"I have fulfilled...the gospel" What?!
One of the most breathtaking sentences I’ve encountered in the writings of Paul appears in Romans 15. In the midst of describing his plans to visit Jerusalem, Rome, and ultimately Spain, Paul justifies his travel to Spain by saying that he has fulfilled the ministry of the gospel, even to the extent that he has no more room to work in the regions stretching from Jerusalem to Illyricum (Rom 15:19, 23).
What?! Has he really fulfilled the ministry of the gospel? Is there really no more room for Paul to work? Surely there are people in the regions stretching from Jerusalem to Illyricum that have yet to be evangelized. Is Paul just being a bit ‘over the top’? The statement was breathtaking. But over time, Paul’s statement became one of the most instructive for my understanding of the church’s mission and my responsibility in that mission. Hence the previous post on Why “Our Neighbors & the Nations” appears in our vision statement.
In his book, Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul, Peter T. O’Brien highlights three kinds of activities that fell within the scope of Paul’s missionary calling. For Paul to fulfill the ministry of the gospel in any region meant that these three following activities had sufficiently occurred. I share them with you to help you see the bigger picture and our role as a local church within it.
1. Primary Evangelism & Discipleship
The first is primary evangelism and discipleship. The way Jesus builds his church is through the gospel of the kingdom spreading among the lost in order to bring about their conversion (Matt 16:18; 24:14; Luke 24:47). Following conversion, believers were to identify themselves with Jesus and his church through baptism and be taught to obey Jesus in everything (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 2:38, 41). The early church models the same as they strive to bring the gospel into the lives of both Jews and Gentiles, and the Lord continues adding to their number (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:29; 8:4-5, 12, 25; 9:20; 14:21).
Paul was eager to participate in the same activity in every city he entered, and commends his practice as one that should be imitated by all Christians. That’s not to say that all Christians should fulfill the formal role of a pioneering church planter, but only to say that all Christians were to imitate Paul’s way of regularly bringing the gospel into the lives of others (e.g., Rom 1:14; 10:17; 1 Cor 4:15-17; 9:7, 10, 11; 10:31-11:1; Gal 4:13; 2 Cor 10:16; 11:2; Phil 1:14; 1 Thess 1:8).
2. Planting Healthy Churches
The second activity was planting viable, indigenous, self-sustaining churches. Part and parcel to Jesus’ commission is the establishment of healthy local churches. The way Jesus makes his heavenly authority visible on earth is through local churches filled with baptized believers submitting to his reign, walking in step with his commandments, and growing everyday in obedience to him (Matt 16:18-19; 18:15-20; 28:18-20). That Paul follows suit in church planting is obvious from his practice of residential missions, from his priorities, and from his description of his assignment (see O’Brien, 42).
In other words, our aim is not merely to win individuals to Christ and leave them to themselves. Rather winning individuals to Christ includes their regular and ongoing participation in local churches. The goal is to see obedient disciple-making fellowships of believers among every people group because this is how Christ authenticates the liberating power of the gospel. The church is God’s “object-lesson” of divine wisdom, God’s tangible reminder that through Christ’s death and resurrection God disarmed the rulers and authorities, he broke the power of sin, and he’s bringing all things in subjection to Christ (Eph 1:9-10, 20-21; 3:10-11; Col 3:15; Heb 2:14; cf. 1 Cor 15:24).
3. Ensuring Establishment & Maturity
The third activity is ensuring enough maturity exists in the local churches to carry on the task of evangelism and discipleship. Before moving to new territory, Paul ensured that each church was well nurtured and firmly established. Even within Romans 15, we see him pleased that the saints in Rome were “full of knowledge and able to instruct one another” (Rom 15:14). Paul’s goal was to present everyone mature in Christ (Col 1:28), and the same could be said of others who served alongside him. For example, Epaphras, struggled in his prayers, so that the Colossian believers would stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God (Col 4:12).
That means we must be sure that our churches have Bibles in their own language, a clear understanding of the gospel, sound doctrine throughout, regular care structures for each other, exemplary leadership to teach the next generation, servant-hearted outreach, vision for making disciples, sacrificial giving, and abiding joy in the Lord and the work he gives each saint to achieve. When such tasks are complete, these self-sustaining gospel churches then carry out both local ministries among their own people and frontier missions to other peoples until disciples in disciple-making churches exist among all peoples.
Until then, we have much praying, thinking, strategizing, equipping, serving, sending, going, and supporting to do. May the Lord’s grace be with us in every activity as a local church.