I am no geneticist, but I love the image of DNA. It is a beautiful creation of God, and I think quite a helpful metaphor for us in discussing what defines us and drives us as evangelicals. In this article, I want to explore the shape of our ‘DNA’ as people of the gospel and what can damage that DNA, and then suggest ways that we can strive to keep our DNA pure.
As far as I understand it, there are two significant things about DNA for our purposes here. Firstly, there’s a family likeness—you can see how much like other members of a family a person is by comparing their DNA to each other’s. In thinking through a DNA of ministry we ought therefore to ask what must be included in our belief and practice—and what must be excluded—in order to be family. This is the most common discussion. Secondly, there’s an aspect that I think is more significant and I suspect we don’t think enough about: replication. That is, DNA is so remarkably made by God that it reproduces exact copies of itself so that the next generation can come in to being without mutation. This sounds an awful lot like 2 Timothy 2:2—Paul commands Timothy to pass on to the next generation what he has been taught in an uncorrupted, unpolluted way.
Why are we bothering with this topic?
There are several reasons why we ought to bother investigating this topic. The primary reason is that there is no other topic of such significance as the gospel itself: understanding it, dwelling upon it, applying it to ourselves and unleashing it to shape our practice. It is worthwhile to be encouraged, reminded, buttressed in our assurance and challenged in our failures.
There is another reason why it is worth wrestling with these ideas: we have the responsibility of ensuring, as far as humanly possible, that we are clear on what we proclaim and that we ensure that the gospel is not corrupted.
But there are factions amongst us, even within the family. As we wage war against the devil, in the same trenches there are those, on either side of the family, who think the man next to them is the enemy, with a different DNA. We must be clear about who is a fellow soldier (even with different opinions on some things) and who is actually an enemy.
This past week I admit to being challenged in my reading of 1 Corinthians 1. In a letter in which the apostle Paul on every page spells out the errors, factions, self-superiority, rejection of the apostle, sexual immorality, lack of care for the community, over confidence, and over-realized eschatology of the Corinthian church, he still says something unexpected and something I don’t think I could have said:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:4-8)
It suggested to me that we shouldn’t stop talking about the differences or errors that we see, or dismiss differences by saying that both (or neither) ‘side’ is right. Paul is clear in his correction of error, but does it all with unity in Christ and praise to God. It is good to be on our guard, especially for those of us who are called to be watchmen and those who warn (cf. Ezekiel 3), but we must be aware of the basis on which we make our decisions so as to make them wisely. So often we make these decisions based on our own particular definition of what it is to be evangelical, or the tribe that we belong to. With that in mind, let’s try to get to the bottom of what it is that defines an evangelical: what is our DNA?
I think it’s a reasonable assumption that if you are reading this, you would likely label yourself unashamedly as an evangelical. We live for and promote the gospel. But in defining carefully what ‘evangelical’ and ‘gospel’ mean, lets us think about what makes up our family likeness (our shared DNA) and how we ensure it reproduces without error (our DNA replication).
There are a few incomplete or unhelpful definitions of what it is to be evangelical. Firstly, a rather common tendency currently is self-identification as an evangelical—you call yourself evangelical and therefore you are. This is a clearly circular definition, rather devoid of content, and cannot be sufficient. Closely related to this is a sociological definition whereby you identify with a group or ‘tribe’ that is clearly evangelical, or ‘more evangelical’ than other groups. This too is common, and quite dangerous, because the substance of evangelicalism is then tied to the group membership rather than the gospel DNA of that group.
There’s a historical definition gained by looking at evangelicalism as a movement from the 17th–18th century, its leaders, and its progression. That’s an interesting enough study, but it falls short of a proper definition of what it means to be an evangelical now. It is more about history than the work of the gospel and its content.
In terms of description, there are a few different approaches. Among the more helpful is David Bebbington’s description, referred to as the Bebbington Quadrilateral. He argued that four main qualities define evangelical convictions and attitudes:
- the Bible as the final authority in all matters of faith and life
- the centrality of the atoning work of Christ
- the great need of every human to be converted
- gospel proclamation as the responsibility of the believer.1
That we must hold these four truths is certain, but the quadrilateral gives no order, sequence or priority.
