The Mission of God and the Missional Church: Sent to Enact the Good News, Part 3

Part 13 of series:
The Mission of God and the Missional Church

Until 2006, most people were unfamiliar with William Wilberforce. The release of the movie Amazing Grace in that year changed the situation considerably. This film, starring Ioan Gruffudd as Wilberforce, narrates the first part of Wilberforce’s truly amazing, grace-filled and gracious life.

Born into wealth and privilege in 1759, Wilberforce was known in his early years only for his love of socializing and his several physical infirmities. He had no guiding purpose for his well-to-do yet meaningless existence. When he was elected to the British Parliament as a young man, he sought nothing more than his own fame.

But when a Christian friend shared the good news of Christ with him, Wilberforce recognized the emptiness of his life. He considered withdrawing from politics altogether. But, as he trusted Christ for salvation on Easter Sunday, 1786, Wilberforce sensed a new zeal to serve the Lord within the sphere of government. Ultimately, he seized upon the abolition of slavery as the focus of his Christian and political energies. Though discouraged by many Christian leaders because of the apparent impossibility of the mission, Wilberforce believed that God had sent him into politics to fight against the evils of slavery.

In 1788 he introduced a measure in the British Parliament to end the slave trade, and was resoundingly defeated. Similar measures were defeated in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805. Finally, in 1807 Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade, though leaving the institution of slavery untouched. This is where the film Amazing Grace ended. But Wilberforce had much more to do.

The real William Wilberforce was not quite as good looking as Ioan Gruffudd, who starred in Amazing Grace.

For the next 26 years Wilberforce continued his crusade. Finally, on July 26, 1833, the emancipation of slaves was insured when a committee of the House of Commons ironed out the details of Wilberforce’s anti-slavery bill. Three days later, after 45 years of God-honoring effort, William Wilberforce died, leaving an unsurpassed legacy of Christian concern for justice. His efforts encouraged American evangelicals who worked tirelessly for the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Unfortunately, some Christians have driven a wedge between the proclamation of the good news and the enactment of that news. The 20th century witnessed debilitating arguments between proponents of “evangelism” and “social justice,” as if we had to choose between two activities that are both essential to our full mission as Christians. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that Christ died both to reconcile us to God and to bring reconciliation among people (Eph 2:1-18). What God has joined together, let no one put asunder!

Increasingly in our time, the unbiblical breach between proclamation and enactment of the Gospel has been mended. Many well-known and respected Christian organizations combine evangelism with social action, offering the fullness of healing as a demonstration of the gospel. World Vision leads the world in caring for and empowering the poor. Habitat for Humanity builds homes for the homeless in the name of Christ. Prison Fellowship seeks to lead inmates to Christ, to improve their treatment in prison, to care for their families during their incarceration, and to help them become contributing members of society upon their release. Many churches invest their time, talent, and treasure in spreading the gospel and living the gospel through works of charity and justice.

Plus, growing numbers of Christians are rejecting the division of life into sacred and secular realms. They realize that God created and cares for all things. Thus, they express their faith, not just in special acts of justice or evangelism, but in how they live each moment of each day. Whether they’re at work or at home, on the soccer field or hanging out with their friends, at church or in their neighborhood, they seek to live as citizens of the kingdom of God.

You and I have the opportunity to enact the good news wherever we are. At times, we can do this through our participation in some facet of Christ’s ministry. We might visit shut-in senior citizens, or feed the hungry at a homeless shelter, or pound nails with Habitat for Humanity. Moreover, we can show our world the truth of the gospel by loving everyone God’s brings into our path. When we love our Christian brothers and sisters in particular, the reality of the gospel can be seen in our fellowship. As Jesus said to His first followers, so he says now to us:

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples (John 13:34-35).

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  • Mark, thanks for this series. I agree wholeheartedly with what you have been saying. But I’m not sure that “enact” is the best word. It gives the impression that believers in Christ bring about the practical rule of Christ in the world by what we do. In reality, Christ is already ruling, but his rule is largely hidden from sight. Our job is to reveal that rule, witness to that rule, by acting as though Christ is ruling (and it is not an “act” but reality).  This is not splitting hairs. Too often, in this post-Enlightenment world, Christians have thought that they could bring about God’s kingdom by their plans, programs and agendas. Evangelism, social action, even political action can all be consistent with the gospel, but they need to be driven by Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit rather than our own aspirations and ambitions. The living Spirit, not human ideology, must be the driving force. I know that you understand this. But I don’t want any readers to misunderstand your use of the word “enact.” 

  • Evan


    I agree that there should not be an “either/or” proposition between “evangelism” and “social justice.” There are a number of errors of degree that can occur in both directions. My comment would be that unless both evangelism and social justice are rooted in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, the participants are headed for the time when they say, “Lord, Lord, we did all these good works in Your name!” and are informed that the Lord never knew them.

    “Social Justice” is especially susceptible to problems in my experience. Wilberforce was of the school that every human being had value because Jesus Christ died to save them personally, extrapolating from the parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the flock in order to rescue the one sheep. Many of the “social justice” school I have encountered outright deny the diety of Jesus and scoff at the notion He rose from the dead; correspondingly, “social justice” for them means a number of things that are out-and-out sins. Jesus ends up wearing a beret as another Che, not a crown as Lord of All.

    Coming back the other way, it is also important not to stress “evangelism” then fall into the trap mentioned by James of wishing someone “to be warm and filled” without assisting them.

    Wilberforce also founded the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. We look back on the stands that he took in his lifetime and they seem absolutely obvious today, but Wilberforce faced vehement opposition, even from some Christians. It was quite fashionable then to assert that non-Caucasians were not human beings, thus they had no legal rights whatsoever and could be dealt with as desired, even to the point of killing them. We appear to have failed to absorb the lessons regarding the wholesale pronouncement of a class of human beings as non-persons without any legal rights. Hopefully we will one day look back on our current injustice as being as openly wrong as that opposed by Wilberforce in the name of Christ.