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October 13, 2008

Comments

Ray writes, "Jeff’s learned, passionate, Biblically- soaked “obsession with mission” was infectious." and I know what he means, from experience. I first heard Jeff speak at a Missions Conference and was blown away. His reclaiming of the Harlem neighborhood was inspiring--it seemed unprecedented in its practical caring for people. I eagerly signed up to receive the mailings.

Ray writes of having questions initially. I had the reverse experience. As I read the letters in the following months, I began missing references to the clear statement of the Biblical Gospel: Christ died for our sins and rose again the third day for our justification. Unless we are in Him, we are under the condemnation of God, forever. I looked for reports of people coming to Christ in repentance and faith.

It began to feel like the Gospel was defined as giving people a new life in the here and now. Of course this matters. The accomplishments are amazing, and they are done in the name of Christ, I am sure.

But, great as they are, they are not the Gospel--a point Mark Dever made last Spring at a theological conference when he spoke on "Improving the Gospel." He said improving society is a good thing, but it is not the Gospel. When the Gospel is "improved", it is finally lost because the Gospel cannot be improved upon.

It takes courage to write this. I know it conjures up images of a cold, "pious" soul preaching words of eternal life to a naked shivering soul. Who could defend that alternative? But this is a straw man and clearly violates the teaching of James. We feed and clothe our brothers. But it is relational, not political. Though as I write this, I am confident that Jeff White's is nothing but relational!

But the questions persisted. What about the Biblical emphasis, in so many places in Scripture, on doing good to "the household of God"? There is so much in the Epistles about our relationship with our fellow believers, our life in the body of Christ, our exhorting each other, desiring to see each man come to spiritual maturity. This is not to de-emphasize the importance of missions--it is impossible to draw near to God in the person of His Son and not be burdened for those we encounter who do not know Him. Otherwise we are not drawing near to the Biblical God! I am just asking about the balance here.

An even more persistent question came to be: do we really believe in eternity? This life is a blip, a vapor that vanishes. Our light affliction is but for a moment. I could go on--the point is made throughout God's Word in a myriad of ways. That is why, though we try to take every opportunity to be good neighbors, my greatest longing is that our friends and neighbors come to saving faith and new life in Christ.

My husband recently went to bat for a widowed neighbor who felt she had been wronged by the administration of our gated community--and he won! An outworking of his Christianity, for sure. This neighbor is a believer--of another stripe, for sure, but a believer.

But the longing of our hearts is to see the spiritually dead experience a new birth, whether they are the wronged and oppressed members of our society, or our comfortable suburban neighbors awash in material comfort, that will end with this life. I pray God may make us ever more bold and more effective in proclaiming the Good News to those who are lost, and under the condemnation of God. And ever more loving as we do so, as we call men home to Christ, so they may join us in Heaven's Feast in the age to come.


George, I'm glad you and your husband stood for justice in your gated community. It's important to see that issues of justice are not bound by economic, racial or sociological maps, rather they touch us all. As I read your post however, I don't quite understand what you are bringing up; on one hand you praise Jeff White and make an effort to say that he is not someone that your comments are aimed at, and then on the other you make references to watering down the gospel by doing justice. Perhaps you could help me understand what you are trying to say -- are you saying that preaching the good news and embodying that good news are actions that are somehow pitted against one another?
Thanks,
Sam

Correction:

The post that purports to be from George Westerlund is really from me, Lois.

Comes of sharing a computer...and not noticing whose name hzs been filled in!

Just wanted the brickbats to be thrown at me, not him.

Sam, thanks for answering; I evidently confused you on more than one count since George is not married to a husband, but to me.

I am sorry I wasn't more clear, and will try to be. On the one hand, it is impossible to criticize the multiple ways in which Jeff White has helped people who have great needs and little or no power in our society. That can only applauded.

But it leads to a related question: What is the mission of the church? You ask if "preaching the Good News and embodying the Good News are somehow pitted against each other." Not only are they not pitted against each other, they belong together! Both demonstrate that it is the Love of God that moves us to reach out to others.

But it has been my observation that the righting of social injustices easily becomes the goal of the church's mission, and when this happens, something subtle but crucial, changes. Improving the living conditions of an oppressed people becomes the goal in itself, and the Biblical perspective on this life vs. eternity, separation from God or enjoyment of His presence forever, is somehow not evident.

I just do not find the call to social action that transforms culture to be an emphasis in the epistles written to us who are in the New Covenant. Loving God, and love between the brethren comes in for repeated mention. And clear teaching that we are immortal creatures, who are born spiritually dead, but who now, because of Christ's satisfaction of God's justice, may have peace with God and His life within. But there must be true repentance and saving faith, and God's regeneration, evidenced by spiritual growth and change.

Further, the current emphasis on social causes seems related (I could be wrong here) to a new theolgical emphasis on the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus in his resurrection. This welcome emphasis corrected a former focus on the Cross that failed to fully understand the significance of the resurrection.

Like all pendulum swings, this one, to me, so focuses on the inaugurated kingdom that it neglects the necessity of the Atonement, without which we remain enemies of God. Talk of sin and the final judgment is supplanted by urging people to follow King Jesus, a new allegiance rather than a new birth. That, for me, is Law, not Gospel. I hope that's not too blunt. Dennis Johnson, in Him We Proclaim, a book dedicated to Edmund Clowney, makes this point well.

