Matthew 28:19, 20 is one of five accounts of the powerful post-resurrection, pre-ascension statement by Christ to his disciples creditably labeled “The Great Commission.” It has a special place in the Christian church, particularly among those known as fundamentalists or evangelicals-that is, those who recognize and emphasize the central place of the gospel as the message of salvation to mankind. This commission has not held any outstanding place in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy or even Anglicanism, since the good news of salvation is obscured or neglected in those quarters.
It is not merely because this commission is disclosed five times in the early books of the New Testament that it is so emphasized by Bible-believers. It carries such significance because it is Christ’s final recorded message to our predecessors who composed the early church, and particularly because that message came in the form of instructions, i.e., a commission. It has rightly been termed, “The Marching Orders of the Church,” for evidently Christ wanted to impress the instructions indelibly on the minds and hearts of his apostles with the assurance that he would accompany them in their obedience to them (“lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world”).
In any case, the early church construed this commission as highly significant inasmuch as that embryonic body aggressively fulfilled it. The early fulfillment of that commission “turned the world upside down” and contributed to the “Christianization” of the Roman Empire under Constantine (admittedly a mixed blessing). In the Middle Ages, the “Great Commission” was practically obscured, and, unfortunately, even the Reformation did little directly to bring it again to the fore. The importance and necessity of the commission was revived in the eighteenth and, particularly, the nineteenth centuries with the spiritual renewals in England and America, and in the origin of the missionary movements during the last century. Throughout history certain bands of zealous Christians have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the task of fulfilling that commission; but as this article will attempt to show, a large number of them held a truncated view of the commission that hindered its full-fledged application, a view of the commission that persists today.
Some Pentecostal groups name their churches “Full Gospel,” indicating that the Charismatic addition of signs and wonders to the message of salvation and the gospel makes their commission more complete than that of other groups. Most reading these lines would disagree. But while the Pentecostals may be wrong in application, they are certainly right in principle. For the “Great Commission” is much broader than commonly conceived and applied by Bible-believers, whose interpretation of the commission avoids much of the Bible’s teaching and example and neglects crucial responsibilities.
The remainder of this essay will consist of a brief exposition of the “Great Commission” as disclosed in Matthew 28:19,20 and a refutation of the modern truncated view of that commission which, in the opinion of this writer, compromises Christ’s lordship. In so doing, the article will conclude with a proposed solution to that narrow view.
THE EXTENT OF CHRIST’S AUTHORITY
It is not without significance that the “Great Commission” is introduced by Christ’s statement, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” Indeed, this prefatory statement is so relevant to the following commission that to neglect or avoid it is to significantly alter its proper understanding and application. The “power” of v.18 means “the power to act, which given as of right to anyone by virtue of the position he holds” [O. Betz, “Might, Authority, Throne (intro.),” in Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 2:601]. Differing from the meaning of the use of other “power-words” elsewhere in Scripture, the meaning here “denotes the power which may be displayed in areas of legal, political, social or moral affairs” [ Betz, (‘exousia’), op. cit., 2:607]. In Matthew 28:18 it is volitional freedom, or the power to rule over a jurisdiction; it is less concerned with strength than with juridicial-type authority. It is on account of this authority that Christ issues his commission to his disciples (“Go ye therefore…”). Is Christ merely saying that because he has jurisdiction over his disciples, that they should obey his command? Not at all. The all-pervasive phrase “in heaven and in earth” indicates the Lord’s meaning is that since he has exhaustive rule and jurisdiction over heaven and earth, his disciples as his representatives (2 Cor. 5:20) share his authority imparted to them for the fulfillment of the commission. This meaning is further confirmed by the Lord’s reassuring remark, “lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”
The limitation of Christological authority. Unfortunately, Christ’s sphere of jurisdiction has been greatly limited by many modern believers. They recognize Christ has power or authority on earth to forgive sin and to govern the individual Christian, family, and church; nonetheless, they have too frequently not recognized Christ’s authority over the unconverted and over all aspects of civilization: business, government, medicine, art, and so forth. In addition, Christians have emphasized the aspect of the declaration of the gospel within the “Great Commission” (Mark 16:15,16) to the neglect of the discipling of the nations. In other words, they have an incomplete view and practice of the commission.
