• Counter-Intuitive Leadership

    by Bill Hull

    Have you ever lain in bed at night wondering how you could make a greater impact for Christ? My thoughts are usually unrealistic. I imagine that something I write will spread virally and lead to revival or global transformation. I remember when President Ronald Reagan held up a copy of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October on national television and said it was a good read. Maybe something like that could happen to my book. Why not? Then I come back to reality.

    I share this because the first ideas typically reveal how I am a product of my American culture. My first impulse is to launch a large campaign. If I had unlimited funds, I could really get the word out. We need good branding and would use the latest technology. Or I think about ways of expanding my ministry and opening up new opportunities. We’d need to raise funds and get the right endorsements. The more successful the campaign, the more likely people will be to invest. That’s how we get the big numbers, right? But are these ideas where we should begin? To be clear, all have their place at times, and there is certainly nothing wrong with using tools or raising funds. The problem is in mistaking a million-dollar donation or a viral video on Facebook for true success.

    What did Jesus do? 

    He did what was counter-intuitive. He resisted Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, saying no to fame and the shortcuts to success (Matt. 4:8–10). He told people not to talk about his miracles (Matt. 14:22–23; Mark 1:40–45; Luke 5:15–16; John 6:14–15). At times he avoided the crowds. Just when Jesus was picking up some momentum and gaining popularity, he would withdraw to an isolated lace. When his disciples said he should go to Jerusalem, he didn’t.

    Jesus didn’t seem to care how influential or powerful a person might be, even though knowing powerful people who can make things happen is typically seen as an advantage to one’s career. Again, to be clear, I believe that fame can be used of God, but it can also detract from or even destroy what God wants done. Far too often, Christian leaders and pastors turn to celebrity influence to accomplish the work that only God’s Spirit can do.

    Eugene Peterson and U2

    Eugene Peterson was once invited to spend time with the world-renowned rock group U2. The band had been reading some of Peterson’s work, and they wanted to talk with him about it. But Peterson turned down the band’s invitation—for a good reason. He was busy finishing up work on the Old Testament translation of The Message. Someone pressed Peterson about declining the invitation, “Come on Eugene, it was Bono,” they said.

    “No,” Peterson answered, “it was Isaiah.” At that moment, Peterson knew what he needed to do, what was most important, and he made it a priority over celebrity influence.

    It’s difficult to resist the powerful pull of fame and success. Again, resisting it is not always necessary, but we need wisdom to discern when and how to use it. The world says that if we want to gain life, we must take control and make it happen. But Jesus said we will gain life by giving it up. If we want joy and happiness, the world says, live in this city, wear these clothes, look this way, and have these friends. But Jesus says we should serve others. He showed us that if we want to change the world, go small, not big. Take the last place, not the first.

    Like Jesus, Christian leaders must learn to think in ways that are counter to the ways of the world. When the spirit of the age tells them to substitute numerical growth for spiritual maturity, to be hip rather than holy, disciple-making pastors should follow Jesus.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • How Did Jesus Relate to His Followers?

    by Bill Hull

    The purpose of the Gospels is to tell the story of Jesus. Some calculate that Jesus spent 90 percent of his ministry time with his twelve chosen followers. That is a significant amount of time together! When I was a young teaching pastor studying the life of Jesus and looking at how he interacted with his followers, I found myself wondering, is there any significance difference between the different ways Jesus calls his followers?


    So I began to research and found that Jesus asked some to “come and see,” others to “come and follow me,” a few to “come and be with me,” and finally “remain in me.” On the surface there seemed to be a few small differences, so I read to find out if anyone had considered what they might mean. I was gratified to learn that A. B. Bruce in his classic book, The Training of the Twelve, notes a progression of calls.[1] Upon further study, I found that Robert L. Thomas in The NIV Harmony of the Gospels also discusses that the disciples’ commitment was a progression.[2] It just so happens that Thomas was my New Testament professor when I attended Talbot School of Theology in the 1970s. My first book, Jesus Christ, Disciplemaker, was largely based on my research findings on this question.[3] In that book, I provide the structure for how Jesus trained his followers. In this section, I will summarize what I learned and have taught for the past four decades.

