By JR Woodward
One of the most significant influencers in my life in the last decade has been Lesslie Newbigin. While my friend Pavi, from India, was baptized by Newbigin, I have only known him through his writings.
The first book of his that I read was The Gospel in the Pluralist Society. It blew me away. He gave me thoughtful wisdom to questions that haunted me for some time. The way he spoke about epistemology, authority, revelation, election, scripture, Christ, mission, the powers, and contextualization left me more passionate about loving God and gave me a deeper desire to join God in the renewal of all things.
Newbigin was both a thoughtful theologian and a passionate practitioner. He wrote his theology from a place of practice. In his book Foolishness to the Greeks he talks about how as a missionary to India for 30 years, he had to understand the culture then embody the good news in that culture. When he came back to England, he realized that the culture had completely changed, but the Church had remained the same. Newbigin called upon the West to adopt the mindset of a missionary again, and recalibrate the Church according to our current context.
While the list of lessons that I’ve learned from Newbigin could fill many books, let me mention three ways he has made me more missional.
First, Newbigin helped me gain a missional view of the doctrine of election. While some people’s view of election leads to an understanding that God only cares for a few people in the world, Newbigin demonstrates a scriptural understanding of election that leads to an understanding of a God who indeed loves the whole world, and died for the whole world.
For Newbigin, election is the method by which God seeks to bless all nations. He consistently reminds us that the nature of election is that God has called us to be bearers of the blessing, not exclusive beneficiaries. One of his favorite verses on election comes from Jesus: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit” (John 15:16). We are chosen to be a blessing to others. I’ve written a free ebook on A Missional View of the Doctrine of Election, which articulates his understanding more thoroughly.
Second, Newbigin reminded me that a believing church is the ultimate apologetic. Here is how he puts it:
How can this strange story of God made flesh, of a crucified Savior, of resurrection and new creation become credible for those whose entire mental training has conditioned them to believe that the real world is the world which can be satisfactorily explained and managed without the hypothesis of God? I know of only one clue to the answering of that question, only one hermeneutic of the gospel: a congregation which believes it.
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