GCRTF VIEWPOINT: What does Scripture say?
Historically, we began our existence through a similar renewed concern to fulfill those Bible passages identified with the Great Commission (especially Matthew 28:18-20, but also Mark 16:15-16, Luke 24:45-49, John 20:21-23 and Acts 1:8). The Anabaptists and early General Baptists referred to such passages as the "rule of Christ." A 16th-century Particular Baptist, Benjamin Keach, popularized the term "Great Commission" through his many writings. Later, William Carey used the Great Commission to rebuke hard-line Calvinist views among 18th-century Baptists, thereby launching the modern missionary movement. The first Baptist convention in America began with a sermon on the Great Commission by a leading southern Baptist, Richard Furman, and missionary Southern Baptists often have returned to the Great Commission in their zeal to please God. Thus, historically, the Great Commission is part and parcel of what it means to be Baptist. But tradition, as inspiring as it is, is not what motivates Baptists; Scripture does.
The Biblical Basis for a Resurgence
This brings us to ask: Where in Scripture might a Great Commission Resurgence be discussed? If we peer over the desk of the late Herschel H. Hobbs, we discover that the New Testament letter to the Hebrews was written in order to challenge its readers "to go on in the fulfillment of their divinely given mission -- to be a people of evangelism and missions" (Hebrews: Challenges to Bold Discipleship). In other words, the Hebrews had reached a crisis point: Either they would fulfill the Great Commission of their Lord Jesus Christ or they would fall away into obscurity. Hobbs again remarks, "A given group of God's people, a church, or an individual Christian may so rebel against God's world-mission as to lose the opportunity of being used in it." These are sober and frightening and relevant words, indeed.
Has our generation of Southern Baptists reached a similar crisis point? Is God reminding us of His commission, warning us to fulfill His will or be bypassed? This is not the same question as apostasy; rather, it is a question about our churches' obedience to the Lord. Are we willing to recognize that Jesus is the Lord of His church and He alone determines her membership, her structure, her gifts, her leadership, her ordinances, her mission, her methods and her message? Are we willing to hear His Great Commission and obey it, precisely as He put it forward in the Bible?
These are questions that we in the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention must ask ourselves. Before continuing, we must admit these are not really questions for the denomination, as good as it has been and still is, for Christ did not establish denominations. The only redemptive institution established by Jesus Christ in Scripture is the church (Matthew 16:18), and she is seen now only in local covenanted gatherings of believers (Matthew 18:18-20). Denominational entities exist only for the cooperative purposes of the churches and carry no dominical claim whatsoever to be church. A denomination is dependent upon and subservient to its churches. It may surprise us, but in the end the Lord will not ask whether our denominational entities were obedient to His Great Commission, for He did not give this responsibility to them. Our churches are directly responsible to Jesus Christ to fulfill the Great Commission, and we may not empower and release that responsibility to even the most efficient entity.
Where Do We Begin and How Do We Proceed?
The Great Commission Resurgence must be fulfilled first and foremost in the local churches. The primary question is, therefore, not about the denomination's structure, but the local church's structure. If we in the local churches do not look like what Christ established and the apostles practiced in the New Testament, we must reconsider our structures. The denominational structure, a human innovation, only comes into consideration as a secondary or tertiary matter. Our first concern must be with Christ's institution: Is my church New Testament in its structure, methods, etc.? Denominational structures are relevant only insofar as the God-given priorities of the local churches are honored, maintained and promoted. From this perspective, the more ties an extrabiblical entity has with the local churches, the better; the fewer contacts, the worse. So, the resurgence must begin locally.
If there is to be a Great Commission Resurgence, it must start within the churches. But where do the churches start? Hebrews 5:8-14 compels us to look to Christ Himself as the perfect example of obedience and to proceed into theological and ethical maturity. Growth into Christian maturity begins with making sure that the foundation of our faith is right. After the foundation is set, theological maturity is found in obeying the Word of God, not piecemeal, but completely. According to Hebrews 6:1-2, our foundation doctrines include repentance and faith unto salvation, the proper practices of baptism and laying on of hands, and the eschatological teachings on resurrection and eternal judgment. It is only when these essential doctrines -- noticeably inclusive of baptism -- are maintained that we may press on to maturity. Let us make sure we always maintain the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith, but we cannot remain there.
Hobbs points out that Hebrews 6:4-6 is a commentary on the events of Numbers 13-14, where the people of Israel "were failing to fill their place in God's world-mission." The church must learn from Israel's mistakes and not forget its mission. What is the church's mission? Our Great Commission is found in Matthew 28:18-20. The primary command is to "make disciples," but also included are the imperatival participles of "going" on mission, "baptizing" the new converts as a public witness to their faith, and "teaching them all" that Christ has commanded. There will be no Great Commission Resurgence as long as any of these commands, or their sequence, is dismissed as non-essential. We absolutely must cross all ethnic and geographic boundaries to make disciples. We absolutely must baptize new disciples. We absolutely must teach everything that Christ commanded, committing ourselves to lifelong Bible education.