    Sequential and Segmented

    As I researched, it became clear to me that there were three distinct periods in Jesus’ ministry marked by differences in how he related to his followers. We can see these periods through careful study of the Gospels. And as we uncover the sequential development of Jesus’ relationship with his followers, a clear structure emerges on how to disciple people through different stages of their growth. While some leaders teach a segmented and sequential process of discipleship, I find that the majority have not taken the process seriously. If anything the last twenty years, deeper skepticism or bias against systematic approaches has resulted in teaching designed to meet people’s needs or interests. While such teaching “in the moment” is helpful—for instance when you have a flat tire or need to unplug a toilet—learning in a structured manner has greater advantages. Let’s be honest. Even those who advocate a “felt need” or “as needed” learning approach start their children in the first and not the fifth grade of school. The majority of formal learning is still done systematically. Though this method is not the only way to learn, it is still effective.

    Both Styles

    In fact, I advocate both styles of learning for spiritual growth. Both proactive and reactive approaches to growth have value. We grow when the unexpected happens, when we encounter suffering and conflict, and when life doesn’t go as planned. But for this kind of learning, we must rely upon the safety net. We also need to be proactive, establishing a plan and process that is fueled by intention. Because of the nature of life, Jesus taught his disciples using both approaches. He had a plan, though it was probably not written down and carried around in a notebook. He clearly understood the dynamics of his work and how to prepare men and women to take over his work. They needed to understand it well enough to teach others and to believe in him enough to die for the cause.

    If you are a pastor or leader, I caution you not to be foolish. Don’t wait for the unexpected to provide your curriculum for making disciples. Instead, develop a plan that follows the lead of Jesus and intentionally train willing disciples to become the kind of people who will naturally do what Jesus did and react the way Jesus did. So how did Jesus do this?

    Four Phases

    Four phases mark Jesus’ discipleship ministry. I think of these as four key invitations.

    1. “Come and See”—An invitation to explore. This was the period when Jesus introduced a group of disciples to his nature and ministry.
    2. “Come and Follow Me”—An invitation to learn. In this period, the chosen disciples and other followers left their professions to travel with Jesus.
    3. “Come Be with Me”—An invitation to serve. During this period, Jesus kept his twelve called disciples with him and concentrated on training them so they could go out and preach.
    4. “Remain in Me”—An invitation to multiply.

    Jesus introduces the new relationship he will have with his disciples and how they will relate to him as they take over the mission of making disciples. He wants them to know they will have a helper, the Holy Spirit. They will not be left alone, they will have special power to fulfill his instructions.


    [1] A. B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve (New Canaan, CT: Keats, 1979), 11–18. second edition published in 1871.

    [2] Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry, The NIV Harmony of the Gospels, revised edition of the John A. Broadus and A. T. Robertson A Harmony of the Gospels for Students of the Life of Christ (New York: Harper One, 1988).

    [3] Bill Hull, Jesus Christ, Disciplemaker, twentieth anniversary revised edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004). Navpress, Colorado Springs, 1984.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • Are Christians and Disciples the Same?

    by Bill Hull

    Given that for decades the church has separated discipleship from salvation, we need to ask the question: Are Christians and disciples the same? At first, this question seems to be about the meaning of words, but it is really about expectations. A disciple is a learner, a student of someone. The term implies action and obedience. 

    The term Christian, however, tends to refer to a status or position. Early skeptics used it largely as term of derision to describe followers of Jesus, and it occurs only three times in the New Testament.[1] For many, the primary requirement for being a Christian is agreement with Christian doctrine.

