characters

On Sunday mornings we are doing a class entitled Jesus on Every Page; these are my notes from those classes.

I. The Failure of Moralistic Readings

A. Man-Centered

  • “It tends to put man and his needs in the foreground with God and His glory in the background.”[1]

B. Works-Based

  • “It focuses on what we should and shouldn’t do rather than on what God has done and is doing.”[2]

C. Context-Ignoring

  • It ignores the historical, cultural and redemptive contexts and leaps directly to the quandaries of modern man.  We saw this last week looking at Genesis 1-2.  Knowing that Moses wrote the Pentateuch sometime after the Exodus and sometime before Israel entered the Promised Land informs us of God’s intent in revealing these things to Moses and Israel.

D. Narrative-Fragmenting

  • It divides the sweeping narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation into disconnected narratives that lose their place in the unified whole.  This panoramic picture of God’s grace and glory is reduced to tiny snapshots about men.

E. Christ-Less

  • “When an Old Testament story is detached from the sweep of redemptive history, it often results in God-sermons but not Jesus-sermons.  Some Sermons, books, and Bible studies on Old Testament characters could easily have been taught by non-Christian religions.”[3]

II. Principles for Discovering Jesus in the Old Testament Characters

A. David Murray’s Fifteen Places to Find Jesus in the Old Testament Characters[4]

1.   “The Control of Jesus”

2.   “The Character of Jesus”

3.   “The Church of Jesus”

4.   “The Crimes Against Jesus”

5.   “The Contrast with Jesus”

6. “The Call for   Jesus”

7. “The Confession   to Jesus”

8.   “The Compassion of Jesus”

9. “Conversion to   Jesus”

10. “Confidence in   Jesus”

11. “The   Copy of Jesus”

12. “The   Command of Jesus”

13. “The   Cross of Jesus”

14. “The   Call of Jesus”

15. “The   Crowning of Jesus”

B. A Simpler Approach

  1. The Offices of Christ – All of the Old Testament prophets, priests, and kings point us to Christ in both their successes and failures.  Unlike the prophets of old with all their failures Jesus comes as the perfect Word of God.  Unlike the priests’ whose sacrifices could never take away sin Jesus comes as our perfect High Priest and our spotless Lamb.  Unlike the failed kings of Israel Jesus comes as the Davidic King, the Lion of Judah, who makes His enemies His footstool.
  2. The Character of Christ – Every individual in the Old Testament in both obedience and rebellion points us toward Jesus.  Joseph’s grace towards his brothers points us forward to grace and forgiveness in Christ.  The murderous rage of Cain points us towards the one who does not seek to exalt Himself by taking life but humbles Himself and gives His life.  The totality of human activity in the Old Testament, and indeed in cosmic history, points us towards Christ.  When we see justice we see a shadow of Jesus, who is perfectly just, when we see injustice we yearn for the perfect justice of Jesus.
  3. The Works of Christ – The work of Christ in the New Testament is foreshadowed by the works of Old Testament individuals.  We see this in everything from intercession and forgiveness to suffering and judgment.

III. Encouragement Along the Way

A. Who are We Looking for Anyway?

  • “The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.  I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel’” (Genesis 3:14-15).

B. We are Not the Only Ones Looking

  • “When Lamech had lived 182 years, he fathered a son and called his name Noah, saying, ‘Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands’” (Genesis 5:28-29).

