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Mission, Theology and Grace

Reading Acts 14 and 15 this morning. The interplay of mission, theology and grace really struck me.

Paul and Barnabas go throughout Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Pisidia, Pamphylia and Perga, preaching "the word of God's grace" (14:3); "the gospel" (v7); "good news" (v15); "the gospel" (v21); "the word" (v25).  When they return to Antioch they call the church together for a mission report: "they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles." (v27)  Everyone's thrilled.

But... you knew the next chapter had to begin with a but... "But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."  (Acts 15:1)

Familiar pattern eh?  Good news of great joy is preached to all the people.  But the people of God are the biggest obstacle to the good news.

Paul and Barnabas are incensed and trace the rot right back to Jerusalem.  When they get there some believers of the sect of the Pharisees repeat the heresy "It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses." (v5)

Here's my question: How long would these Judaizers have remained preaching their false gospel if it wasn't for the missionary activity of Paul and Barnabas?  The Gentiles come in and force the Jewish believers to rethink what it means to be saved and belong to God's people.  It stirs things up.

Now it's true that once the matter is raised in Jerusalem, the council is quick to denounce this theology as "a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear." (v10)  But before the agitation of missionary activity and new converts, it was a yoke they all seemed to be tolerating.  Legalism had become a comfortable yoke while-ever they remained 'at home.'

But once the disciples saw the good news spreading and giving life they saw their anti-gospel living in a new light.  When they saw the nations rejoicing in the Lord - even these unwashed Gentiles - they were forced to see the radical simplicity of the Lord's salvation.  In the light of a life-giving gospel their life-sapping theology was seen for the legalism it had always been.

Here's an application that springs to mind... the best way to fight slave-making legalism within the church is to preach the life-giving gospel outside the church.  When those who are far from God come in, only the true gospel can cope.  The law can never handle the mess of radical conversions.  Evangelistic churches need to be gracious churches.  In this way theology is refined in the fires of mission.

15 thoughts on “Mission, Theology and Grace

  1. Brian Midmore

    One paradoxical form of legalism within evangelicalism which is hard to gainsay is 'you must go forth and evangelise' (or there will be hell to pay!)

  2. Glen

    I'll grant that's a recognisable caricature!

    Jesus' "Go forth" pronouncement in Acts was different, but still irreducably missional: "You will be my witnesses."

    If we figure out what *His* "Go forth" means and entails I contend that it will reduce not enflame legalism.

  3. Brian Midmore

    If we are motivated by the Spirit. How can you stop a command written down in the Bible from becoming a new kind of law which ultimately undermines the message of grace?

  4. Howard

    You are certainly onto something here. Churches I've been to where sharing the Gospel is the focus have certainly been far more engaged with and genuinely concerned for people than those which have been 'fenced in' by their theology and practice. God's love motivates us, when genuinely encountered, to share the truth that is in Jesus, not to view our Lord as someone austere and distant.

  5. Brian Midmore

    How might this map onto issue of homosexuality? Are we to refrain from saying that new homosexual converts are to give up their life style. Are we to just get on mission and hope all these issues will just be resolved on their own? Doesnt it depend on what we mean by legalism, (and mission for that matter). In Acts the church was being threatened by the old covenantal system of Judaism and not an unspecified 'legalism'.

  6. Glen

    Thank you Steve (welcome to comments), Theo and Howard.

    Hi Brian, the legalism of the Pharisees involved requiring people "to obey the law of Moses." (Acts 15:5) Peter stood up to say it's only through "the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved (v11). These issues have implications far beyond the issue of circumcision. From Acts 15 we can say to converts that "sexual immorality" (v20, 29) is ruled out by the gospel (which is something that will deeply challenge all people, not just the active homosexual). But whether the issue is sexuality, unforgiveness, greed, an eating disorder, a complicated family situation, whatever, we must embrace the fact that A) such a journey will be messy and B) we must be resolutely opposed to adding any "requirements" beyond the claim the gospel makes on a person.

  7. Brian Midmore

    Glen
    You seem to be saying that the gospel is 'what the LORD and the Apostles taught' since you include such things as abstaining from sexual immorality within it. In practice what are examples of requirements that some churches make on people. Years ago it was 'Thou shalt not drink, wear makeup or go to the cinema'. But Ive never been to a church that was like this. (Comes from being a charismatic who now goes to an anglo-catholic church!)

  8. Glen

    Brian, the gospel is that purely 'through the grace of the Lord Jesus you are saved.' (v11) This gospel saves you *from* sin and sexual immorality is one of those sins. Abstinence doesn't save anyone (that would be a different gospel), but the gospel saves you *from* sexual sin.

    I think those 'requirements' you mention (forbidding cinema etc) are exactly the kinds of yokes that are allowed to go unchallenged in non-missional churches.

  9. Brian Midmore

    You seem to making a distinction between the gospel that saves by grace/faith and the 'claim' of the gospel which to some extent or other involves the law eg 'thou shalt not do sexual immorality'. I think this is the point. If we look back in history even Aquinas had an initial gospel that was by grace/faith but then the rules of the church started to apply. Not that the rules of the church shouldn't apply but isnt it how they are applied thats important. Sometimes I have felt that there was grace for those outside but this ran out for those already on the inside. For some an eating disorder is something that merely involves choice, we just need to chose to eat or not: 'Pull yourself together!!' We condemn from a place of success, most of us can eat dinner! This is what the pharisees did when they defined religion according to their strengths and thereby condemned those who were weak. Jesus came and defined religion well out of the reach of all natural men and created a level playing field.

  10. Brian Midmore

    PS
    Isnt there a problem in saying that it is the gospel that sets us free from sinfulness because many Christians are still bound by their problems. Some have concluded that these people (most of us!) are 'not properly born again' since they have not been properly sorted out. They have heard the gospel that should sort us out and it hasnt presumably because of unbelief (that's a peculiarly tricky problem!) I prefer to talk of the LORD who sets us free and the LORD does not despise those who are is prisoners.

  11. Glen

    Hi Brian, I completely agree with this:

    "Sometimes I have felt that there was grace for those outside but this ran out for those already on the inside. For some an eating disorder is something that merely involves choice, we just need to chose to eat or not: ‘Pull yourself together!!’ We condemn from a place of success, most of us can eat dinner! This is what the pharisees did when they defined religion according to their strengths and thereby condemned those who were weak. Jesus came and defined religion well out of the reach of all natural men and created a level playing field."

    That's what both this blog and Emma's is trying to point us to.

  12. Brian Midmore

    Might the very idea of what the gospel is be important? For many when you say gospel they think of a gospel presentation given to the unchurched and unsaved about how they might eshew the fires of hell and get to heaven in the end. It would also probably be very cruciocentric. Having heard the gospel, believed and been saved the gospel would now therefore no longer apply to them since they have already got what they could from it. They now have to shape up. But surely the good news applies to those inside even more than to those outside. We need a bigger gospel that includes the full salvation (healing) of all Gods people. Eg Jesus taught that for our sins to be forgiven we must forgive those who have wronged us from the heart or be tortured. This is not generally considered 'part of the gospel'. Forgiving people from the heart is not possible for natural man and needs the grace of God, it is nonetheless essential. I suppose my concern is that we get a division between the gospel which is full of grace and shaping up which is by the law. If the gospel included the shaping up bit too it would all be by grace.

  13. Howard

    "But surely the good news applies to those inside even more than to those outside. We need a bigger gospel that includes the full salvation (healing) of all Gods people".

    Absolutely, Brian - this is key.

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