The Doctrine of God and Mission by Justin Schell
Sharing the Father’s Heart
“What do you want for your birthday?” It is a question all children love to answer. And one year, when my wife was young, her father asked it of her. She replied, eyes getting large, “I want a Beach Boys record.” Intrigued by why a ten-year-old girl in the early nineties would want an album from a band popular in the sixties, he inquired further, “Why do you want a Beach Boys album, dear?” Without hesitation, and I am sure with a giggle of glee, she responded, “Because you like them, Daddy!” It was the love for her father that motivated her. She wanted to share in his interests because they were his interests! She loved him, so she loved the things he loved. She adored him, so she wanted to be like him.
I love that story. It reminds me of my freshman year at university. I had just become a believer, and almost immediately I began to hear from my campus minister about God’s heart for the nations of the world. As I read verse after verse from Scripture that declared God’s love for men and women from every tribe, language, people, and nation, with a blend of divine faith and naivete, I simply said, “Father, if this is your heart, then I am going to make it my heart as well.”
I did not have a degree in missions. I had no passport. I did not personally know a missionary. I could not have told you the difference between Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. But at that moment, none of those things were necessary. Nothing moves us to embrace and engage God’s mission like knowing his heart. Even now, after studying and practicing mission for two decades, I find it is still God’s heart that makes mission worthwhile.
What we all share in common, no matter where we come from or where we’re going, is that we are here because we have experienced something of the love of God. It will be knowing and enjoying him that will cause us to both understand and embrace his heart for the lost, his heart for mission.
Beginning with the Father, Son, and Spirit
Everything begins with God. Mission is no exception. But which God are we talking about? That may sound like a silly question, but we will see just how important it is when we consider a false god. We want to make sure we’re beginning with the true God, the God of Jesus, the God who is a Father loving his Son in the Spirit. If we don’t begin with this God, we shouldn’t begin at all.
This fundamental truth was at the heart of the debate between two church leaders named Athanasius and Arius who lived during the fourth century. Arius was a presbyter in the church at Alexandria who began teaching in error that Jesus was the first creature made by the Father. He posited that Jesus then went on to create everything else. Why would Arius say that? What mistake had he made in his theological reasoning? Essentially, his mistake was starting with creation instead of Christ
Michael Reeves explains, “Arius had started with a philosophical presupposition of what God must be like: God by nature was ‘ungenerated’ or uncaused; in fact, he held, ‘ungenerate’ served as about the most basic definition of God. It follows, then, that since the Son is begotten or generated by the Father, he cannot truly be God.” Given this, it’s no surprise that Arius imagined God as a lone divine rule-giver who was waiting for humanity to simply obey his cosmic whim, with no plan for relationship between God and humanity.
But Athanasius, theological stalwart and on-again-off- again bishop of Alexandria, spotted Arius’ error. He said, “It is more pious and more accurate to signify [that is, to under- stand] God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.” Athanasius is echoing the apostle John, who said, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (1:18).
How then do we know what God is like? We must look at Jesus.
Creation can’t tell us who God, in his essence, is. Yes, we can look at creation and know that God is powerful, but that doesn’t tell us who he is. This means that creation also can’t tell us what his mission is.
Instead, we must start our inquiries with the Son. And when we do, we come to know that God is a community of eternal love: Father, Son, and Spirit. We don’t pray, “Our Unoriginate.” We pray, “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9). So, if we are to understand God’s mission, we must understand his Trinitarian reality.
Before the World Existed
We have said that Jesus reveals the Father (see John 1:18). He came so that we could know God, not just his law. Jesus’ person, work, ministry, teaching, and very life is centred on revealing the Father—revealing God—to us. For our purposes, we want to ask, “How does Jesus reveal the nature of God from before creation?”
If we start with creation, like Arius, we will be tempted to think that the best description of God is that he is the Creator or Ruler of creation. But he was something before that; and he was doing something before that. For a moment, let us rewind into eternity past.
In John 1:1–2, we find out that before creation, the Son was with the Father. Already, we know that God is not a solitary deity like Arius’ god or the god of Islam, Allah. No, at the very least, the God of the Bible is a Father and a Son in communion. Also, we see that this is a God who, by his very nature, speaks. The second person of the Trinity is rightly called the Word of God. Communicating isn’t just something that God does; it’s in his very nature. It’s who he is.
