I graduated from a Southern Baptist seminary whose unofficial motto is, “Every classroom is a Great Commission classroom.” It’s a school where graduates regularly post photos of themselves holding white and blue signs that read, “I am going to ____.”
Sometimes the blanks are filled with the names of cities, countries, or peoples where the alumni hope to plant churches. Other times the blanks are filled with responses spanning a range of vocations: preaching, equipping lay leaders, writing, serving the elderly, caring for trafficking victims, as well as working as lawyers, counselors, administrators, and school teachers.
They seem dissimilar on the surface, but every #iamgoing sign is connected by a central concern: fulfilling the Great Commission. This is as it should be. Properly understood, the Great Commission touches every facet of our faith.
Questioning the Greatness
The Great Commission—the name we’ve given to Jesus’s words in Matthew 28:16-20—is no stranger to controversy. But recently one author claimed that focusing on the Great Commission results in a “truncated, revivalistic, individualistic gospel.” The ensuing error is what he calls “Great Commission Christianity,” which the author says is “not heretical” but is still harmfully “deficient.”
This isn’t the first time someone has cited concerns over making the Great Commission central to the Christian faith. For one thing, the phrase “Great Commission” isn’t in the Bible. It’s not unfair to warn against the potential danger of making any extra-biblical phrase foundational to the church’s mission. On the other hand, phrases like “the Trinity” and “social justice” are also not in the Bible, but that doesn’t make either term automatically untrue or unnecessary.
Others fault “Great Commission Christianity” for inaccurate exegesis. Because the word “go” in Matthew 28:19 is a participle, some say that Jesus’s words mean “as you go” but not “go” in the sense of “you must go.” Unfortunately, this somewhat common claim misunderstands the relationship between adverbial participles and finite verbs. As renowned Greek experts Bill Mounce and Dan Wallace both argue, it is exegetically inappropriate to translate the word “go” in the Great Commission as anything other than a command. Jesus really does want us to go and make disciples.
All That Christ Commanded
Above all, however, it is difficult to see how focusing on the Great Commission as the church’s core mission leaves out the full range of activity that God intends for his people. Indeed, that seems impossible when fulfilling the Great Commission entails “teaching them to obey everything [Jesus has] commanded you” (Matt. 28:20 NIV).
“The way forward is a greater gospel that can make sense of the whole commission Jesus gave to the church.”
This means that the Great Commission isn’t just about church planting and related evangelistic endeavors. Rather, it also involves teaching disciples to let their lights shine so that others can see their good works (Matt. 5:16), to reconcile broken relationships (Matt. 5:23–25), to turn the cheek and go the second mile (Matt. 5:38–42), to do unto others the types of justice, kindness, mercy, forgiveness, fairness, and grace that they would want for themselves (Matt. 7:12), to use power to serve and not oppress (Matt. 20:26–28), to invite the poor to dinner (Luke 14:12–14), and to love their neighbor as themselves (Matt. 22:39–40).
In other words, making disciples in fulfillment of the Great Commission requires teaching them to live in the direction of God’s kingdom (Matt. 6:33) until his will is done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10 HCSB).
Greater Gospel, Greater Commission
The real problem, therefore, isn’t that focusing on the Great Commission results in a “truncated, revivalistic, individualistic gospel.” On the contrary, the problem is that preaching a truncated, revivalistic, individualistic gospel causes us to miss the fuller focus of the Great Commission. Put differently, the problem isn’t too much of the Great Commission. The problem is too little of a gospel able to showcase the commission’s greatness.
This is what happens when we reduce the gospel to a message about how to get to heaven. As good as that is, the gospel is the even better news that Jesus is reconciling and renewing all things, “whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:20 ESV; cf. Acts 3:21; Eph. 1:10; Rev. 21:5). If the gospel is only good news about heaven and forgiveness, we will always fail to see the need for all things to be restored.
But again, this is not a Great Commission problem—it’s a gospel problem. It’s a problem of having a gospel too small to make room for beauty and goodness alongside truth. It’s a problem of having a view of redemption too narrow to see the need for everything Jesus commanded (cf. Matt. 28:20). And it’s a problem that leads God’s people to settle for making converts instead of making disciples who seek the kingdom in every waking hour of the day and every square inch of creation.
The way forward, then, isn’t criticism of “Great Commission Christianity,” much less the Great Commission itself. The way forward is a greater gospel that can make sense of the whole commission Jesus gave to the church.
Much More—But Never Less—Than Humanity
On the other side, some are concerned a cosmic focus may lose sight of the need for evangelism and conversion. I understand this concern, but like criticisms of “Great Commission Christianity,” criticisms of cosmic redemption are equally misplaced. Making redemption about more than humanity doesn’t diminish the significance of personal salvation. As Tim Keller explains in an interview with Trevin Wax,
In Romans 8 Paul speaks of the renewal of creation—its liberation from decay—something that shows that ultimately God’s salvation means the renewal of the whole world, not just the salvation of individual souls. Yet in verse 21 Paul says that the creation will be brought into our freedom and glory as children of God—the glory that we as individuals have received through faith in Jesus Christ.
So rather than saying—as many do—that the main point of the gospel is cosmic salvation, and our individual salvations are just part of that, it might be more accurate to say it’s the other way around. It may be that cosmic renewal is a fruit of our individual, personal salvation.
Because I read Romans 8 the way I do—I see substitutionary atonement and justification as not something that comes along with the bigger story but as the point of the spear of the Big Story.
In other words, cosmic redemption is Christ’s goal (Rev. 21:5), but the redemption of humanity is the centerpiece (Rev. 21:2–3).
Where God’s Promise Meets Our Purpose
Amazingly, the Bible tells us that it’s through redeemed humanity—disciples who are baptized and taught to obey all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20)—that God works to anticipate the world’s final redemption. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to work together with God (2 Cor. 5:14–6:1; Phil. 2:12–13), as signs and means (not fully, but really!) of the world’s liberation from its bondage to sin (Rom. 8:19–24).
And we do all this as those redeemed from the very same works of darkness that Jesus came to expose and destroy (Titus 2:11–3:8; cf. Rom. 16:19–20; 1 Cor. 15:58; Eph. 2:1–10; 1 John 3:8–10). We live, in other words, like people who believe that Jesus “comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found,” as Isaac Watts rightly taught us to sing.
“The problem isn’t too much of the Great Commission. The problem is too little of a gospel able to showcase the commission’s greatness.”
A big gospel encompasses every sacrifice of love, every act of kindness, every work of art, every sermon preached, every injustice rectified, every prayer offered, every church planted, and every disciple made. For when the love of Christ is the driving force behind all these, they will not fail to result in God’s glory and the world’s good.
That’s truly great news. It’s also a great commission.
James Ford is the assessment coordinator for Acts 29 North Atlantic and the Midtown location pastor for Remnant Church in Richmond, Virginia. He is also a grateful graduate (MDiv, ThM) of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where every classroom is a Great Commission classroom.