Book Review: The Mission of God’s People, by Christopher Wright

Review
10.27.2010

Mission is a hot topic among evangelicals these days. Not missions, mind you, but mission.

This summer, Southern Baptists hosted a conference called MissionShift, which produced a “missional manifesto.” Just around the corner is a conference sponsored by the Gospel Community Mission Collective, which exists “to promote, create, and equip gospel communities on mission.”

This fall, on a much grander scale, the Third Lausanne World Congress on Evangelization convened in Cape Town, South Africa. It aimed to forge a global evangelical consensus about crucial issues facing the church today as we carry out the task of evangelizing the world. The Lausanne movement has grown out of the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, which produced the Lausanne Covenant, a statement on the nature and priorities of Christian mission which was chiefly authored by John Stott. Now, over three decades later, the Lausanne Congress at Cape Town has produced another document, the Cape Town Commitment, which stands in this tradition and which will surely shape evangelical concepts of mission in coming years. Its chief architect was a noted Old Testament scholar and missiologist, a man who counts Stott as a personal mentor: Christopher J. H. Wright.

What kind of priorities undergird this document, and the movement it embodies? More broadly, what are the shape and emphases of these newer conversations about mission among evangelicals?

Many of the answers are likely to be found in Wright’s new book The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, which is the first volume in Zondervan’s promising new series, “Biblical Theology for Life.”

WHAT MGP IS, AND WHAT IT DOES WELL

Following on the heels of Wright’s denser and more hermeneutically-oriented volume The Mission of God (IVP, 2006), The Mission of God’s People (MGP) aims to answer the question, “What does the Bible as a whole in both testaments have to tell us about why the people of God exist and what it is they are supposed to be and do in the world?” (17). By “mission,” then, Wright means the all-embracing purpose which encompasses everything that the people of God are called to be and do in this world. He writes, “So when I speak of mission, I am thinking of all that God is doing in his great purpose for the whole of creation and all that he calls us to do in cooperation with that purpose” (25).

The first half of the book focuses primarily on the kind of people God’s mission calls us to be. Christians should be “People Who Know the Story They Are Part of” (ch. 2), “People Who Care for Creation” (ch. 3), “People Who Walk in God’s Way” (ch. 5), and “People Who Represent God to the World” (ch. 7). With this theological and ethical foundation in place, Wright turns his focus in the second half to the specific tasks God’s mission calls us to. Specifically, he calls us to be “People Who Bear Witness to the Living God” (ch. 10), “People Who Proclaim the Gospel of Christ” (ch. 11), and “People Who Live and Work in the Public Square” (ch. 13).

This book has several notable strengths. The first is that it is full of evenhanded, plainly articulated biblical theology. Here are several examples:

  • Wright’s concise summary of the biblical narrative and its theological implications in chapter 2 forms an integrative foundation for a biblical worldview.
  • Wright’s solid work on Christian ethics as the foundation of mission in chapter 5 provides an Old Testament flavored antidote to the kind of nominal Christianity that plagues many churches’ corporate witness.
  • Chapter 8, “People Who Attract Others to God,” is a rich exposition of several Old Testament passages which envision all the nations being attracted to worship the true God through his people’s distinctness in the world, along with how these themes are picked up and fulfilled in the New Testament.
  • Wright sketches a simple, straightforward overview of the Bible’s teaching on work and participation in the public square in chapter 13 in which he rightly exhorts pastors to labor to equip their people for works of ministry in the public sphere.
  • Chapter 14 provides a thoughtful reflection on the missional thrust of prayer and praise. That is, Wright argues that worship in Scripture is not only the goal of mission, but that the corporate praises and prayers of God’s people have an evangelistic impact of their own, quite apart from any efforts at being “seeker-sensitive.”

Another of the book’s strengths is that Wright joins together many things which evangelical Christians have too often separated: faith and obedience, evangelism and discipleship, gospel proclamation and social action. Wright correctly insists that all these things and more have a role to play in the life of God’s people, and that these pairs mutually reinforce one another in ways that more antithetical constructions of them have tended to obscure. Even if one wished to raise questions about certain aspects of Wright’s proposal, as I intend to, he is to be commended for painting an integrated, biblically-informed portrait of what God’s people are to be and do in the world.

