Reviewed by James Steer
What is the mission of the Church? That’s the question DeYoung and Gilbert seek to answer in this book. Their motivation for writing is to clarify some of the current confusion within evangelicalism, particularly with regard to what individual Christians and what the Church should be doing. They also seek to elucidate what is God’s work, and what is our work. In the opening chapter they ask “what do we even mean by mission?” before asking several other pertinent questions: “is the mission of the church discipleship or good deeds or both? ... Is the mission of the church distinct from the responsibilities of other Christians? ... What should be the church’s role in pursuing social justice?” (p. 16, italics original).
What is the mission of the church?
The first section of the book raises these questions and then lays some groundwork by defining mission, which they suggest includes two things “(1) being sent and (2) being given a task” (p. 19). The definition they give in the book is that mission refers to the “specific task or purpose that the church is sent into the world to accomplish” (p. 20, italics original). The authors consider some common answers before arguing that the mission of the church is what is laid out in the Great Commissions (Mt 28:16-20; Mk 13:10; 14:9; Lk 24:44-49; Acts 1:8, pp. 40-62). Therefore, they define the mission of the church as “go[ing] into the world and mak[ing] disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father” (p. 62).
How does this mission relate to the kingdom, social justice, and shalom?
From this foundation, the second section of the book then seeks to further support this understanding by considering other related issues. First, to support their thesis, they study the whole Bible and show that the Bible’s storyline revolves around the question “how can hopelessly rebellious, sinful people live in the presence of a perfectly just and righteous God?”, and is “about God’s work to make us right so we can live with him again” (p. 89).
Second, they consider several related questions:
(1) How does the “gospel of the kingdom” (e.g. Matt 4:23) relate to the “gospel” which is the message of salvation (e.g. 1 Cor 15:1-5)?
They show that in Scripture the word “gospel” refers to both the big picture of what God is doing (“all the great blessings that God intends to shower on his people, starting with forgiveness but cascading from there all the way to a renewed and remade creation in which they will spend eternity” (p. 94)), but also to “the singular blessing of forgiveness of sins and restored relationship with God through the sacrificial death of Jesus” (p. 94). To help explain this, DeYoung and Gilbert suggest an analogy from a camera lens: that the big picture is a “wide angle lens” view, while the focus on forgiveness of sins is the “zoom lens” view. In explaining how these two uses of “gospel” relate, they argue that “the gospel of the cross is the fountainhead of the gospel of the kingdom” (p. 108). That is, all the blessings of the kingdom are dependent on someone “coming in faith and repentance to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus for salvation” (p. 108).
(2) What is the kingdom of God, and how does it relate to the gospel?
The authors base much of their understanding of the kingdom on the work of Eldon Ladd and show from Scripture that it is “the redemptive reign of God over His People” (cf. Ps 145:11, 13, pp. 119-120), and that since the kingdom is referred to as Jesus’ kingdom (Luke 22:30; Col 1:13), then the kingdom is “the reign of the Messiah, Jesus” (p. 122). They subsequently argue that the kingdom has “broken into the present evil age and is now visible in the church” (p. 127). Therefore, the kingdom is fundamentally about Christ and what he is doing, not us or what we might do. However, a key question relating to the kingdom is how does one get into it? The authors answer that inclusion depends on “one’s response to the King” (cf. Mark 10:21, cf. 10:24; p. 135), a king who was crucified and resurrected. Therefore, it is “the King alone ... who has the authority to forgive sins, declare righteous, and make a sinful human being worthy to share in the blessings of his kingdom” (p. 138). This also relates directly to the mission of the church: the news of this King and his kingdom must be proclaimed (p. 138).
(3) What does the Bible say about social justice and the poor?
The authors devote two chapters to this important issue; in the first they carefully exegete twelve “social justice” passages. They argue that these passages are often misunderstood, and that these passages show that “the classic form of injustice is siding with the rich against the poor because the former will pay you for it and the latter cannot do anything to stop you” (p. 159, italics original). Therefore, the justice God desires is that there is no discrimination between the rich and the poor, and that bribery does not occur. Having studied what the Bible says on this issue, the authors then devote a second chapter drawing out “seven modest proposals on social justice” (p. 173).
(4) What does the Bible say about “shalom”?
