Participation and Mission in Paul

I am in the process of completing a book on participation and mission in Paul. Here is a draft of some paragraphs from the first chapter. I look forward to thoughts and comments.

The Mission of God
What is God up to in the world? What is the missio Dei, the mission of God?

For Paul the answer to that question is clear: to bring salvation to the world. The means of that salvation is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Israel’s Messiah, and the world’s true Lord. This is the gospel, the good news. The mode by which that salvation is conveyed to the world is the preaching of this good news both in word and in deed. And the mode by which that salvation is received is described best not merely as belief in the sense of intellectual assent but as participation in the sense of a comprehensive transformation of conviction, character, and communal affiliation. This is what it means to be “in Christ,” Paul’s most fundamental expression for this participatory life that is, in fact, salvation itself….

We need to examine a bit more closely the missio Dei. What is the nature of this salvation God seeks to bring to the world?

According to Paul, God is on a mission to liberate humanity—and indeed the entire cosmos—from the powers of Sin and Death. The fullness of this liberation is a future reality for which we may, and should, now confidently hope. In the present, however, God is already at work liberating humanity from Sin and Death, through the sin-defeating and life-giving death and resurrection of his Son, as a foretaste of the glorious future that is coming. God is therefore at work creating an international network of multicultural, socio-economically diverse communities (“churches”) that participate in this liberating, transformative reality and power now—even if incompletely and imperfectly. They worship the one true God, confess his Son Jesus as the one true Lord, and live in conformity to the self-giving divine love displayed on the cross by means of the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and of the Son.

Participation and Mission
The thesis of the book, in a nutshell, is this: that Paul expected the salvation of God to spread throughout the world not only by means of his own gospel ministry (and that of his close colleagues), but also by means of the participation of his converts in the various house churches. They were, in essence, to become the gospel, not merely playing a supportive role by praying for and underwriting Paul’s work, but participating in the advance of the gospel through proclamation, praxis, and persecution (i.e., suffering). In a word, through witness: witness in word, in deed, and in the unpleasant consequences that often attend faithful witness.

But my goal is not principally a historical argument. In fact, if that were the book’s primary goal it would have a quite different shape. Rather, my goal is theological and indeed missional. The burden of the book is to suggest that those of us who read Paul’s letters as Christian Scripture need also to participate in the advance of the gospel by becoming the gospel, in word, in deed, and—if we are faithful—in suffering.

Participation, in other words, is essential not only to salvation, ethics, and eschatology, as many students of Paul have noted, but also to mission. Indeed, to separate these aspects of Pauline theology and spirituality is to commit an egregious act of misinterpretation of the apostle, for all of these are inseparably knit together for him. To be in Christ is to be in mission; to participate in the gospel is to participate in the advance of the gospel.

16 Responses to “Participation and Mission in Paul”

  1. I thought this line was great, “And the mode by which that salvation is received is described best not merely as belief in the sense of intellectual assent but as participation in the sense of a comprehensive transformation of conviction, character, and communal affiliation. This is what it means to be “in Christ,””

    I also like how you really work persecution into mission, an oft neglected aspect of the whole mission discussion, given everyone’s propensity to the glorified view of mission. I think you help make mission a little more messy, like it actually is when you incorporate this piece of suffering.

    I know I would like to hear more on how we “become the gospel”. I struggle to convey the role of the “deed” part in Paul’s writings. I get that we become it in the cruciform sense, but Paul’s accent is often proclamation, so to flesh out this deed aspect of mission in Paul, seems like it would be helpful. Thanks for your reflections!

  2. MJG says:

    Justin,

    Thanks for the feedback. The whole book is about the HOW, but I will post a bit about it. Keep in mind that Paul himself believed that he embodied the gospel in his life, not just preached. So too with the churches.

  3. Dave Smith says:

    Do you have any idea when this will be coming out?

  4. MJG says:

    Good question, Dave. I hope to finish the ms. in early 2012, so it’s probably a year out, give or take.

  5. Dr. Gorman,

    This is fantastic. Can’t wait for the book to come out. Too often we are taught to preach the gospel of Paul (Roman’s Road, etc), but you are so right that we are called to participate in the gospel as our salvation and as our mission.

    Thanks so much.

  6. MJG says:

    Dear Geoff,

    Thanks for the comments. I hope the book will be helpful–challenging but helpful!

  7. John Andrew Kossey says:

    Hello, Mike,

    One aspect of participation in the Christ-life is a new-creation reality: God graciously equips those united with Christ to a life of mission beyond the parameters of the first Adam.

    The transformational process of becoming conformed to Christ far transcends the relationship that Adam initially encountered with God.

    When each believer experiences the Spirit’s mediation of the risen Lord’s presence and the gift of sonship, is it reasonable to infer that they begin sharing in the tree of life (Gen 3:9; Rev 22:2)–walking in newness of life and being made (imperishably) alive?

