Bookstore Book Reviews

Book Review: The Discipleship Gospel

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.

If you’d like to purchase The Discipleship Gospel you can find an easy purchasing button in my Bookstore. Click Here.

The Proverbs 31 Family

“She accepted the advice of Hegai,” Esther 2:15

Esther has to be my most favorite book of the Bible. It is dramatic, full of intrigue, betrayal, conniving, and bravery. This book houses some of the most interesting relationships in biblical narrative.

If you read Esther today, you might find that Esther is not really the heroic figure in the story. She does not do all that much. She is a pretty passive character. I have thought in the past that perhaps the book should be called the book of Mordecai.

Mordecai is the actor in the story. He recognizes that Esther becoming queen is advantageous for their people. He is determined to pivot her position in favor of the Jews.

He finds his opportunity in Haman. Haman is a vain man, so Mordecai picks a fight with him by refusing to bow to him, which homage was warranted by Haman’s new assignment as the king’s right hand complete with the power of the king’s signet ring.

To say that Mordecai had religious reasons not to bow is to add to the text. It doesn’t say that. Nor does it mention persecution of the Jews for failing to bow to Xerxes or his dignitaries being a problem at the time.

So Mordecai creates a problem by aggravating Haman. Then the persecution starts and Haman uses his authority and influence on Xerxes to set a date for genocide.

Mordecai is the ultimate gambler! He starts this trouble, creates a public display of mourning that catches Queen Esther’s attention, and then advises Esther to use her influence to save her people. This better work!

Esther does not have power. But she has influence as Xerxes wife. She does not have an agenda. But she trusts the agenda that Mordecai has.

Esther is only heroic in how she conducts her relationships. She is noted for listening to Hegai on what to wear when she first met the king…that worked out for her as we know. And she also listened to the advice of Mordecai.

Mordecai did not have position or influence, but he had a trusting, cooperative relationship with someone who did have position and influence– Esther.

And the plan worked, thank God.

Mordecai eventually takes the position that Haman had as right hand to Xerxes. This means that he ended up using Esther to attain even more power and influence than she had. The Bible doesn’t say anything about her feeling jilted by that– and why would she be, under Mordecai’s advisement the Jews became rich and powerful in the Persian empire.

Mordecai’s “for such a time as this,” was a statement about opportunity. It was like saying “this is our chance!”

As we journey together as Christians, our end game is the earth being filled with Christ’s glory. This means that every opportunity should be seized upon to advance the cause of Christ– regardless of “whose who.” We have to be willing at times, or all the time, to be like Esther. This is to have a heart that doesn’t cling to position, power, recognition, or “whose doing it.” It is a heart that is willing to yield.

A heart that is willing to yield takes advice. It shares it’s position and influence. It accepts the possibility of losing it’s position taking action on a plan it doesn’t totally understand.

A heart that yields is always ready for the right opportunity surrounded by the right relationships.

 

Shavuot and Pentecost

“He has revealed God to us.” John 1:18

Jesus is the revelation of God. He is the “‘Aha’ moment” within us concerning the substance of the invisible God.

Each of the Gospels argues a point about the nature of Jesus. That’s why there are four accounts all with only narrowly diverging details and inclusions. Matthew argues Jesus as the Jewish Messiah; Luke argues Jesus as the Savior of the whole world both Jew and Gentile; Mark argues Christ’s divinity as the Son of God; and John– John presents Jesus as the revelation of God to us.

Where Matthew and Luke tell us who Jesus is in relationship to us; Mark and John tell us who Jesus is in relationship to the other persons of the Trinity. Son of God the Father and the revelation of God: the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is the Father and He is the Holy Spirit. Jesus called God, “Father.” Romans 8:15 says that there is a spirit of adoption that allows us to cry out “Abba, Father” to God. Jesus is the Messiah, he is the Savior, and he is also the spirit of adoption. Jesus’s nature as the Spirit does something for us.

