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The Great Commission: the believer's mandate

The Great Commission: the believer's mandate

By Peter C. Moore
Special to Virtueonline
January 18, 2012

NOTE: This paper was delivered to a Missions and Theology conference in Lima, Peru to some seven Southern Cone bishops, numerous missionaries and Nashotah House students.

The Great Commission, like the Great Commandment, is usually not a part of Scripture to which we race when we want to feel good, be comforted, or be reassured. In fact, we often overlook the Great Commission entirely. The passages in Scripture we love to read breathe acceptance, forgiveness, and the blessings of the new life in Christ. But we have a way of neutralizing the demand of Jesus to: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Mt. 28:19,20)

Despite our reticence, the Great Commission won't go away. The 1988 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops from around the world said: "evangelism is the primary task given to the church." The Conference called for a renewed emphasis on evangelism throughout the Communion.

Nevertheless, we Anglicans on the whole have been very lazy evangelists. Furthermore, when preachers preach on the Great Commission, I find that it creates more guilt than enthusiasm. Exhortations to "Share your faith with your neighbor; witness to the guys you work with; bring a friend to hear the Gospel; mention Christ at the AA meeting you attend" generally go unheeded. In response people say to themselves: I'm willing to support those who go abroad or who come here as missionaries, but do I really have to evangelize my friends and neighbors?


Pulpit exhortations to evangelize are actually counter-productive. Why? Because we forget the essential ingredient of grace. Sharing our faith becomes one more "ought", "must", or "should" rather than what it should be -- a joyous response to God's gracious work in our lives.

Consider this verse from Psalm 67:

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
that thy way may be known upon earth,
thy saving health among all nations.

Without grace evangelism - whether on a global or personal scale - becomes another duty. Some might even say it becomes a new "law." The call to evangelize hangs over the hearts and minds of well-meaning believers like a Damocles Sword ready to drop. Sermons on it tend to perpetuate a sense of spiritual inadequacy. The more we tell people that their baptismal covenant calls them to share their faith, the more they want to crawl back into the cocoon of a comfortable pew. "Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?" asks the baptismal covenant. The typical man in the pew thinks to himself: "Take my wife, and let her be, consecrated, Lord to Thee. But please, Dear Lord, don't count on me." And the wife may think much the same.

My suspicion is that we have lost the intimate connection between evangelism and grace.


There are at least three connections between evangelism and grace. First there is a liturgical connection. The theme of Advent reminds us of repentance. Then Christmas lifts us upward as we welcome the incomparable gift of grace and truth in Jesus Christ. (Jn. 1:17). And then Epiphany impels us outwards as we realize that this gift we have received is ours to share with the world. With repentance and grace forming the bedrock of our lives, we are sent forth to reach the world in evangelism.

In addition to a liturgical connection, there is an historical connection between evangelism and grace. I'm thinking of the modern missionary movement from the late 18th. Century onwards. There were, of course, missionaries before that time. Celtic missionaries won many to Christ converting the Irish and others throughout Northern Europe. Monks like St. Francis traipsed across the ancient world bringing the gospel. But the modern missionary movement was unique in that it enlisted ordinary laypeople to spread the gospel both at home and abroad.

The modern missionary movement began with deeply converted men and women gathering around Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf of Saxony in the mid 1700's. These ordinary laypeople experienced the in-breaking of grace. Reaching out from his small community called Herrnhut, lay missionaries traveled to share the love of Christ throughout the globe including North and South America and the Caribbean. It was through Zinzendorf's disciples that John Wesley's heart was "strangely warmed." Subsequently Wesley, and his friend George Whitefield (both Anglican priests, by the way) ignited the eighteenth century Evangelical Revival. Wesley was so taken with Herrnhut that he once said he would "gladly have spent his life there", but "Oh, when shall this Christianity cover the earth as the waters cover the sea?"

What underlay this missionary movement was the experience of grace. Duty did not impel them. Rather it was grace -- in abundance. Nor was this what some have called "pietism". These believers were concerned for more than people's souls. Their response to the Great Commission led to obedience also to the Great Commandment ("Do unto others, what you would have others do unto you.").

The prime example of this was the 19th. Century Clapham Sect, a group of Anglican evangelicals who gathered around William Wilberforce. They read their Bibles prayed, sang songs like John Newton's beloved Amazing Grace, and then proceeded to eradicate the slave trade, reform prisons, end child labor, increase literacy, reduce poverty, fund innumerable good causes, and awaken the social conscience of a slumbering church.

In addition to a liturgical and an historical connection, there is, thirdly, a psychological connection between evangelism and grace. In a book called Addiction and Grace, author William May defines addictions as "compulsive habitual behaviors that eclipse our concern for God and compromise our freedom to love other people." He argues that sin is not just ignorance or moral disobedience, but a kind of "bondage or slavery from which one must be delivered into freedom."

