The Great Commission and God's Heart for Our Present Moment
Partners with the President with Greg Strand.
“God has graciously purposed from eternity to redeem a people for Himself...” This eloquent statement comes from Article 1 in the EFCA Statement of Faith. As we move forward into a new year and as I reflect on the foundational truths that shape the EFCA, I find this line beautifully points to one of the core objectives for our movement of churches—the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
When you reflect on your own life and ministry, how clearly do you see evidence of a lifestyle committed to the Great Commission? Are you orienting your life in a way that glorifies God by making disciples of all nations? Sometimes we need a firm, yet compassionate reminder that our lives must reflect God's heart for the world and His command to make disciples.
Abiding in Christ and grounded in the Scriptures, the EFCA pursues the Great Commission with urgency and eagerness. Yet, what does the Great Commission tell us about God’s heart for all people and what does it require of the local church and the greater movement?
To dive deep into this idea, I’ve invited Greg Strand, Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing, to write an article on the topic of God. Soon, Greg Stand and I will join pastors, missionaries and ministry leaders across the nation at the 2023 Theology Conference to unpack the theme The Doctrine of God: The Ground of Being and Truth and the Goal of Theology and Life. I’m excited and encouraged to join gospel-centered leaders worshipping at the feet of Jesus, and I pray God will strengthen them as they pursue the Great Commission in their local churches and ministry contexts. Please take a moment to read the article.
You may remember the bumper sticker, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” This reflects the flawed thinking of bumper sticker theology. Based on God and His Word, the Scriptures: “God said it. That settles it.” The truthfulness of God’s Word is not determined by the reader. However, the appropriate response to God’s Word of the reader is to believe it.
As Christians, we affirm the doctrine of God is true. We also affirm there are implications to believing in God. This is not an abstract proposition, “We believe that...” nor is it mere knowledge. Rather, it is personal belief/faith that both affirms the truth of God as doctrine and lives a life of faith and trust in Him.
The EFCA Theology Conference this year focuses on both of these truths: “The Doctrine of God: The Ground of Being and Truth and the Goal of Theology and Life.” In the remaining article, we will look at the doctrine of God and follow that with an application to today: With what we know of God, what implication does this have to our call to pursue the Great Commission amidst the present culture?
Article 1, God
Our EFCA Statement of Faith, Article 1, God, captures and summarizes God’s revelation of Himself in the Scriptures, which we confess and profess:
“We believe in one God, Creator of all things, holy, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in a loving unity of three equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Having limitless knowledge and sovereign power, God has graciously purposed from eternity to redeem a people for Himself and to make all things new for His own glory.”
What we affirm is how God initially reveals Himself: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). So begins the Bible, and so, too, begins our statement of central theological convictions that expound the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The truthfulness of God’s Word is not determined by the reader. However, the appropriate response to God’s Word of the reader is to believe it.
The Bible is the story of God’s work in creation, redemption and restoration, and it is a story that has its center in His revelation in Christ. The eternal God acts, and He acts by speaking—calling creation into being and, later, revealing His actions and His own character in human words which now come to us in the Bible. It all begins with God.
This starting point is also appropriate because any statement about the Bible as the Word of God must assume that there is a God who can speak. Moreover, our trust in the truthfulness of that Word must be based on a confidence in the character of the God who speaks.
Beginning with a statement on God is also significant in that it emphasizes that the gospel itself begins with God. In the gospel, we are recipients of God’s grace—a grace that comes at His initiative, not ours. The gospel is God’s saving work from first to last; it flows from within Himself as the expression of His essential character. His actions always conform perfectly with His own nature. In other words, God does what He does because He is who He is. Thus, God’s gospel originates in and expresses the wondrous perfections of the eternal triune God. (The following paragraphs above are excerpted from Evangelical Convictions, 2nd ed., pp. 2-3.)