Not surprisingly, the emphasis on the declaration of the gospel and baptism has led to many converts or “professions of faith”; but the neglect of teaching “all nations…to observe all things whatsoever [Christ]…commanded” has permitted an abundance of carnal, half-committed Christians (in addition to the large number who profess Christ but are not truly converted) and to an enervated Christianity frequently on the defensive against the attacks of Satan and the world and unwilling and even unable to bring but one area of society under the Lord’s jurisdiction.
This restriction of the commission to the portion addressing the saving of souls is understandable, for it more than the discipleship-command of the commission relates to eternity and appeals to human sentiment. We naturally tend to be more concerned with the state of an individual’s soul than with his state in this life, and particularly the structures of society. But while eternal life is of prime importance and must continually be emphasized, the jurisdiction of Christ over his creation cannot be neglected: we must ever remember Christ’s remark that all power is given unto him not only in heaven but also on earth.
OBLIGATION, NOT JUST INVITATION
In this writer’s estimation, modern Bible-believers have in three principal ways misunderstood the “Great Commission,” and consequently failed in its practice.
First, they have not completely understood or applied the Scriptural idea of the “obedience of faith” in their presentation of the gospel to the lost. To them, the gospel message is couched in terms of invitation, but not obligation. The gospel is a hope, but not a command. The salvation message revealed in the Bible, however, is portrayed not only as a gracious hope but also as a solemn obligation. On Mars’ Hill Paul boldly declared, “God…now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Ac. 17:30). In his second letter to the Thessalonians he refers to the flaming judgment that will attend Christ’s second coming on those “that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8). Paul declares moreover in his epistle to the Romans (16:25, 26) that the gospel was revealed “to all nations for the obedience of faith.” This obligatory side of the gospel is so frequently neglected in contemporary evangelism that the message of the gospel has come to mean little more than free pardon and forgiveness to rebels, conditioned only on their assent (strikingly similar to Charles Finney’s heretical Pelagianism; see Finney, Systematic Theology [Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1976]). But repentance and submission to Christ’s authority are so tightly bound to the message of salvation that to remove them is to remove any hope of eternal life (Luke 13:1-5). The message of salvation must be seen as something more than the sentimental invitation of a broken Christ; it must be couched in ethically commanding terms: rebels against God must repent of their rebellion to accept the offer of free salvation provided by God by means of the death of his son.
“Optional salvation” ? While salvation is indeed a gift, it is not optional. “Optional salvation” is one of the chief heresies of modern Christianity. Because of men’s ethical and moral separation from their Creator, they are in a constant state of rebellion. The Creator’s principal goal is not merely to give rebels a heavenly home, but to change rebels and bring them into conformity to his word so they will be fit for a heavenly home (Eph. 2:1-7; Heb. 12:14).
The obligatory dimension, however, has been largely forgotten in the “Great Commission” as understood today. If sinners will just use a few Scriptural terms and give a quick nod in the direction of Jesus, they’re assured of eternal life. They are scarcely ever made to come to terms with their inherent rebellion from which Christ was sent to save them: he was sent not merely to save them from the disastrous effects of their sin, but also from sin itself.
Good-feeling religion. The truncated version of the “Great Commission” is much more concerned with the subjective than with the objective side of salvation. The appeal is made, “Haven’t you had enough of the effects of sin? Is not your drunkenness or dope-taking breaking down your body and ruining your family? Isn’t your promiscuous lifestyle scarring your body and mind? Don’t you feel a great void and emptiness within? Come to Jesus, he will fill your void.” Of course, sin does in fact harm the body and mind and the entire individual throughout, and does leave a gaping void in the soul. But, as noted above, man’s chief problem is not the result of sin, but sin itself. The inherent flaw is moral and ethical, not mental, physical or emotional. For this reason one must be very careful when witnessing to those suffering from the bitter consequences of drunkenness and alcohol, for example, especially if they have been schooled in the ways of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Most of these individuals, at least in the writer’s experience, want to be saved from the effects of their sin, not from their inherent sinfulness.
Second, when Christ told his apostles to “teach all nations,” he meant for them to make disciples, not merely communicate the gospel. Admittedly, the statement of the commission as disclosed in Mark 16:15 focuses on the message of the gospel; Matthew 28:19 is more inclusive: it pertains not only to the communication of the gospel but also to the earthly aim of the gospel, the making of disciples.
