Michael Horton on God’s Strategy for Making Disciples

March 31, 2011

Any biblical church wants to spend its time and resources on what God intends for it to prioritize. But Christians have come to different conclusions as to what God intends a local church to do and accomplish. So what is the mission of the church? In many ways, that question is answered by how you put your Bible together and how you understand the church in the grand scheme of God’s redemptive plan. Michael Horton offers an answer to that question and many others in his new book, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (Baker).

Along with the rest of the White Horse Inn team, Horton will be discussing “The Great Commission and The Great Commandment” while recording a live show at The Gospel Coalition’s national conference. And if you want to learn more on this vital topic, you’ll be interested in the workshop panel discussion between Tim Keller, Mark Dever, and Crawford Loritts answering the question, “What should a local church look like?” You can register for the conference in Chicago from April 12 to 14 on The Gospel Coalition’s website.

Previewing the live show and his new book, Horton answered a few questions from TGC about the mission of the church, what he thinks about recent books by Andy Crouch and Tim Keller, and if it’s a good idea to call our ministries incarnational.

You introduce the topic of your book with the term “mission creep.” Can you describe what you mean by it and how it relates to the rest of your book?

When the U.S. peace-keeping mission in Somalia turned into a more defensive military effort, a Washington Post article coined the term “mission creep.” Something similar is evident, I think, with respect to the Great Commission. All sorts of things—good things—are being added to the church’s agenda. Many of these items indeed belong to the calling of Christians, not only in the body of Christ and the family, but in their various callings in the world as neighbors. Other things on the “to do” list are not even grounded in Scripture, but in whatever we think might make the church more relevant, impressive, or active on the world stage. In the process, the ordinary ministry of preaching, sacraments, teaching, discipline, and diaconal care for the flock—with ever-widening circles of mission to the world—is often taken for granted (like the gospel itself). But the consequence is that you end up with a church that looks like “Martha,” “troubled by many things,” rather than “Mary,” sitting at Christ’s feet to be brought into his strange new world.

How does this project relate to your other works like Christless Christianity and The Gospel-Driven Life?

Christless Christianity is an attempt to state the problem; The Gospel-Driven Life offers the solution, and my goal in The Gospel Commission is to explore the mission that Christ gave his disciples in this time between his two advents. We can’t separate the gospel message from the gospel mission. The gospel says that “salvation is of the LORD” (Jonah 2:9), but a lot of the church’s activity right now implies a different message.  Are we co-redeemers and –reconcilers with Jesus, or heralds of his unique redemption to the ends of the earth? There’s a tendency to say that the message is given once and for all, but the methods have to always be changing. Of course, change is not inherently wrong—sometimes it is for the better. However, when it’s turned into a principle, I think it can be disastrous. Actually, Christ gave us the methods as well as the message in his Great Commission. So closing that gap between message and methods is one of my goals in the book.

Are you comfortable with the term missional?

When Lesslie Newbigin coined that term, it made sense. I knew what he meant. I had the privilege of getting to know him over tea on several occasions while we were both in Oxford, and I have great respect for his labors as a missionary bishop in India. His point was that the West is now a mission field in its own right and missions isn’t just something the church sends a few people to do, but a joyful task in which all believers are engaged. However, in books like Darrel Guder’s The Missional Church, this idea became more radical. I think that the salutary point about knowing our culture became inflated. Terms like incarnational began to undermine the qualitative difference between Christ and us. Affirming that the church is a people who are active in the world, the tendency was to downplay the church as a place where Christ is the active party, forgiving and renewing sinners. The official ministry of the church (Word, sacrament, discipline)—the three marks of the church—have been dangerously contrasted with being a “missional church.”

A major concern of The Gospel Commission is to reconnect mission and marks; in other words, to see that the mission of the church (according to Jesus’ commission and its concrete execution in Acts) is to bear the marks! So a church that is not reaching out to non-Christians can’t take pride in having the marks of the church. After all, the marks are not only to have true doctrine and practice, but to proclaim God’s Word, to baptize, to commune, and to shepherd heirs of the new creation until together with all the saints we reach our everlasting homeland. At the same time, a church cannot claim to be “missional” if it isn’t preaching God’s Word, administering the sacraments, teaching, and looking out for the flock’s spiritual and temporal welfare. Peter gives us the right balance in his Pentecost sermon: “The promise is for you and your children AND for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God calls to himself.”