IV. Examples of Jesus in Old Testament Characters

  1. Adam – Adam was a prophet, priest, and king.  This points us to the fulfillment of these offices in Jesus.  With the fall of man Adams’ failure as a prophet, to speak truth to Eve and the Serpent, points us to Jesus the true word of God.  His failure as a priest removed him from God’s presence and this points us towards Jesus, in whom we have access to God.  His failure as a king who subdues creation has brought the entire creation into conflict with man and Jesus comes speaking calm to the raging seas and healing the afflicted.
  2. Noah – Just as Noah finds shelter from the coming wrath in the ark so we find that we are to find shelter from the coming wrath in Jesus.
  3. Moses – Just as Moses speaks the word of God and his face shines with the glory of the Lord so too does Jesus radiate the father’s glory.
  4. Pharaoh – As Pharaoh holds the people of God in bondage we should yearn for Jesus who sets us free from bondage and whose yoke is easy and burden is light.
  5. Abraham – As Abraham intercedes for Sodom, and specifically Lot, we should be reminded of Jesus our intercessor.  Later in the Old Testament Eli asks his rebellious sons “If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him” (I Samuel 2:25a)?
  6. Isaac – There are so much here that should point us to Christ but Hebrews 11 notes that this is a picture of the resurrection.  Abraham receives his son back from the dead because of a substitute.
  7. David – David, as the Lord’s anointed, does what the people of God cannot do for themselves; he vanquishes the enemy of the people of God and secures their freedom just as Jesus triumphs over Satan and death.
  8. Boaz – As a kinsman-redeemer Boaz redeems and restores Ruth this theme runs throughout the Old Testament and points us towards redemption in Christ.
  9. Hosea – Hosea redeems his faithless wife; he buys back what is rightfully his.  This is a picture of God’s faithfulness towards faithless Israel and ultimately a picture of Jesus who offers Himself to purchase the people of God.

[1]David Murray, Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 55.
[1]Ibid., 56.
[1]Ibid., 56.
[1]Ibid., 54-72.

The Mission of God, Islam, and Beyond

On Sunday mornings we are doing a class entitled The Church, the Gospel, and the Ends of the Earth; these are my notes from those classes.

I. Introduction

One of the things we did overseas was organize various trips where churches would send college students over to various cultural experiences we had planned.  So we had students rooming with Muslim college students engaging in various cultural and academic projects and at one point one of the students, who was also a religious leader at his school, confronted his roommate and said, “I know why you are here.  You are here to convert us.  If you were anyone else I would have you arrested and immediately thrown out of the country.”  This student was a spiritual leader on his campus and he did not turn us in to the authorities.  Why would he do this?  He didn’t turn us in because of their relationship.

We live in America our perspective of Islam is skewed because of events like 9/11 and the recent bombing in Boston.  But we have to step out that American paradigm and view this through the lens of the gospel.  If you remember anything from this morning remember the importance of relationship.  I am not going to break Islam down theologically today; if you want resources on that let me know as I have written much on that topic.  I want us to look at how the gospel speaks to the Islamic worldview as well as several other worldviews.  But if you want to understand Islam theologically make a friend, talk to a Muslim, and find out what they believe.

II. The Challenge of Islam

In a way the challenge of Islam is no different than the challenges we face with any other worldview.  At the same time international politics and the reality of terrorism do present a challenge, not so much for us as followers of Christ, but for us as Americans.  So we must view these issues through the lens of the Gospel.  Albert Mohler addresses this tension in a recent article asking,

Do American Christians really believe that Christianity benefits by being associated with all that America represents to the Muslim world?  To many Muslims, America appears as the great fountain of pornography, debased entertainments, abortion, and sexual revolution.  Does it help our witness to Christ that all this would be associated in the Muslim mind with “Christian” America?  Beyond any historical doubt, the United States was established by founders whose worldview was shaped, in most cases quite self-consciously, by the Christian faith. . .  But America is not, by definition, a Christian nation in any helpful sense.[1]

It is important that we not let our United States citizenship become an obstacle when proclaiming the Gospel.

III. Communicating the Gospel through Culture

A lot of what missions and evangelism is about has been framed in terms of communicating cross-culturally.  The missionary must bridge a cultural gap between themselves and their hearers.  However, in the incarnation Jesus does not bridge a cultural gap.  He becomes a Jewish man and communicates the good news through that Jewish culture.  We too are called to incarnational ministry and I want to look at how we can communicate the gospel through culture.