WHAT MGP ISN’T

Before examining a few of those issues, I should say a few quick words about what this book is not.

First, as Wright explains in the preface, it’s not a simplified version of The Mission of God, although it is both shorter and simpler. The Mission of God argued for a “missional hermeneutic of the whole Bible” and sought to expound the idea that “The mission of God is what unifies the Bible from creation to new creation.” MGP, building on that foundation, aims to answer the “so what” question: “If the Bible renders to us the grand mission of God through all generations of history, what does it tell us about the mission of God’s people in each generation, including our own? What is our mission?” (17).

Second, the book is not a “biblical theology” in the sense of sequentially tracing an unfolding theme through the canon. Rather, it is mainly a selective, topically arranged exposition of a number of (primarily Old Testament) texts which bear on what God’s people are to be and do in the world. While the topical arrangement of MGP gives it a certain layered richness, it leaves one without an overall sense of what the various biblical corpora—particularly in the New Testament—contribute to our understanding of the mission of God’s people.[1]

A FEW ITEMS WORTH PROBING CRITICALLY

As I said above, this book has much to commend it—more than I’ve mentioned. Keeping that in mind, there are a few aspects of Wright’s proposal which are worth probing more critically.

“Everything is Mission”

The first is Wright’s avowed insistence that “everything is mission.” Early in the book Wright explains that he understands “mission” as the all-embracing category and “missions” as specific manifestations of that mission, on the analogy of science and the sciences. He continues,

And it seems to me there are as many kinds of missions as there are kinds of sciences—probably far more in fact. And in the same way, in the variety of missions God has entrusted to his church as a whole, it is unseemly for one kind of mission to dismiss another out of a superiority complex, or to undervalue itself as “not real mission” out of an inferiority complex. The body image has powerful resonance here too. That is why I also dislike the old knock-down line that sought to ring-fence the word “mission” for specifically cross-cultural sending of missionaries for evangelism: “If everything is mission, then nothing is mission.” It would seem more biblical to say, “If everything is mission . . . everything is mission.” (25-26)

One wishes that Wright would have argued his point, rather than dismiss the opposing viewpoint with a wave of the hand as “the old knock-down line.” And it’s hardly clear why his definition would “seem more biblical.” Still, there’s no strictly biblical reason why Wright shouldn’t use the word “mission” the way he does. As he points out in chapter 1, a common contemporary definition of the word “mission” is “a sense of purpose or goal-orientation” (24). So, given this reasonably common usage, Wright uses the term mission to encompass all that the people of God are to do and gets on with his exposition.

A further aspect of Wright’s all-embracing definition of mission is that he intends to explode the hierarchy which evangelicals have traditionally set up between evangelism and the whole broad range of Christian responsibilities. Evangelicals have traditionally restricted the term “mission” to mean something like “evangelism and church planting, especially of the cross-cultural sort,” and this prioritizes such activities over other Christian responsibilities. Wright wants to do away with this hierarchy almost entirely. For example, he explicitly critiques the idea that we should “put individual salvation and personal evangelism at the centre of all our efforts” (273). Further, he poses the question, “Is the church’s mission primarily the delivery of the message of the gospel—in which case the verbal element is all that really matters?” (30). It seems Wright not only wants Christians to give more attention to matters that we may be neglecting, but he wants to do away with the common notion that disciple-making should be our central aim or highest priority or most urgent task.

I say “it seems” because elsewhere in the book, following the Lausanne covenant of 1974 and the “Grand Rapids Report” of 1982, Wright very cautiously affirms that the proclamation of the gospel has “a certain priority” in the church’s mission. Yet even then he is quick to argue that “in missional practice, the distinction is hardly, if ever, a real one” (276). Wright suggests that evangelism and social action should be so intertwined in our practice, much as prayer and Bible reading should be in a Christian’s devotional life, that to ask which is primary is basically irrelevant (277).

