Arthur J. Fox
“Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen” (Matt. 28:16–20).
I believe that the church has a big problem on its hands, one that goes back over 150 years. It suffers from a cheapened definition of what a Christian is. This is related to the concept and methods involved in evangelism that have been accepted as true and used for about that long. The trouble lies, as is so often the case, with our definitions. We need to accurately define the work, goal, and motive of evangelism. It is also a good time for us to be doing this because, in the providence of God, our denomination is starting to grow at a slightly faster pace. In this brief review, I want to examine Matthew 28:18–20 and other texts that interpret it.
Commonly, even classically, the goal of evangelism is defined as the glory of God in the salvation of sinners. Now that is a good definition, but time and culture have changed the meaning of some words. What, for example, do we mean by salvation? Is it merely the saving of a soul from hell? It is not, but one might think so, based on the approach some take to evangelism.
What do we mean by evangelism? Again, our current evangelical climate has defined it in a way that is not consistent with the Bible. Evangelism is seen as gaining converts or (worse) decisions for Christ. Thus, evangelism is considered successful when someone “makes a decision for Jesus” or prays some generic “sinner’s prayer” or goes forward at some meeting.
But the Bible does not see it that way. A key text for studying evangelism, and its goal and motive, is our text, which we have come to know as the Great Commission. Surely you can see that the goal given here is to make disciples—not move people to make decisions, but make disciples. As we open up our text, we will learn what a disciple is and what the motive for seeking to make disciples should be. We will find goals and motives that are more concrete and more biblical.
The Great Commission was given after the resurrection of Christ. Jesus had told the eleven apostles to meet him in Galilee (Matt. 26:32; 28:7). Apparently they understood that he wanted them to go to a certain mountain. Now in 1 Corinthians 15:6, we are told that over five hundred brethren saw him at one time. If they saw him on this occasion, it would account for the statement in Matthew 28:17 that some doubted. It was not the apostles who doubted, but some of the others who were there. In any case, let us focus on the commission itself in verses 18–20.
When Jesus gives the commission to his disciples, he begins with a declaration of his authority to give it. It literally reads like this in the Greek: “Given to me is all authority in heaven and on earth.” What does Christ do with that authority? He exercises it by charging his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations.
And what is a disciple? Literally, the word means “a learner or follower.” In Jesus’ day it was used to describe the person who followed a particular rabbi or rabbinical school in a set of teachings. It is meant to have the same connotation here. A disciple in this context is a learner or follower of Jesus. They learn from Jesus how they ought to live, and then they go about the business of obeying his teaching (verse 20).
A disciple, then, is someone who is committed to obeying what Jesus commands. The Great Commission is the command of Christ to the church, as it is represented by its ministers, to go and make disciples. And that is the goal of evangelism—to make disciples.
Why did Christ exercise his authority by giving the Great Commission? The answer is found in Philippians 2:8–11. Here we learn how Jesus received this authority and why. He received it when he “became obedient to the point of death.” Because of his obedience, God gave him authority by highly exalting him and giving him the name that is above every name, so that every knee would bow and every tongue would confess him as Lord. So, when Jesus says he has been given all authority, we are to understand that his authority is his Father’s reward for his obedience.
As to why he received this authority, we need to note the clause at the end of verse 11, where we are told that authority was given to Christ “to the glory of God the Father,” that is, so that God the Father would be glorified. The purpose of Christ’s authority is to bring glory to God the Father. This is what motivated him to give the Great Commission, therefore: the glory of God. How could it be for a lesser reason?
We cannot give a different goal and motive for his use of that authority in the giving of the Great Commission. It follows very naturally from this that we have, or ought to have, the same reason for doing the work of evangelism as Jesus had in telling us to do it. So this is the motive for evangelism: to glorify God.
Taken together, we have before us, then, the goal and motive of evangelism: the goal is to fulfill Christ’s command to the church to make disciples, and the motive is to glorify God. These must be the goal and motive for the church in doing the work. Any other goal or any other motive for evangelism would divert us from God’s purposes. It would be disobedience to the Great Commission. Putting it more positively, if the church is going to do evangelism, it must do it for the purpose of glorifying God by making disciples.
There are false goals and motives for doing the work—many of which the church has adopted over the last century and a half. I will discuss just a few of them. These are, I believe, the main motives that underlie much of the evangelistic work of the church in our day. Not every church uses them as goals and motives. I would also like to emphasize that all of them are not necessarily bad things to aim for. Some are bad goals and motives, but others are actually worthy goals and laudable motives. But good or bad, none of them is to be the driving force.
I would qualify that statement in only one way. Surely we should be moved by a love for the souls of the lost. That this was one of the motives behind God’s sending of his Son is clear: “For God so loved the world ...” And Christ manifested his compassion for the lost when he was moved by the sight of Israel “like sheep having no shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). Yes, we ought to be moved by love for the souls of the lost. But this should be secondary to the glory of God as a motive. Evangelism should be God centered and not man centered. To that end, even love for the lost must take second place to love for the glory of God.
The first, and worst, is the relief of guilt. And reasons for guilt abound! As a pastor, I am constantly receiving literature that tells me that my congregation can grow faster if I will just do the right things, use the right Bible studies, etc.
But laypeople are also facing pressure. Various evangelistic organizations are constantly telling Christians that if they are not interested in going out to the world with the gospel, have no desire to knock on doors and “share the good news,” they should confess it as a sin. (The word “share,” by the way, does not appear in the Bible in connection with the work of proclaiming the gospel.) They have only half of that right. Actually, only certain members of the church have an obligation to preach the gospel: the minister and those gifted to preach the gospel. The rest have a responsibility to live for Christ and be prepared to give an answer for the hope that lies within them.
