This statement is likely to stir up a virtual storm, but I’m going to write it anyhow: the Church pays too much attention to the Great Commission.
Yes, Jesus did say that we should make disciples of all nations. Because Jesus said it, we should do it. He said it at a pretty prominent time, too, meeting with his disciples in Galilee after his resurrection. Matthew chose to close his Gospel with the Great Commission.
But, as far as I can see, Jesus only stated that commandment once. The word translated “make disciples” is used four times in the New Testament–thrice by Matthew and once in the book of Acts. It is stated as a commandment only in Matthew 28. Christians making disciples could hardly be considered Jesus’ top priority. On the other hand, Jesus seems obsessed with the topic of forgiving sinners.
Three times–twice in Matthew and once in John–Jesus says, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Some Christians call this power to share Christ’s forgiveness the Office of the Keys, because the first time Jesus says those words, in Matthew 16, he precedes them with, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” John quotes Jesus talking about forgiving sinners on the very first opportunity he has to speak with his apostles after his resurrection. To me, that shows a higher priority on sharing forgiveness than on making disciples.
In his model prayer, Jesus directs his followers to make one promise. The promise is not to make disciples; the promise is to forgive those who sin against us. I remember several parables of Jesus that describe forgiveness. I cannot recall a parable that describes making disciples.
Can we make disciples without sharing the good news of the forgiveness of sins? No, not really. When we share God’s promise of forgiveness and that promise is believed, is the believer also now a disciple of Jesus? Yes, that is true. What is the difference, then, between sharing forgiveness and making disciples?
The difference is in emphasis. A congregation that focuses on making disciples, on teaching discipleship, may forget to share the forgiveness of sins. A friend of mine who was a pastor (but not of the church I attended) once said, “My calling is to share the Gospel, but I don’t do that Sunday morning. The people in church Sunday morning already know the Gospel. I tell them how God wants them to live their lives.”
I’m glad he was my friend, but I’m also glad he was not my pastor. Every time God’s people gather, they all need to hear that Jesus has redeemed them and forgives them their sins. As one professor taught future preachers, “Consider the possibility that someone in front of you has never heard about Jesus before. Make certain your sermon tells him everything he needs to know to be saved. Consider the possibility that someone in front of you might die that week, and this might be the last sermon he hears. Make certain your sermon tells him everything he needs to know to be saved.”
When a Christian shares God’s commands, the intention should not be to change someone’s behavior. (Christian parents teaching their children are sometimes an exception to that statement.) When a Christian shares God’s commands, the intention should be to show that we are all sinners who need a Savior. The apostle Paul once called God’s Law a mirror. We look into that mirror to see how far we have fallen from God’s plan for our lives. Then we understand the vastness of God’s love and the enormous price that Jesus paid for each of us by suffering and dying on the cross.
By all means, the Church should continue making disciples by baptizing and by teaching, just as Jesus said. Instead of telling each other that we are obeying the Great Commission, though, we should remember that we are the body of Christ. We continue his work, challenging sinners by the Law, but seeking always the opportunity to say, “Don’t be afraid; your sins are forgiven.” J.