Embracing the Holy Spirit without fear, skepticism, or incredulity is not about emotional church services, manifestations, or spiritual gifts– it is about realizing that Jesus is the Holy Spirit. You can’t divide God.

And! The Holy Spirit gives us adoption! “The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father,'” Romans 8:15.

People in the Old Testament rarely referred to God as “Father,” but the Spirit that Jesus had is the Spirit we have been given. We are not simply the Messiah-King’s grateful subjects, we are not just “freed men” saved by a Foreign Liberator, we are sons as he is Son.

“My desire is that you would be one as my Father and I are one.” Jesus desires that we as Christians would be indivisible. And what is that glue that holds together the Father and Son? It is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit united Jesus with His Father and the Holy Spirit unites the Body of Christ together.

 “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all,” Ephesians 4:4-6

I love that Ephesians points out “one baptism.” In the Gospel of John, right at the beginning, there is a story about John the Baptist’s disciples getting angry that Jesus is baptizing more people than they are.

Talk about missing the point. Here they are diligently working baptizing people to prepare them for Jesus, and then they get so caught up in the ministry that they become near-sighted to the point of blindness. They fall flat for two reasons:

  1. They view Jesus’ and John’s ministries as  divided, competing works.
  2. They view the two ministries as divided and competing because they don’t recognize the Spirit.

They didn’t recognize the Spirit in Jesus’ work and they didn’t recognize the Spirit in the person of Jesus either. They didn’t recognize that Jesus was the revelation of what they were doing by faith!

As we move away from the concluded Shavuot/Pentecost season, we will return to the Proverbs 31 Family series. In the series, we will be steering away from dysfunctional faith relationships and into highly effective faith relationships starting with Esther and Mordecai.

As we start to talk about effective faith relationships we will be talking A. L.O.T. about unity. Bear this in mind as we do: There is no unity outside of the Holy Spirit. If you desire God, you desire the Holy Spirit. If you desire Jesus, you desire the Holy Spirit. If you desire unity within the Body of Christ, you desire the Holy Spirit.

Let’s not covet the canonized ministries of remarkable biblical families without it dawning on us that we are a canonized remarkable biblical family! And we have ministries united and coordinated by the Holy Spirit of Adoption.

 

 

The Proverbs 31 Family

“Be careful never to take my son there.” Genesis 24:6

Isaac and Rebekah are mistake repeaters. They didn’t pay attention to the downfalls of the previous generation. They fell right into the same pitfalls as Abraham and Sarah, and so instead of spring boarding off the platform of faith Abraham and Sarah built for them, they had to start the course over.

Though Isaac and Rebekah make the same mistakes as Abraham and Sarah, their personalities are in fact different from their elders. Note– though we think shaping ourselves into people with ideals, hobbies, political beliefs, styles of worship, and theology that differ from our elders will save us from making their mistakes— Isaac and Rebekah show us that that just might not be true.

Isaac is a supporting actor, very different from his father. People tend to make decisions for him: his mom, his dad, his dad’s servant, his wife, his sons. Isaac is kinda pampered. He would not have been one to leave it all behind to follow a God he was unfamiliar with like his father did.

Isaac likes comfort. When Sarah dies, Rebekah comforts him. He loves Esau because Esau makes him yummy food. “Isaac loved Esau because he enjoyed eating the wild game Esau brought home, but Rebekah loved Jacob,” Genesis 25:27.

This love of feeling comfortable is detectable in a glaring omission in the book of Genesis— any mention of Isaac chastising Esau for giving away his birthright in exchange for a cup of lentils. Isaac, the miracle baby, the boy whose family is defined by his being favored above Ishmael, didn’t have anything to say about his eldest’s reproach for his inheritance. After all, we are told that Isaac inherited all of Abraham’s possessions, where his half brothers received only gifts at their fathers passing.

True to the pattern of people who have not experienced conflict—or those who refuse to experience conflict by ignoring it— comfort allows us a naiveté to the real consequences of disobedience and sin, as well as a neglect and mishandling of what is valuable.