He cites the person with a damaged self-image. That person will most likely never reach out to share the gospel with another person. Why? Because as the Letter of James says he will look "at his natural face in a mirror, observe himself, and go away and at once forget what he was like." (Jas. 1:23) Our natural face tends to be inherently self-deceptive and disheartening, especially to the person with a low self-image. Therefore, such a person looks in a mirror and, as one commentator put it, "Off he goes." However, when that person looks into what James calls the perfect law, the "liberating law of the Gospel", and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets, but a doer that acts, he will be blessed in his doing." (1:25)

Mirrors, says psychologist Dan Kiley, become a focal point around which our insecurities gather, and the more we lie about our weaknesses the more hostile and unrelenting the mirrors become. We need to be freed from ourselves so that, as the prayer goes, we might become "the servants of others."

It's why St. Paul found relief when, with unveiled face, he beheld as in a mirror the glory of the Lord." Paul was gradually "changed into his likeness", and therefore "didn't lose heart." By this means he was set free from self-absorption so that he could preach Christ Jesus as Lord." (2 Cor. 3:18, 4:5)

Here, I believe, is where we find freedom to share the gospel with others. When we behold the glory of the Lord, when we discover his gracious acceptance of us, his delight in us, we are set free from self-preoccupation to love others as he does. I see this throughout Scripture. for example, Psalm 67: "May God be gracious to us and bless us, and make his face to shine upon us, that thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving power among all nations." (v.1,2)


Known as a "missionary Psalm" we see in Psalm 67 that evangelism, broadly conceived, is not something new. This Psalm could be at least 2,500 years old. Evangelism as author John Bowen has said in Evangelism for Normal People is the "scarlet thread" that runs throughout Scripture. Tragically, somewhere along the way Israel forgot her destiny to be a light to the nations, the means by which "all nations" would come to know the ways of Yahweh. Tragically also, the church forgets that what was true of Israel has often been true of the church. We forget, as Emil Bruner put it, that: "The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning."

Our worship gatherings, like ancient Israel's, should be places where people wandering in would hear people singing: "Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, let all the people's praise thee. God has blessed us, let all the ends of the earth fear him." (Ps. 67:3,7). But this evangelistic impulse running through Scripture is preceded by an experience of the liberty we discover when God is "gracious to us and his face shines upon us."

In the call of St. Peter in John's Gospel there is a detail that I had previously overlooked. Andrew, after spending a day with Jesus goes and invites his brother Simon to "come and see." The Gospel of John then says, Jesus "looked at him" (1:42). The Greek word John uses means he looked significantly at Simon. Jesus gazed intently on him.

One commentator, William Barclay, said that this gaze signified that Jesus "saw the potential in Peter". I wonder. Did Jesus look intently at Peter because he was impressed with Peter's leadership qualities? No, I believe Jesus' look that day was a look of acceptance. It was the look of unconditional love. Jesus' band of brothers would be built on grace, not on performance or potential.


If grace, then, is the motive for evangelism, the "why" of evangelism, then what must be said about the "how?" Is evangelism something only extraverts can do? Is evangelism for people who are naturally gregarious and friendly? Or, is it possible that even I, an inherently insecure person, but thankfully someone freed by "looking into the perfect law, the law of liberty", might also evangelize?

The answer, of course, is yes. But most of us need help in order to do this. When I was a university student with an eager desire to share my faith, I felt tongue-tied whenever I tried. At a friend's urging I picked up a book on "how to share your faith" and thoughtfully read it. Soon after finishing the book, to my own shameful amazement, I had my first chance to bring a friend to Christ. It was as if God had been waiting for me to humble myself, to be willing to be trained, before he would give me the opportunity to lead someone to him.


Of course, when we think of evangelism, we tend to think of preachers who have a gift. South America is filled with zealous, sometimes untrained, evangelists who preach the gospel with all their hearts. I recall as a young man being deeply touched listening to one of them in a tent meeting in Mexico City. But effective evangelistic preaching is a learned activity. We need help in learning how to present the gospel to a group of seekers or skeptics and then how to call them to respond. Indeed, all preaching must be done with expectancy that people's lives will be changed by the proclamation of God's Word. As Anglican missionary Roland Allen wrote of Paul's preaching: "He expected his hearers to be moved...A mere preaching which is not accompanied by the expectation of faith, is not a true preaching of the gospel, because faith is part of the gospel...Simply to scatter the seed, with a sort of vague hope that some of it may come up somewhere, is not preaching the gospel. It is a misrepresentation of the Gospel.... the speaker should expect a response."

