The book is only 40 pages in length and is now out of print. It came from a series of bible study lectures that Newbigin delivered at a synod meeting in 1986 for the Church of South India. There are four chapters to the book, a brief foreword by Joan B. Campbell, and a brief preface by Newbigin where he acknowledges the tension that was in the air at the synod between the topics of evangelism and social justice. It will come as no surprise that much of Newbigin’s emphasis’s throughout the book concern themselves with the relationship between evangelism and social justice. A book that is roughly 3 times in length and of the same mind with Newbigin worth reading is Harvie M. Conn’s book “Evangelism: Preaching Grace & Doing Justice.” You can purchase “Mission in Christ’s Way: A gift, a command, an assurance” by Lesslie Newbigin used at Amazon starting at $6.
Chapter 1 – Mission in Christ’s Way: The scripture this study is structured around is Mark 1:14-18. The question that occupies Newbigin throughout this chapter is “What was, and is, the way? How did the Father send the Son?” (pg. 1) Because for Newbigin the way the Father sends the Son is the way He sends the church. Newbigin makes 6 points from Mark 1.14-18:
1) The gospel is an announcement of a fact, the Kingdom, the reign of God, has come near;
2) the announcement is not about religion the way we like to compartmentalize things today, it is about world affairs;
3) the announcement is news in that it tells its hearers that Kingdom has come near now, not simply that it will come but that it has come near;
4) the message carries with it an imperative, you must turn around;
5) the message is also turn around AND believe the gospel that the reign of God has come near in Christ;
and finally 6) but this turning and believing is not something we can do, it is His work, He takes the initiative.
“The secret of the kingdom is given to those who have been chosen – chosen not for themselves but chosen to be bearers of the secret for others. But it is still a secret, a mystery. It is not something that is obvious or that comes naturally to the human reason and conscience.” (pg. 4) Where is this mystery most revealed? The cross. “…the cross…[is] the place where the kingdom of God, his power and wisdom, is hidden and revealed. To those who are called to be its witnesses it will be revealed by the resurrection, to the rest it is nonsense and a scandal, a blasphemous caricature of God’s kingdom. How can a man crucified as a rebel and a heretic be the embodiment of the wisdom and power of God?” (pgs. 5-6)
From his discussion of Mark 1.14-18 Newbigin suggests some themes emerge regarding what Mission in Christ’s Way is: Jesus is the kingdom; Jesus preaches the kingdom; and mission is not a success story.
JESUS IS THE KINGDOM – The kingdom of God, His kingly rule and reign has a human face. The face of Jesus. It will simply not do if we try and put Paul’s theology against Jesus’s. Yes Jesus talks about the Kingdom and Paul talks about Jesus but the reason says Newbigin is because the kingdom is present in Jesus. God has come near in Jesus. Which of course means that the kingdom is not the spread of modern civilization. Its not merely a socio-poltical program like Capitalism or Marxism, its the presence and rule of God in King Jesus. “When the message of the kingdom of God is separated from the name of Jesus two distortions follow, and these are in fact the source of deep divisions in the life of the church today. On the one hand, there is the preaching of the name of Jesus simply as the one who brings a religious experience of personal salvation without involving one in costly actions at the points in public life where the power of Satan is contradicting the rule of God…On the other hand, when the message of the kingdom is separated from the name of Jesus, the the action of the church in respect of the evils in society becomes a mere ideological crusade, inviting men and women to put their trust in that which cannot satisfy.” (pg. 9)
JESUS PREACHES THE KINGDOM – “In the mission of Jesus we see that there is both the presence of the kingdom and also the proclamation of the kingdom.” (pg. 10) The presence of the kingdom is found in Jesus and his prophetic actions (Matt 10). Jesus sets up a pattern he desires his disciples to imitate, they as well are to be the presence of the kingdom as well as proclaim it. In a moment of frankness Newbigin says very plainly, “words without deeds are empty, but deeds without words are dumb. It is stupid to set them against each other.” (pg. 11) We must not set deeds and words against one another, as though deeds were kingdom work and preaching was church work. “The church is only true to its calling when it is a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the kingdom. But, on the other hand, talk about the kingdom is mere ideology if it is not tied to the name of Jesus in whom the kingdom is present and if it does not invite men and women to recognize that presence, to do the U-turn, to become part of that company that (sinful as it has always been) acknowledges Jesus as the one in whom God’s kingdom is present and so seeks to honor him, to serve him, to follow him.” (pgs. 12-13)
