by Preston Nix, Ph.D.
Professor of Evangelism and Evangelistic Preaching/Roland Q. Leavell Chair of Evangelism.
Director of the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health
Chairman of the Pastoral Ministries Division
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
(Ed.’s note: SBCToday sought permission from Dr. Nix to post a portion of his essay below, and in his emailed reply granting that permission, Dr. Nix stated:
“My prayer is that the Lord will use the essay to challenge both traditional Southern Baptists as well as Calvinists to share their faith boldly and consistently with the lost. If all of us as Southern Baptists, whichever side of the theological fence we are on, do not get back to basic evangelism and missions, our theological debates will continue to be a distraction from our purpose as the church and an indictment to our denomination. May the Lord bless your work of speaking to Southern Baptists on the issues of our day.”
Not only did God provide the means whereby lost humanity can be saved, but also God ordained the method whereby the message of salvation is to be communicated to the lost world. Of all the methods that the Lord could have employed to communicate the gospel to a lost and dying world, God in His sovereignty chose to use the method of human instrumentality to accomplish that task. Jesus commissioned the church to communicate His saving grace to all peoples in all the nations of the world throughout all time. This call in Scripture to join the Lord in reaching the world with the message of salvation is known as the Great Commission. The term itself indicates that followers of Jesus Christ are expected to partner with the Lord in His mission of reaching the world with His message of salvation, hence the word “Commission,” indicating a joint mission effort between God and man.
The Great Commission has been a subject of discussion before Southern Baptists in recent days. At the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix in 2011, the Convention voted on a controversial proposal under the title “The Great Commission Resurgence” (GCR). Apart from disagreement over the political, fiscal, and organizational aspects of the GCR report and adopted proposal, all Southern Baptist leaders are agreed that since approximately three-fourths of SBC churches are plateaued or declining, coupled with the fact that one-fourth of the churches consistently report no baptisms annually, a true resurgence in the practice of the Great Commission among the churches in the denomination is of absolute necessity for the future of the SBC. In addition, a special committee was appointed by the SBC President to study the viability of a name change for the Southern Baptist Convention. The end result was that a name change was not proposed but a new descriptor was recommended for churches to utilize that feel that the name Southern Baptist is a hindrance to their outreach efforts in their contexts. The adopted informal name was Great Commission Baptists indicating the evident value and the focused thrust of the churches which make up the membership of the denomination. Southern Baptists from their inception have been a people committed to fulfilling the Great Commission in order that the world may be won to faith in Jesus Christ.
It is surprising to many Southern Baptists to learn that the actual term “Great Commission” does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Although the term itself is not found in Scripture, the concept of Commission is certainly evident. No doubt the Lord Jesus called for His disciples during His earthly ministry then as well as His followers now and throughout history to partner with Him in His mission from the Father to communicate God’s offer of forgiveness and eternal life to all who would repent of their sin and place their faith in Him. Although the focus is usually on what is called the Great Commission from the passage found in Matthew 28, the Bible records at least five Great Commission passages, one at the end of each of the four Gospel accounts and another at the beginning of the book of Acts. In these five different passages the Lord Jesus extended the crystal clear call for His followers to join Him in His mission of communicating the gospel to the world. These five Great Commission passages together constitute the missions imperative of the New Testament church.
Because each of these Great Commission passages contains a particular focus of the Lord’s call to join Him in communicating the gospel, it should prove to be beneficial to examine all of the passages in order to gain a comprehensive perspective of this clarion call to the church. The particular focus of each of the Commission passages will be incorporated in the discussion in order to assess the full intent of the Lord Jesus for the faithful involvement of the church in His mission to communicate His message of salvation to the world. The greater focus will be given to the most recognized Great Commission passage because Matt 28:18–20 provides the fullest account of Christ’s Commission to His church.
The Motivation for the Great Commission
Before Jesus actually delivered the Great Commission to His disciples, He established His divine prerogative to issue it. He prefaced the Great Commission with these words, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18b). To possess authority means to have the right and ability to command others to respond. Jesus declared that He possessed all authority in the universe. He did not state that He possessed a little authority or even a large amount of authority. He did not say He possessed some authority or even most authority. Jesus declared without equivocation that He possessed absolute authority, both universal and unlimited in its scope. With that statement He revealed Himself as sovereign Lord and king of the universe. He then commanded His disciples to “go, make disciples.” If someone with all power and all authority tells someone else to do something, the only logical and sane response is for the person to act in total obedience. Herein is revealed the major motivation for fulfilling the Great Commission: the command of Christ which necessitates the obedience of every believer.
Although other valid motivations for fulfilling the Great Commission are evident in Scripture, including the compassion of believers for Christ that compels them to witness for Him, the condition of lost sinners and the concern of the saved for their souls, as well as the coming of Christ, the final judgment, and the terrors of hell, the primary motivation for sharing the gospel is the command of Christ which every believer should obey. That fact was impressed strongly upon the mind of a young pastor who related the following incident which occurred early in his ministry.
A few weeks after my eighteenth birthday I became pastor of a small rural church. Soon after, I was asked to preach on a Sunday afternoon at the Associational Church Training Meeting. I preached on why the church and the individual believer should be evangelistic. Some of the reasons I gave were that people are lost without Christ, sinful, on the way to hell, and in need of a new birth. All of these reasons seemed convincing to me. At the conclusion of my message, our Director of Missions walked slowly toward the pulpit and in a deliberate manner said: “Brethren, it seems to me that we ought to be witnesses because Jesus told us to.”