So when I read of a great humanitarian work as a mission of the church, I look for a clear emphasis on Christ as the only Savior of sinners, because that is the Gospel, not just following King Jesus.

And it is this centrality of the proclamation of the Gospel that I am disapponted not to find in Jeff White's communications and preaching. It may well be characteristic of his ministry; I can only responde to what I read and hear.

I hope this helps, and doesn't add confusion. I know I have been simplistic in treating of large matters.

Again, thanks for asking. I would welcome others into this discussion.

Just for clarity, how would Jeff or the DR folks define "economic justice"? How is it different than "social justice" (please define term this, too) if at all? Or is one a component of the other? And how does DR biblically differentiate between mercy ministry and economic justice as mentioned in Jeff's talk?

Thanks to anyone who can explain this.

By His grace,
Bob

Lois,
It seems to me you are employing a slippery slope argument. You are saying that Jeff and others are not themselves denying the gospel, but by talking about issues of justice then they are on the way to undervaluing the proclamation of the cross and the need for repentance. That is always a valid concern, but so too is the concern that by not embodying our proclamation into action, we are equally in danger of a form of faith that appears orthodox, but is in fact as equally dead as deeds without faith (James 2:14ff). The slippery slope works both ways. The only path through is the biblical force of keeping both gospel proclamation and gospel action welded together.

Often as a pastor I am always in the situation of having to counsel folks to both believe biblically and act in line with that scriptural belief, but depending upon the individual sometimes the emphasis is upon the believing side and sometimes upon the action side. In Jeff's talk and in our denomination itself, there is clearly a strength in the belief side, but where our challenge lays is in embodying that theological good news into actions that are good news as well.

Lois I very much appreciate your concern for maintaining a strong biblical fidelity, I share that concern. Both Matthew 7:15-23's admonition that all who claim Christ are not necessarily Christ's and Matthew 25: 31-46's emphasis upon actions that show our allegiance to Jesus are constant reminders to me of the need to test all my ideas/actions and thinking against the bible as well as to propel me into service based upon the tremendous grace that has been given to me to such a degree that I see the hungry, thirsty, alien and sick not as projects, but as friends in need of the same grace I myself have received.

Grace,
Sam

Ray said, "The Church, as Lesslie Newbigin put it, is the movement of Christ launched INTO THE WORLD. The Church is at its best when it is living the Gospel for the world, in word and deed."

This whole idea of being launched into the world or being sent (Is 6:1-8, Matthew 28:16-20, Acts 1:7-9) transforms the way you think as a church and as a Christian. Your child's school, the communities you live in, the places you workout, the way you spend money and your time become places where we are sent by Christ to live the gospel instead of places we simply consume or use.

Something that we do that is so simple and yet hopefully leads our kiddos in thinking about their lives as being part of what Christ is doing in the world is to simply pray for their classmates. We pray that God helps the children to study but also that they would know about Christ's love. That just maybe He would even use our children to love their friends as Christ has loved them. I hope my kids grab hold of how exciting it is to be part of Christ launching His church into the world.

If you don't believe that as Christians we are on this mission, then I think we have a tendency to see our neighbors, people we work with, children our kids play sports with, or even those we drive next to on the way to work as simply people disconnected from us. However, those are precisely the people Christ wants to experience the life-renewing power of the gospel.

Thanks for the articles Ray and Jeff!

The most stirring quote from Jeff in this talk for me was when he said, "A healthy denomination will let the biblical images of the future shape their understanding of what the mission of the church is."

Jeff made wonderful use of Harvie Conn's classic work on Evangelism, as well as Miroslav Volf's quote that you mentioned Ray. And I noticed that Jeff was quite aware of our habits to both under AND over realize the eschatology of the New Testament and the eschatological shaping of the churches mission. His use of Mouw and cultural renewal was a good example of this.

And Jeff left us with some practical challenges for economic justice for the poor. Particularly the way he reminds us that the commands that we co-opt for stewardship campaigns are actually for the poor.

What Jeff didn't do with total clarity as far as I could tell in the talk is provide us some pastoral guardrails to keep us from capitulating to a religious form of socialism as we seek to rightly abandon the darker more selfish forms of consumerist capitalism in our culture. But perhaps his key to avoiding that is in re-imagining Mercy Ministry as Wholism in light of God's desire for Shalom.

His call to prophetic witnessing as a DNA component ingrained in our church planting is deeply needed, especially as some church planters are more enthusiastic about being ministry entrepreneurs (which is perhaps a "kingly" task) than they are being prophets, priests, and kings.

If I had one overarching criticism that Ray you may be able to speak to (or Jeff for that matter) was that mission was set more in the context of what the church hasn't done in mission or should seek to do, than Who has gone out before her in mission (ie theology proper and a fuller development of the "Missio Dei"). Jeff started out strong on that point but moved away from it perhaps too quickly, though as I heard him it was always a running assumption for him.

If eschatology is an overarching organizing theological motif we need to recapture as we envision the churches mission, theology proper is the ground and context in which that motif has vitality and fervor...

That being said I was blessed through and through with Jeff's talk. Thank you for your ministry brother!

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