Gospel Discipling: Gospel & Renewal

Not only is Gospel discipling the very heart of discipleship within churches, it is also the critical issue in the matter of renewal or revival in the church at large.

Dr. Richard Lovelace, in his modern classic work Dynamics of Spiritual Life, asks why the Church must think in terms of what he calls “cyclical renewal” when the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit should allow “continuous renewal”.  As he explains his “primary elements of continuous renewal,” they are summarized in what he calls a “depth presentation of the gospel”.

Lovelace writes:

Only a fraction of the present body of professing Christians are solidly appropriating the justifying work of Christ in their lives. … Few know enough to start each day with a thoroughgoing stand upon Luther’s platform: you are accepted, looking outward in faith and claiming the wholly alien righteousness of Christ as the only ground for acceptance, relaxing in that quality of trust which will produce increasing sanctification as faith is active in love and gratitude.

In order for a pure and lasting work of spiritual renewal to take place within the church, multitudes within it must be led to build their lives on this foundation.

This is another way to speak of gospel discipling, and we are seeing evidence of such quiet but deep renewal in ministries in the United States and in other nations.


This is Part 4 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. 

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

To read Parts 1-3 click: Introduction; Romans as Model; Gospel & Adoption

12 thoughts on “Gospel Discipling: Gospel & Renewal

  1. It’s my hope Dennis that more than a fraction of the present body of professing Christians are solidly appropriating the justifying work of Jesus in their lives….but who knows?

  2. I would say that Lovelace is correct. How would one know? Ask people to simply explain the gospel. Ask people to explain the present benefits of Jesus’ blood shed once for all. If one asks you will realize that few have any significant understanding of the gospel and the benefits that are to be appropriated. Further, most pastors and churches fail to teach the gospel and and fail to train members to live out the gospel. This is not an indictment against Liberal churches… Conservative Evangelicals are equally egregious.

  3. Isn’t that a bit cynical in a way? Although many may not articulate the more in depth understanding of the Gospel and how we may appropriate it’s bennifits in our lives by and through God’s Grace, but isn’t it enough to understand the issue that God loves us, sent his Son to demonstrate his love toward us to the point of a terrible death, that our Redeemer raised from the dead and our salvation and very lifes are secure in Him only. Don’t you think many in the Church understand the Basic Gospel? That it’s not what we do or how we perform but what Jesus did that frees us to now live for him as we cry out to our Father and say, Abba Father… I would think many could.

    If Lovelace is correct and I’m not saying he isn’t, then we are indeed loosing the battle for the souls of people, even in our Churches. This is an extremely scary thought to me Dennis.

    Maybe I’m being too hopeful here and not realistic. Could be. Maybe Lovelace is correct, I just hope and trust he’s not and he’s just making the Gosple more complicated than it really is.

    How would you understand Rom 8:32 in this context?

  4. I am not sure how you would apply cynical. Is it cynical to state critical truth? If so I would say it is cyncial. On the other hand, could it not be considered merely naive optimism to assume this is not truth.

    In answer to your question, or concern, about people being able to explain the Basic Gospel, even if that were true (and there is a lot of study out there to indicate that even this is not true) how would one appropriate the benefits of the gospel if one does not even know what the benefits of the gospel are?

    This is not suggesting people are not “saved” without an ablity to explain the great promises of grace. It is saying that people lack power, joy, enocouragement, etc.

    While justification is by grace through faith alone, sanctification is not an automatic, frenetic, matter. We are to apply the means of grace to ourselves. As Jerry Bridges says: We must preach the Gospel to ourselves.” (Incidentally, Bridges took that phrase from Jack Miller, whose work inspired this series of articles.) To do so requires that we have some understanding of what the gospel substance is – both the positive and negative.

    The alternative is legalism, either in its restrictive or permissive forms. This is how most Christians function.