The Director of Missions was exactly right, and I have never forgotten the lesson that I learned that day. While all the reasons that I had mentioned are valid, we should seek to reach people for Christ just because Jesus told us to do it. That is reason enough, and it should be motivation enough. If Jesus’ command will not prompt us to share our faith, nothing will.
The Lord Jesus demands and expects that His followers evangelize their world. He allows no exceptions and refuses all excuses from those who claim to be His disciples. Obedience to the Commission of Christ results in the salvation of souls. Disobedience to the Commission of Christ impedes the progress of the Gospel. Whether or not Christians share their faith does make a difference in the expansion of the Kingdom of God. Roland Q. Leavell writes,
Evangelism has its compelling urge within an obedient, loving heart….Christians need to take seriously the commission of Christ. Evangelistic results will never come until disciples obey the command of Christ to go to the nations and make disciples. Great evangelistic harvests have and will come when disciples obey the orders of the King.
The Mandate of the Great Commission
Following His unmistakable assertion of His absolute authority, the Lord Jesus then handed down the clear mandate of the Great Commission. Jesus’ authoritative command to His followers was “make disciples of all nations.” The imperative verb in Matt 28:19 is: “make disciples,” which is accompanied by three participles: going, baptizing, and teaching. As a result, four actions are required in order to fulfill the biblical mandate of the Great Commission. These actions flow in a logical and chronological order.
Move to Potential Disciples
The first action in verse 19 that believers must take in order to fulfill the mandate of the Great Commission is to move from where they are to where lost people are in order to see them come to faith in Jesus Christ. That action is expressed in the word “go.” The verb is a participle which can be translated literally “as you are going.” Although most interpret this participle as an assumption on the part of Christ that His followers would be going about sharing the gospel, the verb also can be seen as a direct admonition from Jesus for His followers to go share the gospel. A participle in the Greek language can have imperatival force, and because the verb is in the emphatic position (at the very beginning of the sentence) that would add credence to viewing the verb “go” as it is translated traditionally in most versions of the Bible as a simple imperative. In other Scriptures the Lord Jesus clearly commanded His followers to go and take the message of salvation to the lost world. In the Great Commission passage in Mark 16:15, Jesus commanded, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” At the close of one of His parables Jesus related the words of the master of the household, “Go out into the highways and along the hedges and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23). To the former Gadarene demoniac who became a disciple of Christ and wanted to accompany Jesus, the Lord said, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19). The Lord Jesus Christ clearly commanded His followers to go to those who did not know Him and communicate the good news of how sinful mankind can be made right with the Holy God of the universe. Contemporary followers of Christ are commanded to do the same: go and share the gospel with others. Christians must move to where lost people are in order that the unsaved can hear the message of salvation. Unless someone goes and tells them how to be saved, they cannot hear and respond to the gospel message (Rom 10:13–17).
The second action, according to verse 19, which believers must take in order to fulfill the mandate of the Great Commission is to make disciples of all nations. In fact, that is the primary action and focus of the passage since “make disciples” is the only imperative in the Matthew Commission. To make disciples means, very simply, to lead persons to place their faith in Christ…. Probably a better rendering of the single word in the Greek language popularly translated “make disciples” is “win disciples.” The rationale for that translation is sound grammatically, linguistically, contextually, biblically, historically, and logically….*
Ed.’s Note: Additional headings in this essay include:
The Means of the Great Commission
The Method of the Great Commission
The Message of the Great Commission
The Magnitude of the Great Commission
Mistakes Related to the Great Commission
William L. Banks, In Search of the Great Commission (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 13. See also James Montogomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Comprehensive & Readable Theology, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 651, and Herschel H. Hobbs, The Baptist Faith and Message (Nashville: Convention Press, 1971), 108.
Mortimer Arias and Alan Johnson, The Great Commission: Biblical Models for Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), 11–14.
As Herschel Hobbs states, The Baptist Faith and Message, 108, “An analysis of Matthew 28:18–20 is most revealing.”
As Robert E. Coleman, The Great Commission Lifestyle: Conforming Your Life to Kingdom Priorities (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1992), 31, aptly observed, “All too easily we rush into the action man- date without pausing to consider what Jesus says first.”
All Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).
Donald McGavran indicated that the part of the Great Commission that believers are most prone to forget is Christ’s declaration of authority, which provides the foundation as well as the motivation for fulfill- ing the Great Commission. Arthur F. Glasser, “My Last Conversation with Donald McGavran,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 27, no. 1 (January 1991): 59.
Robert Coleman declared, “Jesus is Lord, able to do whatever He wills, and before Him every knee must bow.” He went on to say, “He has absolute sovereignty; His authority reaches across the vast expanse of the planet and unto the farthest star.” See Coleman, Great Commission Lifestyle, 19, 31.
“Before challenging us with the imperative, Jesus reassures us with an indicative. Before He commands He asserts, and what He asserts is His unmitigated sovereignty.” See Thomas K. Ascol, “The Great Commission Tension: God’s Work and Ours” in The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in Our Time, ed. Chuck Lawless and Adam W. Greenway (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 151.
Waylon Bailey, As You Go: Biblical Foundations for Evangelism (New Orleans: Insight Press, 1981), 6–7.
Roland Q. Leavell, Evangelism: Christ’s Imperative Commission, revised by Landrum P. Leavell II and Harold T. Bryson (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1979), 16.
Thomas P. Johnston, “Unleashing the Power of Matthew’s Great Commission” in Mobilizing a Great Commission Church for Harvest, ed.Thomas P. Johnston (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 11.
12Leavell, Imperative Commission, 15.
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SBCToday reprinted with permission the above excerpt.