    A Christian is expected to be something; a disciple is expected to do something. When Jesus invited people to follow him, he asked them to “come and see” (John 1:39 NLT), and then later to “come, follow me” (Matt. 4:19). When Jesus chose the twelve disciples, his invitation was to come and be with him (Mark 3:13). These calls required an active response. The term disciple has a built-in expectation that Christian does not. Scottish writer George MacDonald explained this difference well: “Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because he said, do it, or once abstained because he said, do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in him if you do not do anything he tells you.”[2]

    What We Can Say

    We can biblically say that all who actively follow Jesus (disciples) also believe in him, and that their belief is sufficient to save them. Therefore I think it is safe to say that every disciple of Jesus is a Christian. But it is not always safe to assume that every person labeled Christian is a disciple, because a professing “Christian” who does not follow Jesus is no Christian at all. Some use the term “nominal Christian,” meaning one who is Christian in name only, to describe such people.


    [1] The first is Acts 11:26. The literal rendering is “the disciples were for the first time called Christians.” The other references are Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16. Some extra-biblical evidence indicates that “Christian” was used by non-believers describe followers of Jesus. But the term did not originate with Christ’s followers.

    [2] George MacDonald, Creation in Christ, in Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck (Nashville: The Upper Room,. 1983), 60.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • Discipline Isn’t Optional

    by Bill Hull

    If you read the Bible, you can’t escape its clear teaching on the importance of discipline (1 Cor. 9:24–27; 1 Tim. 4:7–9). Training our desires and will is important in the context of a community with other believers and that discipline is developed in two ways: personal and corporate. While some people are naturally self-disciplined, we can thank God that self-discipline alone is not the only criteria for spiritual growth. The vast majority of people I have pastored and taught over the years have started their spiritual growth with a form of corporate discipline. This group supports us and provides the structure we need for the discipline to be effective.


    Sadly, Christians and Christian leaders in the West have given significant push-back against discipline. They do not outright deny the importance of discipline. Yet they resist creating too much structure for community-based spiritual growth and corporate discipline. Typically, sermons focus on self-discipline, providing individualized plans for people to do on their own. Also, some churches have high expectations for leadership development, but do not pass this expectation down to the average church member.

    Why the resistance? 

    Well, discipline takes extra work. In other cases, the resistance may be an attempt to avoid looking like a cult or another religious group that places high expectations on its adherents. Some cults, to be sure, utilize corporate discipline as a means of control, but I don’t think it is wise to base our strategy on a reaction to an overreaction. Just because a group crossed the line in training students or church members doesn’t mean that we should reject discipline altogether. Our challenge is to find appropriate levels of accountability that create healthy change in people.

    On average, it takes at least three to four months to form a new habit. For that habit to take up residence in the heart and form the will may take even longer. Forming these habits requires a great deal of support, which even those outside the church acknowledge. Consider the process of escaping an addiction to alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or other destructive behaviors. The recovery movement understands the need for process. But for some reason when developing positive habits that lead to Christ-like qualities, we tend to downplay the importance of establishing a long-term process for growth. The behaviors we want to change may be less destructive than addiction to alcohol or drugs, or they may just be harder to see, similar to the difference between trying to convince a person with stage-four cancer to see a doctor and trying to persuade someone who feels pretty good to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Our challenge in convincing people of the need for discipline it is always harder to reach those who don’t see their need for help.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • The Goal of Disciplining the Mind

    by Bill Hull

    In Conversion and Discipleship I establish that grace is more than just a passive transformation that God works in us. Here I want to dig into the goal of discipline. Discipline is also grace that enables us to learn from others, utilize our knowledge and understanding, plan and set schedules, and exert effort toward growing in godliness. But how does all of this relate to desires?

    We need to remember that all sin is the result of the good desires given to us by God turning bad. In other words, sin is a corruption of good desires. So for example a desire for power or for sex or to succeed can all be good in the right contexts yet devastating in others. When we exercise desires that are in accord with God’s purposes, they can honor God. But when we exercise desires for our selfish purposes, they are destructive.


