Book Review: Paul Borthwick, Great Commission, Great Compassion

Borthwick, Paul. Great Commission, Great Compassion. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015.  Link to IVP

Paul Borthwick is a missiologist who teaches at Gordon College and has contributed several important books on missions and evangelism. This short book uses the Great Commission as a model of evangelism. The book divides into two sections; the first develops the biblical foundations for evangelism based on the Great Commissions(s). The Borthwick-great-commissionsecond develops a number of “lifestyle imperatives” necessary for successful evangelism. Borthwick offers insights based on Scripture and illustrations from his experience in cross-cultural missions in this encouraging book. His goal is it write a simple, clear text which equips people to do the work of evangelism.

Under the heading of “biblical foundations.” Borthwick uses five commissions from Jesus as a model for doing evangelism (“kingdom mission”) in the church today. Since these are the last words of Jesus in the Gospels, he observes that Jesus commanded his disciples to go, to “be on mission, to be 24/7 available as witnesses and to join the work he started” (29). Borthwick blends all five final words of Jesus in canonical order (Matt 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:45-49; Acts 1:8; John 20:21-23).

There is nothing shocking in Borthwick’s presentation, although I would point out a few oddities. First, he prioritizes Matthew 28:18-20 as the “Great Commission,” a traditional name for the last words of Jesus to his disciples in Matthew. Chronologically these are not the last words of Jesus, Acts 1:8 are just prior to the Ascension. Second, I think he could have omitted Mark 16:15-18 since the majority of scholarship (even conservative evangelical scholarship) agree Mark’s Gospel did not originally end with these words. He briefly mentions the problems with the text (39), but his footnote is wrong: “the text is deemed reliable by enough scholars that they include it in our Bibles” (200). Included, yes, but significant indications it is not “deemed reliable.” It would be simply better to avoid the controversy which distracts from an otherwise good presentation.

Third, and more controversial, is the lack of reference to Paul and the Pauline mission in the book. Although the Great Commission (in whatever form) are the last words of Jesus in the Gospels, they are not Jesus’ last words. The risen Lord Jesus also commissions Paul to a particular ministry and guides him a number of times in Acts to do evangelism and plant churches. I realize the book is entitled Great Commission Great Compassion, but to claim the Great Commission is everything the New Testament says about evangelism, mission, church planting, and cultural engagement is to overlook the ministry model used successfully by Paul in Acts and illustrated in the epistles.

Under the heading of “lifestyle imperatives” Borthwick briefly comments on eight necessary lifestyle choices which will help make evangelism successful. The first four are foundational (choosing to be involved in kingdom mission; learning what is necessary to share; looking for opportunities and prayer). The second four lifestyles are activities which are by their nature evangelistic (welcoming outsiders; generous giving; unity of the Church and cross cultural experiences).

These eight “lifestyle imperatives” are certainly necessary for evangelism and mission, but Borthwick does not consistently connect these imperatives to the Great Commission from the first half of the book. I wholeheartedly agree prayer and generous giving are necessary components of evangelism and the mission of the Church. But if the Great Commission is foundation for ministry, things like prayer or generous giving are not explicitly mentioned. I suppose one might say these things are taught by Jesus elsewhere (and they are), but I do not think Jesus’ teaching on prayer is foundation for his commission to his disciples to “go to the nations.”

Perhaps this is a result of the weakness of the biblical foundations section. By overlooking Paul’s mission, Borthwick misses an opportunity to support things like prayer and generous giving from biblical texts where Paul does both of these things in the service of evangelism and mission. His section on welcoming the stranger is excellent, although the Twelve seemed to struggle with this when “the stranger” included Gentiles. I find in strange Borthwick uses Peter’s experience with Cornelius as an illustration of welcoming strangers since Peter is extremely reluctant to go even when commanded by the vision and Peter’s later behavior in Antioch (Galatians 2) makes readers suspicious he did not fully integrate his experience into his own mission strategy. Every one of the nine principles for welcoming outsiders from Acts 10 ought to be integrated into the life of every church, but there is far more to be had by integrated Paul and his mission into the model.

Conclusion. My criticisms are the result of the brevity of the book and the clear delimitation o the book to include only the Great Commission as a model. And this may be a case of a reviewer concluding “that is not the book I would have written”! Nevertheless, this book would make an excellent text for a small group Bible study interested in developing an evangelism or missions program in a local church. Borthwick clearly and concisely outlines a biblical mandate as well as a biblical mindset for doing evangelism.

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Published on April 28, 2016 on Reading Acts.

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