In this chapter, DeYoung and Gilbert consider what peace is biblically, as well as the implications of shalom for the new heavens and earth. Related to this, the authors also discuss the cultural mandate (Gen 1:28; 2:15; pp. 208-213), and whether the new creation will be continuous or discontinuous (or aspects of both!) with the current one (pp. 213-219). In each case the authors show that these things are God’s work: that it is God who will establish the new heavens and earth (Isaiah 65:17), and that ultimately it is Jesus who fulfils God’s commission to Adam in the garden (the language of working and keeping (Gen 2:15) is priestly (cf. Num 3:8; 18:1-7) and is fulfilled by Jesus). This study of shalom supports the thesis the authors have been arguing all through the book: that shalom and entry into the new heavens and earth can only “be obtained by those who have been redeemed through the blood of the resurrected Lord Jesus” (p. 219). Therefore, again, DeYoung and Gilbert show that the mission of the church is to proclaim the gospel.
But what about doing good works?
The final section (and chapter) of the book draws the various threads together. First, the authors seek to address the issue most readers are probably asking at this point: what about good works? Should we do them? Why? DeYoung and Gilbert are very clear in this final section (and indeed at several other points throughout the book) that good deeds are important. The authors do not at all want to discourage readers from doing good works, neither do they want “Christians to be indifferent toward the suffering around them and around the world [or] ... to think evangelism is the only thing in life that really counts” (p. 22). Therefore, they suggest we need two categories: what is of “utmost importance,” and what is “really, really important” (p. 230), and that we need to be clear on what is in each category.
However, this raises the question of how do the responsibilities of Christians and of the Church relate? Is the Church to do everything that Christians are commanded to do? DeYoung and Gilbert argue no, by showing that there are specific responsibilities for Christians to do (like loving your wife), and things that the Church alone does (like taking the Lord’s supper, pp. 232-233). Therefore, churches do not have to do social ministries. But they do have to be involved in proclaiming the gospel to all peoples; and maybe they will be involved in social ministries if that helps support the proclamation of the gospel. In other words, the mission of the church (to proclaim the gospel) should drive other ministries that a church does.
I’d like to say how much I appreciate this book. It has been a joy and an encouragement to read, both the content and the way that it has been written. I’m particularly grateful for the authors’ very thorough exegesis of Scripture: they don’t just give their views and proof-text Scripture, rather every point they make is argued on the basis of careful exegesis. This means that their whole argument is thoroughly convincing. It also means that the book is clear on what DeYoung and Gilbert think are the responsibilities of individual Christians and also of the Church, and so the book is not just theoretical but helps us to live obediently to Christ.
Another point I appreciated is the graciousness with which the authors engaged with other writers (especially when they were in disagreement) – the godliness and grace of the authors clearly shone through. The authors were also very aware of how they might be incorrectly heard, and therefore while arguing that the Great Commission must be the mission of the church, they also emphasised the importance of Christians loving their neighbour – no-one could use this book to excuse doing good works.
Since the book was published, it has raised various discussions as to whether DeYoung and Gilbert have rightly understood the mission of the church, or indeed whether their definition is too restricted. For example, Ed Stetzer in his review in Themelios (36:3) says that he finds their view of mission too narrow. Against DeYoung and Gilbert, he says that good works are essentially connected to the church’s mission. This really gets to the heart of many of the discussions that have stemmed from this book. Is it, as DeYoung and Gilbert have contended, the Great Commission? Or does the mission of the church include doing good works as well?
It is precisely at this point that it is vital to grasp the authors’ observation that the responsibilities of individual Christians and of the Church are different (or to distinguish as Bavinck does between the church as organism and the church as institution). Therefore, there is a difference between what the Church should be doing and what individual Christians who make up that Church should be doing. This distinction ultimately fits with what DeYoung and Gilbert have been arguing all through their book – that there is a clear specific and distinct mission of the church, to fulfil the Great Commission, and while individual Christians have a responsibility to be proclaiming the gospel of the Lord Jesus, they also have a responsibility to their neighbour.
I really enjoyed reading this book, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to think about the Church’s mission, or how issues like the kingdom and social justice relate to the gospel. While I might have a few minor quibbles, I am convinced by their exegesis and overall argument. May this book result in greater clarity on what the mission of the church is, and therefore spur churches on in playing their part in the Great Commission.
 Lev 19:9-18; 25; Isaiah 1; 58; Jer 22; Amos 5; Micah 6:8; Matt 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-37; 16:19-31; 2 Cor 8-9; James 1; 2; 5.