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Book Review: The Gospel Commission by Michael Horton

What is the mission of the Church? Depending on who you ask, you’re likely to hear answers that address various aspects of social and personal transformation. Some will say that we as Christians are to care for the poor, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to be salt and light in the world.

And all of these are true. But what is the mission of the Church specifically?

Before He ascended into heaven, Jesus provided the answer to this question when he said to His followers, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).

The mission of the Church is to make disciples. But is it possible that we’ve gotten a bit off-track? Are we actually making disciples—or are we doing something else? In his new book, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples, Michael Horton offers a careful biblical and pastoral examination of the Great Commission, offering many helpful insights into how the Church can move forward in its role.

Two Promises

This book marks the culmination of a work that Horton began with Christless Christianity and The Gospel-Driven Life. Where those books necessarily spent a great deal of time dealing with the very serious errors that have crept into the Church, the vast majority of The Gospel Commission is decidedly more positive. Following the structure of Matt. 28:18-20, Horton bookends this work with the two great promises of this verse:

  1. Jesus’ absolute authority over all things in heaven and on earth given to Him through His death and resurrection; and
  2. Christ’s assurance that the Great Commission will not fail.

These two promises are essential to the Church fulfilling its mission. Without the assurance of Christ’s authority, we have no hope, nor any reason, for making disciples. “The early Christians were not fed to wild beasts or dipped in wax and set ablaze as lamps in Nero’s garden because they thought Jesus was a helpful life coach or role model but because they witnessed to him as the only Lord and Savior of the world.” (p. 33). His authority strips away ideas of private religion because He is not simply a “personal Lord and Savior,” He is the Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, Redeemer and Judge of all the earth. In light of this, the call to make disciples is not a “nice to have,”—it’s an urgent imperative for all churches.

Additionally, because Christ is Lord—because He is decisively in authority over all things—disciples will be made. We cannot fail in the task to which He has appointed His Church. It also relieves us of a great deal of pressure. Horton explains:

Jesus is not waiting for us to fulfill the Great Commission before he returns in glory; rather, he is fulfilling the Great Commission by his Word and Spirit and will return on the day that the Father has set. This relieves us of an impossible burden, liberating us to participate in the missionary movement in which the Triune God has been engaged from the beginning of the world. (p. 294)

The return of Christ does not depend on you.

Disciple-making does not depend on you.

It all rests on the sufficiency of the gospel and His authority. Is that not good news for the weary believer?

One Purpose

The Great Commission contains an urgent and specific imperative: We are to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. “There is no mandate for the church to develop a political, social, economic, or cultural plan,” Horton explains. The only mandate is “to get the Good News to everyone who lies in darkness, to baptize them, and to teach them everything in God’s Word. . . . Everything that the church is called to do as a visible institution—not only in its ministry of preaching but its public service of prayers, singing, sacraments, fellowship, government, and discipline—is to be a means of delivering this gospel to the whole creation.” (p. 88) This inevitably leads us to the issue of “contextualization.” Horton here attempts (and I think mostly succeeds) to strike a balance in his understanding of what contextualization means, that being, simply, that you’re making the gospel understandable for the context in which you minister. Speaking in ebonics to a nursing home isn’t going to bring clarity to the gospel, for example.

What I found interesting was Horton’s call to a need for greater catholicity—that is a more universal understanding that is “rich enough to offer mutual correction and insight into God’s Word from the various contexts of different times and places.” (p. 132) Here his concern is that our current focus on contextualization is amounting to a more culturally segregated church. So you’ve got the African-American church, the urban hipster church and the Spanish language church, but they don’t talk to or engage one another. While I’m not sure that this is necessarily the actual result of how we are currently approaching contextualization, it’s definitely something against which to be watchful. Our churches ought not be defined by age, social class or ancestral background anymore than musical style (as in the so-called “Worship Wars” of the late 90s). Disciple-making transcends all of these borders to make people from all nations into citizens of heaven (cf. Phil. 3:20).

