In The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin argues that understanding “the missionary mandate” as primary obedience to a command misses the point of the Gospels and Acts, and operates by a law, not gospel, kind of logic. The same thing, of course, applies to preaching; since the missionary mandate consists mainly in the proclamation of the gospel, leading to holy baptism. The major lesson to be learned here is, operating by a gospel-kind-of-logic, missional preaching is the work of the Lord when it is the Word of the Lord that is proclaimed, rather than a debt of obedience to a certain mandate by ministers. In other words, your sermon cannot be your sermon if it is to be the missional work of the Lord. Therefore, if it is the work of the Lord, then it confidently remains in the domain of grace, not human performance, and not human persuasion. When this is the case, preaching itself becomes a joyous endeavor for both the preacher and his auditors. Newbigin believes this understanding of missions, of preaching itself, whereby our confidence stands in the Lord’s Word and work, makes our “going” and “making disciples by baptizing” (the so-called missionary mandate) the result of uncontainable joy rather than burdensome law or mere ordinances, which cannot but color the proclamation itself.
Now, to be sure, the Church is directed by her King, Jesus, to, “go and make disciples of all nations,” but the sense which flows through the pages of the New Testament is that such a mission is the result of joy, rather than the burden of the Law. After all, who can keep the delight and freedom the Gospel of grace and forgiveness of sins to themselves? Who considers sharing good news a laborious chore? Consider further how nowhere does Saint Paul feel the need to urge anyone to get out there with the Gospel, that is, to get on with the missionary mandate. Instead, it bursts from his very being: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). That seems to have been the sentiment in the cities where his epistles circulated, too, because he never admonishes his readers or auditors that they have a duty to proclaim the good news to others, nor are they obligated by the “ordinance” of sacramental observance. Instead, they are out there doing it already, both as a joyful response to the grace they have received, but also as a response to inquiries about the distinctiveness of the Christian religion which set Jesus’ people apart from those given to the various lordships of the world and the gods. There was freedom and relief and meaning and hope to be had in Jesus. He ruled differently than the Caesars, and Jesus’s citizens were distinguished as a result. See, then, how the missionary mandate and preaching itself collapse into the same joyous impulse arising from the Spirit of the Lord? The reason for this is they come from the same impulse — the Lord Himself.
Newbigin moves in this direction when he reflects on how almost all gospel proclamation described in Acts happens in response to questions asked by those outside the Church. Consider the preaching of Peter on Pentecost or Stephen before his martyrdom or, indeed, Phillip’s opportunistic response to the Ethiopian, the event in Cornelius’ household and Paul’s preaching in the synagogue at Antioch. Each occasion arises: (1) in response to an outside inquiry and, significantly, (2) are orchestrated by the missional activity of the Son and the Spirit (through the Lord’s duly called ambassadors). Newbigin considers this then writes:
In every case there is something present, a new reality, which calls for explanation and so prompts the question which the preaching of the Gospel is the answer … Something is happening which prompts the crowd to come together and ask [e.g., on Pentecost], “What is going on?” The answer of Peter is, in effect, a statement that what is going on is that the last day has arrived and the powers of the new age are already at work, and that this is so because of the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
Newbigin comes to emphasize the fact that the Jesus who was crucified, whom they (the gathered Temple crowd on Pentecost) crucified, is now seated at the right hand of God until all things are put under His feet. This must be proclaimed to all who will hear it because it is the truth about reality, as well as being a fact of history. It constitutes the heart of all Christian distinctiveness — our King and Savior was crucified to death but now, having been resurrected, rules and reigns by the power of the Holy Spirit through (stunningly and contrary to the governments of this world) grace, mercy, truth, peace and love. The truth about the reality of God’s gracious Kingdom having broken into our fallen world is good news and, so, is delivered and proclaimed from a disposition of joy. D.T. Niles summated missional preaching by saying, “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.” Again, who does not delight in sharing the bread of life both materially and spiritually? Newbigin says much the same thing as Niles but states it with greater specificity: “The real government of the universe, the final reality which in the end confronts every human being, is the crucified and risen Jesus.” We rejoice that God is reigning though the Christ according to a new covenant of grace and not the old covenant of law. For beggars like us, that is nothing other than the bread of life and the telling of it good news, indeed. To repent and be baptized into this reality, or simply reality per se, is to share in Christ’s ongoing mission to the world. It is to be baptized into His mission. It cannot but engender joy. The “it,” however, is not something of you or from you. It is His accomplishment, His kingdom, His grace, His salvation. It is news about Him and from Him, albeit through preachers like you.