The Gospel Is the Expression of God’s Essential Nature
In this revelation from God, we profess He is one God eternally existing in three equally divine Persons (the Trinity): the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Ex. 34:6-8; Matt.3:13-17; 28:18-20; Jn. 1:1-3; 2 Cor. 13:14). We affirm the eternal processions of the Persons, that is, the three Persons of the Trinity have eternally existed as Father (unbegotten), Son (begotten of the Father) and Holy Spirit (proceeding from the Father and Son). We also affirm the temporal missions of the Persons of the Godhead in redemptive history. (Some refer to this as the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity, but the notion of eternal processions and temporal missions seems better to capture this Trinitarian truth.) In this, we affirm each Person of the Trinity is operative in all of God’s external works in redemption—from creation through redemption to consummation, the external works of the Trinity are indivisible (inseparable operations).
In the gospel, we are recipients of God’s grace—a grace that comes at His initiative, not ours. The gospel is God’s saving work from first to last; it flows from within Himself as the expression of His essential character.
Based on God’s revelation, His divine disclosure of Himself, we believe God alone is the Creator of all things (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 33:6; Jn. 1:1; Col. 1:15-17; Heb. 11:3) from nothing (ex nihilo), there is a distinction between Creator and creation, His creation is ordered and purposeful (Gen. 1) and that all He created is “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Furthermore, God is holy (Ex. 15:11; Isa. 6:3; 57:15) and loving (Jn. 3:35; 17:24; 1 Jn. 4:8, 16), indeed, He is infinitely perfect (Dt. 32:4; Job 1:7-10; Pss. 18:30; 50:2; 90:2; 145:3; Matt. 5:48)! God’s essence is His attributes, and His attributes are His essence. Attributes cannot be separated from one another, and neither can they be separated as parts in God (divine simplicity).
The Gospel Is the Outworking of God’s Eternal Purpose
Even before the first sin spoiled the good world that He had made, God knew what He was going to do. He had created human beings in His own image, so that the eternal Son of God would be able to take humanity into Himself and to enter into our world and become incarnate as a human being like us. This was part of God’s eternal purpose.
From eternity God purposed more than just the incarnation of Christ. He also willed His death, for the Bible speaks of Christ as “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). The Lamb was slain to redeem a people who would be God’s very own, a people redeemed to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him forever (Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 1 Chron. 17:21). (These two paragraphs above are excerpted from Evangelical Convictions, 2nd ed., pp. 17-18.)
We believe God acts with limitless knowledge and sovereign power (Isa. 46:10; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11). God knows perfectly the past, present and the future. His sovereignty means He always fulfills His promises. His providence is purposeful. We also believe God has graciously purposed from eternity to redeem a people for Himself (Rom. 8:29-30; 1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 1:11; 3:10, 11; 2 Tim. 1:9; Tit 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:20; Rev. 13:8). God’s purpose is not just to save individual sinners, but a people—a community of believers united in Christ, the church. If we only focus on individual salvation, we gut the gospel of its telos, its goal, which is to create the Church, that through Christ’s death he “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). We also believe God will make all things new (Matt. 19:28; Acts 3:21; Rom. 8:19-21; Rev. 21, 22). God’s saving purpose goes beyond both personal and corporate salvation, but a restoration (re-creation) of creation into a new heaven and a new earth. Finally, we believe God does everything for His own glory (Ps. 19:1-2; Isa. 43:7; Jer. 13:11; Col. 1:15-23; Rev. 4:11; 5:9-14).
God’s purpose is not just to save individual sinners, but a people—a community of believers united in Christ, the church.
God and the Great Commission
The doctrine of God is the ground of the Great Commission. All believers are to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19a). Importantly, baptism is “in the name [singular] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19b), the Trinity.
When asked about the “great commandment in the Law,” Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37-39; Mk 10:30-31; Luke 10:27; cf. Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18).
Additionally, Jesus teaches that as Christians we are “in but not of the world” (John 17:11-18). We, like God, “love the world” (John 3:16) and we “do not love the world” (1 John 2:15-17) at the same time. Since we love God and love others, we cannot love the world and the ways of the world, which are contrary to God and His truth. David Wells writes, “Worldliness is that system of values, in any given age, which has as its center our fallen human perspective, which displaces God and His truth from the world, and which makes sin look normal and righteousness seem strange. It thus gives great plausibility to what is morally wrong and, for that reason, makes what is wrong seem normal.”
Worldliness and worldly ways will ultimately lead to death and “eternal conscious punishment.”
Here are six brief, yet important ways our belief in God impacts our call to make disciples in the present day by loving God and loving others.
