A trinitarian view of mission

This post is by Dr. Michael Morrison, Dean of Faculty at Grace Communion Seminary.

What is the mission of the church? One answer is this: make disciples who make disciples. While it is true that Jesus told his followers to go into all the world to make more disciples, baptizing them and teaching them (Matt. 28:18-20), this command can be misunderstood in a formulaic way, as is the case with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who hold to a one-dimensional, command-centered view of mission, which reflects their unitarian view of God. But the Bible tells of the God who is triune, who has a mission that is complex and multi-dimensional. This post explains.

Without Purse or Script by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with artist's permission)

The mission of the Triune God is not a multi-level marketing plan designed to get people to agree to certain doctrines, and then spread them. Doctrines are important, and obedience is important, but God’s mission is more than that. God is one being, three persons loving each other. His mission involves creating people who will not just perform work, but will also love. He is not just telling them to work, and he is not just working through them – he is also working in them to make them more like himself. Our ministry must, therefore, be motivated by love – not just love for God, but that we are being transformed to love the people we minister to, as Jesus did.

“Christ’s love compels us,” wrote Paul (2 Cor. 5:14). Why? “Because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” Paul was overwhelmed by Christ’s love not just for himself, but for all people; he realized he had a mission for all people. He was so moved by Christ’s love that he took action. His ministry was rooted in the Incarnation and Atonement of Christ for all people. God’s love is shown to us most perfectly in Christ’s death for us.

Paul saw this as not just a personal mission for himself, but he believed that it should translate into a mission for all who believe. After noting again that Christ died for all, he gives a purpose for his death, a purpose for Christ’s ministry to us: “that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (v. 15). All people should live for Christ. We can’t expect unbelievers to do it, but all who believe should live for Christ, no longer seeking to serve themselves, but having their life goals and mission transformed by what Christ has done for us. Why? Because he has loved us to the extreme, and he has won our love in return. Even if this life is the only thing there is, we should respond to Christ’s gift with gratitude and respect. 

Now, suppose we are drowning at sea and someone rescues us. Are we grateful? Certainly! Do we become that person’s slave for the rest of our lives? Certainly not! We might reward the person in some way, but we are not permanently obligated to perform the person’s every wish. Yet with Christ, we are. There is something different about the salvation we are given in Christ.

Christ is not an ordinary person, and he does not give us an ordinary salvation. If a human king (or some other person of authority) risked his life to save us, we would probably feel more obligated to be loyal. If a politician risked her life to save us, we might willingly volunteer for her next campaign. But Christ is more than a worldly leader – he is our Creator. He did not rescue us in a spur-of-the-moment reflex – he created us knowing in advance that he would have to suffer and die for us. This premeditated sacrifice is stunning.

It is normal that the product serves the producer, that the pot serves the potter, that the machine serves its maker, but it is unprecedented that the Creator serves the creation, even to the point of death. This is shocking. When we realize that Christ not only has all authority, but also all wisdom, and such a great depth of love for us, it makes sense that we would willingly do everything he says, for we realize it is the best possible advice, given with the best possible purpose, to help us. It makes sense that we give him our complete, unquestioned loyalty.

But suppose someone points a gun at us and tells us to renounce our belief in Christ. It would be honorable to remain true to our convictions and die for our Savior, but people would also understand if we renounced him (and accepted some dishonor) to save our life (perhaps reasoning that we can serve Christ better by living rather than by dying). If this life is the only one we’ll ever have, then it makes sense to prolong our life, even if it comes at the cost of temporarily dishonoring our Savior. 

This scenario highlights the importance of knowing the more complete meaning of Christ dying for us. He did not rescue us from drowning, to extend our life in this age. Rather, he rescued us from death itself. Just as Christ “was raised again,” we will be, too, and that changes all our calculations. Christ values our loyalty more than he values the few extra years we might get in this age. He takes a long-range view, and so should we. We are to live for Christ even if it means dying for him. “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24). Conversely, we are to die daily by living for him.

God’s mission is to bring many children into glory (Heb. 2:10). He wants people who are made in his image to also act in his image. He loves his creation and wants the best for it, and part of that “best” is that we learn to enjoy life in the way that he knows is best: the way of love. Eternal life wouldn’t be very enjoyable unless it is lived in love. He wants us to learn and live in the way of love – love as he defines it, not based on our own definitions, which are distorted by self-interest. He is the expert on what is good; we are not, so we must accept some things on faith and not insist that everything be filtered by what we are able to understand and agree with.

Jesus described the mission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Discipleship is part of the mission, and disciples are not just a self-multiplication society. (That’s what cancer is.) Rather, disciples are people who teach others to be more like Christ, and the manner in which we live and preach is part of the mission. We are not just to do what Christ commanded – we are to be what Christ commanded. If we are not disciples of Christ ourselves, living in the way that he taught, then we are spreading the wrong message.

