Reviewed by Jeff Reynolds
Purpose, Occasion, and Background
Although he would eschew such a description, Dr. Robert E. Coleman is unquestionably a contemporary evangelical giant. Throughout the course of a teaching career that has spanned now more than six decades, Coleman has devoted himself to teaching and modeling the ministry of disciple-making to which the Lord Jesus called his followers nearly two thousand years ago. Coleman has been publishing books since 1958, and his most famous work, The Master Plan of Evangelism (1963), has sold more than one million copies and is available in more than 100 languages. He has taught at Asbury Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Wheaton College, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and while at Wheaton, he served as Dean of the Billy Graham International Schools of Evangelism. He is a founding member of the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, and he served as Chairman of the North American delegation for years. Throughout the course of his career — even with all the various important, large-scale responsibilities to which he has attended — he has faithfully mentored young men in individual and small group settings. Robert Coleman is not ashamed of the gospel, and countless lives have been impacted by his obedience.
The purpose of Fulfilling the Great Commission in the Twenty-First Century is to honor Coleman in the form of a Festschrift that magnifies that to which Coleman has devoted his life and work — the Great Commission of the Lord Christ. Lyle Dorsett and Ajith Fernando, who compiled the work, state at the outset that “this work is presented at once as a salute to a beloved mentor, teacher, and friend, and also as a call for revival and rededication to Christ’s call on His church to fulfill the Great Commission” (2). They further insist that “the essays in this anthology are designed to challenge western Christians to recognize again that we have a Great Commission, not a Great Suggestion” (3). Each contributing author is someone whose life has been deeply impacted by Coleman’s ministry, either in the classroom, in the prayer room, through his writings, through his mentorship, and in some cases, through all of the above. Their chapters, in most cases, illustrate how the principles taught them by Coleman have been used by God in various contexts of ministry all around the world and continue to impact lives for eternity today.
Summary and Evaluation
As with any anthology, this work lacks the seamlessness of a singular argument that is developed from start to finish. What it presents instead is a collection of writings centered around the Great Commission. Walter Kaiser opens the work with a faithful exposition of Psalm 80 wherein he discusses how God awakens those he loves to repentance by allowing disaster to befall their land. The proper response to any type of disaster, he says, is widespread repentance that often leads to revival and awakening. Erik Thoennes then sets forth a stirring description of God’s righteous jealousy and insists that those who love God will likewise be jealous for His glory. Thoennes references how righteous jealousy for God’s glory was expressed in the Old Testament by Phinehas’ sword against adulterous Israelites and David’s stone against an uncircumcised Philistine, but he then shows how a passion for God’s singular glory is different in the New Testament. The weapons of God’s people to defend His honor, he says, are no longer swords and stones but rather the gospel and its proclamation to God’s enemies.
In the next chapter, Timothy Beougher highlights the truth that in God’s economy, being always precedes doing. He provides a solid collection of wisdom through the ages to illustrate his notion, highlighting the prevailing scriptural and historical notion that the character and secret life of the witness is even more important than the visible techniques employed in disciple-making. The next four chapters highlight how the Great Commission is carried out in various contexts. Mary Dorsett illustrates how Jesus modeled a Great Commission lifestyle in his sensitive interactions with outcast and hurting women. Ajith Fernando illustrates the lifestyle character of discipleship as seen in ministry to the urban poor in Sri Lanka. He provides a very practical approach to discipleship, noting that life-on-life ministry is comprehensive, time-consuming, often messy, and nearly impossible to farm out to subsidiary ministries. Lyle Dorsett provides several case studies from World War II chaplains to exhibit the incarnational nature of disciple-making ministry. The chief observation he makes is that those chaplains who got out among the men—particularly in the most difficult circumstances — gained the men’s respect and therefore gained their ears for the gospel message. Stephen Rankin illustrates how the Great Commission principles can be embodied on religiously-affiliated college campuses to engage emerging adults. Rankin shows how the principles Coleman delineated in The Master Plan of Evangelism are as applicable in twenty-first century college ministry as they were when Coleman wrote the book in the 1960s.
The book concludes with Allan Coppedge setting forth a Trinitarian view of salvation in which he argues for an expansive — rather than a restricted — view of salvation. Coppedge argues that a view of salvation that focuses almost solely on one’s legal standing before God (i.e., in terms of justification) is too narrowly focused to encompass all that God does in saving a sinner. Coppedge advocates for an expansive view whereby salvation is viewed in terms of the repentant sinner’s restored relationship God, emphasizing terms like reconciliation, adoption, fellowship, receiving Christ, possessing the Holy Spirit, being in Christ, and the like. This view of salvation necessarily encompasses the entire Trinity’s work in salvation and moves the believer toward an inner transformation instead of merely embracing a changed legal standing before God. Coppedge’s perspective is correct and helpful in that salvation is a multi-faceted experience and should be viewed in that way, but he seems to over-simplify any view of salvation that seeks to magnify justification before God as one of the central tenets of the phenomenon.
Fulfilling the Great Commission in the Twenty-First Century honors Coleman by magnifying Jesus. In it, sinners are called to repentance, saints are called to the work of God’s kingdom, and Christ is exalted. Such a work is altogether fitting and proper to esteem a man whose life work has been devoted to these principles, particularly as it has been penned by those into whom Coleman poured his life and who have labored to reproduce that same work in others. They honor their mentor by showcasing the work they have done in fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission.
Contributing author Mary Dorsett expresses most eloquently the experience of sitting under Coleman’s teaching:
Students who have had the privilege of being in a class taught by Dr. Robert Emerson Coleman will tell you that Dr. Coleman has his feet on the floor and his head in the heavens. When he starts to lecture, he frequently looks up and it seems that the veil between earth and eternity parts for him as he vividly describes the glory of God. “Oh, can’t you just picture it” he frequently intones. Whether he is teaching on the discipline of evangelism or the theology that supports this important topic, he moves rapidly through a logical and biblically based outline rich with important information. But when he begins to talk of Jesus and His interactions with various people, his voice takes on a special timbre as scenes from the Bible march across the classroom stage enabling students to see, hear, and glimpse life two thousand years ago when the Savior walked the earth. Dr. Coleman’s knowledge of the Bible and his intimacy with the Savior reinforce one another, and under his teaching two dimensional stories from the gospel spring to life like Ezekiel’s dry bones (59-60).
As one who has been privileged to sit under Dr. Coleman’s classroom teaching and to interact with him in personal conversation, I can attest to Dorsett’s description. During one particular four-hour lecture, I fought back tears for three hours and then just let them flow as Dr. Coleman joined us on the classroom floor — literally the floor — for an hour of prayer to conclude our time together. He is unquestionably worthy of being honored by this work, and those who would obey Christ’s call can glean much from its pages.
Jeff Reynolds is Associate Pastor of Adult Faith Development at Hillvue Heights Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He is a Ph.D. graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Buy the books
Fulfilling The Great Commission In The Twenty-first Century: Essays On Revival, Evangelism, And Discipleship In Honor Of Dr. Robert E. Coleman