Robert E. Webber writes, “In a world of competing stories, we call evangelicals to recover the truth of God’s Word as the story of the world, and to make it the centerpiece of evangelical life.”[2]  That is why our current preaching series is entitled “Luke, The Truth: Our Savior, Our Story.”  This story, this gospel that bridges from creation to recreation, shapes the whole of our existence.  And furthermore this story is not simply our story; this is everyone’s story, because it is God’s story.  It is the narrative of God’s gracious redemption set forth before the foundation of the world.  Because this is God’s story we can communicate the Gospel through culture rather than treating the Gospel as if it is a foreign element that must be forced into culture.  As the elements of the Gospel are already imbedded in culture, though we have become experts at suppressing them, we must learn to communicate the story of redemption in a way that undoes all rival stories.

Now let’s break this down into something really simple.  Every rival narrative, every culture can be understood in terms of three tensions.[3]  Does anyone know what two tensions characterize the western worldview?  What about a South American or African animistic worldview?  What about the worldview of a Japanese business man and a Muslim Imam?  So these three tensions of guilt and innocence, power and weakness, and honor and shame explain the worldview of any culture you will come into contact with.

A. Guilt and Innocence

As westerners we are concerned with right and wrong.  We frame the Gospel in terms of penal substitutionary atonement and the central theme of all our evangelistic methods is our guilt, it is about justice and forgiveness in Christ.

But the other themes are there too right?  Can anyone give me an example of honor and shame in western culture?  No matter how many times Pitbull and Ne-yo sing “we might not get tomorrow, let’s do it tonight” and all the freedom brought about by the sexual revolution if you go to any university in America, that still has separate men’s and women’s dormitories, there will likely be a path in between them known as the walk of shame.  So no matter what we do to suppress it these themes are embedded in who we are as humans.

B. Power and Weakness/Fear

Can anyone give me an example of a power and weakness, or power and fear, worldview?  I really tried to bring this theme out when looking at the temptation of Christ.  Jesus overcomes for us and liberates us from our fears; He has triumphed over our enemies at the cross.

C. Honor and Shame

I can distinctly remember pacing near that bus stop for an hour waiting for our friend to arrive so we could go to the market together.  He has promised to meet us there and continued to reassure me via text message that he was on his way.  Unfortunately I was thinking like an American I didn’t understand what was happening.  So I called and informed him that it would be dark soon and we needed to go, basically I was hungry and wanted food, he assured me he was on his way.  I asked him where he was and then I found out that he was working on a school project four hours away.  I brought shame upon my friend, I called him out for breaking his promise.  He would rather maintain his honor, by insisting that he was coming, than endure the shame of admitting that he forgot about his project and would not be going to the market with us.  It didn’t bother me, but I am sure that conversation bothered him a lot.

IV.  A Complete Gospel

The gospel speaks to these three tensions.  Jesus bears the wrath of God so that God can justify the ungodly, He becomes sin for us so that we can become the righteousness of God.  Just as God clothed Adam and Eve in the garden God covers our shame, He will not put those to shame who believe in Him.  He has triumphed over our enemies in the cross and He has been given all power and authority and we will reign with Him.  So at the end of the day my central encouragement to you is not that you go read a book on apologetics and find out all the answers to the really hard questions in life.  No, my encouragement is that you start a conversation and make a friend all the while knowing that not only does the gospel answer those hard questions more importantly it answers the questions that matter.  So get to know someone, know what their questions are, what their struggles are, and then explain how the gospel makes us righteous, covers our shame, and overcomes our enemies.


[1]R. Albert Mohler Jr., “The Challenge of Islam—A Christian Perspective,” Southern Seminary Magazine 81.3 (2013): 28.
[2]Robert E. Webber, Who Gets to Narrate the World? Contending for the Christian Story in an Age of Rivals (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 120.
[3]For a more in-depth discussion of this please see Roland Muller, Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door (n.p.: Xlibris Corporation, 2000).