  5. I think Smallman is indeed correct here. But I don’t think he is saying that only the theologically astute are saved – or that unless you have a fully articulated understanding of the gospel, you are lost. Indeed, there are many in the church who are merely moralistic – in reality trying to save themselves through their own goodness. And they certainly would fall into what Lovelace would call this lack of “appropriating” the justifying work of Christ. But I don’t think that’s what he’s primarily talking about here. And I think the key to understanding what he is getting at is in the word “appropriate”. He is dealing primarily with genuine Christians who at the moment are functionally relying upon another savior, thus denying themselves the joy and peace that would otherwise be theirs. For example, you might be a genuine believer, theologically resting on the finished work of Christ for your salvation. But a crisis enters your life, and you begin to worry or be afraid. At that moment, though Christ IS your righteousness (justification), functionally you are allowing your situation to become your hope, your source of joy, etc. The gospel is something that can be true of me (in terms of my legal status), but functionally far from my present experience (since I am currently allowing my joy to be placed in a person, a circumstance, etc.). I often use the illustration of Aladdin. He’s a street rat – and what do street rats do when they are hungry? They run through the market and steal apples. Fast forward through the movie. Aladdin essentially becomes adopted by the king and is living in the palace. What does he do when he wakes up in the middle of the night hungry? He crawls over the wall, goes into the market, and steals an apple. Because though he has the STATUS of a son – and can at any moment walk into the kitchen and demand, “make me a sandwich!”, functionally it isn’t real to him at that point, and he begins to rely upon his old system of thought. This happens to us every day. We allow our circumstances to rob us of our joy to the degree we begin to functionally rely upon them for our salvation (hope, joy, deliverance, etc), rather than gospel-discipling our hearts back to the reality of our status. This is what Smallman is talking about. Trying to re-preach the gospel to our hearts every day, so that what is true of me LEGALLY might become true of me EXPERIENTIALLY. This is not some deep gospel knowledge of the gospel as much as it is a deeper experience of the gospel. Your heart will follow what is real to you at the moment. Will it be your circumstances (which will rob you of joy), or will it be the gospel and your status as a son (which is unchanging no matter what your circumstances). This is what Smallman and Lovelace are talking about.

  6. Well maybe I am guilty of naive optimism ! To me Dennis you just outlined the great need then for small group settings where life is lived out in relationship with each other in authentic ways.

    Just as Jesus put on Flesh and dwelt among us so we must do the same…sort of speak in our relationships.

    It’s there that people can be encouraged as you say, and experience joy and begine to understand the depths of the Gospel and further understand the process of Santification. If the small group is real and done in real / right ways. (—-Just some advertising)

    Having said that I’m not so sure….I still think people relise their need of Jesus and how messed up they (we all) are even if they don’t understand it or can’t articulate the Gospel. As you said they may be still be Saved.

    I was just trying to point out that in Rom 8:32 can we not say that God will help us in our understanding of his Grace and Mercy and in fact doesn’t God and His Spirit work within us to accomplish his will? So my optimism may not be totally blind I don’t think.

    But I agree that the alternative is legalism. The thought of those in Church not understanding the Gospel of Grace still is a bit scary and I agree with you that it tends to lead folks in wrong directions with unsound perspectives.

    I am just Astonished at the wonder of Gods Love and Mercy towards us.. while we were yet Sinners Jesus died for us. How could people then think otherwise when it comes to living our new life, but to be filled with unspeakable joy at Gods loving Kindness and Grace. I guess they do…

    I’m glad God is faithful.

  7. I believe in our culture we have been taught to simply appropriate the Gospel for salvation (a one time event) rather than for life (an ongoing day to day experience). As a result, many of us grew up believing the Gospel only meant the “Good News” that showed us how to be “Saved” rather than the Good News that not only shows us the way of salvation, but the way to live life everyday. Harry Reeder shared with me that the Gospel has to be the foundation, formation, and motivation for ALL we do. I don’t live that way because I always default back to my sinful nature of living life “my way”. As a result, I have to continually remind myself of the Gospel and how it applies to everyday life. Harry indicated further that we never move beyond the Gospel, just wider and deeper into the Gospel as we see how it applies to every situation we encounter. Too many times, I forget that and go back to living life my way and not seeing how the Gospel applies, or can be appropriated, to my everyday circumstances. Therefore, it just can’t be the foundation of our Christian life, but it must also be what forms us and what motivates us in everything we do.

