Note: This article is excerpted from Kingdom Calling.
The gospel preached in our congregations and small groups makes a huge difference in the kind of people our members become. Specifically, congregants' understanding of the gospel affects their views of three arenas crucial to living as the tsaddiqim (God's righteous ones): sanctification, evangelism, and mission. This is why it is crucial that missional leaders preach the "big" gospel of the kingdom—the gospel centered on Jesus' announcements that the long-awaited kingdom had broken into human history. This big gospel combats the too-narrow gospel so many of us hold.
The big gospel helps us understand that sanctification is a matter of conforming not only to the character of Christ, but also to his passions and identity. Missional leaders should of course be quick to affirm that seeking conformity to Jesus' holy character is absolutely essential. Personal morality and growth in the fruit of the Spirit is a critical part of righteousness, but it's also incomplete. Becoming like Jesus also means seeing ourselves as he did, as "sent ones," and being passionate about the things he is passionate about. Let's look briefly at each.
Jesus is passionate for justice and shalom. We see this as he overturns the tables of the greedy moneychangers in the temple (John 2:14-16), as he calls the Pharisees to account for their unjust practices (Mark 7:9-13), and as he deliberately reaches out to those society has banished to the margins: the poor, the disabled, the lepers. Jesus is also passionate about reconciliation among diverse people. He reaches across gender, ethnic, and religious barriers to minister to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) and the 10 lepers of Luke 17. Unity is also a core value for Jesus; consider, for example, his fervent prayer in John 17. And, like his Father, Jesus is passionate about the poor, the vulnerable, the sick, and the stranger. To become like him is to adopt all these passions as our own.
Moreover, genuine sanctification means that we intentionally identify with the identity of Jesus. He saw himself as the "sent one," and he calls us sent ones. Listen to John 20:21: "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." Sanctification means growing ever deeper into our identity as sent ones—those appointed by God to bear fruit, as Jesus said (John 15:16). It's not just the missionaries in our congregations who are the sent ones. We are all sent ones.
In teaching this point, missional leaders may want to consider using an attention-getting exercise from missionary Darrow Miller. Miller notes how precious John 3:16 is to many Christians. In some evangelical churches, Miller reports, to help not-yet-Christians grasp the amazing significance of this great love and to personalize it, evangelists encourage people to insert their own name into the verse, in place of "the world." Thus, John 3:16 comes to say, "For God so loved [Name] that he gave his one and only Son, that I shall not perish but have eternal life."
Acknowledging the validity of this, Miller then suggests that Christ-followers take another liberty with the text that links it to John 20:21. This helps us better grasp our own sentness. He suggests personalizing John 3:16 to read, "For God so loved the world that he sent me into the world."
Now it should be immediately emphasized, Jesus' sentness is utterly unique. He alone is the Messiah and God's one true redeemer. But, as John 20:21 makes clear, God intends for believers to follow his Son into the world as sacrificial servants. God shows his love for the lost and the least through his Son and through all his children who seek, in the power of his Holy Spirit, to be his hands and feet in compassionate service. God the Father and Jesus have sent us into the world. Sanctification means following Jesus as he sends us into every place and every societal sphere, giving ourselves to the work of the restoration of all things.
How we understand the gospel also shapes our approach to evangelism. Our presentation will include the vital good news of personal justification by faith in Christ's atoning blood. But we will also talk about the power of Jesus in redeeming all our fundamental relationships (with God, self, others, and the earth). Moreover, our gospel presentation will rejoice in Jesus' victory over both the penalty of sin and the corruption of sin. We will share the good news that through Jesus' redemptive work we can be made clean and whole. We will celebrate the good news that he is making us new creatures and that he promises the restoration of all things.
The gospel of the kingdom should also reshape the language we use in evangelism. Typically, congregants are trained to encourage seekers to "ask Jesus into their heart." However, this does not mirror the language Jesus himself used. His evangelistic invitation was, "Come, enter my kingdom." Therefore, evangelists of the gospel of the kingdom should encourage seekers to respond to Jesus' invitation to come over and join his heart. Intimate communion with Jesus occurs when we go to him. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way in Life Together: "It is not that God is the spectator and sharer of our present life, howsoever important that is, but rather that we are the reverent listeners and participants in God's action in the sacred story, the history of the Christ on the earth. And only so far as we are there, is God with us today also."
The kingdom gospel also leads us to invest more thought and energy in the missional work of enacting and demonstrating the heart of God in the world. We acknowledge that our lives as well as our words are messages to the watching world about God. This is what one Californian church learned as it studied and meditated for three years on Luke 10 and Matthew 10, about Jesus sending out his disciples. Pastor Ryan Bell writes,
We have … learned of our need to be continually converted to the gospel. Little by little, the gospel that Jesus gave the disciples to share, recorded in Matthew 10, has been replaced by a disembodied, abstract gospel about going to heaven after you die. But notice in Matthew 10 that Jesus doesn't commission the disciples with anything like a gospel of "going to heaven." He says, "Proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near'" (Matthew 10:7, NRSV). If anything, this is a gospel about heaven coming to earth, not us going to heaven. It's obvious, too, that this gospel is more about demonstration than presentation. Jesus does tell them to "proclaim" the good news. But how? "Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons" (Matthew 10:8). We have discovered that to be God's witnesses we need to be re-converted to the gospel of the "at-hand" kingdom of God.
Our understanding of the gospel also influences our view of mission. The gospel of the kingdom highlights the fundamental call for the church to join King Jesus on his mission of offering foretastes of justice and shalom. It shapes our understanding of the church's mission in the world in four additional ways.
First, the gospel of the kingdom illuminates our Lord's top three missional priorities. As articulated in his inaugural address in Luke 4, they are evangelism, compassion, and justice.
Second, the gospel of the kingdom draws us to holistic ministry, to addressing people's spiritual and material needs. It does so by pointing our attention not only to Jesus' death, but also to his life. A close study of Jesus' life reveals that he didn't treat people as souls without bodies. His healing ministry mattered. When he sent out the disciples, it was for the task of evangelism and the work of healing (Mark 3:14-15; Luke 9:1-2).
Third, the gospel of the kingdom shapes mission by encouraging us to think more "cosmically" about evil than does the too-narrow gospel so many of us hold. The big gospel focuses on the far-reaching ravages of the cosmic curse. It proclaims not only the redemption of individual sinners, but also the destruction of the devil's work and the restoring of all things. Kingdom people thus seek Jesus' power to "tie up the strong man" and "rob his house" (Mark 3:27). They recognize that mission involves pushing back the curse, fighting evil and injustice.
Finally, the gospel of the kingdom shapes the direction of our mission. With our focus on Jesus' life and ministry as our model, we come to see that while he loved everyone, his steps tended to lead him toward the poor. In this, Jesus is simply following in his Father's footsteps. The Bible teaches that God "shows no partiality" (Deuteronomy 10:17). But it also paints a very consistent picture of God acting vigorously on behalf of the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. He regularly exhibits a special concern for them. Our mission work should too.