Bethany Hoang and Kristen Johnson | April 06, 2016
Consider this: the words to one of the most globally known, frequently sung, and universally beloved songs in all of Christian history, “Amazing Grace,” were written by a human trafficker. And not a trafficker who had turned from his ways, but a trafficker still fully living and profiting from the transport and sale of slaves.
The truth about John Newton’s life is far more disturbing than the folklore versions known to most. And yet, there is great power in knowing the true story, because in the real story of Newton’s life we see the truth that is archetypal for the church as a whole throughout history and today: conversion is only the beginning. God’s work of sanctification in Newton’s life unfolded over many decades, just as God’s work of sanctification is ongoing in every one of us and within his church as a whole.
The truth is that, following his conversion to faith in Jesus Christ, Newton was known to walk the decks of his ship talking to God in prayer and even thanking God for the good fortune of his opportunity to be in the lucrative slave trade. As Newton walked the decks in prayer to the God to whom he had given over his life through Jesus Christ, slaves lay chained below his feet in fetid quarters.
It’s disturbing that Newton sought Jesus and at the same time was complicit in such atrocities. But taking an honest look at Newton’s story could help us to make sense of the church’s journey today. Like Newton, the church’s manifold and deep faults are concurrent with its claim to follow Jesus, and yet the by the power of the Holy Spirit the church can live more and more faithfully as God’s holy people, set apart by the pursuit of justice and righteousness. Like Newton, who did not acknowledge the sinfulness and tragedy of slavery until decades after his initial conversion to Christ, large swaths of the Protestant and evangelical church in recent generations have failed to heed the mandate in Scripture to seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow (Isa. 1:17).
All of us who follow Jesus are invited into what missiologist Darrell Guder calls a “continuing conversion”—that is, to be continually formed by the Spirit so that we can see, with increasing clarity, the world and others as God sees them.
Having been justified in and through Jesus Christ, we have been set right with God. Having been sanctified in and through Jesus Christ, we have been set apart to be the holy people of God. As the sanctified saints of God living by the Spirit in utter dependence on the grace of God, we are sent by God on a kingdom mission: we are to actively and intentionally seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness and justice in all that we do in this world.
The book of Acts gives a beautiful, multifaceted pictured of how the earliest church understood its missional calling to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). The mission of the early church involved verbal proclamation of the good news of Christ: Peter proclaims the gospel again and again (2:14-39, 3:12-26, 4:8-12); Stephen speaks (7:2-53); Philip preaches (8:13-14). The proclamation of the gospel moves from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and out towards the ends of the earth.
The books of Acts also makes it clear that the mission of the early church involved attending to material needs. As the gospel is proclaimed and received, it connects directly with the social and economic realities of people’s lives, which are intertwined with their spiritual needs. This seamless connection between their proclamation of the gospel and concern for material realities—between word and deed—permeates the book of Acts. In the earliest description of the church after Pentecost, meetings for prayer and worship flowed naturally into making sure the material needs of their community were met (2:43-47). Distributing food to daily widows became a regular practice of these early Christians and was considered so significant that seven disciples were commissioned to oversee this part of the church’s mission and to ensure that no one would be neglected (6:1-6). Paul returns to the church in Jerusalem from a missionary journey in part to bring money for the poor in support of the church’s mission (24:17).
As we think back to the life and witness of Newton, we are reminded not only of our need for ongoing sanctification but we are also given hope that God’s sanctifying Spirit is indeed at work in our lives and in our churches. Despite the ways in which God’s people and the church fall short, like Newton we can increasingly manifest the righteousness and justice of God’s kingdom. Part of the church’s “already/not yet” existence is that it continues to be full of flawed but redeemed children of God who are united to God in Christ, not through perfection but through God’s grace and merciful loving-kindness.
In our own pursuit of the justice calling, we have both (Bethany and Kristen) been encouraged by the sanctification we see happening in churches all over the world. Followers of Jesus are increasingly living into their identities as God’s saints, opening their eyes to see the enormity of need, and responding with humble hearts to the commands of Scripture to be sent on a kingdom mission of justice and righteousness.
Being sanctified and sent involves whole churches working together in mission as they pursue justice and righteousness both locally and globally. Being sanctified and sent also involves each of us personally pursuing justice and righteousness right where we are. Jesus’ commission to go into all the world to make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20)—to be God’s witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)—can be understood as a geographic call to seek God’s kingdom as well as a call to engage the cultures in which we currently live.
Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, whatever responsibilities have been entrusted to us, we are called to live as God’s holy people, seeking justice, righteousness, and shalom. God’s vision for justice and righteousness is meant to shape each of our callings and commitments and all of our practices within those callings and commitments. In this way, we can better understand every one of our callings as a kingdom calling, as Amy Sherman so helpfully puts it.
All of these callings need to be understood in light of our most formative calling—the calling to be God’s holy people. As God’s sanctified and sent people, we are to love God and others in ways that foster justice, righteousness, and shalom in all the rest of our callings.
Living into our justice calling as the church can take countless shapes. Where might God be calling you to join his kingdom mission? Who in your church and community could you link arms with to scout out the needs in your neighborhood, your city, or in a city across the world? What obstacles seem too big? How might you bring those needs and obstacles before God in prayer, inviting him to make a way and lead you to the next step?
Remember: just as we have sometimes underestimated God’s determination to rescue others from lives of oppression, we have also underestimated God’s determination to rescue us from lives of perceived comfort and safety so that we can be led into lives of courageous trust and hope in God’s kingdom.