Wright continues by addressing the suggestion that “‘centrality’ rather than ‘primacy’ might be a better word for evangelism within mission” (278). Without either endorsing or rejecting this terminology, he interprets the idea of evangelism’s “centrality” in a way that translates to total interdependence between evangelism and social action: “If evangelism is like the hub, connected to the engine of the gospel power of God, then it also takes the living demonstration of the gospel in Christians’ engagement with the world to give the hub connection and traction with the context—the road” (278).

A Response to Wright’s Version of “Everything is Mission”

What response should be offered to Wright’s statements about the place of gospel proclamation within his all-encompassing category of mission?

First, there is certainly merit to Wright’s insistence that the Grand Rapids Report of 1982, for example, “was attempting to ‘reconcile’ two things which should never have been separated in the first place” (276). If Scripture lays a whole range of responsibilities on Christians, one thing we must not do in discussing the relationship between them is marginalize or neglect any of them. “These you ought to have done without neglecting the others.”

Yet on the other hand, I would argue that Wright’s somewhat equivocal statements about the priority or centrality of evangelism within the church’s mission obscure the unique emphasis we must give to evangelism—and its consequents, discipleship and church planting—if we are to be faithful to the whole thrust of Scripture. For example, in discussing the cosmic scope of God’s redeeming work, Wright argues that “Our mission therefore has to be as comprehensive in scope as the gospel the whole Bible gives us” (41). This idea of the all-encompassing scope of our mission is part and parcel with Wright’s insistence that we should not erect a hierarchy of priorities within our mission (30). But Wright’s presentation of these related points seems to veil important distinctions we find in Scripture which should lead us to place a unique emphasis on making disciples of Jesus Christ.

If our mission flows from and in some sense participates in God’s mission, as Wright correctly and repeatedly insists, then we should carefully note the different ways God brings about the various aspects of his comprehensive plan of redemption. For instance, Scripture clearly teaches that God will usher in the new creation unilaterally, apart from anything we do, on the last day. Certainly, we joyfully experience a foretaste of certain aspects of this new creation now, but according to Revelation’s vision of the end, it is only at the consummation that the New Jerusalem will descend to earth from heaven as a bride prepared (by God) for her husband. Scripture also clearly teaches that people will be delivered from eternal hell only through faith in Christ, which will only happen through our evangelistic efforts, only before the last day. I’m fairly confident that Wright would affirm all of this.[2] Yet he tends to so emphasize the comprehensive scope of redemption that he neglects to properly wrestle with the dramatic differences in the means by which—and the timing in which—God works out various aspects of redemption.

Further, I would argue that by dismantling virtually any hierarchy of importance between creation care, social action, and working in the public square on the one hand and disciple-making on the other, Wright’s version of holistic mission fails to reflect necessary practical emphases which flow from these biblical distinctions. For example, whatever we conclude about the nature of our responsibility toward the non-human creation, not one blue whale or Brazilian rosewood is threatened with eternal damnation as the just penalty for its sin. Yet the way Wright works against the idea of the “priority” of evangelism (I prefer the term “centrality”) seems to me to run exactly counter to the way these weighty biblical realities should impact our concept of mission.

If God is going to accomplish one aspect of his redemption apart from anything we do and another aspect exclusively through our efforts, shouldn’t that lead us to give special weight and urgency to what God accomplishes only through us? If only one group of creatures in all of God’s creation (namely, humans) are threatened with eternal, conscious torment which can only be averted through belief in the gospel, shouldn’t that cause us to focus especially on ministering to our fellow humans, without in the least neglecting our responsibility toward the non-human creation? Or again, if human suffering in this life is temporal while God’s judgment against sinners is eternal, should we not seek to address to whole sweep of human suffering, especially that which is eternal?[3] In view of these biblical realities, I think Keith Ferdinando is exactly right to argue that evangelizing and making disciples is absolutely central to Christian mission and that the vocabulary we develop for conceiving of Christian mission must reflect this absolute centrality.[4]

In sum, to place all of our missional imperatives on virtually the same plane of emphasis, as Wright does, does not seem to square with (i) the way the Bible dramatically distinguishes between the nature of the plight faced by humans as opposed to the non-human creation; (ii) the means by which God “redeems” the non-human creation as opposed to humans; (iii) and the unique role God’s people have in working to bring about the salvation of sinners compared with God’s completely unilateral, eschatological act of creating a new heavens and a new earth. Further, I fear that any concept of mission which deliberately avoids making such distinctions leaves us without crucial biblical ballast for keeping our churches focused on that which is of first importance.[5]

