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

“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” Matthew 1:20

I want to talk about Mary and Joseph as a picture of submitting our physical realities to spiritual realities. We live in the natural but are called to the supernatural.

My favorite themes in 1 Corinthians are: first, the discussion of the physical body vs. the spirit– and how those competing appetites affect how we worship and serve God, and second is, the way that Christians are assigned, appointed, anointed, and arranged in the spiritual realm to be useful in the Body of Christ with intent and specificity by the Lord.

The interplay of the physical and the spiritual pervades the New Testament– starting in the Gospel narratives. There are a lot of picnics, meals with disciples, lunch at the in-laws, dinner parties with sinners, biblical feasts, festivals, weddings, Passover, the Last Supper. Jesus’ earthly ministry is punctuated by meals.

Jesus also tells the woman at the well that he can give her living water so that she will never be thirsty after drinking it. He speaks of us “feeding” on Him, the bread of life– A spiritual meal that does not lack, does not require more meals after.

The Gospel of John, the most “spiritual” gospel, reveals Jesus as the Holy Spirit, yet talks repeatedly of food, in order to talk about spiritual hunger, and that Jesus satisfies.

This seemed the premise of Jesus’ rebuke of Martha. Martha was busy with her, possibly usual task, of preparing the meal for Jesus and his disciples. She was attending to her physical assignment, which probably would have been fine had she not complained about Mary. Mary was not preparing a meal for Jesus but was receiving a meal from Him. She was fulfilling her spiritual assignment to feed on Jesus.

We have both physical and spiritual assignments from God, but! Our physical duties always yield to the spiritual ones. Your earthly life must punctuate your spiritual life. If your spirituality is just a comma in between your workday and dinner, don’t be surprised that your soul continues to hunger and that your flesh continues to lust.

The account of Joseph’s encounter with the angel Gabriel in Matthew 1:18-25, brings insight into the gravity of both the physical and spiritual assignments that God gives us, and how we are called to submit our physical assignments to our spiritual ones.

Joseph was physically anointed, as a man, to be head of a household, husband to a virtuous woman, father to legitimate children. He was called in the natural to be religiously observant, an adherent to the law, an abhorrer of sinfulness. Yet, Gabriel tells Joseph “she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus,” Matthew 1:21. (emphasis mine)

Before this dream of Gabriel, Joseph had planned on quietly breaking off his engagement to Mary. He didn’t want to embarrass her, but it seems that he was “afraid” (Matthew 1:20) of what the implications of marrying a pregnant Mary might be.

Could the implications have been feeling like he had botched his earthly mantle as a faithful Jewish man? That he had failed to be a strong leader over his household, in which his wife and children respected him? That he might not be admired for his morality, but that people might snicker at him as a cuckold? That he’d sacrifice the satisfaction of living a righteous life in the eyes of man?

Could taking Mary as his wife– throwing away his fear– mean throwing away everything he thought God had called him to as a man?

To be the leader who would raise, protect, provide for, and name Jesus– “And Joseph named him Jesus,” Matthew 1:25– would require that Joseph lay down every right inherent to his God-given, physical assignment as a man.

He would lay down everything he had ever been taught about being a religious man in order to take up the demands of his new spiritual assignment.

The first counter-intuitive, counter-cultural aspect of this assignment was that Joseph had to tailor the very beginning of his marriage and family life to his wife’s calling and his son’s purpose. Men in his time did not organize their lives around their wives and children.

A patriarch in Joseph’s day would probably feel that it is their right to set the agenda, to take the most important role, to delegate menial tasks to others, to arrange themselves in the natural position to receive praise. Women and children wouldn’t even be part of the plan, let alone “be the plan.”

It must have been hard to believe that this was what God was asking him to do! Wasn’t this opposed to the natural order of things?!

In his calling, to be Mary’s husband and Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph did not: set the agenda, was not even nearly the most important actor, accepted menial tasks rather than delegating them, and was completely outshone by every one else in the Nativity narrative.

Joseph, Jesus’ father, is an early and strong example of living Christianity. He completely submitted his physical duties to his spiritual assignment. He did not reserve any natural craving, but satiated his spirit with his faith in God’s word over his life.