While discipleship is a preeminent theme of the Bible, it is often dismissed by Bible-believers. To them, that they can by their witnessing efforts get names of numerous souls racked up on the heavenly scoreboard is their principal calling. And that these “heavenly numbers” never or only infrequently turn out to be genuine followers of the Lamb is merely an unwanted but bearable side effect of their short-sighted evangelistic theories and strategies. Don’t misunderstand: the evangelization of the nations is an aspect of the prime calling of all God’s children, but it is merely the prelude to the ultimate goal of this life: discipleship.
Pastors whose Sunday and even midweek church messages are always designed for the unconverted contribute to this truncated view of the “Great Commission.” Unlike Paul, who “went over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples” (Acts 18:23), they appear often most concerned about attendance goals and increased offerings. They rightly are “persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God” but never “separate the disciples” for instruction (Acts 19:8, 9); they greatly neglect their responsibility to “feed the church of God” (Acts 19:28) and “feed the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2). Apparently they know virtually nothing of a sound and Spirit-filled exposition of the Holy Scriptures which tends to engender spiritual growth and make hardy Christians. So concerned are they with attendance and offering increases and building and financial programs that they neglect their primary responsibility of feeding and leading the flock.
Anti-evangelism. On the other hand, some at the opposite end of the spectrum faithfully build up the flock but disobey the Lord’s command of Mark 16:15 by expending little effort in getting the message of the gospel to their own geographical area and to the rest of the world. Though their own flock may grow strong, it wields very little influence on society because it has circumvented the very gospel that serves as a foundation of all permanent spiritual and social change. Regeneration, not merely moral reformation (important though it is to a society) is the ultimate cure-all for social ills.
In short, Christians must fulfill the commission by evangelizing the lost, and disciple them by “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever Christ [has] commanded [us].”
A FULL APPLICATION OF A FULL COMMISSION
Third, while most Bible-believers recognize that the command to disciple the nations involves evangelizing the unconverted and baptizing them so they can become members of a local body, many avoid the command to teach “them to observe all things.” The term nations (ethnos) is most significant. It indicates a broad sphere over which Christ has given us power and jurisdiction. The Anabaptist idea of the “called-out body,” itself a Biblical idea (Acts 15:14), must be seen within the context of the discipling of all nations if it is to be valid. It is indeed the plan of God to draw out from sinful mankind a peculiar people to himself, but that that called-out body must be an isolated, socially emasculated sub-culture is totally foreign to the Bible. All to the contrary. The influence of the early church induced the derisive but somehow respectful description, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also” (Acts 17:6).
OPPOSITION TO A COMPREHENSIVE FAITH
But that Christianity should have implications not only for the individual family and church, but also for government, law, medicine, art, commerce, and so forth is simply inconceivable to some. Strangely, some believe that an all-consuming and all-applicable Christian message is somehow akin to the “Social Gospel” of theological liberalism a couple of generations ago. They frighten many Christians away from a full, red-blooded Christianity into a flabby, impotent Faith by pointing to the boogey-man of the liberals’ preoccupation with social matters to the neglect of the spiritual.
“Militant” fundamentalist opposition to a comprehensive application of the Christian Faith to society, for example, is grounded in at least two opinions: first, in the words of fundamentalist John Ashbrook, that social involvement is a “heinous crime” inasmuch as it “add[s] to the Gospel”; and second, that, “Conservative politics have always flowed from fundamentalist faith” (“Thirty Years of New Evangelicalism,” The Ohio Bible Fellowship Visitor, December, 1976, pp. 4, 5). It is within the context of socialistic schemes of societal amelioration of “New Evangelicals” that Ashbrook makes his remarks, and one cannot be sure whether he would endorse Christian social application politically conservative in orientation, or whether he judges such orientation necessary or even possible. One gets the distinct impression, in any case, that his opposition to the application of the word of God and message of the Christian Faith to all of society is motivated by commitment to political conservatism, which, in his opinion, apparently precludes the application of the Faith to society. While he concedes that, “Fundamentalists in general, and fundamentalist missionaries in particular, have always bettered society,” and mentions specifically that, “They have taught people to read, improved sanitation, built hospitals, treated leprosy, and improved the diet of people” (p. 4), he stops short of endorsing a full-scale reordering of society along Biblical lines, equating social involvement-at least socialistic “New Evangelical” social involvement-with the theologically liberal “social gospel.”
