What Is the Mission of the Church? A Book Review
Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. 283 pp.
This book was SO good.
That is how Abi wrote this book review for me when I first started writing it one night during our vacation with my parents in the mountains. Her gentle suggestion that I end that night’s typing worked, but I’ve got much more to say about this book than that it was merely “SO good”—although that’s 100% true! D. A. Carson’s blurb for What Is the Mission of the Church? is spot-on, and I’ve structured my book review according to Dr. Carson’s following endorsement: “Among the many books that have recently appeared on mission, this is the best one if you are looking for sensible definitions, clear thinking, readable writing, and the ability to handle the Bible.”
In chapter one, DeYoung and Gilbert determine that the mission of the church refers to “the specific task or purpose that the church is sent into the world to accomplish” (20, italics in original). This much-needed foundational definition of a general mission leads to the authors’ following definition for the specific mission of the church: “The mission of the church is to go into the world and make 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” (62, italics in original). Put even more simply, the church’s mission “is to win people to Christ and build them up in Christ” (63).
Chapter four presents a helpful, detailed explanation of the gospel from two perspectives, which DeYoung and Gilbert (who wrote What Is the Gospel?) refer to as “a wide-angle lens and a zoom lens on the gospel” (94). From the wide-angle perspective, the gospel refers to “the whole complex of promises that God makes to those who are redeemed through Christ,” and from the zoom lens perspective, the gospel is “the message that sinners can be forgiven through repentance and faith in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (106). The authors make the following helpful clarifications: “there is only one gospel, not two”; “the gospel of the kingdom [wide-angle lens] necessarily includes the gospel of the cross [zoom lens]”; the gospel of the cross is the fountainhead of the gospel of the kingdom” (107-108, emphasis in original).
Chapter five establishes a definition for the kingdom of God. “The kingdom of God … is God’s redemptive reign, in the person of his Son, Jesus Messiah, which has broken into the present evil age and is now visible in the church” (127). Although the kingdom “is now visible in the church,” it is not fully realized in all of creation. This consummation of God’s kingdom “happens when and only when King Jesus returns in glory, and not before” (129, emphasis in original). “Through and through,” DeYoung and Gilbert add, “this final consummation is God’s work and for God’s glory” (134). And since the kingdom of God, as used in the Bible, refers to God’s redemptive reign, “forgiveness of sins, redemption, and inclusion in God’s kingdom are predicated on a person coming in repentance and faith to Jesus as the only one who has both right and power to qualify anyone to share in the inheritance of the saints” (136).
The authors even find a working definition for the term social justice, which doesn’t “really have” a definition (179). Basing their definition on Sowell’s constrained view of justice, DeYoung and Gilbert define social justice “not [as] an equality of outcome, but [as] equal treatment under a fair law” (182). Ultimately, when it comes to the elusive term social justice, “we really ought to love everyone, not all in the same way, but when we can, where we can, however we can” (193).
Discussion of the mission of the church begs the question: “Is the church any different from a group of Christians?” DeYoung and Gilbert’s answer is “no, but yes.” No, because when Christians do good works individually (or with a group that is not their institutional church), they function as “the church organic.” Yes, because “the church institutional” occurs “when a group of Christians decides to become a church, [and] they covenant together to take on certain responsibilities [which include] to make sure the Word is preached regularly among them, to make sure the ordinances—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are regularly practiced, and to make sure that discipline is practiced among them” (232).
These definitions—and more!—are sensible precisely because they are the skeleton around which the body of the authors’ argument is built. These definitions indicate DeYoung and Gilbert’s clear thinking and form the building blocks of their readable writing.
Clear Thinking, Readable Writing
The authors’ clear thinking is evident first through the logical progression of their chapters. The numbered list below features these chapter titles along with a summary of each.
- “A Common Word in Need of a Careful Definition.” DeYoung and Gilbert begin their book by telling the reader up-front what their goals are in writing this book. They conclude with an overview of the remaining chapters.