The Exodus as a Definitive Model of Redemption

A second matter worth probing is Wright’s insistence that “The exodus provides the prime Old Testament model of God acting as Redeemer. This is what redemption looks like when God does it” (41). Or again, “God’s idea of redemption is exodus-shaped” (96). By this Wright means that, just as the exodus had political, economic, social, and spiritual dimensions, so too God’s climactic act of redemption in the cross of Christ has the exact same scope. In other words, Wright argues that the Bible’s idea of redemption is not merely informed by the exodus, but that it “matches” the exodus at every key point (103). Wright explains the practical outworking of this view as follows:

The exodus has been seen as the biblical foundation par excellence for theologies of mission that emphasize the importance of social, political, and economic concern alongside the spiritual dimensions of personal forgiveness. Or rather, and with greater biblical faithfulness, it is the biblical basis for the integration of all these dimensions within the comprehensive good news of the biblical gospel. Such holistic, or integral, understandings of mission point to the totality of what God accomplished for Israel in the paradigmatic redemptive event—the exodus. And I believe they are right to do so. (109)

I would suggest that there are a few significant problems with Wright’s articulation of the sense in which the exodus is a definitive paradigm of redemption.

First, Wright arbitrarily privileges the exodus narrative itself (roughly Exodus 1-15) over the rest of the Old Testament in constructing a “paradigm” of redemption. In other words, Wright sets up “the exodus” as the definitive model of redemption abstracted from all that follows on its heels, whether immediately or remotely, including the giving of the law, the establishment of the sacrificial system, the wilderness wanderings, the inheriting of the land, Israel’s inveterate and unending rebellion against their covenant God, and all that follows from their rebellion in the grand sweep of the Old Testament narrative. The problem with this arbitrarily narrow focus is that the Old Testament itself picks up and develops the exodus themes in ways that ultimately contribute to the New Testament’s appropriation of the exodus and shape our understanding of what the exodus “means” almost as much as the original narrative. As the story unfolds, what comes to the fore again and again is the people’s inability to keep God’s law and their need for radical spiritual surgery—along with a covenant that would not merely demand their obedience but supernaturally enable it and provide a truly effectual means of atonement for sin.

Second, Wright’s application of his “holistic” understanding of the exodus to the New Testament obscures the New Testament’s emphasis on redemption as forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God.

Certainly, Wright’s conclusion that redemption through Christ is “holistic” is true in an ultimate sense. The new creation will be a world of perfect justice, of total human flourishing, and of perfect fellowship with God. But in its discussion of redemption the New Testament seems to strongly emphasize the vertical, theocentric dimension (what Wright calls the “spiritual” aspect), while clearly indicating that “holistic” redemption in the social, political, and economic senses will only be obtained in the eschaton.

Examples of the New Testament’s accent on the vertical, theocentric dimension of redemption are found in the parallel statements of Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:13-14. In Ephesians 1:7 Paul writes, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.” That Paul can define redemption as the forgiveness of sins demonstrates that at the very least Paul regarded personal reconciliation to God as the highest peak in the mountain range of redemption. Further, Colossians 1:13-14 says, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” In this passage Paul draws on the political imagery of the Israelites being redeemed from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule and brought into the service of God to describe our present experience of redemption as being delivered from bondage to Satan and brought into God’s kingdom. This radical transfer happens on an entirely different plane from Israel’s geo-political deliverance, which is something that Wright’s presentation of the exodus as the definitive paradigm of redemption unaccountably glosses over. That Wright articulates a view of the exodus which doesn’t align with the New Testament’s use of exodus imagery betrays a basic methodological error. That is, Wright fails to allow the New Testament authors’ interpretations of the Old Testament to properly influence his.

Third, Wright asserts continuity between the exodus and New Covenant believers’ experience of redemption where the New Testament plainly asserts discontinuity. God redeemed Israel politically, socially, and economically through delivering them from political oppression, bringing them into their own land, and giving them his law to govern every aspect of their life as a distinct geopolitical entity. Yet at least in its present manifestation, New Covenant redemption differs from the exodus at each of these points.

