Dodson, Jonathan K. Gospel-Centered Discipleship. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.
What is the difference between evangelism and discipleship? The common answer is that evangelism is converting non-Christians while discipleship is maturing those who are already Christians. However, Jonathan Dodson argues that this is an artificial division, since both evangelism and discipleship are about proclaiming the gospel–that Jesus lived a perfect life, died for our sins, then defeated death in His resurrection, so that we can be justified, sanctified, and glorified in Him. The gospel is not a once-in-a-lifetime vaccine, but our daily remedy for sin’s corrosive influence. As Dodson puts it, “persistent, unrepentant sin can disqualify us from the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5; Heb. 3:7-13). God does not accept us as we are. He accepts us as we are in Christ” (127). Therefore, Christians need to fight to believe the Gospel everyday. We need to abide in Christ.
But is Dodson’s definition Biblical? What about the Great Commission? Isn’t “mak[ing] disciples of all nations” about “going and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything [Jesus has] commanded [us]” (Mt. 28:18-20)? Where does he get the “gospel” from all this? Dodson notes that the Great Commission begins with Jesus’s statement that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” and ends with his promise, “surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” Hence, the main point of the Great Commission is not “to go (in [our] effort), but that we are sent (under Jesus’s authority and in Jesus’s power)” (32). Therefore, Dodson continues, the Great Commission is a Gospel Commission to “make and mature disciples by going with the gospel, baptizing disciples into gospel community, and teaching the gospel” (35). In other words, a Christian disciple is someone who “learns the gospel, relates in the gospel, and communicates the gospel” (38).
After thus defining “discipleship” in Part I of his book, Dodson unpacks how the gospel transforms the motivation for, and the application of, discipleship in Part II and III, respectively. He makes the keen observation that the motivation for Christian discipleship generally falls under two categories: (1) religious performance (i.e. legalism) and (2) spiritual license (i.e. antinomianism). Those in the first camp can be inwardly-oriented toward spiritual performance (e.g. Bible reading, prayer, fasting, speaking in tongues, moral behavior), or outwardly-oriented toward missional performance (e.g. evangelism, community service, social justice) (70). In either case, they behave as if their religious performance determined God’s approval. However, human religious performance is inadequate and unreliable, and therefore this view leads to spiritual insecurity and instability. On the other hand, those who are motivated by spiritual license behave as if they are above rule-keeping, leading to moral degeneration and apathy.
Dodson contends that the proper motivation for discipleship is not religious performance or spiritual license, but the gospel. The gospel teaches us that we do not need to win God’s approval with our religious performance, because “the performance of Jesus in his perfect life, death, and resurrection” has already won God’s approval for us (71). The gospel also teaches us that we are not free to disobey because spiritual “license” is really spiritual bondage to sin. “The religious are bound to keeping rules, and the rebellious are bound to breaking rules. The gospel, however, tells us that we are bound, not to rules, but to Christ” (73). When we truly grasp the gospel, we develop a religious affection, a “gospel-centered delight in God [that] … compels us to follow Jesus, not because we have to, but because we get to” (cf. Jn. 14:15; Ps. 37:4; Deut. 28:47-48) (76).
Then, what does Dodson recommend for those who do not feel this religious affection? Should they resign themselves to disobedience since being motivated by religious performance is a bad thing? Dodson adds an important qualification when he says that “faith also includes trusting God when we don’t desire him” (80). When our hearts refuse to delight in God, we need to galvanize our hearts with God’s promises and warnings and obey anyway (Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3-5). The difference between this and religious performance is that when we repent, “We turn from our sinful behaviors and turn, not to good behaviors, but to Christ” (84). This sort of repentance leads us to treasure Christ rather than treasure our moral/spiritual triumphs. We obey even when we don’t feel like it, not for the sake of doing right, but for the sake of loving Christ.
In the end, of course, no amount of human exertion can produce religious affection. As Dodson’s diagram above shows, the Holy Spirit is instrumental in this whole process. “The Spirit regenerates us so that our lifeless hearts can beat for God in lives of obedient worship and adoration of the Lord Jesus Christ” (90). For this reason, Dodson writes that we need to commune with the Holy Spirit by praying to Him and addressing Him throughout the day (98). This might seem unorthodox to some, but Dodson is not suggesting that praying to the Holy Spirit is more efficacious for Spirit-empowerment than praying to the Father or to the Son. Rather, he is saying that the practice of addressing the Holy Spirit helps us recognize the Holy Spirit as a Person and increase our awareness of His promptings in our lives. As Dodson wisely notes, “as Westerners we easily mistake the presence of the Spirit for our own conscience or ‘enlightened’ reason. When we make this mistake, we easily dismiss the promptings of the Spirit as mere rational options,” and “When we depersonalize the Spirit, it becomes much easier to disobey or deny the Lord. When we reduce the promptings of Spirit to options, we miss out on communion with God.” (100)
In addition to changing our motivation for discipleship, the gospel changes our application of discipleship. An example that Dodson provides is that of a Fight Club, which is the name for gospel-centered discipleship groups at Austin City Life Church where Dodson is the pastor. Fight clubs are made up of two to three Christians of the same gender that meet regularly to help one another fight sin and believe the gospel of grace (121). In these groups, they ask three questions, “What,” “When,” and “Why?” to expose and fight sin (122). I’ve been in many accountability groups that ask the first two questions in order to identify the sin and locate the lairs of temptation. However, I have seen very few small groups that ask the question “Why?” This last question is critical because “it gets to the motivation behind our sin; it addresses the heart. No one ever sins out of duty. We all sin because we want to, because our hearts long for something” (124). Some common deceptions include lust (i.e. “If you find sexual intimacy on the Internet, then you won’t be lonely or stressed”), vanity (i.e. “If you perform beautifully, then you have worth”), pride (i.e. “If you received more compliments, then you would be more confident”), and anger (i.e. “If you get angry, you can get your way”) (124). By comparing the promises of sin to the promises of the gospel, we can “[see] the futility of sin next to the beauty of Christ” (135). The gospel tells us that God will never leave us nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5-6). The gospel tells us that our worth is inherent in the fact that we have been created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-28) (55). The gospel tell us that God is sovereignly in control when we are not (Prov. 16:1-4). This emphasis on the gospel radically transforms our practice of discipleship. Instead of meting out graduated penalties or dispensing cheap grace and cheap peace for a troubled conscience, gospel discipleship forces us to examine our hearts and bolster our faith (66). As the (Reformed) Puritans understood so well, the failure to persevere in faith results in eternal damnation, not less sanctification, because, as John Piper writes in Future Grace, “the battle against sin is a battle against unbelief” (330-331).
Gospel-Centered Discipleship is not really a how-to book on discipleship like Mike Breen and Steve Cockram’s Building a Discipling Culture. Rather, it’s a theological exposition that undergirds the structure of discipleship with the gospel. Those familiar with Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections, Tim Keller’s teaching on gospel motivation, or John Piper’s writings on Christian hedonism will not find new insight in this book. However, everyone will find a compelling and practical application of the ageless gospel to the task of discipleship.
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