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Missions 101

Applying the “Incarnation” to Ministry

Mar. 23, 2015By: Jackson WuAuthor Bio

Editors note: This is part of a three part series. The first post addressed the definition of incarnational ministry. 

In the last post, I suggested we go back to the Bible and see whether the biblical writers actually ever use the “incarnation” when talking about our manner of doing ministry. We saw that 1 John 4:7–21 seems to do just that.

Contrary to much of what I’ve read, an “incarnational ministry” is not really about culture at all.Incarnational_2 It’s about how Christ manifested the love of God in the world.

What does this look like in practice? I want us to turn back to 1 John 3–4 in order to find out how we apply the incarnation to our lives. What insights does John offer us?

Manifesting God’s love

I think John gives us four major characteristics of God’s incarnational love, made manifest in Christ. Accordingly, they should inform our understanding of “incarnational” ministry. 

1.     SEEKS  - God’s love is an initiating love (1 John 4:10, 19).

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (v. 10).

“We love because he first loved us” (v. 19).

At some point or another, we become passive and guilty of loving only those who love us. Perhaps, we protect ourselves from rejection or embarrassment. Maybe, we were indifferent. Yet, an incarnational ministry seeks ways to take the initiative to express love.

 2.     SPECIFIC  - God’s love is concrete. It is specific in time and place.

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16–18) 

We can often struggle from a problem I suspect is linked to the influence of marketing, music, mass media, including television and the Internet. We become sentimental and confuse it with love. We have a sense that we are near those who are suffering and that we feel their pain. However, that feeling only lasts until the next news cycle or day of Facebook posts.

How much of our sentiment ever manifests into concrete actions?

Within the church, we see a similar dynamic when it comes to missions. Everyone supports missions in spirit. However, I have seen people again and again bristle at the suggestion that they or their kids should actually go to another culture to serve as missionaries.

3.     SACRIFICIAL - God’s love is sacrificial (4:10, cited above).

At this point, we face a great threat to our self-image. Speaking of sacrificial love can quickly expose our hypocrisy. It stirs ours sentiments but that passion all too easily fizzles when we find ourselves inconvenienced by the daily demands of ministry life.

For missionaries, sacrificial love probably won’t mean dying as a martyr somewhere because you won’t deny Christ. More likely, it will mean enduring a “thousand small cuts” in one’s heart and mind. These are the “cuts” that come from living as foreigners and strangers in the world.

 "sacrificial love will probably mean enduring a “thousand small cuts” in one’s heart and mind" - Tweet this

To be clear, I’m not accusing. I’m confessing.

4.     SERVES  - God’s love serves others’ good.

Again, see 1 John 3:16–17; 4:10 cited above. How do we “lay down our lives” for others? In ch. 3, it means serving others. The first job of a servant is to pay attention to people, to see what their needs are. Then, we take action to allocate our energy and resources to meet those needs in a concrete way.

I would encourage people not to separate 3:16–17 and 4:10. 

Incarnational love is concerned with both propitiation and provision. Incarnational love is not indifferent to a person’s lack of food and supplies simply because he or she also needs forgiveness from sin. Both are evils that love labors to destroy.

Jackson Wu (PhD, SEBTS) teaches theology and missiology in a seminary for Chinese church leaders. Previously, he also worked as a church planter. He has just released his second book One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization. In addition to his blog,, follow him on Twitter @jacksonwu4china.

Tags:  incarnational ministry, ministry
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