What are some problems you see with people identifying their ministry as “incarnational”?

By “incarnational” a lot of people mean that, like Jesus, we should identify with our neighbors in humility, rather than stand aloof. But it often is attended today by a lot of loose language about “doing the gospel” and “being the gospel,” of our work of partnering with God in the redemption and reconciliation of the world, and so forth—“Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words,” as the oft-quoted saying attributed to Francis of Assisi goes. The problem is that this confuses us with Jesus, the redeemed with the Redeemer, the ambassadors with the King. In Philippians 2, we are called to imitate the humility of Christ, revealed in his descent from glory in order to save the lost. However, everything else in that passage highlights the ways in which we cannot imitate Christ. We did not share equally with the Father and the Holy Spirit in deity. We did not become incarnate.  Our “humiliation” is not for the redemption of others, but for our witness to the name of Christ. So the gospel is something that can only be proclaimed, because it’s about someone else—what he has already accomplished—and that makes it Good News. Like John the Baptist, we point away from ourselves to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). Although we are called to imitate his suffering humility, Christ’s incarnation itself is not a model for us to imitate, but a wonderful announcement for us to bring to the world. The gospel is not about me or us; it’s about the Triune God and what he has accomplished for us in Jesus Christ.

You regularly raise the concern that many are confusing Christ’s work with our work. Can you briefly explain where the confusion lies?

This concern follows from the previous points. The Reformers made the startling point, so evident in the Scriptures, that in relation to God we are only receivers. All good gifts come down from the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. So then where do our good works go? God doesn’t need them. I don’t need them, because Christ is my righteousness. The only place for our good works to go, then, is out to our neighbors in love. They need us to bring them the gospel. They also need us to help them fix their roof, rebuild after an earthquake, watch their children while they take a sick child to the hospital, and so forth. Through the many works that Christians execute in their daily lives, God loves and serves the world in common grace. Through our witness to the gospel, God loves and serves these neighbors with saving grace. But if we eclipse God’s service, which we receive supremely in the public ministry of Word and sacrament, into an emphasis on our service, then the salt loses its savor. We may be really, really active in the world, but are we Christian in that activity? Scripture gives us commands as well as promises; tasks to perform as well as Good News to embrace. However, if we take it for granted that everybody already “gets” God’s saving grace in Christ (as though it were merely a matter of assenting to a series of doctrines and then moving on to the real stuff of Christian discipleship), we’re doing things backwards. Works flow from faith and faith feeds daily on the gospel.

How would The Gospel Commission compare with Andy Crouch’s Culture Making? How about Tim Keller’s Generous Justice?

Andy does a great job of challenging some of our common misunderstandings of “culture,” which fund an often shortsighted view of cultural impact. Really helpful insights (along with James Hunter’s To Change the World). I just finished Tim Keller’s Generous Justice and was impressed with many of his arguments. What is the connection between justification and justice? I devote a chapter in The Gospel Commission to “The Great Commandment and the Great Commission,” with similar results. On one hand, we have to avoid setting aside one or the other. But we also have to be wary of confusing these mandates. The Great Commandment—love of God and neighbor—is the summary of the law, not the summary of the gospel. It’s therefore inherent in the conscience of every living person, while the gospel is news that can only be proclaimed by a herald and believed by Spirit-given faith. Believers are especially obligated to this command to love, because we’ve been liberated from the law’s condemnation and the dominion of sin. We are already part of God’s new creation. And yet, we are still plagued by our own sin. Nothing we do can be confused with the gospel.

However, because the gospel is about Christ, and we embrace it by the work of the Spirit, the ways in which we “make culture” will be different as well. How different? Maybe that’s where a spectrum emerges.  I think there has been a lot of anxiety and burnout—indeed, a new kind of low-grade legalism—as believers are given the burden of transforming culture. Most of us are called to making small differences every day in the lives of a few neighbors—like our spouse, children, extended friends and relatives, co-workers. Of course, we pursue our callings as more than jobs, but so do a lot of non-Christians. We are motivated by a concern to love and serve our neighbors, but a lot of non-Christians have a stronger sense of social obligation than we do. What if I’m a janitor or tree surgeon in Iowa rather than a Wall Street mover-and-shaker? Actually, most Christians are the former rather than the latter. I like Os Guinness’s line: “In terms of influence, the problem is not that most Christians aren’t where they should be, but that they aren’t what they should be where they are.” I would only add that it’s only by being regularly steeped in God’s Word, over the long haul, that this kind of maturity becomes something that others recognize even if we don’t.