The error of Protestant liberalism’s social theory. Yet the great error of Protestant liberalism was not its concern for social matters, but its belief that it could ameliorate unjust social conditions apart from the message of the historic Christian Faith. It is only on the basis of the historic Christian Faith that society can be Scripturally reordered. Carl F. H. Henry’s comments made in 1947 are as relevant today as then: “An evangelical message vitally related to world conditions is not precluded by New Testament doctrine….Indeed, conservative Protestantism insists, only this estimate of the sinfulness of man and his need of regeneration is sufficiently realistic to make at all possible any securely-grounded optimism in world affairs. Any other framework can offer only a ‘bubble and froth cure’” [Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947), p. 26].
Yet Henry went on to lament that “evangelical Christianity has become increasingly inarticulate about the social reference of the Gospel” (ibid.). In fact, those who spurn this discipling of the nations often get involved in a self-serving but vicious cycle. They avoid political and social involvement because of their great concern to avoid personal “contamination” by contact with a depraved society. Their very isolation from society, notwithstanding, creates a void filled by Satanic forces which enhances depravity. Then the society-rejectors point to the social depravity as a justification for further isolation! The message of salvation was never designed to insulate us from society, however (John 17:13-18).
The Devil’s World? Accompanying the idea that the church must isolate itself from the world is the view that the spheres and institutions presently under control of the unconverted somehow belong to them by right. “Don’t try to reform the public schools,” argue some, “because they just belong to the Devil.” But this view can scarcely be supported by Scripture. The Psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1). Echoing this verse and the Reformed tradition, John R. de Witt remarks, “[God] has not for a moment abandoned [the world] to powers outside himself. That is why we cannot be indifferent to social evils, and to violations of the law of God in society at large; why we must oppose the terrible evil of abortion on demand, the dreadful scourge of moral corruption perceptible on every hand, and also the grinding of the poor and disadvantaged under the heel of the mighty, the oppression of the weak and helpless whatever form that may take. Certainly societal transformation cannot in any sense be divorced from the preaching of the gospel and the regeneration of individuals. But at the same time it is quite wrong for us to suppose that we should do nothing, bear no testimony, exercise no influence, have no vision, regard ourselves as without a calling to work for the doing of God’s preceptive will, even though widespread revival and reformation may tarry” [de Witt, What is the Reformed Faith ? (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1981), pp. 15, 16].
God has given wicked men the ability-though not the right-to control social institutions. But all mankind is under obligation to repent, submit itself to God’s will, and adhere to his word. Admittedly, unconverted individuals’ lack of eternal salvation provided by the death of God’s Son precludes the regenerated life and mind that are necessary to that submission. Their lack of salvation, however, is no excuse for their lack of obedience. God did not coerce them into refusing to accept his Son; on the contrary, he offers his Son freely, but they reject. They will therefore be held responsible for their rebellion (John 3:18, 19).
To teach the nations all things whatever Christ commanded is a commission including-but not limited to-personal holiness and ecclesiastical submission. The commission does indeed begin with the individual who must be regenerated by the operation of the Holy Spirit, by the instrument of faith, and by the message of the gospel. Nonetheless, the message of eternal redemption and obedience extends to all facets of society. Christians have not exercised their prerogative to extend a distinctive message of Christianity to all spheres, and thus they suffer from the blight of secularism much like ethnic Israel, who failed to drive out the inhabitants of Canaan and were thus later vexed by the heathen. Had Israel obeyed fully the commission of Jehovah, He eventually would have used Israel as an instrument to establish his ways throughout the known world. Though today the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, in a similar vein we Christians have been lax in our responsibility to evangelize and disciple all nations and have permitted the forces of Satan to gain important strongholds in the church, government, medicine, the arts, and so forth.
It is time for a change. By means of fervent prayer, reliance on the Holy Spirit, and ceaseless activity we should lovingly but energetically cast down the forces of Satan in government, in our public educational institutions, in music and entertainment, in law, in medicine, and certainly in churches. The message of the gospel must be heard anew. But the gospel itself is not our message in its entirety. We must declare the whole counsel of God, including the message of righteousness and judgment.