Ed Stetzer Interview: Mission, Church, and God’s Timeless Purpose

Author-speaker and LifeWay Researcher, Ed Stetzer, graciously invited me to do an interview on his blog. Here is his endorsement for my book From Eternity to Here, which I was honored by.

Too often we see people react to what they don’t like about the church. In From Eternity to Here, Frank Viola offers up the doctrine that causes him to act on behalf of the church. Make no doubt about it—Frank is a provocateur and an artist—and both come through in this book. Frank continues to challenge the church-at-large with a powerful mind, an impassioned voice, and a love for the bride of Christ. You need to get this book and wrestle with Frank through the biblical passages regarding our identity in Christ as His body and the mission our God has entrusted to us.

~ Ed Stetzer

What follows is the full interview.

From Ed Stetzer:

Today, Frank Viola comes by the blog and interacts for the day.

As I have written before, I like Frank. He is not a subtle man. He is calling for big changes. And, he loves Jesus. Those are some good qualities.

Now, if you have read my books and my blog, you also know that Frank and I have some pretty significant differences about an important subject–ecclesiology. And, I believe that ecclesiology will be one of the defining issues in the evangelical conversation in the years to come.

I am so passionate about the subject, my next scholarly book will be on ecclesiology, probably out in 2012 (my missiology textbook comes out in 2010), so I am pretty concerned about this subject and have some important convictions.

And, it is no secret to Frank that I found his last two books to be lacking in ecclesiology (as I see it in scripture), but I appreciated his passion for the church and God’s mission in his From Eternity to Here. His passion for the church and its mission comes through in From Eternity to Here. Whereas his other books seemed to want to deconstruct the church (in a way I found destructive), this one provides the reader with reasons to love the church.


I also see this when Frank writes against “churchless Christianity,” something I was very encouraged to see. He did so in two parts at Out of Ur.

The postchurch brand of Christianity is built on the premise that institutional forms of church are ineffective, unbiblical, unworkable, and in some cases, dangerous. Institutionalization is not compatible with ekklesia. So say postchurch advocates.

But the postchurch view goes further saying, “any semblance of organization whatsoever . . . any semblance of leadership…is wrong and oppressive. Church is simply when two or three believers gather together in any format. Whenever this happens, church occurs.”

Frank continues in the article explaining,

The ekklesia as used in New Testament literature is visible, touchable, locatable, and tangible. You can visit it. You can observe it. And you can live in it. Biblically speaking, you could not call anything an ekklesia unless it assembled regularly together. The postchurch paradigm is rooted in the attempt to practice Christianity without belonging to an identifiable community that regularly meets for worship, prayer, fellowship, mutual edification, and mutual care.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with fellowshipping with Christians on the Internet, over the phone, or meeting with friends at Starbucks. I personally love doing these things. But calling these activities “church” or substituting them for ekklesia is misguided.

As I read these I found them helpful when consider that many are advocating “abandoning the church” for their own spiritual health and to join some sort of churchless revolution.

So, I invited Frank to the blog today to talk about his new book and any other subjects upon which he wants to opine. Let’s start with his answers to a few questions and then you can jump in below.

1. What motivated you to write this book?

The message of the eternal purpose of God changed my life. It gave me a glorious vision to live by, a high and overwhelming purpose to walk in, and a growing love and passion for the Lord Jesus Christ. In addition, it provided me with a framework for understanding God‘s grand mission and the entire Biblical story. All of this profoundly changed my view of the Lord, my view of the church, my view of my brothers and sisters in Christ, and my view of myself. So I wrote “From Eternity to Here” because I wanted others to have that same experience.

In addition, I feel that the eternal purpose is a message that‘s not often preached or written about today, so I felt the time was right to release the book to the Body of Christ.

2. What do you believe is the most critical problem in the church that this book addresses?

Three come to mind:

First, many Christians are living from a performance-based relationship with God that’s marked by religious duty and obligation. The guilt that lurks deep within the hearts of scores of God’s people is very heavy, and there’s great insecurity of what the Lord really thinks about them. The message that is so often communicated today is: “God’s holy. You’re not. Do more and try harder.” Many Christians sincerely want to serve God, but they aren’t passionately in love with Jesus Christ because they haven’t seen, accepted, nor been riveted by how He views them. When we stand on a different mountain and look behind His eyes, it changes everything. This leads us on a journey where we discover the secret of living BY Christ rather than simply doing things FOR Christ.

Second, the gospel that’s often presented today is very much centered on the meeting of human needs, whether that be the saving of lost souls, healing the sick, or making the world a better place. That God wants these things is correct, but it’s not complete. The Biblical story is consumed with a high and glorious purpose in God that is by Christ, through Christ, to Christ, and for Christ. And as we receive a vision of that purpose (Paul called it “the heavenly vision”) and embrace it, human benefits become a by-product not the prime product.