Matthew 28:18-20 commands that we "make disciples," and the other passages help complete the picture as to how that lifelong process must begin. Common among the renditions of the Great Commission is the need for Christians to proclaim the words of the gospel of Jesus Christ -- words available only from the Bible. Christians must be verbal witnesses, and their words must: focus on the God-man Jesus Christ (John 20:21; Acts 1:8); include the good news of His death for our sin and resurrection for our life (Mark 16:15; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8); call for personal repentance and promise forgiveness (Luke 24:47; cf. Romans 10:9-10); and be directed individually to every human being on the planet (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:19-20). This great responsibility is incumbent upon all Christians and is impossible for any one congregation to fulfill on its own.
The Greatness of the Great Commission
In other words, Christ's Commission is "Great" because it cannot be completed unless every Christian in every church receives it as a personal and congregational responsibility to share the New Testament gospel verbally with every lost person. Why a verbal witness? Because God ordained that faith would be engendered in the human heart through the proclaimed Word of God. God has chosen our tongues to be the instruments that carry His Word. And the churches are to train and send out their members to proclaim it (Romans 10:14-17). The particularity of this task (giving a personal verbal witness) alongside its universality (providing that witness to everyone everywhere every day) demands our entire attention and drives us into each other's arms.
We cooperate together because the commission is too great for any one church to fulfill alone. The Great Commission, as noted, is also found in Acts 1:8, where the Jerusalem church is given responsibility not only for Jerusalem, and for Judea and Samaria, but also for the "remotest part of the earth." When a local church hears Christ's command, she receives responsibility for proclaiming the gospel to her local community, in her state and to all the nations of the world. Yes, every local church is responsible for preaching Scripture within every geographic category of our earthly existence. My church in Fort Worth is responsible to make disciples in Fort Worth, in Texas and the United States, and in Afghanistan and everywhere else.
Note two truths here: First, the local community and the state have no more priority than the rest of the world. Second, the local community and the state have no less priority than the rest of the world. The entire world is our emphasis, and no place, near or far, may be excluded or diminished in importance. This comprehensive calling is why Southern Baptist churches have historically cooperated in amicable relationships through local associations, state conventions and the national convention. The churches understood that friendly cooperation is necessary at all levels in order to penetrate the world's darkness. All of our denominational levels and their entities -- mission boards, seminaries, colleges, children's homes, soup kitchens, etc. -- are intended to help us be better Great Commission churches. Jerusalem is just as important as Judea and Samaria, and both are just as important as the uttermost ends of the earth. The Great Commission demands universal geographic application beginning with one's community.
The all-encompassing nature of Christ's Great Commission should drive us into one another's arms for mutual help, but not because we see what others might contribute to our various personal or institutional priorities. We should be driven into cooperation because we see Jesus Christ in each other, and that vision of Him reminds us of Who the Great Commission concerns. The Great Commission compels us because it comes from our Lord, Who gave Himself totally for us. We respond by giving ourselves totally to Jesus and for His glory alone. The Great Commission is great because it is from Jesus and because it is for Jesus. Jesus wants His churches to make sure the foundation is correct and to mature by fulfilling His mission to a lost world. We all need each other to accomplish Jesus' Great Commission.
Will We Really Have a Great Commission Resurgence?
Knowing the Hebrew church needed a Great Commission Resurgence, the author expressed grave concern. Like Israel, that church was given so much, but they were tempted to suppress their witness in difficult times. The apostle warned them that when God works in mighty ways in a community, He expects it to bear fruit. "But if it yields thorn and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned" (Hebrews 6:8).
Hobbs lamented that when Christians refuse to proclaim the gospel, they "negate God's redemptive purpose. Thus they join with the crucifiers." God will then choose another people or a different generation to accomplish His world-mission. This is a dire warning to my generation of Southern Baptists today. However, on the bright side, the apostle also said, "Beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation" (Hebrews 6:9).
So, does Scripture have anything to say about a Great Commission Resurgence? Yes, indeed, it does. The question now is whether we will obey our Lord's commission. Will we follow Him? Will we let Him rule His churches as He commands in Scripture? Will we make sure that we have all the fundamentals established? Will we then grow into the full maturity of His Great Commission -- by going, making disciples, baptizing and teaching all His commands? Will we proclaim His Word faithfully?
Will we see everyone everywhere every day as our personal responsibility? Will we call them to repent from sin and believe in the resurrected God-man Jesus Christ, and then call new disciples to obey Him starting with baptism? Will we be faithful to implement Jesus' will completely in His churches? Will we cooperate together in our local associations, our state conventions and as a Southern Baptist Convention for His purposes? Will we obey His Great Commission? I pray we will, and I am convinced that God will bless our churches as we fulfill Christ's Great Commission completely for His glory alone as authoritatively relayed in the Bible alone.
Malcolm Yarnell is associate professor of systematic theology and director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.