Friday, June 26, 2009

The Great Commission

I'm a huge fan of the new Lutheran Study Bible that Augsburg Fortress released in April. I heard of this concept about a year ago when I was asked to review a few manuscripts from the study notes. I was excited about the vision cast for this Bible, as well as the fact that it includes a stylish baby-blue book cover.

I've had several conversations with friends (both the local and on-line variety) about the study notes pertaining to the Great Commission. Some have been merely curious about the treatment of the text, others have been more animated in their disagreement. Here's the more "controversial" portion of what appears in the Great Commission notes:

Jesus now sends the disciples to make disciples of all nations. That does not mean make everyone disciples. Most people who are helped by Jesus and believe in him never become disciples. Jesus includes in salvation people who do not believe in him or even know about him. Disciples are students, called for the sake of the world to learn from Jesus and to bear witness to the kingdom.

Wanting to know more about this interpretation of the final words of Jesus, I decided to go to the source. Dr. Duane A. Priebe is the Knutson Professor of Systematic Theology and Senior Faculty Fellow at Wartburg Theological Seminary. His areas of expertise include systematic theology, Christology and atonement, creation and eschatology, Biblical theology, and Christian theology in a religiously plural world. Dr. Priebe contributed the study notes to the Gospel of Matthew portion of the Lutheran Study Bible.

Here was my note to Dr. Priebe:

Dr. Priebe,

I want to thank you for your excellent contributions to the Lutheran Study Bible. I have been doing some teaching on the gospel of Matthew these past few weeks, and have found the comments and notes you provided to be most insightful.

Last night our adult Bible Study engaged in a robust discussion regarding congregational implications of the Great Commission. One of our group members had concerns with two of the notes from the Lutheran Study Bible.

"Jesus now send the disciples to make disciples of all nations. That does not mean make everyone disciples."

"Jesus includes in salvation people who do not believe in him or ever know about him"

The questions asked by the group had to do with "Why aren't we called to make disciples of everyone?" and "Does everyone get into heaven, regardless of who they believe in?" Our conversation then went to discussing conversations of antinomianism, Universalism, and Lutheran hermeneutics...topics that are a bit above my pay grade. :-)

I told the group that I would take these questions directly to the source, in the hopes that we can all be enlightened. I'm wondering if, in the midst of your busy schedule, you'd be willing to expand a bit on the two statements from the Lutheran Study Bible on the topics of discipleship / evangelism / salvation. I know the members of our group would be most appreciative.

Here's Dr. Priebe's thorough response:

Thank you for your questions. They are important ones to think about. I will begin with the second.

There are two passages in Matthew that speak of salvation without saying anything about believing in Jesus or knowing him. The first is the Beatitudes in 5:3-10. Lutherans believe that God’s word creates what it declares. In the Beatitudes, Jesus includes into the salvation of God’s rule the spiritually poor, those mourning, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Jesus creates salvation for these people – and his death and resurrection establish this as true. None of the Beatitudes restrict this to those who believe in Jesus, nor is it necessary for them to know that this is true for it to be true. God’s word creates truth. Only the final Beatitude that speaks of persecution for the sake of Jesus’ name is addressed (“you”) to the disciples.

The second is the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46. It speaks of the judgment of all the nations. Matthew uses language in a way that had become typical of Judaism, for whom the term “nations” referred to the nations who were not God’s people. In Matthew, the little ones who belong to Jesus are people who believe in him (see a similar point in Matt 10:40-41). This is why they are surprised – Christians would not be. This, of course, does not exclude the claim of this passage on us as Christians to see Christ present in those who are suffering in this world.

The notes in the study Bible do not speak of those who reject Christ. But that is a scary business for me. In the Sermon on the Mount, it is people who claim Jesus as Lord, who have preached and done powerful things in his name to whom he says, “I never knew you” (7:21-23). In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, those are people who claim the name of Jesus, but do not live in the reality created by the Beatitudes, they justify having enemies and try to ground it in God, they pursue a righteousness of their own that can be seen (the word translated “piety” in 6:1 is the Greek word for “righteousness”) rather than God’s righteousness (6:1-34 – where the either-or that runs through the chapter applies to this contrast) and encourage people to have a righteousness that can be seen, and they pass judgment on others and encourage people to do the same, all the while claiming to represent Christ. When I think about that, I can only begin with myself.

Saul, the Pharisee, of course, did reject Christ and was persecuting Christians out of zeal for God. Yet Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and made him an apostle. Paul speaks of God’s love for us while we were ungodly, sinners, and enemies in Christ’s death (Rom 5:6-11), and he speaks of Jesus’ death as creating justification and life for all, getting as many as Adam got (5:15-21; 1 Cor 15:22 – in Paul’s day, “many” was not used in contrast to “all,” it was used in contrast to “one,” as Paul does). In Paul’s discussion of the Jews in Rom 9-11, Paul ends by saying that God’s promise to Israel cannot be revoked (or God would not be faithful, and we also could not trust God), and while they are now enemies of God, “all Israel will be saved” Rom 11:25-32).

