Gospel Discipling: Gospel & Adoption

World Harvest Mission was founded in 1983 under the leadership of Dr. C. John (Jack) Miller. Dr. Miller’s ministry had been revolutionized by his own rediscovery of the Gospel through studies in Galatians and the work of Martin Luther, and the results of that revolution became evident in multiple conversions in his church and subsequent interest in missions and evangelism. Dr. Miller asked, “How can we take the Gospel to others if we have not been mastered by it ourselves?” And so as part of its ministry preparation, the church began discipling people in the Gospel in a program now known as “Sonship”.

Key to the concept of Sonship is the recovery of the doctrine of Adoption.  The central ideas taught in Adoption include:

  1. The glorious truth of our sonship, even though we often act like orphans;
  2. The basis of our sonship in the finished work of Christ–this includes not only receiving the passive, or alien, righteousness of Christ for our forgiveness, but also understanding that because of the active righteousness of Christ we are actually welcomed by the Father as well-pleasing in his sight;
  3. A careful look into the true demands of the Law as a prerequisite for a full appreciation of our constant need for the Gospel;
  4. Repentance as a lifestyle for the Christian;
  5. Sanctification as well as justification by faith. This leads to a new paradigm for Christian living rooted in believing the gospel rather that the futile attempt to destroy the “flesh”;
  6. Faith expressing itself through love;
  7. The absolute centrality of prayer.

Just as critical as the truths taught in Adoption is the commitment to see that the gospel truths actually penetrate the heart and are beginning to affect the life, relationships and ministry of participants Believers. When people are actually discipled in the Gospel, not merely taught it, REAL change takes place. Continuously believing the gospel allows one to be frank about the reality of our own sin because any hope of righteousness is found in Christ and not in our outward performance.

The Gospel is for sinners. We must recognize that living in the reality of the Gospel is a constant battle. In fact, it could be argued that the essential issue of spiritual warfare is unbelief. Therefore we are in constant need of repentance and being renewed in the Gospel ourselves. Much of our joy in Gospel discipling is the way it encourages our faith as we witness the power of the Gospel transforming others.

Another challenge to the ministry has been to discover how easily Adoption can be divorced from its missionary setting. The mission of World Harvest Mission is still to take the Gospel to a lost world through our own evangelism as well as encouraging the witness of others. Sonship has been a means to that end, as was certainly the case with the Apostle Paul’s preaching the Gospel to the church of Rome. To lose the missionary character of the Gospel in the process of Gospel discipling is to attack the essence of the Gospel itself.


This is Part 3 of a 5-part series titled Gospel Discipling by Stephen Smallman. Steve Smallman is a past Executive Director of World Harvest Mission and author of the book Spiritual Birthline.

Thanks also to New City Fellowship of St. Louis, who posted Smallman’s essay on their web page.

To read Parts 1-2 click: Introduction; Romans as Model