The Cultural Mandate and The Great Commission

September 8, 2013 we examined Jesus' radically brilliant answer to a tricky question. In large part, the sermon had been influenced by the work of theologian Michael Horton, who discusses the original "cultural mandate" given to Adam and Eve - to rule over all creation - and how that changes through the fall of Adam and the redemption of Jesus. This excerpt is taken from his excellent book The Christian Faith:

“Only after the fall in the garden is the gospel announced, creating a new community within the human race that will be given an additional mandate: the Great Commission. They will subdue, rule, fill, and expand, but not by creating just governments and empires of cultural advancement -- for this is now common rather than holy labor -- but by Word and sacrament.  Instead of dominating and subduing by sword, this community will fill the earth with God’s glory by announcing the fulfillment of God’s promise and his gathering of the remnant form all the nations to Zion. 

"With the Sinai covenant, however, God establishes a new theocratic kingdom, reuniting the cultural and cultic mandates.  As God’s new Adam, Israel is to drive the serpent from the garden, rule and subdue the nations occupying God’s land, and establish righteousness in all the earth.  Nevertheless, ‘like Adam they transgressed the covenant’ (Hos 6:7). And yet Yahweh reissues the promise after Israel’s fall: he will descend to judge and deliver. The theocracy will be dismantled (signaled by the Spirit’s evacuation from the temple, rendering it common rather than holy), and the land will be ruled by foreign oppressors, but Yahweh will again hear and answer the cries of his exiled people and send his Messiah.

“In this phase of the kingdom, with the King himself present in the flesh on the earth in humiliation and forgiveness rather than power and glory, the cult and culture once again become distinct activities.  The kingdoms of this age, like Rome, pursue their common vocations, and now believers are commanded by Jesus, ‘Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt:22:21). Even oppressive rulers are ‘God’s ministers’ in the cultural sphere of our common curse and common grace as we live alongside unbelievers; we must honor and submit to these governors (Ro 13:1-7; 1Pe 2:13-17). Believers pursue their common vocations alongside unbelievers in the world with distinction in service and godliness.”

"At the same time believers also pursue the aims of the Great Commission that Jesus gave to his disciples rather than to the world at large.  Like Joseph and Daniel, who held positions of secular leadership during periods of exile, some believers may become rulers of state and leaders in many other cultural labors.  Nevertheless, like Joseph and Daniel, they are not to confuse their cultural mandate (which they share with unbelievers) and their evangelical mandate to spread God's kingdom.  While refusing to accommodate their faith and practice to the idolatry of the nations they serve, such leaders also do not seek to advance and expand God's kingdom by means of the powers that they are given as secular rulers.  Christ's followers will not imitate the Gentile rulers, who 'lord it over' their people, but will instead imitate the Son of Man, who 'came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life [as] a ransom for many' (Mt 20:25-28).  Unlike the theocracy in Eden before the fall and in Canaan, instituted at Sinai cult (worship) and culture (common vocations in the world) are sharply distinguished, though not intrinsically opposed. Nowhere int he New Testament is the Great Commission fused with the cultural mandate.  Rather than offer a blueprint for establishing Christ's kingdom through cultural, political, or social power, Paul's instructions for daily conduct of believers in civil society seem rather modest: 'to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one' (1Th 4:11-12). Believers and unbelievers continue to share equally in cultural vocations, by God's common grace.  However, Christ's kingdom of grace is advanced in the Great Commission, by God's saving grace."  

-Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology For Pilgrims on the Way, pp. 712-713.