Thirdly, it’s been my observation that many Christians look at and relate to Jesus Christ as merely Savior, Lord, and King. They feel that they know Jesus already, “got the tee-shirt,” and so they must go on to “other things.” But as Paul pointed out rather strikingly in the book of Colossians, a proper apprehension of who the Lord Jesus Christ really is causes one to live the rest of their lives exploring His fullness. And His fullness is inexhaustible (Paul referred to His fullness as the “unsearchable riches of Christ” in Ephesians.) If we get to know this glorious and incomparable Christ beyond the surface, we quickly discover that it’s impossible to get beyond Him. He, in all of His fullness, becomes our life pursuit. We discover Him not simply as Savior, Lord, and King, but as All in All. Leonard Sweet and I have recently tried to introduce this idea in our Jesus Manifesto.

3. What are you getting at with the title, “From Eternity to Here?”

Good question. From eternity past, before the creation of the world, God has had a purpose in His heart that provoked Him to create. He shrouded that purpose in a mystery and He hid it in His Son (see Colossians and Ephesians regarding “the mystery.”) That purpose (Paul calls it ―”the eternal purpose” in Ephesians 3) is what governs all of what God does. According to Ephesians 1, the eternal purpose controls all of His actions. That purpose … being conceived in eternity past and slated to continue on through eternity future … is meant to be fulfilled here, on this earth, for that‘s why He created the physical universe. The book unveils and unfolds the above paragraph, hence the title “from eternity to here.”

4. The subtitle is “Rediscovering God’s Ageless Purpose.” You talk a lot about purpose in this book. What is God’s ageless purpose?

Trying to define it in a few paragraphs in a way that does it justice and doesn’t dilute its incredible impact is like putting the Mississippi River in a tea cup. It took me 300 pages to unveil it, and still it’s beyond my measure to adequately explain. Paul of Tarsus nearly exhausted human language in his attempt to uncork it in the first three chapters of Ephesians.

For those who haven’t yet read the book, I’ll describe it this way.

Traditionally, we have begun the Biblical story with the fall of humans in Genesis 3. The result is that the entire story places the salvation of humans and the redemption of the earth as being God‘s goal. But those two elements, while part of the story, are not the beginning point nor the ultimate goal.

Thus when we begin the Biblical story in Genesis 1 and 2 (which occurs before the fall) and in Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1 (which occurs before creation), the Biblical story is reframed from the standpoint of God‘s ultimate desire rather than with the needs of fallen human beings.

This changes the perspective dramatically, and it makes the story much larger and more God-centered. It moves us from a human-centered gospel to one that‘s rooted in God‘s relentless, eternal, and ultimate desire.

Remember, Adam and Eve were NOT created in need of salvation. So there was a purpose that God had for them that was different from saving lost souls.

Genesis 1 and 2 are mirrored in Revelation 21 and 22. Those four chapters are unique in all the Bible. There is no sin or corruption in them. The events in Genesis 1 and 2 take place before the fall; the events in Revelation 21 and 22 take place after the fall is erased.

There are a number of key themes in those 4 chapters. And they can be traced from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 like a golden thread. The themes in those four chapters give us a glimpse into the eternal purpose of God. In the book, I trace those themes from the beginning of the Bible to the end.

In short, God has many purposes in time, but He only has one “eternal purpose” which drives Him and governs everything He does.

5. How does this book compare and contrast with your other books, namely Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church?

“Pagan Christianity” (co-authored George Barna) deconstructed the traditional practices of the modern institutional church on the basis of church history and New Testament principles. The unique contribution of “Pagan” is that it doesn‘t just call for the typical tweaks that many church reform books call for, i.e., better pastoring skills, more outreach, better methods to make disciples, more cost effective church buildings, stronger strategies for making converts, etc.

Instead, it goes to what we feel are the roots. It deals with the systemic problems. It raises the brutally challenging question: ”Is it possible that the very way we do church is the problem?” I believe we are living in a time when it’s critical for us to go back to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles to examine anew and afresh what the church is and how she expresses herself in the earth rather than taking our cues from the business models of secular culture. This is the call to action that “Pagan Christianity” gives.

“Reimagining Church” is the positive follow-up to “Pagan Christianity.” “Pagan” deconstructs on the basis of church history and the New Testament.  “Reimagining” constructs on the basis of the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. It also explores spiritual leadership from the vantagepoint of what Jesus taught His disciples in contrast to the forms that are taken in the Gentile world and in the Jewish world (both of which are very common today). The Lord’s way of leadership is neither Gentile nor Jewish. Therefore, everyone who has read “Pagan Christianity” should read also “Reimagining Church,” else they are only getting one half the argument. Both books strongly endorse Christ-centered, organic community with Jesus as the functional Head (opposed to the clergy-led institutional form of church on the one hand and the postchurch view on the other. The two books offer a third path that’s neither left nor right.)

