The Gospel Commission, Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples, by Michael Horton (Grand Rapids: Baker Books: 2011), 316 pp. paper $16.99.

Previously, Horton has written extensively on the central message of Christianity, Christ and the gospel. In Christless Christianity and The Gospel-Driven Life Horton challenged the diluted messages increasingly replacing biblical teachings and focused on what the Scriptures actually proclaim. In this sequel, Horton turns to the central mission of the church and demonstrates how “mission creep” (pp. 8, 11, 16, 246, 293) threatens to undermine the one mandate given the church—the Great Commission. Horton defines mission creep as “the expansion of a project or mission beyond its original goals, often after initial successes” (p.8). When applied to Christianity there is “a tendency to expand the church’s calling beyond its original mandate” (p. 16). As a result “conservative Protestants today are…in danger, not so much of being attacked by New Atheists as of surrendering a robust confidence in God and his Word to a culture of marketing and entertainment, self-help and right-wing and left-wing political agendas. If mainline bodies sold their birthright to the high culture, are evangelicals in danger of selling theirs to popular culture” (p. 11)? As a result, Horton warns, there “has been an increasing failure to reach the lost but a growing tendency to lose the reached” (p. 298, see p. 11).

Horton’s thesis is that “there is no mission without the church and no church without the mission” (p. 14). Throughout The Gospel Commission the author fights the modern tendencies to either marginalize the church, by seeing the important work of God being waged outside, apart from the church, or weakening the church by adding layers of ministries and programs to its unique mandate (mission creep). To this end he rightly proclaims that “the great commission is not the ‘cultural mandate’” (p. 63). As citizens of two kingdoms (pp. 212, 245-246) Christians have responsibilities to this world to work alongside unbelievers to make it a better place to live (p. 69). However, the church has a unique role to play, one that nothing else can fulfill—the making of disciples (p. 88). This means that social transformation is not the church’s mission and when it becomes the mission it reduces the church to “Christiandom” (p. 86). “What distinguishes the Christian faith from the world’s religions and philosophies,” Horton reminds us, “is the story it tells about God’s mission as Alpha and Omega, Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and Consummator” (p. 142). In all of this Horton is right on target, however I would have liked for him to have interacted with the teachings of Francis Chan (Crazy Love) and David Platt (Radical) and less with the more obvious heresies of Brian McLaren. While McLaren and the emergent leaders have affected evangelicalism in some serious and tragic ways, I believe their cover has been blown and increasingly they are seen as merely a new breed of old liberalism. But men such as Chan and Platt are promoting mission creep in more subtle ways and are all the more dangerous for it.

Throughout The Gospel Commission Horton deals with many subjects related to his thesis including: evangelicals’ unfortunate attraction to “deeds not creeds” (pp. 211, 266-284), the meaning of the kingdom of God (he accepts the “already” “not yet” view) (pp. 65-80), inclusivism and pluralism (pp. 92-113), contextualization (pp. 114-132), the place of mercy ministries within the church (pp. 214-246) and the abandonment of the local church (pp. 253-255).

The Gospel Commission is an important book that offers much insight in the day of mission creep. As Horton claims, mission creep is inventing our own strategic plan rather than following God’s (p. 247). It is not that “the church is lazy but that it is distracted” (p. 249). In all of this Horton offers clear warnings and much to ponder. There are a number of things in the book, however, that disturb me:

  • He endorses some questionable sources. He virtually dedicates the book to Lesslie Newbigin (pp. 6, 267), former missionary and leader within the World Council of Churches and mentor to many of the emergent leaders, especially Brian McLaren. Certainly Newbigin had some helpful concepts but why promote such a man without a word of caution? Then there are the almost mandatory (it seems) quotes from Roman Catholic thinker G. K. Chesterton (pp. 110, 265). I always find it strange when strong evangelicals, who abhor the doctrines of a man like Chesterton, nevertheless quote him with enthusiasm without mentioning his unbiblical views of salvation, revelation and the church. And while Horton fundamentally disagrees with Richard Foster’s and Dallas Willard’s spiritual formation approach to Christianity, I felt he was too generous at times and did not adequately identify their views as the dangerous false teachings they actually are (pp. 134-154, 261-267, 285).
  • Horton is strongly Reformed and covenantal in his theology and he is not shy about promoting his views. He teaches Reformed understanding of the covenant of grace (p. 12), that redemption precedes faith in the salvation experience (p. 30), that the church is spiritual Israel (pp. 34, 70, 74), that regeneration comes through means of grace including the Lord’s Supper (p. 178), and he views children of believers as “covenant children” (p. 164) and elect (pp. 96, 172-173).
  • The author’s views of the kingdom of God are a bit difficult to pin down, even though he devotes much time to the subject. To be avoided, he tells us, are the two extremes of liberalism and dispensationism (p. 63). He believes Jesus answers the disciples’ question about the coming of the kingdom (Acts 1:6), not by avoiding the question but by changing the definition of the kingdom (p. 50). The kingdom comes, Horton teaches, in two stages (p. 65) (“already” and “not yet,” pp. 66-68). During the present stage the kingdom is the gospel and the gospel is the kingdom (pp. 79-80). “Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom is identical to Paul’s proclamation of the gospel of justification” (p. 75). With this view Horton claims John the Baptist preached that the kingdom was at hand while Jesus claimed it was here (pp. 66, 69). Satan is apparently bound now (p. 66). Horton is prone to allegorize biblical texts such as Ezekiel 37 (Valley of Dry Bones), Matthew 24-25 (Olivet Discourse), and Revelation 12 (Satan being cast from heaven) as aspects of church life today (pp. 224, 295, 306). As for the “not yet” stage of the kingdom, Horton believes that while the kingdom grows through proclamation of the gospel, (depending on what is meant by kingdom, I may or may not agree.) He rightly teaches that. Christians will not usher in a golden age on earth (p. 53). Christ will do that (p. 57).

The above are not unimportant issues, and need to be recognized, but the overall thesis of The Gospel Commission should be considered carefully by every church leader. Horton’s contention is that we have not been sent into the world to transform it, but to announce that “the world’s condition is far worse than our neighbors think and God’s future for it far more glorious than they (or we) can imagine” (p. 146). Sadly, not understanding this, some are reversing the church’s mission. “Instead of being the church’s missionaries to the world, they have become the world’s missionaries to the church” (p. 111).

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