Michael S. Horton, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 308 pp. Hardcover $19.99, Kindle Edition $9.99.
When it comes to reflecting and analyzing the current American church scene, Michael Horton has been one of my two favorite writers on the subject (the other being Stephen Prothero of Boston University).
Horton serves as J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California. Author of over a dozen books, this book completes the trilogy, following Christless Christianity and The Gospel-Driven Life. His concern in this book is that the American church is drawing from various sources and influences to build their own kingdom with their own strategies and agendas rather than drawing from the strategy already laid out by Jesus in the Scriptures. Toward the beginning of the book, he inquires,”
In its lust for cultural relevance, mainline Protestantism squandered its inheritance. Conservative Protestants today are also in danger, not so much of being attacked by New Atheists as of surrendering a robust confidence in God and his Word to a culture of marketing and entertainment, self-help, and right-wing and left-wing political agendas. If mainline bodies sold their birthright to the high culture, are evangelicals in danger of selling theirs to popular culture?
He explains clearly the point of the book: “Discipleship cannot mean going with the flow; it requires swimming against the current not only of contemporary culture but often of contemporary church life and experience. The central point of this book is that there is no mission without the church and no church without the mission.”
Horton senses that the church is drifting away from the thrust of what Christ established. In its place is a more therapeutic message aimed at building up self-esteem. He senses a danger in this mindset:
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. Jesus Christ doesn’t just live in the private hearts of individuals as the source of an inner peace. He is the Creator, Ruler, Redeemer, and Judge of all the earth. And now he commands everyone everywhere to repent. All idols are shams.
With Jesus and His church being seen as more of a therapeutic, self-help entity, Horton explains that this is why so many churches struggle with clearly presenting doctrinal distinctives. For those who struggle with doctrinal stands, he observes,
Many Christians today feel awkward taking stands on doctrinal issues that sound increasingly alien in our pluralistic culture. We don’t want to come off as the bellicose and judgmental know-it-all. Even in the church, we often shy away from doctrinal discussions for fear of appearing proud or divisive. In addition, recent conversations between evangelicals and Roman Catholics have softened the urgency and even the propriety of evangelical proselytizing in nominally Roman Catholic as well as nominally Protestant countries. Yet in reaction against perversions of our missionary mandate, are we in danger of surrendering to a culture that privatizes and relativizes ultimate truth claims? In this environment there is a lot of pressure to downplay the communication of the gospel in favor of simply letting our lives do the talking. It’s deeds, not creeds, that count. But is this false humility? Doesn’t this approach suggest that our confidence has shifted from Christ’s person and work to our own? The mission statement that Jesus delivered to his church is an urgent imperative to proclaim the gospel to everyone, to make disciples of all nations. From the beginning, Christianity has been a missionary faith.
He makes a solid point! By backing away from doctrinal claims and distinctives, the church risks giving away that which is intended to make it salt (that is, a gospel preservative) in the world (Matthew 5:13). Without doctrinal clarity based on the Word, we fail to show the why behind the what of our efforts. In an effort to “meet people where they are,” we must be careful not to forget who we are (redeemed sinners rescued by God’s marvelous grace through the cross and empty tomb) and where they truly are (sinners in need of rescue through the gospel of Christ).
Christians are called to do many things and to work diligently in many vocations, not only as church members but as parents, children, neighbors, co-workers, citizens, and volunteers. However, everything that the church is called to do as a visible institution—not only 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. Even those raised in the church must be evangelized every Lord’s Day, inserted again and again into the dying and rising of our Living Head. The same message that created faith in the beginning sustains it throughout our pilgrimage. It is the gift that keeps on giving, and it is intended to be given away by us to others outside of the covenant community.
Sadly, many American Christians have completely internalized Christianity. It’s about an inward emotion, not an outward demonstration of the faith (James 2:23-25). Outward forms have little value, and those in authority positions in churches are rejected or at least ‘de-clawed.’ In its place is a Jesus-and-me mentality, stressing a personal relationship with Christ. We hear this said: “It’s not about religion, but about a relationship.”
Horton reminds us that Acts 2:42 brings us into community: “And they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” Horton aims to draw Christians back to the purpose of our salvation: not to have Jesus as a life coach or a role model, but to been seen as an atonement for our sins. We are not merely good people in need of being better—we are sinners in need to resurrection!
Horton addresses a number of issues that challenge us to see if the Word and sacrament are truly sufficient and central to our life and community—or if we desire to pursue the sliding scale of relevancy in an ever-changing culture. Prepare to be challenged!