1. Love God
In Article 1, we affirm these three foundational truths about God, based on his gracious self-disclosure to us.
God is infinitely perfect. He is the “creator of all things” and all He does is “for his own glory.” Doing anything other than for His own glory would mean He would be less than God. He lacks nothing. God is good and God does good. He is holy and loving. And in His infinite perfection, there are other attributes all perfect with nothing lacking. God is simple. That is, God is who He is eternally, and His essence is His attributes, and His attributes are His essence. God is His attributes. They cannot be separated. This is also where we would consider the omnis of God: all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), all-present (omnipresent), and all-good (omnibenevolent). Blessed be our infinitely perfect God. This leads to worship.
God is simple. That is, God is who He is eternally, and His essence is His attributes, and His attributes are His essence. God is His attributes. They cannot be separated.
God’s providence is purposeful. We affirm God is good, God is loving, God is all-powerful and we live in a fallen world with suffering and evil. That, however, does not disprove God or make him less than infinitively perfect. In His sovereignty, His providence is purposeful, such that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). There is no chance or randomness. This leads to trust.
God’s ultimate purpose is redemption. From eternity past—through creation, fall, redemption and consummation—God’s purpose is “to redeem a people for himself,” which is the people of God, the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the church. Present redemption, even though with a groan (Rom 8:23), means there is certain consummation when God will make all things new in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21-22). This is the only way humanity will flourish. And all of this redounds to the glory of God. This leads to hope.
2. Love Others
Grounded in God and His truth, and based in our love for Him, we love others by sharing God’s truth with them. This is one of the ways we love the world by not loving the world. Here are three important truths to remember:
God is a God of life and the living. That means we affirm the sanctity of life, all of life for all of life, from conception to death and beyond. For this reason, we are for life and against abortion. God says, the Scriptures teach the personhood of the infant in utero. From conception an unborn baby is a human being created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-28), fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139:13-17), with dignity and worth (Gen 1:26-27; 5:1, 3; 9:6; 1 Cor 11:7; Jas 3:9). Therefore, it is always, everywhere, morally wrong intentionally to kill an innocent human person. We are for life and against euthanasia (Ps 139). We are for life and against the creation or manipulation of life through means that dishonor God or go contrary to his very good purpose for humanity in creation (though we affirm, and are not opposed, to those ways that sustain life and reflect God’s good purposes for His creation, which address implications of life in a fallen world).
In His sovereignty, His providence is purposeful, such that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). There is no chance or randomness. This leads to trust.
God created male and female, blessed them and pronounced His creation to be “very good” (Gen 1:31). We also affirm God said it was “not good” for the man to be alone (Gen 2:18; remembering God’s gift of singleness for some, cf. 1 Cor 7:7). Thus, God, the infinitely perfect Creator, determines what is good and what is not good. We affirm God’s design and purpose in creation when He created male and female. Affirming the doctrine of sin and recognizing the brokenness caused by sin means we are not surprised by gender confusion or dysphoria, or any of the LGBTQ+ states and struggles. For those who live with a real struggle, we lovingly call them back to God’s design for men and women, remembering you save life by losing it for the sake of Christ (Matt 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24), not resolving it by pursuing one’s personal desire (remember, identity is determined by biological sex, not desire). God and His truth remain not only good but for our good. We will never flourish as human beings apart from God’s divine design.
God is our Father and Redeemer (Jesus Christ). He is a Father to all in that He is the Creator. However, He is Father to some, that is believers, in that He, God the Son, is the Redeemer. For Christians, we cry “abba Father” through the ministry of the Holy Spirit who applies the completed work of Christ in our lives by faith (Rom 8:15-17; Gal 4:5-6). With God as our Father through faith in Christ, that means we are adopted sons and daughters, making Christians brothers and sisters. This means there is no place for racism, identity politics or a (political) party spirit. We “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28), comprised of people “from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9-10).
May the Lord give us convictional kindness as we love God and love others: convictional because we affirm without equivocation God and His truth (the Scriptures), which reveals the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3); and kindness, as that is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23).
May we affirm orthodoxy, right belief, orthopraxy, right behavior based on that belief and orthocardia, a right heart created by the gospel and manifested in love for God and love for others.
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