This is the key to understanding missions and preaching: It is His mission, His message. Christ commissions only His Kingdom of God message to be preached, period. You are not at liberty. There is no “freedom of religion” when it comes to preaching. Consequently, it cannot be your sermon you preach. Your sermon cannot be your sermon (unless, sadly, it truly is your sermon and not the one Christ commissioned to be preached which, then, nullifies it as a sermon, properly speaking). This should be clear from the truth that we preachers cannot save anyone. That is the work of the Lord; not merely as a past tense accomplishment during the first century Advent, but also presently through the Gospel. Accomplishing salvation is the work of the Lord and applying salvation is the work of the Lord. So, for our part, “going” and “preaching” set the forum in which the Spirit brings the saving faith of Christ to needy sinners and strengthens the faith of sinners saved by divine grace. Jesus says this is the way it is going to be when His word is preached, when His sermon is your sermon:
…the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of Him, two by two, into every town and place where He Himself was about to go. And He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest. Go your way …and say to them, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you.’ …The one who hears you hears Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me, and the one who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me (Luke 10:1-3, 9, 16).
When the sermon is Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God, the result is, “Whoever receives you receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me” (Matthew 10:40). Receiving Christ is pure joy. Being an instrument in the facilitation of receiving Christ, therefore, cannot be anything but pure joy, too. Thus, the mission of preaching in large part arises from the dynamics of the Gospel, notwithstanding it be directed by the Lord.
Christ commissions only His Kingdom of God message to be preached, period. You are not at liberty. There is no “freedom of religion” when it comes to preaching.
This means the mission of preaching will not only be a matter of preaching and teaching but also of learning that this is the work of the Lord when it is truly the Word of the Lord. Newbigin combines these thoughts saying, “When he sends them out on their mission, Jesus tells the disciples that there is much for them yet to learn and He promises that the Spirit who will convict the world [of sin and of righteousness and of judgment] will also lead them into the truth in its fulness (John 16:12-15).” This is something the Church, including all of its faithful missionaries and pastors, has to be learning and ever relearning. The establishment, sustaining and furthering of the Kingdom of God by the work of the Son and the Spirit stands as the launching point of all Christian learning. It is the truth which sets us free and freedom engenders joy. That the Gospel is the work of the Lord from beginning to end, for salvation, sanctification and glorification, even as He uses missionaries and ministers, sets preachers free from the coercion of the Law when it comes to missions and ministrations. This is something we, as preachers, learn in the course of mission, both in the field and in the parish. The degree to which we fail to learn how the sermon cannot be ours and that the effectiveness of the word of Christ’s Kingdom of God proclamation depends on the Spirit is the degree to which one can be sure preaching the Gospel does not arise from a disposition of joy. Happily, the Lord provides not merely a mandate to missional preaching but dispositional motivation from the Holy Spirit, for the fruit of the Spirit is joy (Galatians 5:22).
When the outcome of preaching depends on the work of the Lord, then preachers can have full confidence in the word of Christ, if it indeed be the Word of Christ (and not their own “message”) they preach. Dependence on Him, confidence in His mission, begets joy in God and joy in God begets mission, and mission perpetuates joy inasmuch as it arises from gospel impulses over and above the mandate. The missionary mandate, then, seems to address both potential and actual waywardness and neglect of true, Gospel preaching, when moralism and motivational messages supplant former confidence in the Word and work of God. The mandate is of necessity so the Church may know the will and ways of her Lord. But even here where the command is clear, the motivational impulse of joy springs from the Gospel when it comes to preaching.
One cannot think, when a gospel-kind-of-logic drives preaching, then the burden of considering it only as an ordinance, command, or mandate diminishes proportionately. Correspondingly, when your sermon is not your sermon, but the Lord’s Kingdom of God proclamation, then both confidence and joy may be found in the preacher and the preaching.