    In addition, we need to recognize that many of our desires are set deeply in our bodies and as a result have a visceral power over us that can overcome our mind and the best intentions of our will. For example, a man can determine in his mind and will not to lust, or gamble, or lie, but his primal urges for sex, money, and esteem and can override his determination. This is why it takes time, effort, and discipline to overcome our sinful desires and why we must train our bodies, wills, and minds in godliness. Even as we mature in Christ, these visceral drives can remain unpredictable and dangerous. Paul speaks of them as the “sin that dwells in my members” (Rom. 7:23 NRSV), and we must not underestimate the power they have over us.

    The will depends on the mind to provide it with information. So what we put in our mind matters. Our minds are filled with thoughts and feelings, many of them subconscious, and they inform and effect our willingness to obey the will of God.

    I’ll give you definitions of the what I mean by the following terms so we are on the same page.

    • Ideas: beliefs based on our life experience and worldview
    • Images: concrete and specific pictures or memories
    • Feelings: passions and desires.

    The Goal

    The goal of disciplining our mind is so that our ideas, images, and feelings consistently match the will of God, because we are seeking to conform our will to his. In his wonderful book the Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard describes it this way: “spiritual transformation only happens as each essential dimension of the human being is transformed to Christlikeness under the direction of a regenerate will interacting with constant overtures of the grace from God. Such transformation is not the result of mere human effort and cannot be accomplished by putting pressure on the will alone” (41).


    Note on this construct of ideas, images, and feelings: It comes from Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003), 95–140. See also my exegesis in Bill Hull, Choose the Life: Exploring a Faith that Embraces Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 107–26.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • The Importance of Desire in Discipleship

    by Bill Hull

    Over the years, I’ve found that people approach the practice of these spiritual exercises or disciplines in two ways: the proactive approach and the reactive approach. The proactive approach involves intentionally developing a structure of discipline and accountability. A proactive disciple has a specific plan for growth that includes specific exercises. For example, a person might decide to read, study, and journal through the Gospels in one year. Others may decide to covenant with three other people to meet at a scheduled time once a week to discuss questions, pray, and hold one another accountable.


    The reactive approach isn’t a planned or scheduled one but exercise spiritual disciplines in response to circumstances or to positive or negative events in life that lead to significant changes. If you are diagnosed with a serious disease or your spouse leaves then you react. Reactive disciples who do not have a proactive plan for spiritual growth need a safety net, which for most is their church community. They need to belong to a group of like-minded Christians in a local church who have committed to live a life that is pleasing to God. This needs to be a real, flesh-and-blood church, not just membership in the universal church. When real troubles and difficulties come, disciples need to be surrounded by real people who can offer real help.

    Beyond Survival Mode

    The reactive approach is the bare minimum, or survival mode for the disciple of Jesus. At times in our lives, we may find ourselves in this mode, just surviving and reliant upon the grace of God through his church. But we will only grow into maturity as followers of Christ if we develop and follow a proactive plan that promotes growth. So why is doing this so difficult for many people?

    I’ve found that the idea of having a training plan and exercising self-discipline to follow it puts people off. While they may agree that a self-disciplined life is good, they may have tried and failed or are intimidated by the work involved. Others believe that the disciplined life is for elite Christians, but not for common, everyday followers of Christ. Yet as we have seen, God expects every one of his followers to grow to maturity in Christ. And not only that, but to be contagious carrier of his message.

    Desire

    I believe the kicker, so to speak, is desire. We can develop plans and put structures into place, but if we don’t really want to change—if we lack the desire—we will inevitably fail. In a sense, a very thing that must be transformed is the key to transformation. While the initial desire to be disciplined comes from God, he does not magically empower our change apart from our involvement.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • A List of Practical Spiritual Exercises

    by Bill Hull

    The Holy Spirit must begin our transformation at the level of our desire. But reading about this and understanding it is not enough. We must put our understanding into action. Similarly, if an athletic trainer explained the dynamics of human anatomy and how all of the training machines work, then tailored a training regime just for you, you would have useful knowledge to improve your health. But that knowledge alone would not change you. You need to use that knowledge to do the exercises the trainer prescribed for you.