In Evangelical Truth, John Stott, following JI Packer, identifies the content of evangelicalism. He gives a list of beliefs that must be held:
- the supremacy of Holy Scripture
- the majesty of Jesus Christ (the God-man who died as a sacrifice for sin)
- the lordship of the Holy Spirit (who exercises a variety of vital ministries)
- the necessity of conversion (a direct encounter with God effected by God alone)
- the priority of evangelism
- the importance of fellowship (the church being essentially a living community of believers)2
He then summarizes them as: “the authority of God in and through Scripture, the majesty of Jesus Christ in and through the cross, and the lordship of the Holy Spirit in and through his manifold ministries”.3
Stott and Packer have done us a great service in placing the gospel at the centre of evangelical DNA, but even with this content it is still unclear how the DNA is reproduced without error. We could easily spend the next several pages discussing our DNA in terms of the ideas we must hold as central, the ways of living, thinking, and theology that we must hold. That would be by no means a waste of time, but I want to propose something different that I think captures better the New Testament DNA of ministry.
Focus on evangelical reproduction
To be an evangelical—that is, to be a gospel person—is to be an evangel-man or evangel-woman. A gospel person is someone who has themselves been transformed and takes that transforming message to the world. Bebbington’s quadrilateral is too flat: he identified conversion as part of the puzzle, but didn’t go far enough. Evangelical, New Testament DNA has conversion—that is, repentance and faith that lead to salvation—not just as part of it, but as the central bullseye. Conversion is what the family has in common. That is what gets passed on from generation to generation, and that shape is the basis of ethics and church and everything.
When we examine the last words of the risen Lord Jesus before his ascension—in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 and to the disciples in Luke 24:44-49—we see that they are marching orders. Jesus commands his disciples to make disciples, and to preach repentance and forgiveness to all nations. While we await the Lord’s return from on high, this is what it is to be an evangelical—the making of converts through the proclamation of the gospel.
This gospel proclamation does have clear content. It is about Jesus Christ, the fulfilment of the promises of God, who rescues us from the coming wrath (1 Thess 1:9-10). In his magnificent plenary address at GAFCON, Nairobi, Mike Ovey warned of false gospel proclamation and cheap conversion: one that is repentance-less and one that is self-bestowed.4 True conversion is never that. As Jesus puts it to his disciples in Luke 24, forgiveness is only found in his name, which prevents any sense of self-bestowal of salvation. It is only possible in the completed, accomplished work of Christ:
[Jesus] said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47)
Sometimes true conversion is expressed as a catchphrase: “Jesus is Lord”, or “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David”. Sometimes it is expressed as a response: the assurance of salvation. Sometimes it is captured by the appropriation of a theological truth: justification by faith alone. But for all, the core of being a gospel person is being converted from what we were to what we are now in Christ.
This isn’t just rejuvenation, or simply a matter of changing thoughts. Conversion is re-creation. Throughout the Scriptures God is clear about his intent to glorify his Son by transforming people from mortality to immortality, from perishable to imperishable, from death to life.
Conversion, viewed in this way, has many necessary implications. There’s a conviction of the total lostness of every human being without Christ (Rom 8:7-8; Eph 2:12), that nothing other than the substitionary death of God’s Son on our behalf can solve that problem. If these are lost there is no true conversion and no benefit from repentance. Because this is so important, it is therefore not surprising that clear dividing lines in the New Testament that cannot be crossed are the incarnate deity of Christ (1 John 2:22), and that this salvation is only possible by trusting God’s revelation (Gal 1:8; 1 John 4:6).
And as we call people to true repentance, we work alongside God in his clearly declared plan: the conversion of souls. What a magnificent, world-shattering, impossible thing this ministry is—but how could we do this activity in any way other than joyfully!
The shape of the evangelical call to repentance
Now at this point there’s an obvious objection: surely conversionism alone is prone to theological error. After all, the Mormons, Sydney Church of Christ, and all manner of other groups believe that you need to be converted!
Of course the call to salvation must be to trust the risen Christ, but hear what I am saying. Unless we have at the heart of our DNA the lostness of every human, the offer of solution, and that God in his kindness calls us to proclaim these truths, the DNA will be lost. To lose this centre cannot but cause malfunctioning DNA—if not in this generation, then certainly in future generations.
