I’ve been engaging with the work of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What Is the Mission of the Church? They are concerned that some missional writers have been identifying humanity too closely with the rest of God’s creation (p. 70). They emphasize, on the other hand, the distinction between humanity and the rest of creation and humanity’s unique relationship to God that the rest of creation doesn’t enjoy.
Narrowly speaking, this isn’t entirely wrong. Humanity does indeed enjoy a special relationship with God, being uniquely in the image of God. This has much to do with humanity’s cultivating creation and overseeing, on God’s behalf, the spread of shalom throughout the world.
DeYoung and Gilbert, however, take up the narrow point of humanity’s distinction from the rest of creation and portray God’s work of redemption as having to do exclusively with the restoration of his relationship to humanity. After reviewing the narrative of Scripture, they note the following:
The “whole story” is not, as one author suggests, about us becoming “conduits for him to bring healing to earth and its residents.” It’s not about our call “to partner in a restorative work so that the torch of hope is carried until Christ returns.” The story is not about us working with God to make the world right again. It’s about God’s work to make us right so we can live with him again (p. 89).
Now, we might cite this as one of a number of false dichotomies that characterizes their work. But I just want to note that this reading of the biblical narrative undergirds their claim that the mission of the church has to do with gathering for worship and making disciples to the exclusion of concern for the rest of the world and creation itself.
Throughout the biblical narrative, however, God is regularly and consistently concerned about his world. Just a few passages to make this point:
First, after God’s judgment in the flood, God promises never to judge the world in that way again. What’s often neglected is that God does not only make this covenant with Noah. In Genesis 9:8-17, God makes covenant with Noah and his sons and all creation:
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth . . . And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”
Second, Jonah demonstrates God’s pursuit of his creation—both human and non-human. The story is familiar. God calls Jonah to go to Ninevah and proclaim God’s impending judgment. Jonah, standing in for all of Israel, hates the Ninevites and would love to see the God of Israel rain down judgment on them.
But Jonah does not want to go to Ninevah because he knows the God of Israel too well. He knows that God’s posture toward the world is one of loving pursuit. Jonah is angry after Ninevah repents and God relents from his declared judgment:
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity (Jonah 4:1-2).
Jonah then has a conversation with the God of Israel in which God reveals his heart of love for his creation.
But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals” (Jonah 4:10-11)?
Though Israel had come to crave the destruction of its enemies, the God of Israel, because he is the God of all creation, is still passionately committed to his original aims for creation. He still wants humans all over the world experiencing flourishing by worshiping the God of all creation.
A third text. In Revelation 11:16-18, John describes this vision:
And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying:
“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
the One who is and who was,
because you have taken your great power
and have begun to reign.
The nations were angry,
and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your people who revere your name,
both great and small—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”
Empires that sustain themselves by raping the earth rather than caring for it according to God’s original intentions will be destroyed by the God of all creation.
As the heirs of a worldview that assumes a range of dualisms (physical vs. spiritual, political vs. religious, etc.), we tend to prioritize the spiritual at the expense of the physical. We assume that God’s concerns can’t be so . . . earthy. Perhaps this only highlights how much we impose our dualisms on Scripture, and how different our priorities are from God’s. To my mind, DeYoung and Gilbert fall prey to this at point after point throughout their book.
All of this is just to say that God is intensely concerned for his creation. He wants creation to flourish and appoints humanity to oversee the spread of shalom on the earth and to experience flourishing along with the rest of creation.
God’s aims are indeed frustrated at the fall and with the entrance of Sin and Death into the world. In the gospel, God aims to restore what was lost. Because so much was lost, the gospel seeks to recover so much more than we might assume on a narrow reading of Scripture.
There’s something wrong with a conception of the gospel and the mission of the church that sets aside what is so central to the heart of God.
I’ll have to treat other texts and issues to draw this out more fully. For now, however, I just point to these passages to note God’s intense concern and love for his entire creation.