    Just as we must exercise our physical body to develop strength and maintain health, we must do specific exercises intended to reform, inform, and train our mind, desires, and will. These are the “must have,” required, no-exceptions exercises of spiritual growth. Enabled by divine power, they make our mind and will into the weapons Paul says we need to wage war against the strongholds of thought that control us and sinful desires, temptations, and spiritual enemies. What are these exercises?

    • Worshiping regularly with a covenant community of saints
    • Serving others through speaking and working in the name of Christ
    • Hearing, reading, and studying Scripture
    • Confessing sin and prayerful conversing with God
    • Submitting to authority
    • Practicing silence and solitude
    • Intentionally living a mission that includes helping others become disciples

    Most of these exercises are not natural for us. It takes time for us to grow accustomed to them and make them into habits.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • The Importance of the Body in Discipleship

    by Bill Hull

    When speaking of the change process, we should notice how Paul emphasizes the importance of the body, particularly in Romans 12:1 when he pivots from the theological to practical: “And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him” (NLT).

    Nothing is more personal than our bodies. 

    They affect everything we do and relate deeply to who we are. We experience life and relate to others through them. People may know who we are inside, but they identify us by our appearance and voice. Christians have the hope of one day receiving a new body that will be perfect and won’t wear out. But until the resurrection, we must be dedicated to caring for the body we have been given. If we do not wash, nourish, rest, and heal our body, it will make us miserable.


    Our bodies are essential to our identity. When people think of me, they first think of my appearance—height, weight, and demeanor—and the sound of my voice or laugh. And the body has its own form of knowledge. For example, we don’t have to decide to breath, shiver, or sweat. We do these things automatically. The body also has great power that can be used for good or great evil.

    Our body can be either our servant or our master. Paul chose to use discipline to make his body his servant (1 Cor. 9:26–27). The body is not morally neutral. Because of sin, our body requires transformation. Everything from our posture to our facial expressions and tone of voice can become our ally or our enemy.

    An Altar of Sacrifice

    God knows how dear our bodies are to us, yet he asks us to put our bodies on his altar as a sacrifice (Rom. 12:1). If this image of placing your body on an altar seems unpleasant or strange, that’s because it should. Paul’s original readers were familiar with the altars in temples used to sacrifice and burn animals and other costly offerings to God or the gods. These unwilling animals were killed first, but Paul uses this image to call us to willingly participate in the process of change by giving up our body as a “living sacrifice.” While we do not physically die, this is not a comfortable experience.

    So why would anyone want to offer up their body as a living sacrifice? We give ourselves to God because of all he has done for us. We love him back with concrete actions, not just a rush of emotion. Placing ourselves on the altar and dying to self leads to our transformation into holiness and living in a way that pleases God. And unlike other sacrifices that end in death, this one, though painful, will result in life and eventually resurrection. Paul knows that despite the pain involved, we will do this if we have the right motivation and if the intention of our heart is good and true. There is nothing more worshipful than a willingness to give God what is most precious to us and to allow his Spirit to lead us into holy living. This is the worship that God seeks.


    More on Paul's view of the body in Romans: The air-tight argument Paul presents in chapters 1–11 forces the reader to admit that the only logical, rational action is to turn oneself over to God for service. If God went to all that trouble to save us, empower us, and make us his own, then he is the best one to tell us what to do now. If this is not your conclusion, you need to reread the first eleven chapters of Romans.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • Mystical and Evangelical Spirituality

    by Bill Hull

    While there are many different ways of looking at the means of transformation, the forms of spirituality can be roughly divided into two camps: the mystical and the evangelical.[1] Generally speaking, mystical spirituality is rooted in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and sometimes incorporates Eastern mysticism and Neo-Platonism.[2] The works of Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr give a contemporary taste of this way of thinking. Evangelical spirituality, broadly speaking, developed from roots in the Protestant Reformation and can be read in the works of Rick Warren, John Ortberg, and others who emphasize reading Scripture, prayer, and other practices over mystical experience.


