Book Excerpt: Is “Incarnational” the Best Way to Describe Christian Mission?


The following article is an excerpt from Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s book What is the Mission of the Church?, forthcoming from Crossway in late 2011. This excerpt comes from chapter 2, “What in the World Does Jesus Send Us Into the World to Do?” and is printed here by permission.

It is very popular to assume that missions is always incarnational. And of course on one level this is true. We go and live among the people. We try to emulate the humility and sacrifice of Christ (Phil. 2:5-11). But incarnationalism in missions often means more than this.[1] It means that we model our ministry on Jesus’ ministry. For Stott, and many others after him, this means the mission of the church is service. “Therefore,” says Stott, “our mission, like his, is to be one of service.”[2] Evangelism and social action, therefore, are full partners in Christian mission.[3] Since the most crucial form of the Great Commission is the one we see in John (argues Stott), the simplest way to sum up the missionary enterprise is this: “we are sent into the world, like Jesus, to serve.”[4]

Stott’s reading of John 20:21 has been very influential. There are, however, some problems.

(1) It can be misleading to summarize Jesus’ mission as one of service. There’s no problem with this formulation if we mean “serve” in the Mark 10:45 sense of the word, that Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. But Stott means more than this. He means that Jesus’ mission was to meet human need, whether spiritual or physical.[5] Again, no one can deny, nor would we want to deny, that Jesus showed compassion to countless multitudes in extraordinary ways. Nor do we want to suggest that meeting physical needs has no place in the church’s work. On the contrary, let us be zealous for good works (Titus 2:14) and walk in the good deeds prepared for us (Eph. 6:10). But it is misleading to contend that Jesus’ ministry focused on serving, and even more so to claim, as one recent book does, that “Every moment of his ministry is spent with the poor, sick, helpless, and hurting.”[6] Sometimes Jesus was alone and wanted to be away from people (Mark 1:35, 45). Other times he was with rich men like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:5). Often he was with the disciples who were not destitute and were in fact supported by wealthy women (Luke 8:1-3).

We know this will sound odd to some, but it’s true:  It was not Jesus’ driving ambition to heal the sick and meet the needs of the poor. He was sent into the world to save people from condemnation (John 3:17), that he might be lifted up so believers could have eternal life (3:14-15). He was sent by the Father so that whoever feeds on him might live forever (6:57-58). In his important work on the missions of Jesus and the disciples, Andreas Köstenberger concludes that John’s Gospel portrays Jesus’ mission as the Son sent from the Father, as the one who came into the world and returned to the Father, and as the shepherd-teacher who called others to follow him in order to help gather a final harvest.[7] If Köstenberger is right, this is long way from saying that Jesus’ fundamental mission was to meet human needs.

But that’s John, someone may object. His gospel is always something of an outlier. What do the synoptics say? Well, let’s take a look at Mark as an example. No doubt, Jesus often healed the sick and cast out demons in Mark’s gospel. Teaching, healing, and exorcism were the three prongs of his ministry (see, for instance his quintessential first day of ministry in Capernaum in 1:21-34). And yet what drove his ministry was the proclamation of the gospel, the announcement of the kingdom and the call to repent and believe (1:15). Jesus healed and exorcised demons out of compassion for the afflicted (1:41; 9:22), but the bigger reason for the miracles was that they testified to his authority and pointed to his unique identity (e.g., 2:1-12).

Don’t miss this fact: there is not a single example of Jesus going into a town with the purpose of healing or casting out demons. He never ventures out on a healing and exorcism tour. He certainly does a lot of this along the way. He is moved with pity at human need (8:2). But the reason he “came out” was “that [he] may preach” (1:38). If anything, the clamor for meeting physical needs became a distraction to Jesus. That’s why he frequently commanded silence of those he helped (1:44; 7:36), and why he would not do many works in a town rife with unbelief (6:5-6).

In Mark, as in the other gospels, there are plenty of miracles and acts of service to celebrate, but they are far from the main point. The first half of the gospel drives toward Peter’s confession in chapter 8 where Jesus’ identity is revealed. The second half of the gospel drives toward the cross where Jesus’ work is completed (three predictions of death and resurrection in chapters 9-10 and a detailed description of Holy Week in chapters 11-16). Mark’s gospel does not focus on Jesus meeting physical needs. Mark’s gospel is about who Jesus was and what he did to save sinners.

It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus first action in Mark, after preaching (1:14-15), is to call men to follow him and promise to make them fishers of men (1:17). Jesus’ purpose statements in Mark are revealing. He came to preach (1:38). He came to call sinners (2:17). He came to give his life as a ransom for many (10:45). Or as we read elsewhere, Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). The focus of his ministry is on teaching. The heart of his teaching centers on who he is. And the good news of who he is culminates in where he is going—to the cross. The mission of Jesus is not service broadly conceived, but the proclamation of the gospel through teaching, the corroboration of the gospel through signs and wonders, and the accomplishment of the gospel in death and resurrection.

(2) It is unwise to assume that because we are sent as Jesus was sent that we have the exact same mission he had. We must protect that absolute uniqueness of what Jesus came to do. D.A. Carson, commenting on John 17:18, concludes that when it comes to the mission of the disciples “there is no necessary overtone of incarnation or of invasion from another world.” Instead, we come face to face with “the ontological gap that forever distances the origins of Jesus’ mission from the origins of the disciples’ missions.”[8] We cannot re-embody Christ’s incarnational ministry any more than we can repeat his atonement. Our role is to bear witness to what Christ has already done. We are not new incarnations of Christ but his representatives offering life in his name, proclaiming his gospel, imploring others to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20). This is how the exalted Christ carries out his mission through us.

So how then is the Son’s being sent a model for our being sent by the Son? Köstenberger explains:

The Fourth Gospel does therefore not appear to teach the kind of “incarnational model” advocated by Stott and others. Not the way in which Jesus came into the world (i.e., the incarnation), but the nature of Jesus’ relationship with his sender (i.e., one of obedience and utter dependence), is presented in the Fourth Gospel as the model for the disciples’ mission. Jesus’ followers are called to imitate Jesus’ selfless devotion in seeking his sender’s glory, to submit to their sender’s will, and to represent their sender accurately and know him intimately.[9]

Consequently, a focus on human service and on human need is not, at least in John, a primary purpose of either Jesus’ mission or the disciples’ mission.[10] If the context of John 20:21 tells us anything, the mission of the disciples was to wield the keys of the kingdom, to open and close the door marked “Forgiveness” (20:23; cf. Matt. 16:19). John wrote his gospel so that his audience might “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing [they would] have life in his name” (John 20:31). This was John’s mission, as he understood it. And there’s every reason to think he saw this as the fulfillment of the mission he recorded from Jesus a few verses earlier. The Father sent the Son so that by believing in his name the children of God might have life (1:12). The Son sent the disciples, in the same spirit of complete surrender and obedience, so that they might go into the world to bear witness to the one who is the way, the truth, and the life (14:6).

[1] See David Hesselgrave (141-65) for a helpful summary of the Incarnationalism v. Representationalism debate. Hesselgrave argues for the latter.

[2] Stott, Christian Mission, 23, 24.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] Ibid., 30.

[5] Ibid., 24.

[6] Lyons, The Next Christians, 55.

[7] Köstenberger, The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples, 199.

[8] D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John,  PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 566.

[9] Köstenberger, The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples, 217.

[10] Ibid., 215.

Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.

Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor of Christ Covenant in Matthews, North Carolina. You can find him on Twitter at @RevKevDeYoung.

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