My new book “Finding Organic Church” is the practical sequel to all of my books, including “From Eternity to Here.” It answers the question: “How does one go about finding, planting, and sustaining churches that make Jesus Christ their practical, functional Head and which stand for God’s eternal purpose?” It examines mission and church planting for the 21st century. One that’s based on the timeless principles of the New Testament rather than secular leadership models.

“From Eternity to Here” takes the reader back a few steps and seeks to bring them into the big picture behind it all. It’s a presentation of the big, sweeping epic of God‘s grand mission. It seeks to explore the grand narrative of the entire Bible as an unbroken story rather than as a systematic theology.

“From Eternity to Here” is like a big river; “Pagan Christianity” and “Reimagining Church” are like tributaries.

“From Eternity” focuses on the church from the heavenly and eternal viewpoint. “Pagan,” “Reimagining,” and “Finding Organic Church” examine it on the ground. Finally, “From Eternity” is for all believers. My other books are for those who are not afraid to seriously rethink church in the light of Scripture and even rechurch. They aren’t written for those who want to simply rearrange the chairs on the Titanic J

6. In the book you explain that From Eternity to Here is a primer for your other writings? Can you unpack that a little?

Yes, it’s because “From Eternity” presents the motivation and controlling vision behind all the other books. I’ve made this statement many times in conferences, but it answers your question, I think: The only reason why any church should exist is to stand for and fulfill God’s eternal purpose. That’s where “From Eternity to Here” comes in.

7. Do you believe God was/is somehow unsatisfied outside created and restored humanity?

I don’t think I’d put it that way. Consider this analogy. When an individual gets restored to God, a dead rock has been transformed into a living stone. Recall Jacob’s dream. After He saw the stairway connecting heaven and earth, Jacob poured oil on a stone and called the place “Bethel”, the house of God. The oil represents the Spirit of life. The rock represents you and me. Oil upon a stone makes that stone “a living stone.”

For many years, I was taught that God’s goal is for us Christians to go out and make as many dead rocks into living stones. That is, He wants us to get lost people saved.

But there is an intention in God’s heart that goes beyond making dead stones living stones. He wants all of those living stones in every city to be built together to form a house for Him and His pleasure.

Paul in Ephesians 2 says that the church is formed when we are “being built together” with others to form God’s dwelling place.

Peter makes the same point in 1 Peter 2. The goal is not the making of many living stones. The goal is that those living stones be “built together” to form a house that is by God, through God, and for God. (Peter uses the term “living stones” in fact.)

This shifts the paradigm in at least three ways.

First, salvation (the making of living stones) is not the end. It’s the beginning.

Second, God is after something that’s corporate and collective, not individualistic. It’s a house that He’s after, not a bunch of living stones scattered all over the earth.

Third, the end in view is not for man, but for God. He wants a house to dwell in. “Heaven is my throne and earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be?”

God’s quest for a house is one of the things that provoked creation. In Genesis 1 and 2, we have the building materials for God’s house in the garden of Eden. In Revelation 21 and 22, we see those building materials put together to form the Lord’s dwelling place. The entire Bible is the unfolding drama of how this “building work” takes place. In Genesis 1, man (humanity) is made from clay. In Revelation 21 and 22, clay is transformed into precious stone for the building of God’s house.

It’s an amazing vision.

8. For the record, I believe God does experience emotions, but unpacking God’s experience of emotions is difficult as it connects to many other key doctrines regarding theology proper. Do you believe God knows precisely what will happen before it takes place in history, and if he does how are his emotions authentic, or real?

I’m not an open theist, so yes, I believe Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega at the same time, and as Colossians puts it, creation is in Him. Which means time is in Him also.

That said, I don’t know the answer to your question because we’re dealing with trying to fathom God’s interpersonal senses with finite human thinking. But my guess (and it’s merely a guess) is that the analogy of a dream may help us to grasp a piece of it.

Consider having a dream that later comes to pass. When you had the dream, you felt it was of God and were confident it would come to pass. During the dream, you experienced the full gamut of emotions that you would feel if the dream were real (I feel deep emotion in many of my dreams). You even felt these emotions in the afterglow of having the dream, upon waking up.

Six months later, the dream comes to pass and you watch in living color the events take place that you saw in your dream. And you again experience those same emotions even though you foreknew what was going to happen six months earlier. Perhaps it’s the same way with God (?). He feels when He foreknows and He feels when we experience what He foreknew. He is in fact touched with the feeling of our own infirmities, very closely.