Thus, Isaac repeats history in two ways. He makes grave mistakes that he had every bit of information needed to avoid. He gives Rebekah to Abimelech, just like Abraham did to Sarah. He also sends Jacob to Laban. Laban, who had tried to entrap Abraham’s servant through false hospitality (Genesis 24:28-61.) He sends Jacob to the place of which Abraham had said, “be careful never to send my son there.”

Isaac created opposition within his family when he betrayed Rebekah. Her response was to ally with Jacob.* She gained a lot of influence over the family by favoring the winning horse. God had told her while she was pregnant that Jacob would rule over Esau.

Isaac also reinforced opposition outside the family. Esau goes to live with Ishmael. Even the blessing Isaac gives Esau is meager— because Jacob took the blessing of which there is only one! Esau’s blessing is to live by his sword and serve his brother. Very similar to what was prophesied over Ishmael.

Isaac loses ground for the family. He sends Jacob into a trap that Abraham protected Isaac from. He sends Jacob to Laban. Laban keeps Jacob “captive” for fourteen years. Fourteen years that Jacob could have been journeying with the Lord, he was instead under the dictates of a deceitful man in the land of his family’s past rather than of the land of his family’s future.

Now, he did have help making this decision! Ever the eaves-dropper, Rebekah overhears Esau’s plan to kill Jacob. So in order to get Jacob out of dodge, she uses the dysfunctional family dynamic to manipulate Isaac. She complains about Esau’s foreign wives until Isaac agrees to send him to their relatives to find a wife. Isaac has Jacob go to Laban, something he should have known better than to do.

If in our faith, if in our family, if in our fellowships we protect our comfort we will find our legacy unprotected.

Individually and corporately, protecting comfort will produce a passivity that tolerates division, invites spiritual opposition, and yields to our natural inclination to go backward. We return to Laban and the false hospitality of the world. Or worse! We send our kids back to our old family curses and iniquity. We get the next generation stuck for “fourteen years” before they can move forward into God’s plan for them.

“Be careful to never…” When we are comfortable, grow up sheltered, or just are inexperienced with conflict, we end up without urgency. We lose track of what “careful” and “never” mean. We forget the saying “a little leaven.” Even just a little.

Think back to passover. God commands- “keep your shoes on during the meal!” Urgency! We have to have an urgency about obeying God.

The greatest temptation to sin is not intrapersonal but interpersonal.

 

*More on Rebekah’s brand of unforgiveness in the previous post about Sarah, called “This is your fault! Genesis  16:5” It is part 2/10 in The Proverbs 31 Family series.

 

The Proverbs 31 Family

“She went into seclusion.” Luke 1:24

The highlights of the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth are undoubtedly their visitors: the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. With such spiritual mega-stars just dropping by, I hope Elizabeth kept her guest towels clean and pressed.

But of course, I want to look at the lowly and boring aspects of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s big moment in history– five months of seclusion and nine months of silence. Seclusion and silence.

I am a SAHM to a two year old child, so seclusion and silence are painfully familiar to me. Well– my house of course is not silent, but I do hear the deafening vacuum of my voice in the world getting sucked preemptively out of my lungs. Being at home without any agency to be in public, participate, contribute, and be measurably productive has been demoralizing for me.

The cabin fever I experience is due in part to a serious illness I suffered at age 23. It took about 7 years for me to recover. This brain illness– that I was diagnosed with just one year out of college– is scientifically studied as being triggered by “life goal achievement.” In other words, the closer I get to reaching what I’ve been working toward the more likely I am to relapse. This illness clipped my wings. It cooped me up and walled me in. Seclusion and silence have been persistent and painful themes in my adult life particularly in the areas of career and calling.

I have difficulty valuing my role as a mother and wife sometimes… or a lot of the time. There is a gap in my adult experience- working before the domesticated life- that gap aches. The heady, haughty accomplishments of a young woman in her twenties are just an imagination for me. I never got to be one of the obnoxious quasi-feminist marketing-freelance-event planning activists- from a 90’s RomCom, I guess. I often feel that I didn’t get to choose, and that as a mom my choices continue to be limited. I lack agency in my life. At least by perception, I do.