One of the best resources on evangelistic preaching is a modest paper given to the House of Bishops by Bishop John Howe of Central Florida entitled: Evangelistic Preaching Among the Baptized. Bishop Howe told his fellow bishops: "We need to proclaim that God loves you so much that he sent his Son Jesus to die on a cross in your place. Jesus took the penalty of your sins upon himself, so that you might face a Holy God without guilt. He offers you the forgiveness of sins, a clean slate, a new beginning. But, like any present, you need to receive it. Have you ever done that? Have you turned from your sin, and asked Jesus to enable you to become a new person, living for him? If there is any question in your mind let us answer that question this very day, once and for all."


However, the usual way for the faith to be passed on is for an ordinary, converted layperson to tell his or her story to a friend or acquaintance. In the early church, argues Michael Green, this happened in a variety of settings: in informal household meetings, sometimes for social purposes sometimes for teaching, on the highways (think of the Ethiopian Eunuch), in the market place, through writings, through personal visitations, and even in public discussions with skeptics. Adolph Harnack, well-known church historian, wrote: "We cannot hesitate to believe that the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries."

In many cultures this one-on-one chatting the gospel can be very difficult, since personal privacy is so prized. Bringing up the subject of religion in those cultures may be seen as an intrusion into someone else's space. Also, there may be negative stereotypes of personal evangelism. Where these exist we may discover people who think that evangelism isn't "something you should to your dog, let alone to your friend."


But cultures change. The resurgent interest in spiritualities of all sorts is opening new doors to talk about one's beliefs. Christians need to seize these opportunities as they come. In much of Peruvian culture, and these words are written for my brothers and sisters in the Anglican Diocese of Peru, spirituality is almost a given. One website advertising tours to "spiritual and mystic places in Peru" declares that "Peru is a bio-energetic centre of great magnetic power. The country disposes of the bio energy from the Earth and the Macro Cosmos. This bio energy possesses a powerful healing effect and provides the visitor of strength of mind. The supernatural is also reflected in the divine Peruvian nature." One may disagree with the pantheistic and occult feeling of this spirituality. I would. However, for many it could open doors for discussion.

Assuming, however, that one is eager to share one's faith, and only needs help and training, is there anything anyone can do to prepare on their own? I found part of the answer to this by committing certain Bible verses to memory. This made telling my story (in the context of God's saving history) so much easier. For example, Romans 3:23; 6:23; 10:9,10; Ephesians 2:8,9; Revelation 3:20; and I John 5:11,12 are all easily memorizable verses that have stood me in good stead whenever I needed to frame my own story around the overall plan of God.

Finally, we must always remember that the sincere witness of someone whose life has been transformed by Jesus Christ has great power. Nothing quite speaks to the searching heart like a personal story of Spirit-inspired change. In our church in Charleston we frequently hear such testimonies in the context of worship.


I think of the impact of the story of Mitsuo Fuchida. On December 7, 1941 Mitsuo Fuchida commanded the squadron of 360 planes that reigned death, terror, and destruction on the U.S. fleet in Hawaii's Pearl Harbor. 3300 men lost their lives, and another 1272 were wounded. Five battle ships were either sunk or rendered inactive. This was the day that President Roosevelt said would "live in infamy."

Fuchida continued to serve in the Japanese navy, seeing action in the Solomons, Java, and the Indian Ocean. He believed that Japan should never surrender, but fight to the last man.

Then after the war, Fuchida returned to farming. But General MacArthur called him to testify in Tokyo on several occasions. On one of those occasions he stepped off the train in Tokyo and saw a man handing out tracts: "I was a Prisoner in Japan" was the title of the tract. It was the true story of an American prisoner of war who had been brutally treated by his Japanese captors. However, while in prison he had read the Bible and discovered the love of God in Jesus Christ. The biblical witness had enabled him to love and pray for his captors and tormentors.

Reading this tract overwhelmed Fuchida, because deep within was the shame and guilt of what he had done. He soon found a Bible and began to read it for himself. The power of the story of the cross, of Jesus forgiving his enemies, swept over him, and he became a believer. Despite the strong opposition of friends and family, he pursued in his faith and decided to give the rest of his life to help others find Jesus Christ. Several years later he had the privilege of meeting the former prisoner of war whose testimony had so changed his own life.

I wonder if a story like this might have relevance in the context of Peru's significant Japanese/Peruvian community - a community that has produced artists, poets, entertainers, lawyers, football players, and even a former President and First Lady? Individual Peruvians may not have much contact with this particular subculture in their midst. But might there be a Mitsuo Fuchida somewhere in Peru who is hungry to learn of a Savior who has given his life for him?

Evangelism, as the Sri Lankan evangelist D.T. Niles once said, is: "one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread." At its most basic level, it is the witness to another of a grateful heart to God's gracious provision for one's deepest need.

Peter C. Moore, D.D.
St. Michael's Church
Charleston, South Carolina USA

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