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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.

Easter

“Today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43

The thief on the cross. The one who in the final minutes of his life defended Jesus. He admitted his guilt and Jesus’ innocence. He acknowledged the divinity of Christ— he was the first convert to Christianity. The first person to say, “I want to be a part of your kingdom” (Luke 23:42.)

He never had to go through the ups and downs, loopty-loops, confusion, trials, backsliding, and church-hopping of Christian life. He never argued over theology, which translation of the Bible is best, or whether Christians should smoke cigarettes or serve in the military. He got to go straight into glory. He got to bypass the doing of, and the being of, Christian life.

I wrote in my journal several months ago, “What is it to be a Christian; what is this Christian life?” The thief on the cross never had to ask that question. The Apostle Paul writes in the Book of Romans about the hope of glory and the “eager hope” with which we look forward to “join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.” Paul writes about how it is the work of the Spirit to help us in weakness so that we can be sanctified, justified, and glorified in the salvation we have because of Christ’s sacrifice. Because we indeed justly were receiving the due reward for our deeds; but this man, Jesus, had done nothing wrong, as the one thief said to other (Luke 23:41.)

The Christian life is no longer about living according to our due reward, but rather by faith. Our hope is totally in the work of the Spirit, for the purposes of the Spirit, toward a spiritual reward. The Christian life is never about what is seen and measurable but rather what is unseen and unmeasurable. We see this hold totally true in the extremely short Christian life of the thief on the cross. He had no time to do good works, resist bad habits, contribute wise teaching, or pray beautiful prayers. He was saved and then glorified. Instantaneously! He totally got to skip the sanctification, transformation, justification phases that most of us experience.

Yet, I believe that Jesus sees all of us the way he sees the thief on the cross. I believe he sees all of us as today being with him in paradise. I believe he sees us in the Spirit, the spirit of faith, which sees things as they are when completed not as they are in process. I believe that to Jesus our moment of salvation is our moment of glorification. His mercy makes that possible, his grace makes it the operating truth.

God’s not waiting on us so He can make something reality. He is ushering us into His reality. And we are called, in this Christian life, to act according to that reality. We have to view ourselves in faith, which means viewing ourselves as complete, as co-heirs with Christ, as kings and priests, as sons of God— cause that is what glorification is, right? And we have to view each other the same way.

We cannot accept accusatory speech that contradicts what God sees of us in faith. We cannot level accusation against our brothers and sisters in Christ either. It’s very easy to become negative about other people’s faith. You know, if my husband were a better Christian, it’d be easier for me to be a better Christian. Kinda like how, if my daughter were a better kid, it’d be easier for me to be a better mom. If other people could get going a bit more in their walks with God, and give me a few less attitudes and inconveniences to trip over, I would assuredly be a better person. If the people around me would just be better, I could look a lot better.

And because other people make my personal process of transformation more difficult, I find it perfectly acceptable to condemn their level of adherence to God’s sanctification, their probability of being justified if they keep on acting like this. I feel I can comment on them, or rate them, judge them, or actually kind of hate them, because obviously they are not trying as hard as me cause if they were my sanctimonious little life would be a whole lot easier!

Yet, that attitude is completely antithetical to faith. If Jesus could say to the thief on the cross, you are glorified today simply because I say so; then He also says to us, it is today simply because I say so. That is that. There is no in between whilst which we get to fiddle around with condemnation— of ourselves or of others.

Our love for each other cannot come from what we see, but rather from what we don’t see, which is the glorification to come that God sees as already being, because of Jesus and through the Spirit.

 

Easter

“Do this in remembrance” Exodus 12 & Luke 22

Until today I was unaware of what Maundy Thursday is. It is a celebration of the command to “love each other” given at the Last Supper.* “Maundy” originates from the latin for “command.” I know the Israelites were commanded to remember the night that the angel of death “passed over” them. I know that Jesus told his disciples to remember him when they partake in Communion. I have not contemplated until today what overlap there might be between the Old Covenant Passover and the New Covenant Communion.