The most expansive picture of the scope of salvation in the NT is an early hymn about Christ in Colossians 1:15-20. There everything created through and for Christ, including the cosmic, demonic powers, the thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, which were defeated in his death on the cross (2:10) are reconciled to God through his blood on the cross.

So where does faith fit into all this? For Paul as well as for Luther, faith is not something I do now to get something different that is salvation. Faith is participation now in salvation. In John 5:24, the transition from unbelief to faith is the transition from death to eternal life. Faith, as life-orienting trust in God’s promise in Jesus Christ, is the goal in our lives of everything God has done for us. We are not saved apart from faith, for living in faith from the power of God’s grace, Gods love for sinners and the unworthy in Jesus Christ, is the communion with God for which we were created and is participation already in salvation. The deepest promise of salvation in the Old Testament is, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” In Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, he asks, “What does it mean to have a God?” He answers that your god (small g) is whatever to turn to in every need and what you trust for meaning, life, and security is your god. Faith and God belong together. Sin is fundamentally idolatry, in which we seek life from created things rather than God. So people do not yet participate in salvation apart from faith. But for us who believe, we always have faith in constant struggle with unbelief and idolatry.

None of this has said anything about God’s wrath and judgment – which we cannot deny. As sinners, who seek life from created things, and thus live in fear and destructive ways to protect ourselves, we are all under God’s wrath and judgment. According to the NT, one of the ways we live under God’s judgment is when we pass judgment on others – which is always on people for whom Christ died. Whenever we do so, we make something in ourselves the basis of our salvation, and we assume, like Adam and Eve wanted – that we can be like God, defining the boundary between good and evil. In the Bible, that is the most fundamental form of idolatry.

Christians have never assumed that only those who know and believe in Jesus in this life will participate in salvation in the next. On the most obvious level, that would exclude everyone in the Old Testament. They went out into the world, not to expand the domain of God’s love, but with the message of God’s love for a lost and dy8ing world in Jesus Christ, which is already the truth of the world.

What do we really believe when we believe in Jesus Christ? We believe that Jesus alone is the ground and source of salvation – not anything else, including works, the church, our being Christian, faith. Jesus Christ is God’s love not just for some (as strict Calvinists think), but for the world. So those of us who believe in Jesus Christ are claimed to see and think of everyone in the world, and to relate to them, as people for whom Jesus died – which is the most important thing about them. Luther, in his 1535 commentary on Galatians 3:13, says that since Jesus has taken all our sins into himself, if we see anyone in terms of their sins, we deny the deity of God, for we think their sins are more powerful than God’s love in Christ. In his bookThe Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, commenting on “judge not,” argues that the difference between a disciple and an unbeliever is that the disciple sees everyone, including the unbeliever, at the foot of the cross, which the unbeliever sees no one, including themselves there.

What God does with anyone, is, of course, God’s business, not mine. But if I believe in the power of God’s forgiving love in the cross of Jesus Christ, I cannot restrict it in any way or exclude anyone from that love on any kind of basis without condemning myself. That is what Jesus says.

Then, with regard to making disciples: A further question is what it means to make disciples of all nations (to follow the traditional translation). The term "disciple(s)" occurs 250 times in the NT, but only in the Gospels and Acts. That means that in the first century, "disciple" was not a term for what we would call a "Christian" or a person who believes in Jesus. It is used that way in certain layers of Acts, although even there, in Acts 16:1, Timothy is a disciple, while his mother is a believer.

In the Greek philosophical schools or later in Rabbinic Judaism beginning shortly before the time of Jesus, a "disciple" is a pupil of a teacher - the two terms go together. In Matthew, those who believe in Jesus and are benefited by him, experiencing the transforming power of the kingdom - or even the crowds that follow him - do not become disciples - even when they may want to do so. What is distinctive about being a disciple in the Gospels is that they do not decide to become disciples, Jesus calls them to be disciples - and in that sense "makes" them disciples, although that language is not used. Second, being a disciple entails not only a pupil-teacher relationship, as it does in the philosophical schools or in the Rabbinic tradition, but it also entails an attachment to the person Jesus Christ.

In this kind of framework, the commission to "make disciples of all nations" would not mean to make all the people of these nations "disciples," not the same as the Spirit bringing them to faith through the gospel, but that through them there would be people among all the nations whom Jesus calls to be disciples. That is, people who would also have a pupil-teacher relationship with Jesus, and the personal attachment to him that characterizes the disciples. In the philosophical and Rabbinic schools, pupils themselves become teachers with disciples. In this case the disciples do not become teachers with pupils - Jesus alone remains the teacher with disciples who both learn from him and bear witness to God's rule being established in and through Jesus' activity - especially his death and resurrection.

