Enduring Submission to the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell
The first evidence we have that Matthew 28:18-19 was identified as Christ’s "Great Commission" in the English language was apparently by Francis Johnson. He was a leading Separatist who exerted influence upon the earliest English Baptists, being the professor of John Smyth at Cambridge. In discussing Christ’s "last and great commission," Johnson stressed that all of Christ’s commands must be obeyed, no matter what others might say or do.1 The second reference to it was made my Robert Parsons, a Roman Catholic apologist for the papacy. But he believed the granting of the keys in Matthew 16 was the delegation of a plenitude of power to Peter, the presumed first bishop of Rome and his supposed papal successors. The final, evangelistic commission of Christ was not in Parsons’s mind.2
Intriguingly, it was a leading Particular Baptist, Benjamin Keach, who was the first to repeatedly and forcefully develop the idea that Matthew 28:16-20 is the Great Commission from which the Christian churches should live their lives.3 While Keach would agree with Johnson on the importance of obeying every one of Christ’s commands, the very order of the Great Commission was also inviolable to Keach. His response to a paedo-Baptist proponent should inform all who call themselves Baptists today,
Sir, All that are to be baptized, are, by virtue of the great Commission of our Saviour, to be first taught and made Disciples by teaching; and take heed you add not to his Word, nor attempt to invert the Order of the Charter and gracious Grant of the King of Heaven and Earth; nor go about, as you do, to make void his Commands by your own Traditions.4I have exposited the Great Commission from Scripture elsewhere, and refer your readers, David, to that work,5 and to your own comments upon it. Rather than rehearsing that exposition, please allow me to focus in on at least one important implication of verses 18 and 19. This implication is what drives a lasting wedge between evangelical Baptists and other evangelicals. It is an implication that cannot be dismissed in the name of obeying Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17. Unity based on disobedience to Christ is not really unity in Christ but a spurious unity. "Bridge building" efforts, even if sentimental in emotion and loving in intent, that ignore the Great Commission of Jesus Christ are to be summarily rejected by true Christ followers.
The leading implication of the Great Commission proper that we must stress here is that it is Christ’s enduring commandment to the church. Indeed, Johnson is utterly correct in pointing out the Apostles planted the first churches upon the authority granted by Christ and according to the commands given by Christ. Johnson taught that Christ prescribed to the Apostles both "faith and order," and that Christians must be careful to stress both aspects in their teaching.6 We need to keep in mind here two ordered but coordinate essentials: First, obeying Christ’s "order" will not save you if you are not first born again by "faith" in Christ. In other words, we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone as a gracious work of the Spirit alone. Justification by God is necessary and prior to Christian obedience.
Second, however, true "faith" is immediately accompanied by obedience to the "order" of Christ. Speaking and expositing about the essential of one’s "faith" in Christ while dismissing the essential of obeying the "order" established by Christ is utterly sinful. The tendency known as Antinomianism, characteristic of especially the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, is to be identified by true Christian disciples as a perversion worthy of immediate rebuke and disciplinary exclusion by the truly ordered churches of Jesus Christ. Keach and the overwhelming majority of early Baptists (and their Anabaptist forefathers) understood this and acted upon it. This is why they would not hold communion with apostates or Independents or Presbyterians or Anglicans or Roman Catholics. Though these others might claim to be true Christians, they certainly did not (and do not) act as such.
I would agree wholeheartedly with our Baptist and Anabaptist forefathers. We must obey the Lord’s commission ourselves totally, even when others arrogantly or ignorantly refuse to submit entirely to Christ’s commands. Our forefathers suffered extreme persecution, including imprisonment, torture and horrendous execution from the hands of these other "Christians." It would be a betrayal of their witness to the truth that Christ’s Great Commission is to be obeyed in its entirety and according to its own order for Baptists to adopt open communion with those who subvert, pervert, or invert our Lord’s commands.
Yes, we need to unite around the essentials of the Christian faith, but we also need to unite around the essentials of the Christian order. Those Baptists who relegate the Christian order to a non-essential status significantly undermine the Great Commission of our Lord and Savior. Christ’s commands are essential for Christian obedience. Moreover, those Baptists who seek communion with disobedient Christians or naively refer to them as "Great Commission Christians" should repent.
We show love to others by pointing them to the grace available even to disobedient Christians (including ourselves) in Christ and by pointing them to the enduring nature of Christ’s orderly command. Let us love other Christians and ourselves by maintaining a distinct witness to the truth of the Great Commission and challenging all Christians to truly follow Christ. And if they will not follow Christ with us, let us weep over their hard hearts and pray that we do not likewise in this or any other area. Let us follow Christ, not men, even good men with whom we naturally desire Christian communion.
1"I proceed yet further to show that Christ that Prophet requireth not onely acknowledgment in word, but obedience indeed to all his ordinances given to his Church. This we learne both of Christ himself and of his Apostles. Of Christ himself, in his last and great commission given to his Apostles, when he sent them into the world, to publish his faith, and plant his Churches therein. In which he straitly charged them to teach all his people baptized in his name, not to acknowledg onely but, to keep and observ whatsoever he had commaunded them: and that even to the end of the world: not making any exception of Christian or heathen Magistrates, of theyr allowance or disallowance, or of any other worldly respects whatsoever. The Apostles also as they were commaunded, so they performed: both planting the Churches in that faith and order which Christ prescribed them, and requiring of the Churches so planted and of all other after them to the end of the world to keep that faith and order wherein they were sett, and to admitt of no other whatsoever, but to keep that without spot and vnrebukeable, untill the appearing of owr Lord Iesus Christ. And thus much concerning this matter." Francis Johnson, A treatise of the ministery of the Church of England (1595), 32.
2Robert Parsons, The warn-word to Sir Francis Hastinges wast-word (1602), 29.
3Benjamin Keach, The glorious lover (London, 1670), 256; idem, Pedo-baptism disproved (London, 1691), 1; idem, An appendix to the answer (1692), 1; idem, The ax laid to the root (1693), 21; idem, A counter-antidote (London, 1694), 1, 29; idem, Light broke forth in Wales, expelling darkness (1696), 54, 97, 229, 240, 305; idem, The Jewish Sabbath abrogated (London, 1700), 175-76. Cf. John Bunyan, Differences in judgment about water-baptism, no bar to communion (1673), 73.
4Keach, The rector rectified and corrected (1692), 78 (cf. pp. 27, 51).
6Unfortunately, Johnson refused to follow the implications of his teaching and opposed the reintroduction of Christian baptism in the English churches.
Letter #1, Two Requirements for a Universal Fulfillment of the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #7, Both the End and the Means are Established by the Lord, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #8, A Matter of Emphasis?, by David Rogers Letter #9, Complete Obedience versus Hesitant Discipleship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #10, The Universal Scope of the Great Commission, by David Rogers Letter #11, Freedom, Power and Authority in the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #12, Enduring Submission to the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #13, Obeying the Commands of Jesus, by David Rogers Letter #14, John Gill on Romans 14 and 15:1-7, by David Rogers Letter #15, The Illustration of the Hypothetical "Common Loaf Denomination", by David Rogers Letter #16, A Condensed Response to Your Last Three Letters, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #17, Further Discussion on Cooperation and Obedience, by David Rogers Letter #18 (Part I), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #18 (Part II), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #18 (Part III), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #19, A Deep Division?, by David Rogers