The heart of New Testament DNA is calling people to repentance. That said, true conversion only makes sense when it is cradled in the character of God. Conversely, you won’t see the character of God clearly unless you’re committed to the eternity-transforming reality of conversion. So what is the character of God? What is God like?
There are lots of ways to describe the character of God, but I picked this description up from Broughton Knox and the more I read the Bible, the more I think he has nailed it: God is sovereign, good, and wise.
God is sovereign, over all things. He organizes even the minutest of details to bring about his purposes. And his purposes are the glorifying of his Son, through the salvation of his elect. In our conversion-centric DNA, we must remember that it is only by God’s choice and only through his means that people will be saved. We ourselves are not responsible for the conversion of people; we trust the Spirit to do what is humanly impossible. We trust that he will do the work even when we are absent—so we can trust God to reproduce his work down through the generations.
God is good. Nothing he chooses or elects, and none of his means, will (when all is known) ever be questionable. The very worst anyone will get from God is justice (which is better than any human judicial system). In his goodness, some get many more blessings. So in our conversion-centric DNA, we call on people to be saved to the one who has done everything: not just the creator and sustainer (God is sovereign), but the redeemer (God is good).
God is wise. All God’s ways, choices and acts display the depth of his wisdom. In the closing words of the great epistle to the Romans, which is all about the universal salvific act of God that no one would have conceived, Paul concludes:
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27)
God’s wise way is to use frail, weak people to proclaim his word, by having them believe his Word, so they that others would be gathered to him from the four corners of the globe, century after century after century. So we will speak foolish words (to the world) of wrath, judgement, and true, whole-hearted repentance that results in humiliating, costly, sacrificial service.
This sovereign, good, and wise God will bring about his glorious purposes so we and others may live joyfully in the liberation of the gospel. So, as people of the gospel, our DNA is conversion shaped and cradled in the character of our God who welcomes rebellious sinners to share his life.
Keeping the shape
There are various ways that gospel DNA may be corrupted in its replication, and I refer you to some significant suggestions by Richard Chin elsewhere in this issue on that topic. We often fear our DNA may be subject to challenge and alteration through contamination with the environment in which we live. This has too often led us to avoid or ignore our world and to be unresponsive to it. As we live in this world, we share the gospel call so that people might respond in faith and be transformed. How do we engage in the world and not ‘contaminate’ our DNA? What boundaries should we erect to protect our DNA?
The first port of call here is defining what we believe: our creeds, gospel summaries, and theological statements. These are crucial as ‘hard’ delimiters of what the Scriptures teach us about the gospel, and key resources in warding off wrong theology that gets imported from time to time. The language of Galatians and 1 John screams that the holders of some erroneous beliefs are the antichrist (Gal 1:8; 1 John 2:22), and that there are hard boundaries we must not cross.
But boundaries are also present in softer ways, as we make decisions about our strategies, priorities and methodologies. These can support (by promoting conversion) or mutate (by mis-shaping) our DNA.
Strategies are good. We need to have a plan of what we will do under God to create gospel lives in others, and how it is to be executed. I am a great advocate of strategy. But make no mistake, here is the easiest place for the DNA to be corrupted. When the strategy becomes what we live for we are in danger of losing our DNA.
Every strategy needs to contribute in some way to that central change of heart so that the believer delights in their transference from the kingdom of darkness, and so strives with all their effort to see it occur in others. We too often, I am afraid, compromise our passion for conversion for short term strategies. Do we spend more time planning the menu at our outreach event than on the message we are sharing? Do we act as though better marketing will be more likely to grow our churches than prayer? Be assured that strategy, over time, always shapes a culture. We must interact with our world, but to mis-focus on our goal will create unproductive DNA in the next generation.
There is so much that can be done by individuals and groups who are possessed by God. Countless things clamour for our attention. In the midst of all of this the priority must remain the evangel: the salvation of souls through the wise God-ordained means of proclaiming the saviour and calling to repentance. Compromise on that today and it will be lost tomorrow.