One Plan

Horton moves from purpose to plan in the next section of The Gospel Commission. What methods did Christ authorize us to use in making disciples? Arguing from Matt. 19-20a, Horton points to three things:

  1. Preaching of God’s Word
  2. The Administration of the Sacraments (Baptism and Communion)
  3. Church Discipline

Where these are not present, no disciples are being made, according to Horton. Here, I want to focus solely on preaching (this review is fairly lengthy as it is). We need to hear the Word of Christ in order to know Christ. The gospel must be proclaimed if any are to be saved. On this point, Horton offers one of his most devastating critiques of those who criticize the necessity and centrality of preaching, who think that it can be minimized or replaced with something else entirely. “Minus the video clips, you would have heard a lot of the same arguments in the medival church where the mass was theater, with stage, lighting, dramatic exists and entrances, and all the props to dazzle the senses,” Horton writes.

Yet there was a famine of hearing the words of God—especially the gospel of free justification in Christ alone. The invention of new strategies (“mission creep”) eventually led to the marginalization, perversion, and finally denial of that message that Jesus told us to proclaim to the world. (p. 168)

Again, these are strong words well worth considering. Have you seen a spiritually healthy church where the Word is noticeably absent? Consider Willow Creek, pioneers of the “seeker sensitive” movement: They’ve proven they can draw a big crowd and put on a very engaging event, but a recent multi-year study (additional article here) has shown that they’re largely ineffective in making disciples. There’s a lot of sizzle, but little steak, as it were.

One Distinction

You may have noticed earlier that I made a distinction between individual Christians and the Church. This was intentional as Horton (rightly in my estimation) argues that there are many things to which individual Christians are called to do which the church is not.

What I am suggesting is that there are myriad causes that are good, bad, and indifferent for which the church has no special competence or commission. . . Christians supporting a worldwide relief organization will probably be much more effective than a church that is trying to become one. Christians with a background in law, business, economics, health and science will be in a much better position than a pastor or group of church leaders to integrate their faith with social questions of the day. (p. 225)

What Horton is bringing to light is the distinction between the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. Though the two are inextricably connected, they are different.

We have seen a tendency to confuse these mandates, as if the Great Commandment were the Great Commission and good works were the gospel. There is nothing in the Great Commission about transforming culture. However, the Great Commandment calls every person—believer and unbeliever alike—to works of love and service in our daily lives. If some confuse these mandates, other separate them, as if our high calling in Christ had no connection with responsible stewardship and citizenship in the world. (p. 226)

Confusing the two has devastating effects, resulting in another try at Christendom, as “the Great Commission becomes the Great Society” (p. 227).We must be careful to not minimize either at the expense of the other, but likewise we absolutely must be clear in the distinction.Horton best articulates it as follows: “The Great Commission reflects the holy (saving grace) and is where disciples are made. The Great Commandment reflects common grace and is where our discipleship goes” (p. 243).

Because I work for an NGO, reading this distinction and chewing on it was a great relief and welcome correction for me, personally. If we’re not careful, we can get so caught up in the thing that we’re doing that we can get our work confused with the church’s. But Great Commandment work doesn’t bring people to faith. It’s like saying you can bring someone to faith without ever telling them about Jesus. Your actions reflect your status as a disciple, but they don’t make other disciples. Only the gospel does that.

One Concern

If there were one thing in particular that I would need to call attention to on the “negative” side regarding The Gospel Commission, it’s that the book might be an intimidating read for the average person. All the content is incredibly valuable and necessary (I’m honestly not sure where material could be cut), but when a chapter spans 50 pages or more (as several do in this book), it’s possible that, for the popular level, the content might have been better served as a series of books rather than a single volume.

In the end, though, The Gospel Commission is a powerful reminder of the importance and effectiveness of Christ’s strategy for making disciples. Particularly for those in pastoral ministry, it’s a must-read. And as you do, examine your ministry practices and see if there’s anywhere that God would have you make a course correction.

Title: The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples
Author: Michael Horton
Publisher: Baker Books (2011)

A review copy of this book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

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