    We can compare and contrast the different ways these two forms of spirituality approach the process of sanctification by looking at various ways of understanding God and our relationship to him. We begin with the idea that God is separate and distinct from us, his creation. What is the goal of seeking God? And how do we know if we have reached it? Does a Christian mystic who chants or meditates have a different goal than a Methodist reading the Bible at lunch? The answer is yes. These two individuals mean different things when they speak of experiencing God. In mystical spirituality, the seeker and God are understood to merge into one. But evangelical spirituality maintains a proper distance between God as a holy other and the seeker as God’s subject. Whereas mysticism emphasizes God’s immanence (presence in creation), evangelicalism emphasizes God’s transcendence (separateness from creation).

    What the Difference Explains

    This difference of understanding explains why some in the monastic movement slip into the thinking and practices of Eastern mysticism. For example by the time of his death, Catholic Trappist monk Thomas Merton was considered the leading Western expert on Buddhist thought. Often, those searching for an experience of God end up leaving behind a transcendent view of God. Catherine of Genoa, a noted mystic, went as far as to say, “My being is God, not simple participation but by a true transformation of my being.”[3]

    We can see practical differences in the methods of prayer. The mystical tradition points to Jesus as an example of meditative and contemplative prayer. Their goal is to be at one with God, not to move him or change his mind but to merge their identity into his and to come into alignment with his person. Christian mystics tend to avoid petitionary prayers in favor of simple prayers that express abandonment to the will of God. The evangelical tradition of prayer is well-described by Karl Barth, “Prayer is wrestling with God, not meditating upon God. It is an attempt to change God’s will, not simply a passive resignation to God’s will.”[4] Evangelicals seek to engage with God as an object to which their prayer is addressed.

    However, both the mystical and the evangelical streams of spirituality capture elements of the biblical witness. For example, consider the anguish of Jesus’ Gethsemane petition. Jesus alternates between requests, yet his prayer is also mixed with resignation. It is an immense struggle, back and forth, between submission and petition. This prayer helps us understand why both schools of thought exist.

    Where Evangelical Spirituality Fits

    Yet in the end, I believe evangelical spirituality better captures the priorities of the biblical witness. In Jesus’ prayer in John 17, we clearly see him speaking to God about his work and making many requests on behalf of his disciples. While the prayers of Jesus contain elements of meditation and resignation to the will of God, they consistently emphasize the importance of making requests and expressing our own desires to the Lord. In fact if we take a close look at Jesus’ prayer life, we find that the majority of his prayers were petitionary and intercessory. In both Mark and Luke, he prays about strategy and selecting the twelve disciples. Jesus prayed about his work, asked for the things he needed, and made sure his Father knew what he was doing.

    I appreciate what Nathan Soderbloom says in this regard: “So much we may know with absolute certainty from all the Gospel tells of Jesus, that his prayer never was merely a state of soul attained by some sure method, or oratio mentalis, a Prayer of Quiet, a mediation, but an intercourse and conversation with the heavenly Father, an outlet for anguish and uncertainty and for questions that needed answer; the bursting forth of a tone of jubilation, a trembling yet confident intimacy longing for undisturbed intercourse with the Father in Heaven, although the feeling of nearness and fellowship with him was wont never to cease during the duties and occupation of the day.”[5] In other words, Jesus was not a mystic. He was clear headed and direct in his communication in prayer and with others.

    At the same time, we cannot completely discount the mystical element in our faith. Some things Jesus taught using metaphors aren’t easy to grasp. They have a bit of mystery to them. For example, Jesus uses the image of a vine and branches to explain his continuing relationship to his disciples (John 15:1–16). He told us to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood in Holy Communion (Luke 22:19–20; John 6:53–58). Identity doctrine in Scripture speaks of being crucified, buried, and raised with Christ and that we who follow Christ no longer live, but Christ now lives within us (Rom. 6:6–10; Gal. 2:20). There is great mystery in these things. But when we approach God, we must maintain the subject-object difference and remember that God is other than us. Radical mysticism seeks to dissolve this relationship. But God remains the holy other—different and separate from his creation.


