Have you ever wished you could have a do-over? Have you ever looked back on a situation in which you know that you really botched the job and you just wish you could have another crack at it? That is the way I often feel when I reflect back on some of my less-than-fruitful efforts at evangelism when I was in college. Back then, I was (to say the least) a little wet behind the ears in terms of my theological convictions. I had a basic understanding of Christ’s substitutionary atonement but little appreciation for how His lordship should inform evangelistic appeals. Anyone watching my approach to evangelism would have been well within his rights to label me an antinomian. Unfortunately, I simply did not know any better. So when I had the opportunity to share the gospel with my frat brother Mark, I really botched it.
I was a Christian, and Mark knew it. Mark was not a Christian, and he knew that as well. Nevertheless, Mark had a kind of respect for me and my faith, and was often curiously probing about spiritual things. I thought he was ripe for the picking. I can remember the night that I had my opportunity to share the gospel with him and to tell him that he needed to believe the gospel and trust Christ for forgiveness and eternal life. Mark responded to my appeals with apparent ambivalence. But after a bit of conversation, it became clear that he was not interested in trusting Christ. When I asked him why, he simply responded that he did not want to make that kind of commitment of his life to Christ. He was very happy with his life, and he did not want to muck it up with a new obligation to follow Jesus.
Now I was curious. Here was a guy who had no intellectual objections to the facts of the gospel — Jesus’ vicarious death and resurrection. He just did not want to give his life to Christ. How could this be? I did not want his lack of enthusiasm about following Christ to keep him out of heaven, so I counseled him as any unwitting antinomian would. In so many words I told him, “Don’t worry about following Christ as Lord. Just repeat this sinner’s prayer after me, and you can be saved. Perhaps sometime later, God can help you to see Jesus as your Lord.” Mark did not budge. My counsel did not ring true to him, as he sensed that there had to be more to being a Christian than what I was selling. He was right.
In the years subsequent to my conversation with Mark, God worked a Copernican revolution in my own theological outlook. I came to see the solas of the Reformation as more faithfully capturing what the Bible says about salvation. I repented of my antinomian darkness and came to see that I had evangelism all wrong. My antinomian error had blinded me to the particulars of the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and by teaching them to obey all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20, my translation). I thought I knew the Great Commission, but I really didn’t. I had it all wrong.
Often when I hear Christians speak about the Great Commission, I wonder whether they are making the same mistake I made. Even those who do not embrace an antinomian point of view (as I once did) often speak as if the Great Commission is merely about scoring converts — getting people to make a profession of faith in Christ. Of course, the Great Commission certainly calls Christians to make converts. Biblically speaking, however, there is much more to it than that. At the heart of the commission is the imperative to “make disciples.”
What does it mean to make a disciple? Matthew’s gospel is filled with Jesus’ teaching as to what a disciple is, but probably the seminal text is from Matthew 16. Jesus defines a disciple in no uncertain terms: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (16:24–25). Jesus calls His disciples to His cross — not a metaphorical cross, but a real one. That means that Jesus calls His disciples to be willing to follow Him to the death.
The implication of this truth for our understanding of the Great Commission is massive. He summons us to invite the nations to treasure Christ in such a way that even if they lose everything — even their lives — it is okay so long as they have Him (13:44). That is why making disciples involves not just the entry-level rite of baptism but also the obligation of “teaching them to obey all that I commanded you.” Where this framework is missing, so is the Great Commission.
Does the church understand this as her commission from Christ? I certainly did not as a college student, but the church of the Lord Jesus Christ must do better than that. The Great Commission excludes the easybelievism and pseudo-gospels of pop spirituality precisely because it commands repentance from sin and faith in Christ crucified and raised for sinners. This is the message the church has been commissioned to preach, and it is the message that the world desperately needs to hear.