But whoever should preach the gospel, how can guilt possibly be the right reason for doing it? It is not. It is wrong to do any work for God solely on the basis of feeling guilty, apart from confessing sin.
The second false goal and motive is to build a bigger congregation. Now this is the most serious and insidious of the false motives, for the following reasons:
First of all, it makes the church selfish—”We want you to become a Christian so that we can have a larger congregation.” Does that sound right to you? How does that differ from selling cars? I am only half kidding with that description of the matter! One member of my congregation told me that one reason he had stopped going to church was because of that precise approach in a church he had attended as a boy. But does it sound right to you? Of course it doesn’t, and neither does it conform to Christ’s will. We are not “salesmen for Jesus,” but lovers of souls. We are trying to obey the Great Commission, not build up the membership rolls—at least that is what we are supposed to be doing.
The next reason this goal is wrong, and in this case wicked, is that it brands the minister of a small congregation, who has faithfully done the work of the ministry, a failure in spite of his faithful preaching of the truth. And it often leads the congregation to ask him to leave because of his alleged failure. How wicked! To send a faithful minister away because the congregation has not grown as people had hoped it would is utterly sinful. Whatever happened to the doctrine of Christ’s headship over the church and the work of the Spirit? Who is in charge of growth in the church anyway? If it is the minister, then it is not God who saves!
Related to that is the fact that many congregations now view their ministers as facilitators of growth and expect them to focus, not on orthodox doctrine applied to the lives of the people of God, but on preaching and leading worship in such a way that visitors will not be offended and might even join.
No, I am not in favor of being deliberately offensive, but the motive of increasing the size of the congregation has led some ministers to compromise on the doctrine of total depravity and deemphasize sanctification, not to mention departing from the regulative principle of worship. Increasingly, the church is being presented as not all that different from the world, so “why not join us nice folks?” The sad fact is that there is more truth to that idea all the time, in some places.
Perhaps worst of all, much of this whole idea of church growth, as I am presenting it and as it is presented by some in the Church Growth movement, denies the sovereignty of God. The Scripture clearly says, “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6), and, “No one can come to Me unless the Father ... draws him” (John 6:44). If your goal is to increase the number of people in your church, you are saying that the size of the church is more important than making disciples to God’s glory, and that it depends on human effort. That is heresy, but a great many in the evangelical church are practicing it! It is no wonder that the church has no power in our culture!
I have nothing against large churches. There is nothing wrong with thousands gathering to worship God and hear his Word. But that is God’s decision and not yours or mine. And gaining a large church is not the goal or motive that Christ gives us for evangelism.
The third popular motive is the last one that I shall mention: wanting to save someone from going to hell. Now, how can that be a bad motive for doing evangelism? In and of itself it is not—unless that is your only aim! But look at Jesus’ words again: “make disciples.” Are these disciples saved from hell? Yes! Thank God they are. But they are also growing in holiness, growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now we are touching on a key problem in the church of our day. We have forgotten such key texts as Ephesians 2:10, 1 Peter 1:13–15, and 2 Peter 1:3–11. These direct us onto the path of holiness. Does it depend on the Holy Spirit? Certainly, but don’t forget that we are to work as God works in us (Phil. 2:12–13—”Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure”).
A soul that is saved from hell is not just someone who trusts in Christ (of course, that is part of it), but a new creature who is growing in Christ—growing in faith and obedience—by the work of the Holy Spirit in his life and heart. Only such a soul is a Christian. You see, being a Christian is more than not going to hell as an unforgiven sinner when you die. It is living on earth and going to heaven as a holy person. It is not waiting for God to “zap” you so that you change. It is a work initiated by God that will lead you to repent and seek to live a holy life in such a way that God will be pleased. That is what a disciple does. And if that person who has professed to “making a decision” is not a new creature, is not living a life of repentance, is not interested in the things of God or the “holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14), then he or she is not a Christian!
Salvation, as the Bible describes it, is the regeneration and sanctification of a sinner—not simply avoiding hell, but the change of the sinner from an unholy enemy of God to a holy friend—nay, not just a friend, but a son of God. Salvation from hell, you see, is merely a by-product. It must not be the main aim. The aim must be the making of God-glorifying, Christlike, regenerated, justified, sanctified, one-day-to-be glorified, holy disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. And if you aren’t aiming for that, you aren’t doing evangelism!
These three goals and motives are bad because they do not aim at the glory of God in the making of disciples. In some cases, they do not aim at God’s glory at all! You say, “I want to see souls saved.” Well, unless that soul is the soul of a disciple, it is not saved. That person is going to hell, and, worst of all, he is going there as one who thinks he is going to heaven! What a tragedy! Our definition of salvation must include the whole life and not just the eternal destiny of the soul.
There is much more to be said about evangelism. But it is enough to think about, isn’t it, to say that the goal or motive for evangelism is the glory of God in the making of disciples. Nothing less will do.
Please permit me to press home to your heart just one thing more. Are you a saved person? Can you honestly say that you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, that you are one who is seeking to grow in holiness, to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ? That is what a Christian is. Are you a Christian by this definition? If you are not, there is hope for you. You may be dismayed by this definition, perhaps never having heard it before. But there is good news for you. Christ Jesus came into the world to give this kind of salvation to sinners. If you want him to save you, he will hear your cry for help. Seek him for the salvation of your soul.
May God give all of us the grace we need to follow Jesus as true disciples and then do evangelism his way and for his reasons.
Mr. Fox is the pastor of Calvary OPC in Middletown, Pa. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 1996.