Would you have changed or added anything to your book if you had read Rob Bell’s Love Wins before?

I have a whole chapter interacting with the growing trend in evangelical circles toward “inclusivism.” According its author, the Great Commission is for “the whole world.” Everything I say in that chapter (with other conversation partners) addresses the issues raised in Rob Bell’s book. I was raised in a broadly Southern Baptist background in California. Most of my relatives—cousins, even a brother—are nominal. Many would have Rob Bell’s basic assumptions as their default setting. I think it resonates with our late modern culture, which is to a really remarkable degree shaped by a succession of former evangelicals.

Then we have the realities of religious diversity in our neighborhoods. My kids play every day in our backyard with Muslim neighbors. Some of our best friends are agnostics, and they’re wonderful people. Are they really lost, not just subjectively (as in “lost their way”), but objectively (as in “under the wrath of God”)? When I say yes, how can they fail to pigeon-hole me with their image of the arrogant religious bigot who shows up regularly in TV and radio debates? But the Good News that we bring to the world is salvation from God’s wrath. What happens to that Good News if there really is no bad news in the first place? And maybe I’m the arrogant one if I think that my idea of what a morally good, loving, and gracious God trumps what Jesus—the incarnate God who gave his life for sinners—says on the matter? We’re not the first Christians who had to deal with the charge of preaching an offensive message. The early Christians were fed to lions not because they wanted to tell the world that “love wins” and all will be well, but because of the scandal of Christ and their unflinching commitment to the claim that salvation is found in no other name. I love my non-Christians neighbors, but they are the ones who—like me—need to be rescued; none of us is in any position to negotiate the terms.

Do you think networks, such as ones normally found in Reformed and Baptist circles, are helpful for the mission of the church or more distracting?

One of the strengths of evangelicalism has always been its way of bringing together Christians from a variety of traditions and denominations, offering a common witness to the essentials of the faith. I still consider it a privilege to participate in that common witness. However, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, “mere Christianity” is the hallway where people mix and mingle and meet visitors at the door. It’s only in the rooms, he said, where there’s a fire and people eat, drink, and live. Evangelicalism is a movement. Movements come and go. They can attract attention and gather crowds, but disciples are made in churches. There is no “evangelical church.” There are only churches that are evangelical, as well as Reformed or Baptist or Lutheran or Methodist, and so forth. As a Reformed minister, I’m thrilled to see so much interest in the doctrines of grace beyond traditional Reformed and Presbyterian circles. Yet my hope is that the whole wealth of Reformed faith and practice won’t be reduced to “five points.” With no disrespect to the noble flower, there’s more in the garden than tulips!

John Starke is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and managing editor of TGC Reviews, the book review site of The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.
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  1. Amen to that. So many evangelicals try to pit the deeds against the creeds and make us choose a side. As we learn Christ’s work on our behalf, we are so much more free to serve our neighbors and alongside our neighbors w/out self righteouseness. Thank you, Michael for articulating the work of Christ and the mission of the church so well. You are producing books quicker than I can buy them!

  2. I think I need to unsubscribe from this feed. I keep coming across new amazing books that I have to buy, lol.

  3. [...] The rest can be read here. [...]

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  5. “The early Christians were fed to lions not because they wanted to tell the world that “love wins” and all will be well, but because of the scandal of Christ and their unflinching commitment to the claim that salvation is found in no other name.”

    One of the best, one-sentence responses to the whole debate right now. Thank you, Mr. Horton.

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  14. Thank you Dr. Horton
    “The Gospel Driven Life” is one of the best books of it’s kind I have read. The book answers so many questions and has been dispels much wrong thinking and incorrect teaching.
    I grew up in the Roman Catholic church and much of what is in error was not clear to me till now. thank you for getting the story straight.

  15. [...] Read the rest of the interview here. [...]

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