The church is not a command-and-control organization in which the work is more important than the people, because the people are part of the work. The work must be done in love, in mutual respect, in a way that benefits the messengers, not just to get the message out. 

We are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Just as the Father sent his Son for our salvation, so we are sent on his mission in the world. Just as the Son lived among the people he served, so do we. We cannot die for the world, but we will die in the world. We serve the world not by following its wishes, but by following Christ even when world rejects that way. We do not seek conflict, but we are not surprised that the world does not like everything we do and say. The Spirit works in us for our salvation, and that is also part of the mission; we must be attentive to the work of the Spirit in our lives.

Jesus emphasized the importance of love when he described the two most important commands – to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39). We submit all that we are to God – we give him our complete loyalty and affection. We are also to love our neighbors – but we also admit that our own concept of love isn’t perfect. We do not love ourselves perfectly. Many of us have habits that aren’t really good for us. Jesus is not giving us permission to love others with the same defects that we have toward ourselves – he is simply quoting the Old Testament’s highest standard.

The New Testament expands the meaning of neighbor-love. When a man asked Jesus to clarify the intent of this command, Jesus responded with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The proper question is not “who is my neighbor?” (as if we want to limit the number of people we must love) – the proper question is: Am I a neighbor to the person in need? (v. 36). We should help people when their need intersects with our abilities. All people are neighbors; all are made in the image of God.

We should also see what Jesus and the apostles did. Jesus had the power to heal people at a distance (Matt. 8:5-13), but he did not heal everyone in the Holy Land. He did not feed everyone who was hungry; he did not free everyone who was oppressed. Similarly, the apostles did not see healing as their primary mission, but they healed in the name of Jesus as needs occurred. The disciples did not form a traveler-rescue society monitoring the road to Jericho. The parable was an illustration of a principle, not a command for us to imitate details. The disciples organized food-distribution programs for their widows, but not for everyone in Judea. Paul organized assistance for the poor in Judea, but not everywhere else.

In our internet- and travel-connected world, we are aware of an enormous number of needs. We are unable to attend to them all, but that does not mean that we close our hearts to all needs. Rather, we choose our priorities, focusing on needs close to us (close in terms of geography or relationships). 

Jesus said that we should let our good works be seen, so that people will praise God (Matt. 5:16). Although secrecy is sometimes appropriate, the usual pattern is that good works are done in the name of Jesus so that he gets the credit – no one thinks, “What wonderful people they are; this restores my faith in the essential goodness of humanity.” No, if we keep Jesus hidden, then that means that the credit is given to us, which is contrary to the mission we are given. We should not make Jesus hard to find.

Paul writes, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2). What is his example? It is that Christ died for all – while we were sinners, while we were his enemies (Rom. 5:8, 10). Jesus died for all whether or not they will respond to him in love. He would like a response, for their own good, but his gift is not dependent on the response. The New Testament makes no attempt to track the people Jesus healed and fed, as to whether they eventually became believers or not. The healings and feedings were done out of love and compassion, not in a calculated move to get more followers.

Our mission is not doing good works in the neighborhood. That is not our focus. We are a church, not a social-services group. In Western society, there are many groups that do good works; there are few that preach the gospel. We focus our efforts on the good work that only we can do.

However, if we preach Christ without any evidence that we love our neighbors, people would rightly question whether our message is true (James 2:16). As we preach a message of salvation through Christ, and we teach people to respond in love, we should have actions that are in agreement with our message. These actions should be genuine, not a public-relations ploy – we should love our neighbors, not just pretend that we do. We cannot preach the gospel without having good works – but the gospel is the focus. We can help our neighbors in physical ways, but the greatest help we can give them is in the gospel. But if our message is having any effect in our lives – and it should – then we will also have good works for our neighbors. They are a byproduct, a byproduct that should be visible.

We are to have both good news and good works. Our love for Christ motivates us to preach the good news; it also transforms us so that we address needs in our community, and we desire that he gets the credit for whatever good is done. This can be done indiscriminately, in random ways, or it can be done in a focused way. Some experience suggests that Christ gets more credit and praise when it is done with focus.

This is the rationale behind the ministry model embraced by Grace Communion International--a model that encourages congregations to focus their efforts on one neighborhood, preferably around their church meeting location. Our members want to share the gospel and to be good neighbors; we find a neighborhood that needs the kind of help we can provide, and we use this as an entry point that enables us to share the gospel with them. Will this bring people into our congregation? We hope so, but there is no guarantee. We seek to be good neighbors whether or not they will believe the gospel.