Sola Fide and the Mission of the Church


What is the Mission of the Church?

Over the past several decades, this question has been a matter of considerable debate among Christians. Should the term “mission” be used exclusively to refer to the task of evangelism and disciple-making, or can it be broadened to include socially-oriented activities?

Some missiologists, for example, see mission as “as everything God wills to do in the world, whether through the church or outside it.”[1] It can include anything that people do that reflects God’s will for creation, including “the pursuit of justice, the furthering of human dignity, the reconciliation of hostile groups, [and] the care of the environment.”[2]

Others narrow the definition considerably, insisting that mission must involve the proclamation of the gospel, but calling for a “holistic” approach that also includes “the alleviation of human suffering and the elimination of injustice, exploitation, and deprivation.”[3] In this view, the twin concerns of gospel proclamation and social action work in equal partnership in mission like “two blades of a pair of scissors.”[4]

Others, however, have argued that while believers should not be indifferent to suffering in the world and that they should look for practical, creative ways to express the love and mercy of Christ to those around them, the specific mission of the church—the singular task which Jesus sends his church into the world to accomplish—is making disciples of the nations.[5]

What Does Justification by Faith Alone Mean for our Mission?

While the question of the church’s mission is complex and must ultimately be answered through a careful exegesis of Scripture, it can be helpful to consider the issue through the lenses of the Reformers’ rediscovery of the fundamental truths of Christianity. The Reformation was, in essence, a recovery of the gospel. The meaning of the gospel had been all but lost in the medieval church, and nothing was more important for the life of the church than its rediscovery. So although the Reformers didn’t develop a theology of mission, per se, they did helpfully identify the core truths of the Christian message—the message that the church is called to proclaim to the nations. What, then, is this message?

At the heart of the Reformation’s recovery of the gospel was the doctrine of sola fide. Sola fide responds to the question, “How can a person be right with God?” The answer is that God declares us righteous, not on the basis of any merit of our own, but solely through the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, which we receive by faith.

The Reformers considered justification by faith alone to be the essential truth of the gospel. Martin Luther saw justification as “the first and chief article of the Christian faith.”[6] John Calvin called it “the main hinge upon which religion turns” and the “sum of all piety.”[7] While one may disagree with Luther and Calvin about the relative priority of justification among other elements of the gospel message, we cannot disagree with the assumption that lay behind their emphasis on justification – namely, that man’s greatest need is to be reconciled with his Creator.

This is precisely where sola fide speaks to the question of the church’s mission. Unless we keep the salvation of man’s soul in sharp focus as the ultimate priority of the church, a myriad of other real and felt needs quickly blur our mission. These needs may be important, but none of them is as pressing as man’s need to be right with God. Michael Reeves and Tim Chester explain:

The biggest problem facing humanity is God’s justice. God is committed to judging sin. And that means he is committed to judging my sin. This is our biggest problem because that means an eternity excluded from the glory of God…. Christianity brings many blessings. It is right that Christians be involved in the pursuit of neighborhood renewal and social justice. But if one day God’s righteous judgment will be revealed, if in the meantime we are storing up God’s wrath against ourselves, if no one can be declared righteous through his or her own righteousness, then every person on earth faces a massive problem: God’s judgment. And this problem dwarfs all the other problems we face. Nothing matters more than justification.[8]

Sola fide, then, helps us to keep God’s reconciling work in Jesus front and center in our mission. It guards us from mission-drift that can very quickly distract us from what people need most. As D.A. Carson warns, “the relief of immediate suffering, as important as it is, may so command our focus that we fail to remind ourselves of Jesus’s rhetorical question, ‘What good will it be for you to gain the whole world yet forfeit your soul?’”[9]

Sola fide, along with solus Christus and sola gratia, teaches us that God’s gifts and blessings for man are not given apart from the person and work of Jesus Christ. The grace that God offers us in Jesus is, specifically, saving grace. This doesn’t mean that grace doesn’t express itself acts of human kindness, mercy, and justice. But it does mean that salvation of man’s soul is its chief manifestation.