MISSION IS NOT A SUCCESS STORY – “Mission in Christ’s way will not be a success story as the world reckons success. There is a kind of ideology of success that fits badly with the gospel.” (pg. 13) Newbigin tells a story about traveling evangelists who would write him in India promising great revivals, but his understanding of the growth of the church in its first centuries through the death of martyrs kept Newbigin from buying into the latest program or sales strategy. “Success in the sense of growth in the number of committed Christians is not in our hands. It is the work of God the Holy Spirit to call men and women to faith in Jesus, and the Spirit does so in ways that are often mysterious and beyond any possibility of manipulation or even of comprehension by us. What is required of us is faithfulness in word and deed, at whatever cost...” (pg. 14)
Chapter 2 – A question about the Kingdom: A Promise about the Spirit: The scripture this study is structured around is Acts 1.6-8. The central question Newbigin seeks to answer in this chapter is “Is mission a program and task for the church or a promise and gift to her?” Newbigin says its the latter. He begins this chapter by recounting an answer he gives when asked is he opptimistic or pessimistic about the Kingdom coming to India. He says neither, the Kingdom coming isn’t a question, its a fact. “We are constantly tempted to see the cause of the gospel as if it were a program about which we could be optimistic or pessimistic…We need the warning [in Acts 1.6-8]. The kingdom of God is, quite simply, God’s reign; it is not our program. The question is not optimism or pessimism; it is belief or unbelief.” (pg. 16)
The kingdom of God is a gift of God to us, promised by him and present in the ‘arrabon’ of the Holy Spirit. The ‘arrabon’ is a word taken form business culture in Jesus day. Its a promissary note that of payment to come that was treated as if the payment was already received. Its worth quoting in length Newbigin’s understanding of the Spirit in mission as our ‘arrabon’ from God;
“The Holy Spirit is the arrabon of the kingdom. It is not just a verbal promise. It is a real gift now, a real foretaste of the joy, the freedom, the righteousness, the holiness of God’s kingdom. It is real now. But its special character is that it carries the promise of something much greater to come and makes us look forward and press forward with eager hope towards the greater reality that lies ahead. And it is this that makes the church a witness to the kingdom. The witness is not essentially a task laid upon the church; it is a gift to the church. It is an overflow of Pentecost.” (pg. 17)
Because the churches missional character is a promise and gift, an arrabon of what is to come, the church is not worry about how it will witness. The Spirit who precedes from the Father will bear witness through her. It is God Exodusing the church that is her witness more than a program or task she is to perform. “It is not that the church is called upon to undertake a program. It is that the liberating presence of the Spirit will constituted the church a witness to the mighty acts of the living God who alone is King.” (pg. 18)
In speaking of his own experience in Madras Newbigin says, “This was no humanely devised program for mission. It was the work of the Spirit, present in the life of the congregation, flowing out into the community through the faithful words and deeds of its members…mission is wrongly understood if it is seen primarily as a task laid upon us. It is primarily a work of the Spirit, a spill-over from Pentecost.” (pg. 20) A good metaphor from life in India for mission is that from the traveling of someone early in the morning. They set off toward what they think is the place where the sun rises, but before they see the sun they see the faint glow of new light on the faces of those they are passing which causes them to realize its time to turn around because the sun is behind them.
Chapter 3 – Participating in the Passion: Witnessing to the Resurrection: The scripture this study is structured around is John 20.19-23. The question that seems to occupy Newbigin in this chapter is how should the church go out in mission? Newbigin’s answer is that she should participate in his passion and witness to his resurrection. In this chapter more than the others Newbigin connects the missional nature of the church to her fundamental identity. He says, “And that is the launching of the church. It is a movement launched into the public life of the world. I has no life except in this sending…the churches being is in that sending” (pgs.22-23) Newbigin recalls his own ministry in Madurai, how the churches had no buildings, they met in the public squares and people slowly moved from outer rings to the center as the gospel took root in their lives.