    Participation as comprehensive transformation embodies a supra-relational quality–as distinct from elementary restoration or judicial acquittal–where those in Christ collectively share in the Lord’s crucified and resurrected life as His divinely constituted family. Love, compassion, mercy, and upbuilding are of a different order than those of Adam and Eve in the garden.

    I welcome your critical comments.

    –John

  8. Dan Schmidt says:

    ‘Participation’ in what you highlight–the transformative power, house churches, etc–makes me think of partnership with Spirit. You mention conformity to the self-giving divine love…by means of the power of the HS, and this strikes me as key. That is, those who respond to the Gospel go out on/in mission enabled by and in constant company with Spirit–a point that can get lost in rhetoric about ‘church growth’, evangelism programs & techniques. I’m eager to see how you develop this.

  9. MJG says:

    Thanks, Dan. Your emphasis on the Spirit is important, as it was to Paul. I think Paul saw his churches less as communities going somewhere as communities taking on a certain (cruciform, servant) shape where they were/are.

  10. Alex says:

    I posted this comment over at Michael Bird’s blog, but then figured I’d go to the source. Your post is spot on, Mr. Gorman. But the only problem I have is that God doesn’t appear to be at work doing many of those things you are saying he is. If God has created “multicultural, socio-economically diverse” communities, where are they? They’re not in my city. Where are these communities that “live in conformity to the self-giving divine love displayed on the cross?” Love, sure. Frequently sacrificial love, sure. But the kind which conforms to what was displayed on the cross? Not even close. So if participation is “essential” to salvation, most of our churches are screwed.

    I’m not trying to be confrontational. It’s just that I’ve heard enough of these theological flourishes and I want theologians who see the world for what it is, not just for what it ideally should be. The latter (ideal state) is a beaten theological dead horse. The former (current state) is where theologians have real potential to do their best work yet. And I’m hopeful that the remainder of your book addresses the situation we find ourselves in. And I’m especially excited to hear the “how” part given that I’ve recently committed myself to a local church and we are trying to do just this kind of thing.

  11. Susan says:

    Dr. Gorman,

    I appreciate your obvious commitment to the proclamation of the gospel as the mission of the church, and that you are examining how we participate in that mission by word, deed and possibly suffering (which tends to accompany verbal proclamation rather than the doing of good deeds).

    However, the one phrase of yours which I question is “become the gospel”. I think that it’s wrong to suggest (even if this is mostly a quibble over semantics) that we ‘are’ the gospel, or that we ‘do’ the gospel. The gospel is a *message* which has been entrusted to us to *proclaim* (which always indicates verbalization in scripture). If anyone can ‘be’ the gospel, or ‘do’ the gospel, it is Christ alone–His finished work. Our pastor has favored this type of phraseology for some years now and I think that there is much more to it than words alone as I have seen how it plays out (in his case). As the emphasis shifted farther and farther toward attending to the doing, becoming and ‘living out of’ the gospel, verbal proclamation fell entirely by the wayside.

    Your overall view of this subject appears to be far healthier and more balanced than what I now see at our church…..where even the gospel itself has now undergone severe erosion. But I question wrapping up ‘deed’ in the ‘mission’. The mission was commanded by Christ–Matt. 28. It’s certainly true to say that our deeds can open doors for proclamation, and our deeds have value separate from proclamation. I think that Paul in Acts is our example of what it is to obey the Great Commission…which IS the mission. This does not downplay the importance of the cosmic implications of the gospel. The impact of Christians on the world at large is a ‘byproduct’ of a transformed heart–which is a work of God’s Spirit. Not to say that we don’t need to apply effort here, we DO need to be purposeful, as much as we also need to repent of sin continuously. But, this brings us back to the primary mission–to proclaim the gospel so that individual hearts will be transformed, and thus bring light to others.

  12. Cam says:

    Great! I love the conversation that’s happening in the comments, too.

    I wonder if the cosmic aspects of liberation may be stated more forcefully by emphasising how creation’s redemption is (almost?) contingent upon humanity’s redemption.

    I also wonder about a greater emphasis on the Spirit’s role as the one who conforms believers, individually and collectively, to the cruciform narrative.

    Finally, even though you’ve written on narrative spirituality, I do hope you pick up those threads here, too: participation is after all, the living into and out of the story of Jesus as the climax of the story of Israel.

    Oh, and if you’re looking for volunteers to proof-read the MS … :)

  13. [...] Gorman posts a few paragraphs from his upcoming work on the Mission of God in the writings of Paul. RJS starts the conversation [...]

  14. [...] I found this gem over at Michael Bird’s blog: Michael Gorman has a short piece about his forthcoming work on participation and mission in Paul. [...]

  15. Greg McKinzie says:

    Has the book been published? Thanks.

  16. MJG says:

    No–I’m behind, so we’re looking at fall at the earliest and maybe this time next year. Sorry.

    In the meantime, I have a book called The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant coming out in the spring, maybe April. There’s actually some overlap in the two books.

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