God’s grace in Jesus is ultimately a grace that opens blind eyes, softens hard hearts, and enables dead people to receive the gospel message (Acts 16:14). Being found in Christ, not having one’s own righteous that comes through the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ is mankind’s greatest need (Phil. 3:9). All other human needs are subservient to this one, and, as Andreas Köstenberger reminds us, “there is no true lasting social transformation apart from personal conversion through repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”[10]

Bringing in the Kingdom?

Some have insisted, based on passages like Luke 4:16-21 and Isaiah 61:1-3, that the church’s mission of grace must include social action, especially as it is directed to the poor. This, it is said, is an essential part of bringing in God’s kingdom. As the argument goes, our mission is “to extend the kingdom by infiltrating all segments of society, with preference given to the poor, and allowing no dichotomy between evangelism and social transformation.”[11]

But it is a mistake to think we’re “extending” or ushering in the kingdom of God without introducing people to the King and his saving rule. The blessings of Isaiah 61 mentioned by Jesus in Luke 4 are best understood as soteriological blessings. The kingdom that Jesus is offering is a redemptive kingdom, and the “poor” he speaks of are the poor in spirit—those who recognize their sinfulness and spiritual destitution before God. DeYoung and Gilbert helpfully explain: “Jesus’s mission laid out in Luke 4 is not a mission of structural change and social transformation, but a mission to announce the good news of his saving power and merciful reign to all those brokenhearted—that is, poor—enough to believe.”[12]

Sola fide centers our gospel message in God’s saving work in people’s hearts. It is true that through Jesus God will someday redeem all of creation and usher in a new, fully restored earth that is free from injustice, poverty, and suffering. And it is also true that as believers we should take the opportunities that God gives us to minister the love and grace of Jesus to those around us. “True religion,” after all, expresses itself in tangible ways like visiting “orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). But the pursuit of justice, shalom, and social reform should not be understood as the mission of the church. The kingdom is not advanced through them. Pursuing them is a good and legitimate endeavor for believers, they’re just not the specific task that Jesus gave his disciples as he sent them to the nations.

Almost sixty years ago, Stephen Neill famously warned, “If everything is mission, then nothing is mission.” If this is true—if misdefining mission results in losing mission—then keeping the meaning of mission in sharp focus is paramount.

Justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ is, as the Reformers believed, the fundamental truth of the Christian gospel. It’s the essence of our good-news message for the nations. As such, nothing could be more helpful for defining our mission and for keeping us on mission for our King.

[1] Keith Ferdinando, “Mission: A Problem of Definition,” Themelios 33.1 (2008), 49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 53.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For a comprehensive defense of this position, see Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What Is the Mission of the Church? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).

[6] Quoted by Korey D. Mass, “Justification by Faith Alone” in Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, 512.

[7] Quoted in Michael Reeves and Tim Chester, Why the Reformation Still Matters (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016). Kindle loc., 374.

[8] Ibid., Kindle loc. 387-390

[9] D.A. Carson, “Editorial,” Themelios, 33.2 (2008), 2.

[10] Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Twelve Theses on the Church’s Mission in the Twenty-first Century,” in David J. Hesselgrave and Ed Stetzer, eds. MissionShift (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010), Kindle loc., 1513.

[11] James F. Engel and William A. Dyrness cited in What Is the Mission of the Church?, 64.

[12] What Is the Mission of the Church?, 40.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from AJ’s article in the Theology for Life journal:

AJ Gibson

AJ Gibson and his wife, Ruth, have served as missionaries since 2004. They joined Reaching and Teaching in early 2015 and AJ serves as Reaching and Teaching’s Regional Leader for Latin America. He also travels and teaches throughout Mexico and South America. The Gibsons now live in south Texas and AJ serves as an elder in his local church. They have two adult sons (Jonathan and Christian) and three children still at home (Katelyn, Hudson, and Sofia).

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