“Those of low estate are but a breath; those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath” (Ps. 62:9, ESV).
The work of missions must be built on something more substantial than the need. The need, as Oswald Chambers put it somewhere, is not the call. And neither is the need able to provide the theology for the call. When it tries to provide that theology, what we get is a bog of sentimentalism — not a good place to pour the foundation for anything.
If you build your mission on the needs of those of low estate, you are basing everything on a breath. If you base it on power and influence, those of high estate, you are building the whole thing on a delusion. Build on both together and they are together lighter than a breath — and will float off with your wood, hay, and stubble.
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of God lasts forever. We are ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). We go because He told us to. We declare what we were told to declare. We live the way we were told to live.
Stated at this level, of course, every professing Christian agrees. But the Spirit is in the details, and I have three in mind. First, for us this must mean a grounded and foundational faith in the penal, substitutionary death of Christ on the cross for sin. If missions are not based on an evangel with actual good news in it, then it will all come to nothing. Second, our work of missions must be Reformed and Kuyperian. This is because mission work must of necessity engage with the way unbelieving cultures actually are, and the task we have been assigned is utterly transformational. The only theology capable of doing this biblically is Reformed and Kuyperian. And third, we must have an eschatology that leaves room for victory, that leaves room for actually accomplishing the mission. Otherwise, we will find ourselves signing peace treaties with Ammonites.
A good foil for these three points can be found in Donald Kraybill’s book The Upside-Down Kingdom. First, Kraybill is pretty clearly an Abelardian on the atonement, which obliterates any possibility of a true “up-side down” kingdom. One of the reasons we must focus on Christ and Him crucified is because it is the message that actually brings every thought captive. But all those thoughts out there, all those high imaginations that don’t want to be made captive are quick to suggest to us that a cross of moral suasion and influence would be so much nicer. I dare say it would be nicer, but it wouldn’t be good, and it wouldn’t be potent. If we are going to be engaged in missions, we need a gospel that kicks the devil in the teeth. And that means it must be a message of penal, substitutionary, vicarious blood-bought atonement. When it comes to this substitute, we must accept no substitute.
Second, radical discipleship is found in Kuyper’s great statement that there is not one square inch in all creation that is not in the possession of the Lord Jesus. If this is missing, radicalism in discipleship always reduces to posturing and striking poses for the cameras. This is why Kraybill is stuck in a profound paradigmatic blindness, one which does not enable him to see how radically he truncates his calls for radical discipleship. This is scratch n’ sniff radical discipleship. This is radical discipleship lite. This is shadow boxing, pull-the-punch radical discipleship. He gets all the rhetorical steam he can get out of passages like Luke 14:33. But then, when he discusses what this might look like in actual financial practice, in this “let it all hang out, let the chips fall where they may” Jubilee lifestyle, the best he can come up with is a graduated tithe (p. 128). Someone who follows his advice still gets to keep a salary of 34K (even though on his reading Jesus said to give it all away), and despite the fact that he acknowledges a few pages later that this is wildly more than what the poor in other nations have to live on (p. 132). “The Jubilee message strikes home.” Yeah, with a nerf bat.
This is posturing. The point is clearly not to do what you are actually maintaining that Jesus said to do. The point is to maintain a rhetorical superiority over those of us who say that Jesus taught nothing of the kind. Kraybill says that Jesus taught that we are to live in a “up-side down” way. This can be accomplished, he goes on to reassure us, if we lean just slightly to the left. But leaning five degrees to the left is not upside down. Sorry.
And third, an optimistic eschatological vision will prevent us from borrowing an eschatology of population explosions, monga carbon footprints, and global warming from the secularists who are without God and without hope in the world. There are only two forms of engagement that Christians can engage in — we must either adopt a transformationalist approach or a compromising approach. If we are not going to go the escapist route, waiting for the rapture, we must either take every thought captive, or we must split the difference. Kraybill splits the difference, taking some of his cues for radical discipleship from those who clearly despise the image of God found in little children. Kraybill goes so far as to equate babies with plastic litter and gas-guzzlers (p. 135). Golly Ned. It turns out that the radical message of Jesus means that we shouldn’t throw our water bottles out of the windows of our SUVs, and we shouldn’t be having so many babies, people! Compromise is always pleasant at the beginning, and quite a relief, but there is no way to prevent it from getting ugly.