If the church is to be an authentic witness to Christ she must bare his scares, doing mission in his way;
“It was the scars of the passion in his risen body that assured the frightened disciples that it was really Jesus who stood among them. It will be those scars in the corporate life of the church that will authenticate it as indeed the body of Christ, the bearer of his mission, the presence of the kingdom. It will not be enough for the church to place a cross on top of its buildings or in the centre of its altars or on the robes of its clergy. The marks of the cross will have to be recognizable also in the lives of its members if the church is to be the authentic presence of the kingdom.” (pg. 23)
Newbigin is quick to warn his readers that the cross was not the place of defeat but the place of triumph over evil. “The cross is not abject submission to the power of evil; it is the price paid for a victorious challenge to the powers of evil.” (pg.25) It is this cross that should mark the mission of the church. Jesus in his mission neither withdrew from the world into a religious cloister nor did he engage the world on the worlds own terms. Neither should the church retreat to words alone or trust in actions alone; in preaching alone or social justice alone.
John 20 reminds us again of the gift of the Holy Spirit and His work of mission in the church. He empowers the whole church to live missionally. “It is the whole church, acting in all its members in the secular life of the world, that is to be the bearer of the reconciling grace of God.” (pg. 29) This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for the priesthood of ordained ministry but it doesn’t replace the missional lifestyle the whole church is to live. “The priesthood of the ordained ministry is to enable, not to remove, the priesthood of the whole church.” (pg. 30) Newbigin is aware of how often pride and self-interest lead the church away from doing mission in the way of Christ but the call in John 20 is clear – participate in the passion and bear witness to the resurrection.
Chapter 4 – A Gift, a Command, and an Assurance: The scripture this study is structured around is Matthew 28.18-20. The central question Newbigin addresses in this chapter is that of discipleship and mission. What does it mean for the church to make disciples of the nations? Before he engages that question Newbigin offers some advice on how to understand the “Great Commission” passage in context with the other passages of this book. He says;
“If we take it alone, and see mission as essentially obedience to a command, then mission becomes part of the law rather than an expression of the gospel; it becomes a burden to be carried rather than a joy to be shared. It becomes essentially our program, rather than a work of the Spirit in which we are caught up.” (pg. 32)
Newbigin says if we look at this passage closely we’ll notice that it opens with a shout of victory, of joy. It is the that joy working inwardly in the life of the church that propels it outward. Outward to the nations, to make disciples of the nations. But what does that entail? Newbigin points out three things it entails: 1) It does not mean that the nations must become culturally identical to the Western church; 2) but neither does it mean that the nations cultures are un-reprovable; and lastly it doesn’t mean that the nations remain separate churches unto themselves, the cultural differences are to be respected between the churches but not absolutized. Simply put discipling the nations, according to Newbigin, means “bringing those who were outside the family of God into one family, in which unity does not mean uniformity and diversity does not mean division…” (pgs. 37-38)
But even the apparent command to go isn’t simply a command, it rests upon a promise says Newbigin. The promise that he is with us until the end of the age. He gets the glory for mission;
“Perhaps it is unfortunate that the history of mission is so often written by missionaries. They over-estimate their role. It is the Holy Spirit who is the primary missionary; our role is secondary. Mission is not a burden laid upon the church; it is a gift and a promise to the church that is faithful. The command arise from the gift. Jesus reigns and all authority has been given to him in earth and heaven. When we understand that, we shall not need to be told to let it be known. Rather, we shall not be able to keep silent.” (pg. 40)
If you’ve never read Newbigin before I think this booklet is a great place to start.
If you’re a ministry practicioner trying to create a theological foundation for mission and social justice in your church this is a great book for you to consider.
If you’re someone who’s passionate about missions but also weary because of the triumphalistic language so often used in missions agencies this is a great book for you.
Newbigin has helped me in this booklet think through evangelism, preaching & social justice, and the missional church in fresh ways. He has encouraged me to consider that mission is a gift, a command, and an assurance founded on the fact that God’s kingdom has come near in His Son, and that it will come near through the life of the missional church by the Spirit. What more could you ask for in a booklet only 40 pages long.
This is one of the best books I’ve ever read on missions, period!