If we continue to be hungry for the rights inherent to our physical identities, we forfeit our time at Jesus’ feet and our usefulness to the kingdom.

The Proverbs 31 Family

“The Lord will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman.” Judges 4:9

I have to begin by pointing out that the most read translations of Judges 4:9 read, “The Lord’s victory over Sisera will be at the hands of a woman” or “The Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” That’s the NLT and NIV respectively. But the most common phrase across translations of the Bible used to explain Jael’s victory over Sisera is that he was “sold” to her. “The Lord will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman.”

Why was God selling him? Sell? Not give, sell. Well, here is my postulation: The victory over Sisera belonged to a man named Barak. God had set this certain victory aside for Barak. God did not just give the victory away when Barak asked the judge, Deborah to go with him into battle; Barak had declined God’s gift of victory so God allowed Jael, a non-Israelite woman, to buy that victory from Barak through the currency of her cunning and opportunism.

It was given to Barak, it was bought through labor by Jael.*

God always gives gifts designed for us with only minimal effort required for us to enjoy them. The Garden of Eden? It was given to man to rule over as a marvelous gift. It hardly required more than naming animals. It blossomed and flourished and was renewed by rivers that God placed there. All Adam had to do was accept the gift and reap the benefits of it.

It was the same for Barak. He didn’t approach Deborah to ask for an adventure or conquest that God might have for him. Deborah called him to come to her so she could tell him that God was giving him a gift– a victory over the general Sisera that would free his people from the oppression of King Jabon the Caananite, meaning that God heard their prayers even after all the evil paths they had followed, which is why God had allowed King Jabon to overcome them in the first place.

Sweet gift! This is like a gift of victory, freedom, fame, legacy, and probably an opportunity of high position among the Israelites in re-forming a functioning government once the fog of battle cleared.

But Barak, gives a condition for accepting this gift– that Deborah come too. This reveals a  weakness, a lack of readiness, deficient moxie, no gumption.

The victory was sure; God promised it. It was for the taking– but not really, because only one person had it been given to, Barak, only he could take it. Deborah rallies the warriors saying, “This is the day the Lord will give you [Israel] victory over Sisera, for the Lord is marching ahead of you,” Judges 4:14.

The freedom was for Israel, the credit was for Barak. He passed. So Deborah says, welp, your gift that you didn’t want will be sold to a foreigner, a woman.

I firmly disbelieve that Deborah told Barak that a woman would have his victory as a misogynistic punishment. It wasn’t like, “you are such a coward that even a woman could do what I ask.” Ummmm, no.

I think Deborah was prophesying. After all, she called Barak to give him a prophesy; the whole conversation was prophetic.

I believe that there is a system of giving and receiving that is revealed in this passage. This story does not, however, describe a system of command and punishment.

Judges 4 and 5 teach vital principles about the governing properties of God’s promises. 

God creates a gift for you. You either accept or deny it. Meaning it can, not necessarily will but can be sold to someone else. Like a spouse. A house. A business. It is yours until you let it go, at which time someone else can purchase it.

That’s why Jesus had to buy back the world. God made it as a gift for us, and the serpent tricked us into giving it to him, into letting it go, into saying, “Eh, I’ll pass, thanks.”

That’s why Jesus had to come as a man and not just God who is spirit. The world was made for man and only a man could buy it back. We sold it to Satan for an apple.

The good news is, after Barak and Deborah went into battle– after Jael tricked Sisera into taking a nap in her tent and drove a stake through his skull while he slept– everyone shared in the joy.

The people sang jubilantly and heralded the exploits of Deborah. And they blessed Jael. And they acknowledged Barak too. No one was left out from the victory dance.

That is the great hope of salvation. Many of us are gunna pass on various gifts, callings, triumphs, blessings that God designed for us. But either way, whether we live a fulfilling and victorious Christian life, or a defeated and embattled Christian life, when Jesus comes back we will all partake in His glory, His victory, and His jubilant, joyful song. 

 

 

*The idea that “work” and “money” are equivalents originates no later than famous philosopher, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Also, biblically, we see Jacob having to buy Rachel with 14 years of labor, among other tales portraying labors of love that we find throughout the only worthwhile Romance in the universe known as Holy Scripture.

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.