Unconsciously, I have always conceptualized the Last Supper as different from the Passover, though of course the Last Supper was a Passover meal. I want to lay down, real quick, a short list of similarities between to the two. In fact, let me jump to my conclusion— Jesus completed the Passover requirement and then doubled down on it at the Last Supper; which I would say is pretty consistent with everything that Jesus did whilst on Earth.

Exodus 12 gives a detailed picture as to how the Israelites were to celebrate the Passover, why they were to celebrate the Passover, and who could celebrate the Passover. Luke 22 gives us the same details about Communion according to Jesus’ instructions at the Last Supper, or First Supper if you will.

So let’s look at this without too much fuss:

How to celebrate: Celebrate with a special meal containing symbolic components.

Why to celebrate: Celebrate to remember the work of God’s salvation.

Who can celebrate: Only God’s people can celebrate this meal.

The third point caught me a bit off guard at first. I didn’t realize that Passover was only for the “native-born Israelites” or people who had effectively converted by being circumcised (Exodus 12:43-49.) “No outsiders are allowed to eat the Passover meal,” Exodus 12:43. I feel that that point is specifically important in regard to the Last Supper.

The Maundy command “to love one another” is a command for Christians to love each other. It’s not a command for Christians to love the lost soul. It is not a command for all people to love one another. When Christians participate in Communion or when they celebrate the Last Supper they are to remember that God cares about how people in the church treat each other.

The people we go to church with can be pretty irritating. Some are over-religious. Some are too cool being obnoxiously proud of their record collection and slight drinking habit. Some are theology snobs, some are bible trivia nerds. Some volunteer for everything, others do Sunday service in a dine-and-dash fashion. Some are nosy, some are aloof. And most are self-righteously concerned about whether the people they go to church with are “really saved.” Cause, you know, if they were “really saved,” their kid wouldn’t act like that, they wouldn’t dress like that, you wouldn’t see them at the kind of places you see them at, they wouldn’t keep people’s Tupperware dishes, they’d RSVP on time, their husband wouldn’t have left like that…

Well, Jesus laid to rest the “really saved” topic at the Last Supper. Passover is celebrated to remember God’s salvation in the past from slavery and the tradition is continued forward in the hope of continued salvation. Passover celebrates an unfinished work, which is best illustrated by the Jewish custom of setting a place for Elijah at the Passover seder. When Jesus took the unleavened bread, symbolic of sinlessness, and the cup of wine, symbolic of the lamb’s blood used on the door posts by the Hebrews as a sign to the angel of death that he should pass over that house, and he said about the bread and wine “these are me,” he was saying, “it is finished.” That ongoing hope of salvation commemorated in Passover was complete. Salvation is no longer an on-going quest, but a mission fulfilled.

But, like I said, Jesus tends to double down. So with the fore-shadowing purpose of Passover completed, what was it that the Last Supper was to symbolize carrying forward? It is no longer a hope of salvation, but a reminder that Jesus has established a Kingdom for those who are saved. That Kingdom is one of love defined by servanthood, a Kingdom of thrones seated upon by the lowliest members of mankind.

Jesus famously washed his disciples feet during the Last Supper according to the Gospel of John. Peter objected to Jesus’ act of humility. But Jesus told him, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.” Jesus also said “since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet.”

Belonging to Jesus requires no on-going pursuits of salvation, but an on-going pursuit of humility. The perfect opportunity to do that is amongst our annoying brothers and sisters in Christ. There is no satisfaction in serving the saved. I feel way better about myself when I evangelize or give away spare change. Loving people “who should know better” is harder. Paul says that Christians should give up all their rights for each other. We remember the Kingdom and how the Kingdom operates, when we love one another.

Perhaps the next time the gold trays with tiny cups and puffy square crackers is laid out, our reflection might center less on our “personal door-posts” and our need for the salvation in the Passover blood. Rather, remember the level of lowliness that Christ expects of us, and the tender regard for our brothers and sisters He expects us to have, as the requirement of being categorized as His own.

*”The Other Holy Day,” Christianity Today