Re-affirming Holistic Mission: A Cross-Centered Approach in All Areas of Life

I was a bit puzzled, I must confess. There I was at the Lausanne Forum in Pattaya last year and I noticed that ‘Holistic Mission’ was one of the 31 special Issue Groups. I had thought that holistic mission was what Lausanne was all about, not one of many mission interest subdivisions. Somehow, our splendid definition of world evangelization (“The whole Church taking the whole gospel to the whole world”) gives that impression. Indeed, holistic surely implies ‘the whole’ of something. It turned out that much of the specific content of the Holistic Mission IG was really social action. That, in and of itself, is an interesting shift in meaning. Holistic mission includes the whole of what God calls and sends us to do. Evangelism without social action is not holistic mission. Likewise, social action without evangelism cannot be holistic mission either.

Back to our Roots
Originally ‘holistic mission’ was coined in response to the idea that evangelism (understood as the verbal proclamation of the gospel) is the only real mission. However, at the 1974 Lausanne conference, evangelicals re-affirmed the great 19th century heritage of evangelical social action in the context of 20th century needs, stating in paragraph 5 of the Lausanne Covenant that “evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love of our neighbor and our obedience to Jesus Christ.” During the 1980s much work went into clarifying the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility, and the 1982 consultation with that very title in Grand Rapids, Michigan, affirmed the integral partnership. “Evangelism and social responsibility, while distinct from one another, are integrally related in our proclamation of and obedience to the gospel…In practice, as in the public ministry of Jesus, the two are inseparable.”

The 1989 Manila Manifesto added that “The gospel must become visible in the transformed lives of men and women. As we proclaim the love of God we must be involved in loving service, and as we preach the kingdom of God we must be committed to its demands of justice and peace.” In the wake of Lausanne I, John Stott wrote in his commentary on Matthew 6:33:

“To seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness may be said to embrace our Christian evangelistic and social responsibilities, much as do the ‘salt’ and ‘light’ metaphors of Matthew 5. In order to seek first God’s kingdom we must evangelize, since the kingdom spreads only as the gospel of Christ is preached, heard, believed and obeyed. In order to seek first God’s righteousness we shall still evangelize (for the inward righteousness of the heart is impossible otherwise), but we shall also engage in social action and endeavor to spread throughout the community those higher standards of righteousness which are pleasing to God.’1

Back to the Bible
The theological work that was done by the Lausanne Theology Working Group and other groups during the 1980s re-established evangelical theology of mission on a solid biblical basis—and by ‘biblical’ I mean the whole Bible, not just a few verses from the New Testament. For just as the whole church must include the churches of the global South, North and West, so too the whole gospel must be drawn from the entire Bible.

Many evangelicals say they accept God’s revelation in both the Old and New Testaments. But to read some mission theories and strategies, one would hardly think that was true. A common assumption is that all social, economic and political dimensions of the Old Testament cannot contribute to Christian mission, for only the spiritual needs of humanity are addressed in the New Testament. This view of the New Testament, and the missiological implications that accompany it, requires us to imagine that for century after century the God of the Bible was passionately concerned about social issues—political arrogance and abuse; economic exploitation; judicial corruption; the suffering of the poor and oppressed; the evils of brutality; and bloodshed. Indeed, God was so passionate that the laws he gave and the prophets he sent addressed these matters more than any other issue sans idolatry. Meanwhile, the psalmists cry out in protest to the God they know cares deeply about such things.

Somewhere, however, between Malachi and Matthew this changes. Such things no longer claim God’s attention or spark his anger. Or if they do, it is no longer our business. The root cause of all such things is individual, internal and spiritual sin, and now, these things are all God is interested in. A subtle form of Marcionism underlies this approach. The alleged God of the New Testament is almost unrecognizable as the LORD God, the Holy One of Israel. This alleged God has certainly shed all the passionate priorities of the Mosaic Law, and has jettisoned all the burden for justice that he laid on his prophets at such cost to them. The implications for mission are equally dramatic. For if the pressing problems of human society are of no concern to God, they have no place in Christian mission—or at most a decidedly secondary one. God’s mission is getting souls to heaven, not addressing society on earth.

Such a view of God and mission is unbiblical, and frankly, unbelievable if one is to take the whole Bible as the trustworthy revelation of the identity, character and mission of the living God. We cannot overlook the depths of the spiritual realities of sin and evil the New Testament exposes—or the glories of God’s redemptive accomplishment in the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. These truths of the New Testament simply do not nullify all that the Old Testament has already revealed about God’s comprehensive commitment to every dimension of human life; about his relentless opposition to all that oppresses, spoils and diminishes human well-being; and about his ultimate mission of blessing the nations and redeeming his whole creation.

Back to the Cross
Our mission flows from God’s mission, and God’s mission has many dimensions as we trace the theme of his saving purpose through strands of Scripture. Every dimension of God’s mission led to the cross of Christ, which was the unavoidable cost of this mission. Therefore, we need a mission-centered theology of the cross. Think for a moment of the contours of God’s redemptive purpose.

