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.

Liturgical Holidays

“Job would send for his children and perform a ceremony…” Job 1:5

“Job would send for his children and perform a ceremony as a way of asking God to forgive them of any wrongs they might have done. He would get up early the next morning and offer a sacrifice for each of them, just in case they had sinned or silently cursed God,” Job 1:5 CEV.

We as humans are religion creators. We have an innate tendency to perform ceremonies, be pious, do extra, go extreme, and settle into ritualistic security.

Job was a religion creator just like the rest of us. Most bible translations add to vs. 5 that this ceremony to cleanse his children not of actual, but of fictitious sins, was Job’s “regular practice.”

Job deeply desired to please God– and God completely recognized his piety and blamelessness– but Job approached God through religion not faith. He displayed a type of existential anxiety in relation to the Lord that would be common to the pagans of his day.

I think many of us begin our journey toward faith in a superstitious religiosity in the midst of which, and despite of, the Lord extends to us an offer of experiencing Him through faith and freedom from our “regular practices.”

Job was a contemporary of Abraham– both of them would have begun as idolaters. Job was a religious man in the fashion of the spirit of the age– ritual sacrifice. At that time everyone offered sacrifices to the gods and burnt offerings. Religion always emerges from culture.

But Job’s faith emerges outside of his culture. He has an encounter with God that has nothing to do with his sacrifices.

I know that can be hard to take in, being that Mosaic religion is a religion based on atonement by sacrifice– on that note let me remind you that in at least 21 passages of scripture God says that sacrifice and offering is not what He really wants, desires, or accepts. He says it first to Samuel (1 Samuel 15:22);that His true desire is obedience.

In subsequent scriptures throughout the Bible, God relays His preferences over sacrifice as being: love, knowledge of Him, a broken and contrite spirit, righteousness and justice, mercy, to love Him with all our heart and strength and understanding, love our neighbors, love kindness, walk before Him humbly, walk in the way He commands us, delight to do His will, carry His law within our hearts, draw near to listen, faithfulness, to attend to others, to be reconciled to our brothers, to obey, to listen to His voice, and to do all He commands us.

This explains the entire book of Hebrews! Isaiah 1:11-17 says:

What makes you think I want all your sacrifices? says the Lord. I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me! As for your celebrations of the new moon and Sabbath and your special days for fasting– they are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings. I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims. Wash yourself and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. 

This is a little confusing in light that God instituted all of those rituals. But! The author of Hebrews tells us that the first model that was given us was in fact only a model! It was a model of the heavenly things put into an earthly context, but once Jesus came that earthly context was no longer needed because Jesus revealed all to us, and now our worship is not to be in the fleshly way– for the fleshly way is in fact quite replicable by the world– but rather we are to worship in spirit and in truth for God is spirit (John 4:24).

See in Hebrews 10:1-10 how Jesus’ sacrifice put an end to ritual sacrifices to make way for true religion. The Apostle James defines this true religion in James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

The sacrificial system was in a sense a syncretistic in that the Lord allowed a world system to act as a spiritual system. It was a system that seems to have emerged from the world not outside of it.

It’s not that God didn’t act, interact, or accept the sacrifices but religious piety– which was all the sacrificial system accomplished en masse– was not the ultimate goal, but rather the goal was relationship with God through faith. We see this starting all the way back with Job– the oldest book in the Bible. He is the first to say, “I know that my Redeemer lives!” and “If only I had an advocate.” The first person whose rebirth through faith is set into record was the first to say, “I thought I knew before, but now I know.” And that knowing is knowing that religion is a shadow— it is merely a carbon-based form for our carbon-based brains.

Religion speaks to us in our fleshly, worldly context before we are born again into the spirit.

We are a people in context, but we are called to live out of context. We are treasure in a field (Matthew 13:44). We are in the temporal but are of the eternal.

As we are surrounded by a worldly context it is difficult to not be saturated by that context. It is difficult to keep ourselves “undefiled.” And by undefiled I am actually not talking about by sin, but by religion.

It is the inevitable human tendency to create religion, I say again.

We as Christians have inherited both a faith and a religion. How do we interact with the religion we have inherited– the part of our worship that is of the earth, of the age, sometimes borrowed from false religion and often syncretistic?

How do we maintain faithfulness and obedience when even our own institutions and leaders bait us into unspiritual practices that emerge from man and culture?

The liturgical holidays are a great example of practical syncretism in the Christian religion.

I will now finally define syncretism for those of you who don’t have that definition on file. Syncretism is the practice of two religions at one time. It is the blending of a person’s old religious practices while believing in the tenets of one’s new faith. It is borrowing traditions and practices in one religion for use in another.

This is why I postulate that ritual sacrifice was possibly syncretism. Sacrificing made sense to pagans– still does unfortunately. Even modernly, it is in fact, legal in America to ritually sacrifice animals, and neo-pagans in Britain are committing kidnappings for human sacrifices today.

The most important point I want to make about ritual sacrifice, is that Jesus ended it. God may have allowed blood sacrifice as the agreement for atonement for a time, but it was only for a time until a better agreement was made. There is, therefore, in the same way, no longer a place for sacrifices or any other forms of culturally emergent Christian religious practice.

Inadvertently, American Christians still practice syncretism through the liturgical holidays. (You are in fact reading the preface post for my Liturgical Holiday series.)

Let’s identify syncretism in Christian religion and contemporary Christian practice by playing a game called “Who Borrowed Whose Holiday?”

  • Halloween is actually a Catholic holiday that the neo-pagans borrow, not the other way around!
  • Thanksgiving is not actually a Puritan holiday but is an assimilation of the Catholic St. Martin’s Day, a holiday that is still huge all throughout Europe.
  • And Christmas, the holiday we consider to be ultimately Christian, is actually the only one that is not Catholic by origin but pagan!
  • And just a side note: The only holidays that are ordained in the Bible are in the Old Testament, which very few Christians even know about. And, we are not commanded to celebrate Jesus’ birth nor His resurrection day. We are however, commanded to remember Him through participating in the Lord’s Supper and providing for each other’s needs– ordinances which we treat flippantly, without cheer, and with a bah hum bug closed-heartedness.

So, with this back drop let me explain what this series on the liturgical holidays will and will not be.

It will not be an exhortation to stop celebrating the liturgical holidays. I will make the argument that it is not going to damn you to celebrate Christmas. We will be talking through Paul’s perspectives on pagan feasts in 1 Corinthians to explore our freedoms regarding the liturgical/pagan observances.

It will be an exploration of the spiritual warfare involved in the liturgical holidays. On this count we will explore Balaam in Numbers, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation.

It will be a spring board to critique the emergent, missional, and discipleship Christian movements to assess in what ways our post-modernist efforts to evangelize do in fact “fish” men out of their context or if we are simply falling into the same assimilation traps that resulted in the Catholics giving us the liturgical holidays– occasions that leave us fat, sleepy, broke, accidently falling prey to spiritual attack, and very little conformed to the image of Christ.

Don’t worry: I don’t hate the holidays. But I do think they are a far better litmus for the state of the American church than we think. They are a great indicator that we love our “regular practices” and our ceremonies more than we love “walking humbly” and keeping his covenant (Exodus 19:5).

Warning! Through this seasonal series, let’s keep more in mind our own failings in practicing “pure and genuine religion,” than transferring blame onto Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. This exploration’s goal is to draw us into humility not pride.

The Lord is notorious for His patience with worldliness in His holy people so that they might eventually learn to recognize godliness. None of us can boast.