  8. I eed to apologize for my previous comment. There was nothing in it I regret saying, but I got a call and hod to go very quickly and could not finish my next thought. Therefore it probably came across more in-your-face than was my intent.

  9. David – I think small groups are essential to this process – but nothing is more foundational, I think, than regular preaching from the pulpit against goodness. We expect preaching to be against “badness”, but a constant barrage against moralism, goodness, and exposing all the wrong motives behind obedience is the only way I know to 1) continually remind the believer of his need of Christ and need to re-preach the gospel constantly to his heart, and 2) cause the unregenerate to rethink their opposition to the gospel (which they have always assumed was deciding to stop being bad and start being good), and 3) convert the moralist who falsely thinks he’s a Christian.

  10. I agree Alan. Must we also not only hear about the trap of being good, and moral, but the pratical life lessons of loving God & people as well? Jesus was so very practical at taking the traps of the Religious and law keepers and turning things around providing lessons on loving people, including people, taking care of each other and growing in our relationships to God and one another. In a sense when we get our eyes off ourselves and on to God and others doesn’t the santification process begine to blossom in our hearts? Then we see the Gospel in action..

  11. I believe the Gospel gives us life lessons everyday as we apply it. It gives us insight and perspective on relationships, love, you name it, that we cannot have otherwise. In short, as we apply the Gospel, and live out the Gospel in our lives, we are sanctified and transformed. Tullian Tchividjian said it well in a recent blog post:

    The Ongoing Need For The Gospel

    One of the most important discoveries of my life has been that the Gospel is not just for non-Christians; it’s for Christians too. I used to think the Gospel was simply what non-Christians must believe in to be saved, while afterward we advance to deeper theological waters. But what I’ve come to understand is that once God saves us he doesn’t then move us beyond the Gospel. Rather he moves us deeper into the Gospel. The Gospel, in other words, is every bit as important for growing as a Christian as it is for becoming a Christian in the first place. The Gospel is the fuel that makes Christians go.

    In Colossians 1:6 the Apostle Paul writes that the Gospel is the instrument of all continual growth and spiritual progress after we are converted. He writes, “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.” (Col. 1:6).

    Years ago I found great help from Tim Keller’s comments on this passage. I hope you do too. Keller writes:

    Paul is showing that we never “get beyond the gospel” in our Christian life to something more “advanced”. The gospel is not the first “step” in a “stairway” of truths, rather, it is more like the “hub” in a “wheel” of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s but the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom.

    We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience, but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal.3:1-3) and are renewed (Col.1:6). It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier (Rom.1:16-17).

    It is very common in the church to think as follows. “The gospel is for non-Christians. One needs it to be saved. But once saved, you grow through hard work and obedience.” But Col.1:6 shows that this is a mistake. Both confession and “hard work” that is not arising from and “in line” with the gospel will not sanctify you–it will strangle you. All our problems come from a failure to apply the gospel. Thus when Paul left the Ephesians he committed them “to the word of his grace, which can build you up” (Acts 20:32). The main problem, then, in the Christian life is that we have not thought out the deep implications of the gospel, we have not “used” the gospel in and on all parts of our life.

    Richard Lovelace says that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel–a failure to grasp and believe it through and through. Luther says, “The truth of the Gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine….Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.” (on Gal.2:14f) Paul says that the gospel only does its renewing work in us as we understand it in all its truth. All of us, to some degree live around the truth of the gospel but do not “get” it. So the key to continual and deeper spiritual renewal and revival is the continual re-discovery of the gospel. A stage of renewal is always the discovery of a new implication or application of the gospel–seeing more of its truth. This is true for either an individual or a church.

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