And now, this Son, the Word, has taken on flesh to dwell among us (v. 14) and reveal the Father (v. 18) to us. One of the very best places to go to see what God is like, particularly before creation, is John 17. In Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, we see an intimate interaction between Father and Son. And we get a picture of their pre-creation community in some of Jesus’ words. In verse 5, he prays, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
Jesus, preparing to return to the presence of his Father, asks to receive glory. But this will not be the first time that Father and Son are sharing glory in intimate fellowship. No, indeed, they shared it before the world existed. What was God like before he created? He was Father, Son, and Spirit sharing glory together—overflowing towards each other.
Just a few verses later, Jesus prays, “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (v. 24). Again, what was God doing before creation? The Father was loving his Son. More precisely, Father, Son, and Spirit, for eternity past, were loving one another, delighting in one another, sharing and overflowing towards one another.
Leaving the book of John, let us look at just two more passages to fill out our picture of what God was like, and what he was doing, before creation.
The first passage we want to examine comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
What was God doing before the foundation of the world? Was he figuring out a way to create a race of minions who would exist to do his bidding?
What was he plotting for us? Nothing less than our very incorporation into the life of God. Before creation, “He chose us … that we should be holy and blameless before him” (v. 4).
What was his disposition towards us? “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (vv. 4–5). He was not preparing a world for servants, but for sons! The triune God was planning for his love—the love of Father, Son, and Spirit—to be shared with those he created, now incorporated into this holy family.
What is the result of this foreplanning of God? Redemption through Jesus’ blood, the forgiveness of sin, all so that he might unite all things to Christ (vv. 7–10).
It will not surprise you to see John in Revelation communicating the same thought as Paul did in Ephesians 1. While John is not trying to unpack the mystery of salvation in Revelation 13, he writes something that is revealing for our study in verse 8. He says that names have been “written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” If you explore everything John has to say about this book—John speaks of it six times in his writings—you will find that this is the list of those who were chosen for adoption, redemption, and forgiveness; they will not face judgement, but have been washed clean. These men and women have been saved by “the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14; 12:11).
Again, let us ask, “What was God doing before the foundation of the world?” He was writing a book, the Lamb’s book of life. He was preparing to save sinners, even before creation.
Amazing Love! How Can It Be?
All of this is simply incredible! And compared to the god of Arius, it is absolutely staggering. When we look at these few passages, we see a completely different God. Arius’ god sought slavish workers who would simply try harder. He imagined the Bible as a rule book to show us how to earn salvation. So, he imagined that God’s mission was simply that humanity would become obedient automatons, distant but compliant—that this would somehow please his distant, lonely god. But let’s summarise what we’ve discovered about the true God, the living God, the triune God.
What is God like? The God of the Bible is Father, Son, and Spirit—a communion of divine love—who is self-giving, generous, and loving. That means he is not, as is sometimes charged, lonely. Nor does he intend to “keep his distance” from humanity whom he has made, but rather he intends relationship from the very beginning, for that is his nature. He is full of life and love, overflowing within himself and now overflowing into the world.
Why would this God create? Knowing what the true God is like alleviates any worries that he is a cosmic dictator who created men and women as meaningless slaves. Instead, we have every indication from the Bible that God created so that the love and fellowship that has always existed in the Trinity might be shared more broadly! He created for familial reasons. The Bible uses pictures of adoption and marriage to illustrate the relational closeness that God intends for redeemed humanity.
Why would he give us a book? To answer this question, we cannot do better than to quote Jesus in John 5:39–40. Addressing the Pharisees, he says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” What are the Scriptures for? To lead us to Jesus! We read them so that we might know God, for knowing God is eternal life (John 17:3).
What is God’s mission? What is the good God after in the world? Maybe you can guess already from what we have said. In short, God’s mission in creation and redemption is to bring men and women into the fellowship that Father, Son, and Spirit have always shared.
The following is an extract from Justin Schell and Glen Scrivener, Come and See: A History and Theology of Mission. Used with permission.
 Michael Reeves, Theologians You Should Know: An Introduction: From the Apostolic Fathers to the 21st Century (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 54.
 Athansius, Against the Arians, trans. John Henry Newman and Archibald Robertson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 4, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892), 1.34.