Consider, for example, the life of a first-century Roman believer who happened to be a slave. What sort of political, social, and economic redemption did such a believer experience? Did the apostles respond to the tangible plight of such a one by saying that he or she had been redeemed, and so must “put on” that redemption by obtaining a new social and economic status, just as the Israelites were delivered from Pharaoh’s oppression? Not in so many words (1 Cor. 7:17-24). Or again, Peter calls Christians “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11-12), which alludes both to Israel’s status in Egypt before they were redeemed and their status in exile as they awaited the second exodus God promised to work for them. Revelation, a book rich in exodus imagery, graphically defines the present experience of God’s people in terms of the grisly experience of being persecuted by a hostile political power, much as the Israelites were before the exodus. Since the New Testament speaks of Christians as already having been redeemed and yet being consistently subject to political oppression, it is imprecise at best to say that redemption always embraces the political, economic, and social dimensions.

Fourth, another way to say this is that Wright’s distinctive portrayal of redemption as “exodus-shaped” partially collapses the New Testament’s eschatological timeline. Granted, Wright admits that “we do not yet see the completion of that redemptive work in present history” (111; see also 103-104). But it seems to me that to speak of redemption as inexorably “exodus-shaped” and as demanding an “exodus-shaped mission” (102) keeps the force of this admission from shaping one’s conception of redemption, and therefore of mission, as it should. Ultimately, we do look forward to the glorious day when we will dwell with God in the new earth, “the home of righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:13), at which time we will enjoy all the fruits of a perfectly consummated redemption. But at the present time, we enjoy the foretaste of that redemption in the forgiveness of sins and the spiritual freedom we enjoy as members of God’s kingdom, even while many of our social, political, and economic circumstances remain far from “redeemed.”

This is not to deny that our redemption through Christ has implications that spill over into every sphere of life, including the social, economic, and political spheres—far from it. But it is to say that our theology of redemption, and therefore of mission, must take stock of the differences between redemption’s application now compared to the full consummation of redemption in the eschaton. It should be noted that these differences strongly parallel the differences between our present experience of redemption and the Israelites’ experience of redemption through the exodus, which suggests that Wright significantly overstates the continuity between the exodus and New Covenant redemption in its inaugurated form. In view of this, a more typological reading of the relationship between them has more to commend it than Wright’s dismissive label of such a reading as “spiritualizing” would suggest.[6]

“Church” and “Christians” Used Interchangeably

A final matter to discuss is Wright’s consistent reference to the church as the people of God in a generic sense. That is, he uses the term “church” interchangeably with the term “people of God,” with very occasional reference to local churches in his application questions at the end of each chapter. As D. A. Carson points out in a discussion that touches on Christians’ responsibilities in the public sphere, this is not without problems:

But however achieved, this equation between church and any collective of Christians, such that “church” and “Christians” can be used interchangeably, skews discussion in a maximalist direction. John Stott is a fine example of a Christian leader who takes this approach. When he argues that Christians ought to be involved in various forms of social care, he means, equally, that the church ought to be involved in various forms of social care. In other words, when he asserts that part of the Christian’s obligation is to be involved in some enterprise or other, this is, for him, virtually indistinguishable from asserting that the church’s mission mandates such enterprise.[7]

But, Carson suggests, if we suppose that “church” in the New Testament “cannot be reduced to a collective of Christians,” then we have to ask whether the Christian’s responsibility to “do good, to show mercy, to care for the poor” and so on “belong to the church as a church.” If they do, then we would expect to see church leaders taking responsibility for these activities and directing them. But what we find in the New Testament is that the church’s earliest leaders, the apostles, were careful to protect the priority of the Word and prayer in their ministry, and even handed over matters of justice within the congregation to other mature men (Acts 6:1-7). Further, the qualifications for elders/overseers and descriptions of their work seem to place a distinct accent on “the ministry of the Word and prayer.” Moreover, when we examine New Testament teaching about the gathered church’s distinct responsibilities, they seem to cut a narrower profile than that of the individual Christian.[8]

This means that if we want to cling tightly to biblical priorities, we must be prepared to acknowledge that the full range of activities which come along with serving as salt and light in the world “may not be the church’s mission, under the direction of the church’s leaders” while they certainly are “the obligation of Christians.”[9] Therefore our discussion of the church’s mission is incomplete and possibly misleading until we wrestle with the question of the distinct responsibilities of the local church as an institution over against the responsibilities of individual Christians. We need to ask “What is the mission of the local church?” not merely “What is the mission of the individual Christian?”

