Friday, April 1, 2011

A Brief Review of Michael Horton's "The Gospel Commission"

The Gospel Commission: Recovering God's Strategy for Making Disciples - Michael Horton (Baker, 20110.

Michael Horton has written an outstanding book on the mission of the church that moves us beyond vague and superficial slogans like "missional" and "emergent" to a consideration of Scriptural exegesis, systematic theological thinking and practical application to pressing issues facing the church today.

The book is divided into three parts: "I. The Great Announcement," "II. The Mission Statement," and "III. The Strategic Plan." Don't let the cute titles mislead: the first part is about the nature of the Gospel and the whole book is an exposition of the the Great Commission. Horton rightly presents the Gospel message the church is commissioned to take to the world as an announcement of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus Christ and that the ascended Lord rules from the right hand of the Father. "The Father's decision is irrevocable. Christ's mission is accomplished already, and the spirit will be just as successful in his labors. Therefore the Great Commission cannot fail." (31)

In chapter 2 Horton gives a mini-biblical theology of mission. He focuses on the question of what is the kingdom of God and he begins with the Exodus. He rejects two "Gentile" misunderstandings of the kingdom. The first extreme is the idea of the kingdom as a "purely spiritual reality, equivalent to the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul." (41) Against this Horton points to the Biblical idea of the renewal of all creation as God's ultimate purpose in redemption. The second extreme is the idea of the kingdom as "merely the moral development of the human race toward a world of love, peace and justice." (42) Against this Horton points to the Biblical teaching that it will be God's kingdom descending from heaven, not evolving on earth, that brings about the perfect society.

Horton emphasizes the two comings of Christ; in his first coming Jesus came as suffering servant, but in his second coming he will come as Judge and Lord. The purpose of the church between the two comings is to proclaim the Gospel and gather converts into the salvation that comes through the proclamation of Jesus Christ. The Great Commission is different from the Cultural Mandate, which is rooted in the covenant of creation. The Great Commission is the proclamation of the kingdom, which is the same as the proclamation of the Gospel.

Horton notes that some Evangelicals today are reverting to the tired old liberal Protestant attempt to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul by claiming that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom (as a human project of social justice) but Paul got the church off track by proclaiming a new religion centered on the person of Jesus. Horton has little difficulty refuting such nonsense by simply reading the Bible comprehensively and carefully. He conclusion is that "The Gospel is the Kingdom and the Kingdom is the Gospel." (79)

I have spent a lot of time on chapter 2 because it is foundational to the book. Part II deals with the actual mission of the church. In chapter 3 he addresses the troubling rise of inclusivism among Evangelicals and the consequent decline of belief in the necessity of preaching the actual Gospel to people so they can be saved. He deals with the arguments for inclusivism made by Brian McLaren and shows that far from being postmodern, they are actually deeply rooted in the Enlightenment itself and are the fruit of late modern theological liberalism. (108f) In chapter 4 he addresses the issue of contextualization and in chapter 5 he examines the goal of disciple-making - the kind of disciple we seek to make. Two false models are dismissed: the self-actualization model and the social justice activist model. These are both forms of accommodation to the culture. The real goal is a matter of being fully incorporated into God's story in Jesus Christ.

In Part III Horton turns to the question of how to fulfill the Great Commission. Not surprisingly, he turns in chapter 6 to an examination of Christ's disciple-making methods as the key. (165f) He discusses preaching, teaching and the sacraments as means of grace and spiritual gifts, personal prayer and evangelism as means of gratitude. In chapter 7, he is very helpful in stressing the centrality of the local church in disciple-making and criticizes para-church organizations for tending to supplant the local church. However, he fails to note that the reason this happens is, in many cases, the failure of local churches to take disciple-making mission seriously. He is fair and accurate in his denunciations of Evangelical enthusiasm, but fails to give adequate consideration to the dead orthodoxy of denominations that occasioned it historically.

Chapter 8 deals with the relationship of evangelism and social justice and is clear-headed and helpful. He is not buying the widespread Evangelical (and Liberal) teaching that the Gospel includes social justice ministry and that therefore feeding the hungry is as much declaring the Gospel as proclaiming forgiveness of sins through Christ's atoning work. He also refuses to accept the idea that the Gospel can be proclaimed without words. I so appreciate all this clarity that I am willing to overlook the sloppy tendency to equate conservative Evangelical support for the Republican Party with liberal Protestant support for the Democratic Party as if both sides in the culture war were equally wrong. One gets the impression at times that Horton is able somehow to hover above the fray and criticize everyone else while he himself suspends judgment. It is one thing to say that the church per se should stay out of partisan politics (a view with which I agree), but it is quite another to say that the individual Christian is free to take either side in the culture wars as a citizen (a view which I regard as incompatible with serious disciplship). Perhaps Horton is not meaning to go as far as I am portraying him as going here; perhaps he is only seeking to emphasize the unique role of the church in proclaiming the Gospel and warning against turning the institutional church into an arm of any political party. On that point we agree.

Chapter 9, "Mission Creep," discusses the perennial temptation of the church to substitute human priorities, ideas and projects for the Great Commission in the mission of the church. Here we see the exegetical fruit of chapter 2 applied with great insight and profit to contemporary ideas of mission on both the left and the right. Brian McLaren's ideas are engaged extensively and the take away point is Horton's demonstration of just how conventional the emergent church approach actually is. There is so little new or original there. Chapter 10, "Until He Comes," deals with the hope that sustains the Christian mission in the world: the hope of Christ's return and Christ's continuing presence by His Spirit all through this age.

In summary, this is a fine book which could be read with profit by anyone interested in working through biblical and theological issues surrounding evangelism, missions and the Great Commission. It is popular rather than scholarly in level and it is written in an engaging style. Adult Sunday School classes and Bible study groups could study it with profit and it belongs in every church library. We are in Michael Horton's debt for producing a work of such biblical and faithful wisdom.

"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications Inc. Available at your favorite bookseller or from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group."

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