In the next two posts, I want to think through the identity and mission of both Abraham and Israel and look at how Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert address these in What Is the Mission of the Church?
I had described God’s aims in creation and with humanity a few weeks ago. God commissioned humanity to fill the earth and oversee the spread of universal flourishing, also called shalom.
God created the world as his temple, the global arena for his glory. And he placed humanity as his image within the temple. God was glorified and worshiped in his temple when humanity enjoyed one another and faithfully managed creation’s flourishing.
This all went wrong at the fall, when humanity failed to subdue creation in the form of the serpent. Genesis 3-11 unfolds the tragic consequences of the corruption of God’s temple. Because of their failure, death infects everything, sin spreads everywhere, and evil’s reach is cosmic.
As the story proceeds, Cain murders his brother Abel. Lamech boasts of how great is his lust for revenge. After God’s purifying judgment and the hope of a new beginning after the flood, Noah and his family are a tremendous disappointment.
The Tower of Babel episode in Genesis 11 shows that humanity is going in precisely the wrong direction in defiance of the Creator. Humanity gathers itself together instead of filling the earth and seeks to make their own name great rather than God’s.
The problem to this point, then, is that God’s original aims are being frustrated. Humanity is no longer playing its role of filling the earth and overseeing its flourishing. This is important to note because Scripture speaks of the identity and mission of Abraham and the identity and mission of Israel in light of what’s happening in the biblical story to this point.
In Genesis 12, things take a turn.
The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:1-3).
God calls Abram (later named “Abraham”) to be the agent of his reclamation of the nations. Abraham’s identity and vocation (or “calling”) are bound up together. God has specially chosen Abraham, and has done so in order to bless the nations through him.
God’s original mission hasn’t changed. He still wants the whole earth to be filled with humanity and he wants them loving and honoring each other and overseeing creation’s flourishing. God wants to reclaim the nations and restore them to the worship of the one true Creator God. This is what God means by blessing the nations through Abraham.
In their discussion of Abraham, however, DeYoung and Gilbert downplay the missional aspects of his identity and vocation. In their view, Abraham is the object of God’s blessing and not so much the agent of blessing to the nations. Any agency of universal blessing has to do with Jesus much later in the biblical narrative, the Seed of Abraham (p. 33).
But this misses the whole point of Abraham’s calling, which is to demonstrate that God hasn’t abandoned his original aims. It seems to me that DeYoung and Gilbert don’t take seriously enough how Scripture foregrounds God’s original intentions for creation and his persistence in seeking to carry them out. After all, the glory of God, the delight of humanity, and the flourishing of all creation work together in a mutually reinforcing dynamic.
It isn’t appropriate to separate aspects of Abraham’s identity and emphasize one at the expense of the other. I think DeYoung and Gilbert misread the narrative when they emphasize Abraham’s being the object of God’s blessing and minimize Abraham’s role as agent of God’s blessing to the nations.
This is a distortion of Abraham’s identity. Because God is a magnanimous Lover whose love super-abounds with a longing to see enemies redeemed and creation reclaimed, God’s chosen ones are always agents of that love. They enjoy God’s love only as they become agents of it to others.
This move affects DeYoung’s and Gilbert’s conception of the church’s mission. If God abandons his original aims in calling Abraham, then perhaps his intentions are even further diminished much later in the church.
As we’ll see, however, when it comes to Israel and the church, God remains faithful to his original aims for the flourishing of all creation.
4 thoughts on “The Mission of the Church, Pt. 8”
You have made an important point here Tim. Thanks for pointing out that Abraham’s blessing was his role in being a blessing to the nations.
This has ramifications I believe in understanding why God loved Jacob and hated Esau. Esau despised his birthright to continue Abraham’s calling. In doing so, it was his brother’s loins through whom Christ eventually came.
I first came across this idea that the elect (such as Abraham) are elect to bring blessing rather than elect so that others are damned in the foreword by FF Bruce to “God’s Strategy in Human History” by Roger Forster and Paul Marston. I really think this is a crucial insight. Bruce saw this as a typically Calvinist view even while acknowledging it in a stridently Arminian book. I think it should inform our understanding of Rom 9-11 and also of the conversion/commission conundrum of Paul. The error of Israel was to see their election in terms of their own blessing rather than in terms of their role in the blessings of others. Paul’s commissioning as apostle to the Gentiles represented a conversion from the inward looking Judaism seeking its own blessing in which he had been brought up to Judaism as in the plan of God in which Judaism seeks the blessing of many nations.
If KDY and GG really have reinterpreted the election/blessing of Abraham as mainly about the blessing of Abraham and little about the role of Abraham in the blessing of others, then they would seem to be making the same mistake as the Judaism from which Paul was converted.
But is such an assertion as offensive that which provoked Justin Taylor’s defence of KDY and GG? Or can it be seen as a legitimate contribution to debate (whether right or wrong)?
Thanks for this, Timothy. I have a series of posts on divine election that make the same point–that God always chooses for the sake of drawing others into the group of the elect.
And I agree that this is one of Israel’s chief errors, that they mistook their election as an indicator that God loved them and not the nations. But their election was precisely for the redemption of the nations.
I’m not making an assertion here of something that is unstated in the book. They claim that the title “kingdom of priests” has to do with privileged status and not Israel’s role as mediator between God and the nations. I don’t have the book here in my office, but it’s on the page where they discuss Exod. 19.
I know they’re trying to emphasize their view of the limited role of the church in the world, but to my mind they’re running into serious trouble with some of these texts. I’m trying to be deferential and kind here, but it does seem that they run very close to commending the church to the behavior for which God judged Israel!! That perversion of Israel’s election was a massive error on their part. Further, these very assumptions are the prejudices that Jesus goes after constantly in his ministry, going to Samaria, Tyre, etc.
I think that KDY and GG run into trouble by isolating certain biblical themes and emphasizing them at the expense of others. They may be trying to correct what they see as over-emphases in the wrong direction, but that’s not a good strategy. There are ways of saying “this and that,” rather than “this, not that.”
On the call of Abraham: “The emphasis in Genesis is on the chosen family as recipients of God’s blessing, not as the immediate purveyors of it” (p. 33).
On the identity of Israel: “The image of a royal priesthood in the Old Testament and in the New Testament suggests holiness and privilege, not incarnational presence” (p. 35).