The imagery of disciples as a particular set of people - not all who have faith in Jesus or are benefited by him - is reflected in the imagery of being salt and light for the world (Matt 5:13-16) or a little leaven leavening the whole lump (13:33). It also corresponds on a wider level to the mission of the twelve in Matt 10. Jesus' command in Matt 28:19-20 also corresponds to the structure of the teacher-disciple relationship or the philosophical or rabbinic schools. They make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them to observe all of Jesus' commands - not their own commands or interpretations.

The disciples are not as such the ones who benefit from Jesus' activity - although they are not excluded from the promises - they do participate in all the rotten stuff in Matt 10. Their place in the Beatitudes in Matt 5:3-12 is that they are persecuted - although that is also coupled with the promise of reward. Jesus does not call disciples for their own benefit - he calls them for the sake of the world and its benefit as witnesses to Jesus Christ and as messengers of the salvation and rule of God, which God accomplishes through Jesus Christ, including incarnation, death, and resurrection. This is reflected in an interesting way in Matthew and the other Gospels. While others who turn to Jesus and are commended for their faith, the disciples always struggle to believe and to understand what Jesus is doing - even after his death and resurrection.

The idea that a small number of people who are called by Jesus and who bear witness to him fill the world with the light of the gospel and with his presence is reflected in a different way when Athanasius in the early 4th century speaks of the entire world being filled with the light of the Gospel and Jesus' transforming power. The Christian missionaries in China in the 7th and 8th century say the same thing about the light of the gospel filling the entire kingdom. In neither case are Christians anything but a small minority. But what they refer to is that there are Christians who bear witness to Jesus Christ scattered throughout the Empires, and through their witness all things are being transformed.

I hope this helps,

Yours in Christ,

Duane A. Priebe

Let the conversation continue!


  1. No comments? Maybe most people have the same reaction I did..."Makes sense to me, what exactly is the problem?"

  2. I've received some feedback on Twitter & Facebook. Perhaps some people had the reaction you shared. Others may be waiting to read such a lengthy post until they have a little more time. Still others just might be upset by what Dr. Priebe has to say and are taking a few days to craft their response. Ya just never know! :-)

  3. Thankfully, AF is scrapping Priebe's offending remark in the AF Bible in the next printing, as announced by their Pres/CEO Beth Lewis back in May. Too little, too late, in my opinion though. This is deadly wrong stuff. No wonder why one of the ELCA's largest congregations has left it, citing this study Bible and note on Mt. 28 as one of their key evidences for why they are leaving. Tragic, and sad.

  4. Deadly wrong stuff? I just got a chance to read this post. I have to digest it yet.

    As for Paul McCain, don't you work for a competing publishing house to AF with a competing Lutheran Study Bible?

    As for your comment about an ELCA congregation leaving based upon one person's viewpoint, that's a real shame if true. That congregation had other issues though besides this one. Too bad this had to be used as an excuse.

  5. Hey Steven - I'm hoping that Paul will offer some additional insight about his assertions in the previous comment. He obviously has some strong opinions...I think we would all benefit if he would elaborate a bit more.

  6. Erik, when our Lord Christ said to go and make disciples of all nations, he meant it. It's just that simple, and it is sad that what is so painfully obvious can be so terribly obscured by so-called scholarship.

    Like I said, Augsburg Fortress has announced that they are dropping the offending remark from their study Bible. How it was ever printed with it to begin with baffles me.

  7. Priebe's excellent article, and his excellent letter here, had nothing to do with CCOJ leaving the ELCA. They left because Kallestad is going through about a three-year long spiritual crisis which he inflicted on his congregation prompting half of them to leave, and this was before CCOJ left the ELCA.

    Pastor McCain, no it really is not that simple. You surely know of the various issues in Matthew, or any of the gospels for that matter. It is not so simple as saying, "Jesus said it. I believe it. That settles it." You should know that.

  8. "Progressive"

    Thankfully, Augsburg Fortress realized Priebe is in error and is dropping the remark in future printings of the Bible.

  9. Well said, John (Progressive). CCOJ has been in the process of leaving for many years. Piebe's letter is another example of the unappreciated genius he continues to be for the ELCA and the Church. As far as AugsburgFortress removing it, well they are all about the market place, aren't they?

  10. I see nothing wrong with the good Doctor's reply. Heaven help those Christians who think, and act with the wrong intentions and call it the work of God all while harboring hate towards their neighbor. We will be judged on the 2 greatest commandments, not where we went to church on Sunday. The ELCA church I attended today preached nothing but God's love, no other deity was mentioned, sacred music was sung. Didn't look like a church hurting to me...

  11. How much of this did the criminal on the cross beside Jesus understand?...the one whom Jesus declared would be with him that day in Paradise? I fear that we Lutherans start thinking we're smart enough to understand the MYSTERY of God. :-)


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