Heroes of the Christian Faith: Lesslie Newbigin

by JR Woodward

(Editor’s note: This is the 10th post in a series on Heroes of the Christian Faith.)

heroes of the Christian faith, Lesslie Newbigin, JR WoodwardOne 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.

Finally, Newbigin taught me that the Church is only true to her calling when it is a sign, foretaste, and instrument of the kingdom. What does it mean that the Church is a sign? When Jesus told us, “You are the light of the world,” he was reminding us of the fact that we are a sign to the world in which we live. The purpose of a sign is to point to something that is not yet fully visible.

The Church is also to be a foretaste—a place where people taste God’s future in the present, in how we love one another, forgive one another, and live life together. The Church with a missional culture is a tangible foretaste of God’s future.

Lastly, the Church is an instrument. When writing to the church in Ephesus, Paul talks about how the church is God’s instrument to show the manifold wisdom and grace of God to the visible and invisible world. We see throughout the letter of Ephesians that the Church is to be a preview or movie trailer of what is to come, modeling what joy, peace, justice, and freedom looks like in the world. Newbigin puts it this way:

The question which has to be put to every local congregation is the question whether it is a credible sign of God’s reign in justice and mercy over the whole of life, whether it is an open fellowship whose concerns are as wide as the concerns of humanity, whether it cares for its neighbors in a way which reflect and springs out of God’s care for them, whether its common life is recognizable as a foretaste of the blessing which God intends for the whole human family.

Newbigin has left me grappling to cultivate concrete ways to express God’s coming kingdom on our streets, in our cities, and in our world to the glory of God. He has reminded me that God is the primary agent of mission, and it is my job to join Him in the renewal of all things.

JR-Woodward-2JR Woodward (@Dreamawakener) is a church planter, activist, missiologist, and author of Creating a Missional Culture. He co-founded Kairos Los Angeles, the Ecclesia Network, the Solis Foundation, and Missio Alliance. He currently serves national director for the V3 Church Planting Movement. He serves locally at the District Church in Washington DC and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester (U.K.). He loves to surf, travel, read, skateboard and meet new people. He enjoys photography and film and tries to attend the Sundance Festival whenever he can.