What’s the Relationship Between the Great Commission and Cultural Engagement?

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Culture-making, cultural engagement and cultural transformation get a lot of airtime these days, but some have registered substantial criticism of the trend:

[W]hat the gospel does is not cultural but spiritual. And what works culturally are matters, still from God, but having little to do with what he sent his only begotten son to do. [1]

How do you “transform” something that’s dead? … [Y]ou cannot transform it. [2]

There is no call to cultural transformation in the New Testament. [3]

If the gospel had nothing to do with cultural transformation, then many churches would be guilty of grave “mission drift,” abandoning the Great Commission for a cultural mission of their own making. Yet it seems very difficult to deny the relationship between the gospel and culture, for all have witnessed how the former positively affects the latter. To understand how the Great Commission relates to cultural engagement, however, we must begin with the First Commission that God has given us.

The First Commission for Humanity

God tells us that he made us “in his image” (Genesis 1:26-27), describing both who we are and what we were created for: we are God’s creatures uniquely designed to reflect his glory, having been fitted with a composition that matches our calling. This is God’s (unchanged) blueprint for humanity.

That’s why the “first commission” God gave us was for us to rule responsibly on his behalf as multiplicative image-bearers who fill the world with culture to the glory of God (Genesis1:28). To be sure, the whole world is already full of God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3), but God created humans to fill the world with the knowledge of his glory as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9). This was—and is—the First Commission.

God’s Plan: Continued

Had Adam not plunged creation into chaos and corruption (Romans 8:20), the earth would be full of obedient worshippers who loved God completely and glorified him fully in all that they said and did and made.

Tragically, that is not the world we live in, but God’s plan has not changed. In fact, God repeats the First Commission immediately after Noah and his family leave the ark (Genesis 9:1-7). And during a crucial time in Israel’s history, when the captives in Babylon might have wondered, “What’s the point anymore?”, God says through the prophet Jeremiah: build, plant, marry, multiply and seek the flourishing of the place where you have been sent (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

As the cliché rightly says, “God does not make junk”—and the Scriptures assure us that God will not ‘junk’ what he has made. The same goes for God’s plan for humanity, which has not been scrapped in the face of sin. This is why we are redeemed, not reincarnated (Revelation 5:9); it’s why creation will be liberated, not destroyed (Romans 8:21); and it’s why the First Commission remains our God-given purpose in spite of our inability to fulfill it apart from his grace.

The Great Commission makes the First Commission possible.

The Great Commission and the First Commission

But what of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)? Did not Jesus say that this was the main responsibility of the church? Well, yes and no. It depends upon what we mean. Technically, Jesus says in the Great Commission that we must teach his followers to “obey all that [he] has commanded” (Matthew 28:19), and that certainly includes the First Commission. And even if you focus only on making disciples—the central command of the Great Commission—it is entirely reasonable to conclude that the purpose of disciple-making is to (re)create the kind of people who can resume the great work that God created his image-bearers to do in the beginning. Put another way, the relationship of the Great Commission to the First Commission is one of means and ends: the Great Commission was given so that the First Commission might be fulfilled (not fully, but really).

This understanding of the First Commission and the Great Commission seems to be at the forefront of the apostle Paul’s mind when he explains that God redeems us so that we may be “conformed the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29) as we are “renewed in the knowledge after the image of [our] creator” (Colossians 3:10). Through his Spirit we are then given “the desire and the ability” to do what pleases God (Philippians 2:14), making us “eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14) as we carry out the “good works which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

Those “good works which God prepared in advance for us to do” refer not to random acts of kindness, much less blind obedience to God’s commands as if they were arbitrary rules. On the contrary, the original (and unchanged) “good works” intended for humanity are laid out in the First Commission: populate the world with image-bearers who rule responsibly on God’s behalf as they create and cultivate for the glory of God. Indeed, this is what we will be doing for eternity as a “kingdom of priests” serving God and reigning on the earth with Christ (Revelation 5:10).

Why This Matters

1. The First Commission makes the Great Commission meaningful.

Salvation only has meaning when we understand who is being saved (image-bearers) and what they are being saved for (to fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord). In this way, the ‘why’ of salvation is not merely the abstract “for the glory of God” (although this is true), but the concrete commission that tells us how to glorify him: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion…” (Genesis 1:28).

2. The Great Commission makes the First Commission possible.

In a post-fall world, the First Commission cannot be fulfilled apart from the Great Commission’s call to preach the good news about Jesus to every nation. “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8). But those who have been redeemed through faith in Christ are made alive to the glory of God and the calling to glorify him in all we do (Colossians 3:17). In this way, the good news of salvation for God’s image-bearers remains central and primary for the church, not an as end in itself, but as the means to God’s original and highest purpose for humanity.

By keeping this relationship in view, we can avoid both a shallow view of discipleship, which overlooks the impact of the gospel for every aspect of life (Galatians 2:14), and a dangerously flawed view of the First Commission, which sees culture-making as the primary means to heart transformation, instead of the other way around.

[1] D.G. Hart, “Could Keller Have Saved Detroit?”, August 12, 2013, (accessed October 4, 2016).

[2] Jonathan Leeman in “Pastors’ and Theologians’ Forum on Church and Culture,” March 1, 2010, (accessed October 4, 2016).

[3] Michael Horton, ibid.

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Doug Ponder

Doug Ponder (M.Div., Th.M. Southeastern Seminary) is the Teaching Pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, VA. He also serves as Dean of Faculty and Professor of Biblical Studies at Grimke Seminary. He and his wife, Jessica, have four sons.

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