by Stephen Smallman
“Thirty years of discipleship programs, and we are not discipled.”
This is the startling assessment of Jim Petersen, the visionary leader of the esteemed discipleship ministry, the Navigators. Petersen goes on in the first chapter of his important book, Lifestyle Discipleship, to ask some very hard questions about the real effectiveness of our various attempts at discipling believers. But if the situation in most of our American evangelical churches is lacking with respect to discipleship, the condition of many churches in developing nations is nothing short of tragic. Instance after instance can be cited of young and vital churches sliding quickly into debilitating legalism, with Christianity being defined by believer and unbeliever alike as essentially little more than the keeping of certain rules.
There is little need to draw out this lament about the current condition of “discipleship”. Almost anyone in ministry recognizes the need to rethink assumptions and approaches to this critical aspect of the work of the Church. In this article I would like to make the case for a fundamental shift in the paradigm we use with respect to the content of our discipling ministries. It seems to me that most of the work being done to improve the discipleship component of our churches or missions focuses on the matter of methodology – how to secure greater commitment from participants, whether we should work in small groups or one-on-one, how pastors should redefine their roles, etc..But the actual content of what is imparted can be largely described as the “doing” of the Christian life. It is my contention that before methodological issues are discussed, we need to recognize that the essential content of our discipleship is to be the Gospel – taking people who have believed the gospel back into the Gospel again and again. This is what I will call “Gospel discipling”, which could just as easily be termed “discipleship in the Gospel.”
I believe it can be demonstrated that this was the approach of the Apostles, as evidenced by their letters to new churches. In particular I want to use the book of Romans as a model of Gospel discipling. I believe it can also be demonstrated that it is the Gospel itself that supplies the power to enable believers to become meaningfully engaged in the “doing” of the Christian life. Once I lay out these foundational issues, I will then explain briefly how World Harvest Mission, building on the seminal thinking of Dr. Jack Miller, has attempted to address the issue of Gospel discipling in a practical way.
Definition of the Gospel
At the outset, it is essential to contend for a much broader understanding of the word “Gospel” than is commonly held by evangelicals. In its essence the Gospel is the glorious announcement that God has kept his promise to bring salvation to the earth (Isaiah 52:7). The fulfillment of his promise is a person, his own Son, named Jesus, who is Messiah and who died for our sin and was raised to life. Remarkably, by believing this Gospel we are granted eternal life, and the break caused by the original fall and our personal sin is restored.
But the Gospel is more than the announcement about the person and work of Christ, it is used by Paul and others to include all that comes to us when we believe the Gospel. In the words of Galatians, it includes not only God sending his Son to redeem those under the law, but also his sending the Spirit of his Son into our hearts that we might experience the privileges of sonship. (Galatians 4.4-7) In Colossians 1 Paul talks about the “word of truth, the Gospel” and seems to equate it with “God’s grace in all its truth”. (Colossians 1.5-6) It is also worth taking time to reflect on Paul’s use of Gospel in 2Timothy 1.8-2.10. I believe in the light of that context, Paul’s exhortation to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2.1) can be understood as challenging Timothy to find his strength to endure by returning again to the Gospel.
All of this points to a need to understand the Gospel as much more than rehearsing the facts of Christ’s death and resurrection – as wonderful as they are. Furthermore, teaching or preaching the Gospel is more than inviting unbelievers to put their trust in Christ for salvation. The Gospel is the word we should use for all that has been given us in Jesus Christ, which is why it is frequently called “the Gospel of grace”. This broader use is much closer to the historic distinction of Law and Gospel, which was commonly understood in earlier generations, but seems to have been largely ignored by ours. To be sure, the benefits of the Gospel are being taught today, but I believe our discipling of believers will be helped by recognizing that biblically, these are still to be thought of as Gospel. The posture of simply believing in Jesus as we learn of Him in the Gospel is as fundamental to our progress in the faith as it was to our initial receiving of it.
This is Part 1 of a 5-part series titled Gospel Discipling. This series is taken from an essay by Stephen Smallman, author of Spiritual Birthline and past Executive Director of World Harvest Mission. Some of the content has been edited.
My thanks to New City Fellowship of St. Louis, who posted Smallman’s essay on their web page.
To read Parts 2-5 of this essay click:
Romans as a Model
Gospel & Adoption
Gospel & Renewal
Gospel & Evangelism