It was the purpose or mission of God:

  • To deal with the guilt of human sin, which had to be punished for God’s own justice to be vindicated. This was accomplished at the cross. God took that guilt and punishment upon himself in self-substitution through the person of his own Son. For “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6) and “Christ himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).

  • To defeat the powers of evil and all the forces (angelic, spiritual, “seen or unseen”) that oppress, crush, invade, spoil and destroy human life, whether directly or by human agency. This was accomplished at the cross: “Having disarmed the powers and authorities…triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).

  • To destroy death, the great invader and enemy of human life in God’s world. This was accomplished at the cross: “By Christ’s death he destroyed the one who holds the power of death – the devil’ (Hebrews 2:14).

  • To remove the barrier of enmity and alienation between Jew and Gentile, and by implication ultimately all forms of enmity and alienation. This was accomplished at the cross: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier…to create one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16).

  • To heal and reconcile his whole creation—this is the cosmic mission of God. This was accomplished at the cross. For it is God’s will “through Christ to reconcile all things, whether things in heaven or things on earth, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20) “All things” clearly means the whole created cosmos since that is what Paul says has been created “by Christ and for Christ” (vs. 15-16) and has now been reconciled by Christ (v. 20).

All these dimensions of God’s redemptive mission are set before us in the Bible. God’s mission was that:

  • sin should be punished and sinners forgiven

  • evil should be defeated and humanity liberated

  • death should be destroyed and life and immortality brought to light

  • enemies should be reconciled, to one another and to God

  • creation itself should be restored and reconciled to its creator

Together, these constitute the mission of God and all led to the cross of Christ, the unavoidable cost of God’s holistic mission.

A full biblical understanding of the atonement goes far beyond personal guilt and individual forgiveness. That Jesus died in my place, bearing the guilt of my sin, is of course the most gloriously liberating truth. That we should long for others to know this truth and be saved and forgiven by casting their sins on the crucified Savior in repentance and faith is a most energizing motive for evangelism. But there is more in the biblical theology of the cross than individual salvation, and there is more to biblical mission than evangelism. The gospel is good news for the whole creation (Mark 16:15, cf. Ephesians 3:10). Pointing out the wider dimensions of God’s redemptive mission (and therefore of our committed holistic participation in God’s mission), is not ‘watering down’ the gospel of personal salvation. Rather, we set that precious good news for the individual firmly and affirmatively within its full biblical context of all that God has achieved, and will finally complete, through the cross of Christ for the whole of creation.

Cross-Centered Theology of Holistic Mission
But it is equally true and biblical to say that the cross is the unavoidable center of our mission. All Christian mission flows from the cross. We need a cross-centered theology of holistic mission.

It is vital that we see the cross as central to every aspect of holistic, biblical mission. It is a mistake to think that while our evangelism must be centered on the cross, our social engagement has some other theological foundation or justification. Why is the cross equally important across the whole field of mission? Because in all forms of Christian mission we are confronting the powers of evil and the kingdom of Satan in the name of Christ. If we are to proclaim and demonstrate the reality of the reign of God in Christ—if we are to proclaim that Jesus is king, in a world which chants “we have no king but Caesar” and his many successors, including mammon—then we will be in direct conflict with the usurped reign of the evil one in all its manifestations. The battle against the powers of evil is the unanimous testimony of those who struggle for justice and for the needs of the poor, oppressed, sick and ignorant. It’s the testimony of those who seek to care for and protect God’s creation against exploiters and polluters just as much as it is the for those who struggle to bring people to faith in Christ or who plant churches. In all work, we confront the reality of sin and Satan and are challenging the darkness with the light and good news of Jesus Christ.

With what power are we competent to engage the powers of evil? On what basis dare we challenge the chains of Satan in people’s spiritual, moral, physical and social lives? Our authority lies in the cross. Only in the cross is there forgiveness, justification and cleansing for guilty sinners. Only in the cross stands the defeat of evil powers and all oppression and injustice. Only in the cross is there release from the fear of death. Only in the cross are enemies reconciled. Only in the cross will we finally witness the healing of all creation.

Sin and evil constitute bad news in every area of life. The redemptive work of God through the cross of Christ is good news for every area of life. In short, we need a holistic gospel because the world is in a holistic mess. By God’s incredible grace we have a gospel big enough to redeem all that sin and evil has touched. And every dimension of that good news is good news only because of the blood of Christ on the cross.

Ultimately all that will exist in the new, redeemed creation will be there because of the cross. Conversely, all that will not be there (suffering, tears, sin, Satan, sickness, oppression, injustice, corruption, decay and death), will not be there because they will have been defeated by the cross.

Holistic mission must have a holistic theology of the cross. The cross must be as central to our social engagement as it is to our evangelism. There is no other power, no other resource, no other name, through which we can offer the whole gospel to the whole person and the whole world, than Jesus Christ crucified and risen.

1. Stott, John. 1978. Christian Counter-Culture. InterVarsity Press, p. 172.

Dr. Chris Wright, from Northern Ireland, taught in India and at All Nations Christian College, U.K., and then followed John Stott in leadership of the Langham Partnership International. His books include The Mission of God (IVP Academic, 2006) and The Mission of God’s People (Zondervan, 2010). Wright is chair of the Lausanne Theology Working Group.