The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is a story about how lacking agency, being secluded, and being silent can be the description of the prescription God has given you right now in preparation for what is upcoming in His kingdom and on His agenda. Luke 1-3 is the preparation period for Christ’s ministry. Those three chapters have a theme of preparation, and within that theme the atmosphere of preparation is lacking agency, being secluded, and being silent.

The first character we meet in the book of Luke is Zechariah. If there is anyone who should be prepared for a special assignment, it is Zechariah. He is a priest! We meet him in the Temple burning an incense offering on an altar. A righteous man, in ministry, ceremonially cleansed for special worship when the angel Gabriel tells him personally the assignment God has for Zechariah’s life. And he blows it. He speaks doubt. So he is put on mute until God’s work is done.

You’ll notice the other characters in this story do a lot of praising and prophesying. During this prep time for both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ negative speech was silenced and only praise and prophecy were allowed. Sometimes we need to be silenced for our own sake because if given a voice we would discredit and disqualify ourselves from the magnitude of service God is hiring us for.

Zechariah also had agency. He was the one who was given a command to do something. Elizabeth had no agency. Mary had no agency. Yet, they were able to quietly and calmly ponder what was happening, and be faithful in obedience. Sometimes having agency can be a stumbling block— particularly when the day’s mission is preparation.

That preparation was a calling unto itself. Jesus was about to be born! This was a delicate and simultaneously monumental moment. The web of political movement, spiritual warfare, and human rebellion was on a knife’s edge. There was no room for error. There was no room for disbelief. There was no room for Christians who feel the need to grandstand, or demand a well-lit platform for their spiritual giftings, or to be given a more interesting assignment in a more exotic locale. God did not need people of position for this job; or people who were eloquent, or opinionated, or understanding, wise, or insightfulful, nor did He need people who were talented, young or beautiful. He needed barren old Elizabeth because she was a believer. Sometimes it’s less about what we put out into the world and more about what we take in and “ponder in our heart” about God.

The call for that day was inaction. It was quiet receptiveness. It’s expression was praise, prayer, and prophecy. Elizabeth and Mary gathered together in seclusion to share their testimonies with each other. This built them up in faith and courage for what was to happen— their ministries would both end with the broken hearts of having martyred sons.

Now, I am definitely not proposing that the role of women in ministry is a silent, secluded submission. Zechariah was after all the one who had his speech taken away. Nor do I think “a woman’s ministry is her home, husband, and children.” I am saying, that if you feel that you do not have agency; if you feel isolated, shut down, blocked, frustrated; if you are a mom with young kids; if you are a person is who ill— or taking care of someone ill– a lack of human agency has never stopped God. You don’t need to be able-bodied for God to call you up for duty. You don’t need to build up your resume before God will call your name. If God wants you qualified, He’ll qualify you.

Women as a rule lack agency more than men do. Even powerful and wealthy women often lack agency both within and outside their homes. But in her lack of agency, Elizabeth, a faithful woman led her unbelieving husband into belief. He got in his own way—kind of like I do to myself! What he had didn’t help him. What Elizabeth didn’t have did help her, and preserved her family’s usefulness to the Lord in that appointed moment.

Our belief encourages others to believe. While we believe, the testimony we build inspires those in relationship with us to turn their eyes to the Lord also. In those moments where we feel completely imprisoned by our situation, our sickness, our disability, or our social disadvantage, we have to remember that our humble morsel of belief is the thing of value.

Our belief alone can be our gentle contribution for the colossal good of our community, our relationships, our partners, our family members, and as with Elizabeth, the world.

I don’t need to be able; I need to be willing (Luke 1:38.) Today, that willingness is honoring what I don’t have, and knowing that being busy for God is not as important as being ready for God.