CONCLUSION

As is surely evident by now, this review must fall slightly short of a commendation.

I hope that this lengthy critical discussion has not obscured my appreciation for the sound biblical theology which comprises much of The Mission of God’s People. Further, though I have reservations about certain aspects of his vision for mission, I want to state again that I think many of Wright’s correctives are both biblical and needed. These include his admonitions not to neglect the Bible’s insistence that we are to do good to all men and that we are to care for God’s creation. Wright’s vision of what Christians are to be and do in the world draws together biblical imperatives which many evangelicals have wrongly torn apart, whether in theory, practice, or both, and for that contribution I am grateful.

Yet I hope that Wright’s proposal will not be uncritically imbibed, but will rather serve as a catalyst for Christians to continue wrestling with the Bible’s teaching about what we are to be and do in the world—and what the local church is to be and do in the world. I hope that many more voices will contribute to this conversation and help spur us all on to a more faithful practice of the mission to which God has called us.

[1] Readers who want to trace the theme of mission as it unfolds through the canon (with brief but valuable reflections on application toward the end) would be well served by Andreas Köstenberger and Peter O’Brien’s excellent book Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission (IVP, 2001).

[2] Though Wright does make an obscure and somewhat concerning statement at the end of chapter 11: “So let us neither (at one extreme) neglect our evangelistic responsibility by forgetting the vital importance that God places on the witnessing role of the church as God’s people, nor (at the other extreme) inflate our evangelistic egocentricity by imagining that God has no other means of communicating his good news” (199-200). I’m at a loss as to what “other means” for preaching the gospel besides God’s people Wright is referring to.

[3] In his informative study of recent debates surrounding the definition of mission, Keith Ferdinando soundly argues that “if men and women are alienated from God and face eternal judgment, then communication of the message of reconciliation must have precedence over social action. Again, this is not to deny the necessity of social engagement. However, the thrust of the New Testament is that eternal realities have immeasurably greater significance than temporal ones. We may feed the hungry, heal the sick, release the oppressed, but if they remain alienated from God then their gain is relatively small, for the eternal reality has a significance that infinitely surpasses the circumstances of the present (cf. 2 Cor. 4:17). Chester makes the same point in the context of a work in which he argues strenuously for Christian social involvement: ‘the greatest need of the poor, as it is for all people, is to be reconciled with God and escape his wrath.’” See Keith Ferdinando, “Mission: A Problem of Definition”. Themelios, Volume 33 Issue 1 [May, 2008], 56. The end of the quote refers to Tim Chester,Good News to the Poor: Sharing the Gospel through Social Involvement (Leicester: IVP, 2004), 74.

[4] Ibid., 59.

[5] I’m borrowing the image of “ballast” from Kevin DeYoung’s excellent article, “There’s Something Worse than Death” in the September/October 2010 issue of the 9Marks Journal. See also Greg Gilbert’s similar reflections in his article “Why Hell is Integral to the Gospel” in the same issue.

[6] For Wright’s more extensive discussion of the exodus, see The Mission of God, 253-80. For a critique of Wright’s views of the exodus which complements the discussion here, see the review of The Mission of God by Mike Gilbart-Smith in this eJournal

[7] D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Eerdmans, 2008), 150. Evidence that Wright thinks along similar lines is found in the handful of application questions in the book which apply Wright’s expanded definition of mission to the scope of the local church’s responsibilities.

[8] Ibid., 150-151

[9] Ibid., 152.

By:
Bobby Jamieson

Bobby Jamieson is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. He is the author, most recently, of Jesus' Death and Heavenly Offering in Hebrews. You can find him on Twitter at @bobby_jamieson.