Mission is a trending word in the evangelical world. It’s the talk of the town. It will even have a breakout session at the upcoming Gospel Coalition national conference. But what is mission? And more importantly, what does the Bible say about mission and the role of the church in the world? Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology Of The Church’s Mission aims to answer that question. As the first volume in a promising new series, “Biblical Theology For Life” by Zondervan, Wright is not summarizing his much larger The Mission of God. Rather, this is an outworking of the hermeneutic argued for in The Mission of God under the framing questions, “Who are we and what are we here for? . . . What is our mission?” (17).
Mission itself needs defining. Wright writes, “So when I speak of mission, I am thinking of all that God is doing in his great purpose for the whole of creation and all that he calls us to do in cooperation with that purpose” (25). The first two chapters lay the foundation by giving clear summary of the biblical narrative with probing application that helps the reader see what is at stake. Then, beginning with creation, Wright walks us through biblical texts in the next six chapters showing that our mission is as big as God’s mission and as big as our God himself (24), focusing on the ethical dimensions of mission. The final chapters answer some fundamental questions about the God whom we proclaim and our witness to his salvation. The last chapter takes up some final reflections in the areas of creation care and how Christians can better understand the “wholeness” of the gospel instead of concentrating on certain aspects of it.
There are a few strengths worth noting. First, Wright says, “The cross must be central to every dimension of the mission of God’s people” (43). Though I do not agree with how Wright carries out this statement in every chapter, this sentence is not thrown in just to appease a portion of the evangelical world. Wright truly desires to help readers see the centrality of the cross in every chapter. Secondly, Wright correctly argues that the biblical evidence demands “we live our mission.” There are many ways in which evangelicals are unbalanced in the living out of their faith. For example, he works to correct this imbalance on the issue of the holiness of God’s people. Holiness is both a fact and a task of God’s people. In other words, we are holy and are to be holy (123–127).
The strength of his argument comes as he moves from the love of God in the cross to the ethical demands of what this great salvation accomplishes. God’s salvation of his people not only secures their future eternal blessings, but their present identity, and thus mission in life, is fundamentally changed. We are freed to live the life we were created for. Many church leaders lament the fact that much of the Western church is hardly different than the culture in which it has been placed. We need more churches that understand our mission is not a basis for salvation, but an outworking of God’s grace through Christ powered by the Spirit. Wright constantly asks the questions, “So what?” in a way that never leads to a legalistic mission. Finally, Wright serves his readers by showing that the gospel is not just the gate to the Christian life but the pathway of it. The gospel looms large in The Mission of God’s People because it looms large in the biblical narrative.
But I believe Wright mistakenly makes some issues of everyday life central to the gospel that are actually implications of it. He writes, “I also dislike the old knock-down line that sought to ring-fence the word ‘mission’ for specifically cross-cultural sending of missionaries for evangelism: ‘If everything is mission, then nothing is mission.’ It would seem more biblical to say, ‘If everything is mission . . . everything is mission’” (26). His widening of “mission” is most strikingly seen in creation care. Wright argues, “Ruling and serving creation is humanity’s first mission on earth, and God never repealed the mandate.” While you may grant that God never repealed this mandate, Wright makes no mention of the Second Adam, Christ, who fulfills the the first Adam’s failed mission. The work of the second Adam that you would expect to see in a biblical theology, is strangely missing in Wright’s discussion on creation care.
Wright then moves on to Proverbs 31, showing that part of this ruling over creation includes a kingly carrying out of “biblical justice in relation to the nonhuman creation. . . . Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves (Proverbs 31:8). Surely that describes not just what a king should do for his subjects, but what humans should do for the nonhuman creation” (53). Linking “those who cannot speak for themselves” to “nonhuman creation” is at best an exegetical stretch. The immediate context communicates that “those who cannot speak for themselves” are poor and needy humans who cannot defend themselves in court against the rich, the intelligent, and the well-connected of society.
He also appeals to data that shows the earth is suffering. He writes, “As we know all too well today, the accumulated effect of our carelessness for generations is causing an environmental crisis of unprecedented proportions. I need not go into details since the facts are well known and increasingly disturbing.” (55). The “well-known facts” hardly have consensus, and this line of reasoning did nothing to further his argument. I understand how he comes to these conclusions on creation care, but they are not convincing.
The Mission of God’s People will be a highly regarded entry into the “mission” conversation. Pastors will more often than not deem Wright a helpful guide in how to do sound biblical theology and find assistance in helping their congregations understand who they are and why they are on this earth. Pastors, future pastors, and seminary students will do well to read and engage Wright’s work, but read with a pen and Bible in hand. This will not be the last word on mission, but it gives more help than harm.