- “What in the World Did Jesus Send Us into the World to Do?” The authors progress in this chapter to examine many biblical passages and argue that the Great Commission passages in the gospels and Acts form the basis of the church’s mission.
- “The Whole Story: Seeing the Biblical Narrative from the Top of Golgotha.” An integral part of the Great Commission—and of the church’s mission, consequently—is the gospel. And this gospel is the Bible’s answer to life’s most important question: “How can hopelessly rebellious, sinful people live in the presence of a perfectly just and righteous God?” (69, emphasis in original). This chapter thus explores how the Bible answers this question from start to finish—the gospel presents the solution.
- “Are We Missing the Whole Gospel? Understanding the Good News.” Since the gospel answers the question at the heart of the Bible, it is important that we understand what the gospel is. DeYoung and Gilbert here explain that in the Bible, the gospel refers to either all the blessings given to God’s redeemed, or that salvation comes through Christ alone, or both. These two perspectives, though, are one and the same gospel: the second view is but more specific than the first, and the first flows from the second.
- “Kings and Kingdoms: Understanding God’s Redemptive Rule.” Although some argue that we Christians have a hand in “building the kingdom of God,” the authors demonstrate that according to the Bible, the kingdom of God is what God himself accomplishes, and this will not be fully consummated until Jesus comes again.
- “Making Sense of Social Justice: Exposition.” DeYoung and Gilbert here exposit various Bible passages that have been cited as supporting the idea of social justice, or the cultural mandate. They demonstrate that these passages, rightly understood, show that biblical social justice is “no fraud, no favoritism, help the weak, freely give as we have abundantly received” (171).
- “Making Sense of Social Justice: Application.” This chapter features seven applications of the exposition in the previous chapter.
- “Seeking Shalom: Understanding the New Heavens and the New Earth.” Chapter 8 defines the Hebrew term shalom, reiterates some of the material from chapter 5, and develops the idea from chapter 5 that God’s kingdom will be fully consummated when Jesus comes again.
- “Zealous for Good Works: Why and How We Do Good, both as Individuals and as Churches.” DeYoung and Gilbert here maintain that it is important to do good both as individuals and as churches, and it is equally important to do good for the right reasons.
- “The Great Commission Mission: What It Means and Why It Matters.” This final, short chapter crescendos the book’s central argument into a grand finale. “In the end, the Great Commission must be the mission of the church for two very basic reasons: there is something worse than death, and there is something better than human flourishing” (242).
The authors’ writing is readable to a great extent because the above chapters are divided into sections that outline their thesis.
The Ability to Handle the Bible
DeYoung and Gilbert “handle the Bible” very well. The numerous expository passages in What Is the Mission of the Church? are the building blocks of every argument they make. I found myself agreeing with them at almost every point, and any disagreement I had with them was minimal. Below is a list of every Bible passage DeYoung and Gilbert exposit in chronological order by chapter.
- Genesis 12:1-3
- Exodus 19:5-6
- Luke 4:16-21
- Matthew 28:16-20
- Mark 13:10; 14:9
- Luke 24:44-49
- Acts 1:8
- John 20:21
- Matthew 4:23
- Luke 4:18-19
- Acts 13:32-33
- Acts 10:36-43
- Romans 1:16-17
- 1 Corinthians 15:1-5
- 1 Corinthians 1:17-18
- Leviticus 19:9-18
- Leviticus 25
- Isaiah 1
- Isaiah 58
- Jeremiah 22
- Amos 5
- Micah 6:8
- Matthew 25:31-46
- Luke 10:25-37
- Luke 16:19-31
- 2 Corinthians 8-9
- James 1, 2, 5
And these are only the Bible passages that get a whole section devoted to them! On nearly every page of the book, DeYoung and Gilbert either quote or reference the Bible. What Is the Mission of the Church? seeks to base every point and sub-point on the Bible.
I couldn’t agree more heartily with Dr. Carson’s endorsement of this book. The current evangelical discussion about the mission of the church will greatly profit from DeYoung and Gilbert’s Bible-based and Bible-centered contribution. The Bible exposition alone makes this book worth its price. An edifying read for any Christian!