There seems to me to be a creeping, flesh-eating disease killing its way through American Christianity. Every year books about church growth, church culture, empowered preaching, systematic theology, community service, and pastoral counseling come out in numbers, yet somehow none of them is the panacea.
With as much knowledge, insight, data, and as many resources as the American Evangelical Industrial Complex has, why can’t we put our finger on this mystery contagion that is causing church death one by one in small community chapels and setting entire mainline denominations on the brink of extinction?
You might have a few ideas on hand for what it is that ills the church: fractured families, secularism, the entertainment industry, public schools, the sexual revolution and the new age?
Well, those are all old news. Bill Hull and Ben Sobels would probably say that the premature aging of American churches has much less to do with outside pressure and cultural corruption, and more to do with compromise and apostasy from within.
In The Discipleship Gospel: What Jesus Preached We Must Follow, Hull and Sobels put down a hard word for pastors and lay leaders, which in essence is: you are preaching a false gospel, and it is making false disciples who are unable to share any gospel or make any disciples.
Churches are bound to age out if they are not raising up “younger” generations of believers. The apparent goal of The Discipleship Gospel is to teach pastors and lay leaders how to preach a true, complete, and biblical gospel and to teach individuals this gospel until it permeates, transforms, and radiates from them, so that those individuals can preach and teach to others who are themselves enabled to preach and teach, ad infinitum.
Such a gospel is: the discipleship gospel. It is a gospel that is active and kingdom minded, set about the work of the Father, by replicating the work of the Son. The work of the Son being namely, discipling.
Hull and Sobels deliver a cogent and relentless argument for the discipleship gospel being the only true gospel. Their logic is airtight, supported with scripture, and most importantly systematic. They give a frame-by-frame explanation of each element of the gospel and argue outward in concentric circles fitting each component into the whole.
The book takes on a lot of purposes in one tome. It refutes falsehoods, creates definitions, constructs logic models, all within a driving exhortation, and caps that exhortation with a sweeping coaching session and strategic pointers. It manages not to become unwieldy in its structure by anchoring itself to two gospel signposts. The book’s argument plays back and forth between these two gospel signposts, in my mind, as a way of surfing between the various functions that the book is servicing.
The first gospel signpost is more a “symptom.” It is open and unrepentant sin in church-going, bible-believing, Christians. This symptom is critical to diagnosing a hyper-grace, forgiveness-only gospel that fails to proclaim that following Jesus is as important as believing in Him.
The second signpost follows the logic of the first in that if you follow Jesus, you obey His commands, including to multiply the number of disciples by discipling others.
These two– following and multiplying– orbit the sun of the discipleship gospel, that is, the kingdom of God. Where the people are following Jesus’ commands and multiplying themselves, you know that there is a belief in, and urgency about, the realness of the kingdom of God and the realness of Jesus as its king– This is truly believing that Jesus is who He says He is.
That is how you know a person has heard and accepted the true gospel of Jesus; because their fruit reveals the state of their roots.
I am in very serious agreement with the authors in what they call the “need to thoroughly evangelize our church members.”
That sentence situated in the core of the book sums up the problem statement of The Discipleship Gospel. We can’t just leave each other alone in faith, or up to our own devices. We can’t assume that people are running the race to the finish, or running the race at all; maybe they are still at the starting line deciding whether to put their bib on.
A time or two in the midst of the arguments about false gospels particularly, there was reference made to Bill Hull’s previous publication, Conversion and Discipleship. It seems to me that in order to have a very clear contrast between false gospels and the true gospel, it would help to read Conversion and Discipleship as an in-depth “problem statement” introduction to The Discipleship Gospel.
The place I hit some snags in following the argument was simply because of the words “kingdom of God” and “multiplication.” For myself, I need to find more specificity on what those two phrases mean and don’t mean. Though I fully recognize the importance of both concepts covenantally, in terms of my nitty-gritty biblical understanding, I am lacking. I have seen both these terms used in a subpar manner, so they are a couple of my red flag words theologically. But, I can tell you, that those red flags didn’t go anywhere in The Discipleship Gospel, all was sound!
So now, I am just left to do some follow up reading on the kingdom and on multiplication! Actually, maybe that’d be a good place to start in a discipleship group.
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