9. Are there others books that hit on the same subjects/ideas that you would recommend?

Yes, though not in quite the same way. There are three that come to mind, all are amazing books:

Ultimate Intention by DeVern Fromke

The Stewardship of the Mystery by T. Austin-Sparks

The School of Christ by T. Austin-Sparks

People can order them on discount here.

Thanks Ed, for having me on your blog. It’s an honor.

Keep up the good work!

Click here to order From Eternity to Here in paperback, Kindle, or audio

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Comments

  1. Marsha says

    I hear so much about attending church. Please try to help people understand what is God’s true church. As I grew in Christ, I was saddened to learn of the unscripitaul teaching I had been sitting under. Several were no more than social clubs with all kinds of things distractnig from God. In fact we were encouraged to worship the pastor by way of a hidden agenda. Please for the sake of those who want to find Christ, please, please tell them where to look and what to look for when trying to find the kind of church God established. I cringe when I hear people say. “you need to go to church without explaining what kind of church.”

    • Jeff says

      Yes, great question. What is church? I do wonder what Ed is missing when he wants to defend ‘the church’ as he knows it. We assume that the modern church is made up of a number of people heading into a building on Sunday (or any other day). I was a regular attender of the Sunday church for 20 years but something wasn’t sitting well. It’s not that where I was attending for the last 6 years was unbiblical. It had many strengths including some great teaching of God’s grace.

      What did concern me was the clinical nature of the service. It was packed with the conventions of Sunday church…. Singng, then notices, then communion, then a video, then more music, then the sermon… Then coffee in the foyer… Then we go home or stand around discussing what we got from it. Ultimately, it is the last agenda item that doesn’t sit with me. It becomes all about us… i got touched during worship, i didn’t like how long communion went… The sermon didn’t relate to me, etc

      Frank Viola has a good point to make about ‘church’ … Who is really the focus here? Ii strugggle with self-centredness like others do, and that’s why our church must not feed this struggle. Who cares how comfortable the seats were, how good the band was, or how culturally- sensitive our church event is … Is Christ the focus, really? Otherwise, we should just take selfies, tell everyone what we got from church today and share it all on Facebook… No, we shoudn’t be destructive in describing church, but let’s not be in denial.

  2. cristina says

    i was thinking about the question on number 8….and there are two scenes that have changed my experience with God as a master and someone who is unemotional and already knows, therefore is incapable of feeling authenticly… it’s the scene where “jesus weeps”….even though he knew that lazarus would be raised from the dead and glorify the Father…he was still moved by compassion, so much so that He was moved to tears….i think God is the most intentional and present of all that have walked the earth…though He’s not constrained by time, knows all things…He is present with us in all of our walk…He’s not standing afar, but IN us…this is profound for me! the scene on the cross is the most mind blowing to me….when Jesus says “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (ironically it’s what david opens psalms 22 with)…he felt what i often have wondered..where are you? (the Father was IN Him)…and the next statement is one of the greatest statements of trueth and trust the world has ever heard “but unto your hands i commit my spirit”….i think He feels infinately more and my finite mind is incapapble of understanding most…but i am comforted in knowing He is “i am”…the God who is present with us, even though He knows what is going to happen…

  3. Angela says

    Frank, your answer to no.8 was an amazing,deep, unique piece of theology.
    I don’t know why he gave you that question, but it was a very good answer.
    It fit’s right in with what I’ve learned about taking the Lord seriously as a Person and truly relating to Him as a Person. We (believers) objectify God so much — think of Him as an ‘it’ almost, yet He talks about His emotions and desires a lot. You can’t fall into praying to God like he’s a goody dispenser anymore, when you learn to see Him as a real Person. Books like your ‘Eternity’ really help with that.

  4. says

    “The ekklesia as used in New Testament literature is visible, touchable, locatable, and tangible. You can visit it. You can observe it. And you can live in it. Biblically speaking, you could not call anything an ekklesia unless it assembled regularly together.”
    I fully agree with Frank in this observation. It’s good to keep in mind that the expression of community will be as varied as people are different. Not every gathering will necessarily contain all of the dynamics that make for a “perfect” meeting, but those aspects necessary for the edification of the body should take place all week if it is a healthy community.

  5. says

    What a great opportunity to clarify your positions on ecclesiology with Ed. And you only had to “unpack” twice. I spent time with Ed a week ago in New Orleans. His chapel sermon was quite direct regarding the need to sustain the church. He preached “You can’t love Jesus and hate his wife.” This was the line most picked up for their highlight reels. His challenge to a too small congregation of seminary students was to resist the momentum building for deconstruction. The real nugget in the sermon was Ed’s call to Kingdom growth instead of denominational rescue. The audio is available at nobts.edu.

    “Finding Organic Church” should arrive today. It is my holiday read. I look forward to reading it since we started a simple church five weeks ago. Keep up the good work Frank!

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