 

The Proverbs 31 Family

“His mother taught him.” Proverbs 31:1

Proverbs 31 has to be the most detested passage of scripture for Christian women. It might be worse even than the passage that says women should be silent in church. Over and over, with the best intention, Proverbs 31 has been taught as a list of accomplishments for the most devoted women to achieve. The popular studies for women of Proverbs 31 completely diminish the idea that individual women would have individual personalities and aptitudes. 

The #lifegoals laid out in Proverbs 31 are so lofty that some teachers have said the Proverbs 31 woman is actually a personification of wisdom just to alleviate the pressure. I’m just gonna say now that that is possible except that all other personifications of wisdom in Proverbs, the woman being described is named “Wisdom.” So there’s that. Let’s not invalidate the Proverbs 31 women out of jealousy over her unique abilities. I fully believe she was real, or at least was expected to be found. King Lemuel’s mother obviously expected him to dig up this rare gem. Maybe rather than being a “personification” the Proverbs 31 woman is a severe case of “nobody’s good enough for my baby boy.”

Let’s expand the description of the Proverbs 31 woman.  The context of the rest of Proverbs 31 is one continuous piece of advice from a mother to her son, the young leader, a newly minted king.

The Proverbs 31 woman is actually the Proverbs 31:10-31 woman. There is a whole family described in the complete reading of the chapter, not just “a wife of noble character.” The Proverbs 31 woman is actually the Proverbs 31 queen married to the Proverbs 31 King Lemuel.  He is the Proverbs 31 son, which means The Proverbs 31 woman has a Proverbs 31 mother-in-law, as well as Proverbs 31 children. This passage is about not just one stellar woman, but a stellar family that is powered by interdependent, godly relationships.

The first 9 verses of Proverbs 31 are dedicated to a faithful son heeding the advice of his very wise mother— the Queen Mother. She does not start with advice about choosing a wife, but about avoiding sexual immorality, drunkenness, distraction, lawlessness, being derelict of his duties as king, submitting to a spirit of death and depression, and falling into poverty and misery.  He is instructed instead to pursue righteousness defined as truth, courage, honor, leadership, discernment, integrity, compassion, charity, and humility.

So let me just sum up the last half of the passage here, verses 10-31: the Proverbs 31 wife, that the Queen Mother instructed her son to find and cherish, possesses all of the qualities he is supposed to pursue. She is his help-meet. Her noble character enables, supports, and stokes his character. In fact, five of the verses describing the Proverbs 31 wife are about the king and the reputation he has because of her. He is able to act powerfully and purposefully as a righteous man in public because of his partner.

This passage describes a life of righteousness as being a community affair. We do not fulfill our purpose, or pursue our calling without the influence of our intimate relationships– we do not live lives of faith alone. We are placed in families, communities, and churches where our faith walk is interdependent on the relationships we are in. The Proverbs 31 Queen Mother knew this and so instructed her son to choose his wife wisely. She taught him and he listened, much like his own children would rise up and call his own wife blessed, virtuous, capable, and surpassing all other women (Prov 31:28-29.)

The honor King Lemuel gave his wife— he rewards her and praises her among his peers (v.31)— shows the purity of his character as matching the expectations of those held for the Proverbs 31 woman. There are some heavy expectations here for Christian men. Rightfully so. Why would we expect Christian women to cultivate the highest character just to marry slackers? Men of great faith require women of great faith, and women of great faith require men of great faith. 

This post is the intro to a series about men and women, their relationships, and the effect the individuals in these relationships have on each others’ faith, obedience to God, and receipt of God’s promises. This is not a series about marriage. It really is more a series about gender wars. Goody, right?! 

We will look at:

Elizabeth and Zechariah

Sarai, Abram, and Hagar

Isaac and Rebekah

Esther and Mordecai

Deborah, Barak, and Jael

Moses, Midwives, Mothers, and Miriam

Samson’s parents

Mary and Joseph

Job and his wife

Adam and Eve

Jezebel and Ahab

Stay tuned!