Our methodology of how to engage our world with the gospel must be nuanced by the world we live in. The gospel is the same—it calls forth repentance and new life from the dead—but methods change. For example, ‘twittering the gospel’ 20 years ago involved chatting about Jesus. That was a good methodology, but the term (and the practice) means something quite different today. We must challenge and question—and teach everyone to constantly challenge and question—our methodology. Is our method assisting or hindering us rejoicing in working beside our sovereign, good and wise God?
We must challenge methodology as it very quickly becomes the content of our ministry. This is because it is methodology that is visible, and ‘how we do things around here’. It quickly becomes set in stone and we end up living and saluting our practice and not our God who calls people out of darkness to escape the wrath to come. Our methodology must flow from and be constantly explained by our central theology of repentance. This is why these things are soft boundaries: we must have them, and they’re always movable, but unless they point to the centre of who we are they can corrupt what we are about.
Replication and maintenance of evangelical DNA
What we’ve seen so far is that New Testament ministry DNA is not merely a set of propositions, all of which have the same value. The beating heart of New Testament ministry is the glorifying of God through the salvation of souls. The DNA has a clear centre: conversion. But we’re not left just with that. It has a centre, but it also has shape to it. The character of God gives shape to that evangelistic content and method. Finally, we also need to think about our relationship with the world, and we must be aware that how we engage will challenge our DNA.
This leads us on well to the final important part of this discussion: evangelical DNA is not just about who you are and what you believe, but even more importantly it is about passing the gospel on to future generations intact. How do we do that with so many challenges to gospel DNA? This is what blows my mind and convinces me that we have a sovereign, good, and wise God.
Human DNA has a certain shape to it: the double helix. Again, I am no geneticist, but I understand that when connections are missing, protein builders come to its aid to correct the problem by restoring the correct shape. In an analogous way, New Testament DNA is self-correcting, for which we ought to give great praise to our sovereign, good God. As we focus on the call to repentance, shaped by the God we praise—the shape self corrects. That this happens shouldn’t surprise us as it is God who is at work by his Spirit to create true, real, life-giving faith, even in the midst of all our human weaknesses. What a relief that it is God who ensures un-mutated replication! Our task is to faithfully proclaim and call for repentance. Therefore, in our ministry, if it is to be New Testament, gospel DNA ministry, we will mirror the character of God in appropriate ways.
We mirror the wisdom of God: God knows all and directs all. We cannot do that. But the methods, content and activities that he declares give us means of conducting ministry that are thoroughly wise. We therefore conduct our ministry in all holiness, proclaiming fearlessly the Saviour and his call to surrender to him, prayerfully trusting the Spirit of God to take our efforts for his glory. Though we don’t have every answer, and though philosophers will mock our message, our task is nonetheless to tell of the work of God and to call for response. That is God’s wise way for us to maintain the DNA.
We mirror the goodness of God. God’s character brings about deep thankfulness for the amazing gift of our salvation, thankfulness for what he is doing in others, and recognition that his ways are always best (despite our judgements). So we will proclaim the good God who calls people to relationship with him.
We also mirror the sovereign God. We are in no way sovereign, but we do have influence. Depending on who you are and what ministry you are engaged in, this influence will vary, but it is true for each one of us that because of our positions and because the Spirit uses us, we can influence the DNA of this generation and the ones to come. We have—as far as humanly possible—the responsibility to keep refocusing on the evangel: the glorious calling of putting faith in Jesus because of the unbelievably wonderful character of God.
New Testament gospel ministry has a particular shape to it. I’m calling on you to defend that shape. This calls for great care, watchfulness and thoughtfulness.
Defend it against mutation and mis-shaping, defend it by proclaiming it knowing that God will be at work correcting our weaknesses. Declare it boldly so that it may be transmitted intact to future generations who will also be captivated by the glorious news of passing from death to life, into the kingdom of the beloved Son our Lord. Declare it boldly so that future generations will declare it to generations not yet born.
- D Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, Unwin Hyman, London, 1989, pp. 2-17. ↩
- J Stott, Evangelical Truth, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, 1999, pp. 23-24. ↩
- Ibid., p. 25. ↩
- M Ovey, ‘The Grace of God OR the world of the West?’, Global Anglican Future Conference, Nairobi, 2013. http://gafcon.org/images/uploads/The_Grace_of_God_or_the_world_of_the_West.pdf ↩