    [1] I must credit Donald Bloesch for identifying these two kinds of spirituality. Much of my thinking was influenced by chapter 7, “Two Kinds of Spirituality,” in Crisis of Piety (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968).

    [2] Neo-Platonism links Plato’s thought to religion or spiritual life. This philosophical school started not long after Plato’s death and was dominant in the Greco-Roman world. More on Neo-Platonism can be found at http://www.iep.utm.edu/neoplato/.

    [3] Quoted in Evelyn Underhill, The Mystics of the Church (New York: Schocken, 1964), 165, cited in Bloesch, Crisis, 100.

    [4] Quoted in Bloesch, Crisis, 109.

    [5] Nathan Soderblom, The Living God (Boston: Beacon, 1962), 59.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • Growth and Reproduction

    by Bill Hull

    Discipleship and spiritual formation express slightly different aspects of the sanctification process, but they also reflect the common expectations that every Christian will grow and reproduce. Gordon Fee says, “In the long run, only disciples are converts” (Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996], 75). What Fee means is that followers of Christ prove by their actions that they have been converted into a new way of life. Proof of authentic faith is not simply a creedal affirmation but living the life. As Jesus said, “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter” (Matt. 7:21 NLT; See also Matt. 5:15–20; 1 Cor. 13:1–3).


    Yet today, it is rare to find pastors or churches who expect much from their members. Even rarer are people who speak of God evaluating us on the basis of what we have done. Instead in our efforts to emphasize grace, we fail to talk about standards and expectations. Some feel that these things smack of rigidity or legalism, or they find them to be unfriendly to seekers or uncomfortable for regulars. Not many churches expect their members to be knowledgeable of the Scriptures, nor do they honestly expect members to witness, bring others to the Christian faith, and discipline new converts to reproduce as well. Again, we have set the bar quite low. We do not expect growth, and we certainly don’t expect reproduction.

    More Than Only Two Aspects

    These two aspects of sanctification are not the only important matters in the Christian life, but I mention them because they are commonly neglected. Again, much of this neglect is due to the effort to extend grace under the guise of love and acceptance. Yet it is not love to expect less of people because we don’t want to put them under any pressure to perform. It is not grace to set a low standard that anyone can meet if doing so leaves people trapped in their sin and unable to grow. Real love takes action for the benefit of another, and it is not loving to expect less of people than God does.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • Sanctification and Discipleship

    by Bill Hull

    How is growth in holiness, sanctification, related to discipleship? Dallas Willard offers a helpful, organic description of sanctification that is similar to the biblical definition of discipleship we have been discussing. “It is a consciously chosen and sustained relationship of interaction between the Lord and his apprentice, in which the apprentice is able to do, and routinely does, what he or she knows to be right before God.”[1]


    Discipleship occurs when we answer Jesus’ call to learn how to live by his perspective and standards and become the people who naturally act like him. Discipleship describes our existential daily status as learners and refers to our identity. As discussed in Conversion and Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer advocated that we unify the theological categories of justification and sanctification into the concept of discipleship because he believed that discipleship is a more concrete concept of life in Christ. 

    More from Bonhoeffer on Sanctification

    Bonhoeffer’s best friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge, speaking of Bonhoeffer’s efforts to do this, writes, “[Bonhoeffer] tried to grasp the Reformed articles of faith, justification, and sanctification within the single concept of discipleship. Yet with his key formula, ‘only the believer is obedient, and only those who are obedient believe,’ he did not mean to question the complete validity of Luther’s sola fide and sola gratia, but to reassert their validity by restoring to them their concreteness here on earth.” Bonhoeffer later stated, “Justification is the new creation of the new person, and sanctification is the preservation and protection of that person until the day of Jesus Christ.”[2]

    Along with Bonhoeffer, I advocate that we recover a functional way of describing salvation that incorporates the Great Commission and the call of the gospel to follow Jesus. If we begin with a proper understanding of discipleship, we can then explain sanctification as living out discipleship.


    [1] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2002), 226.

    [2] Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer A Biography (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 454.


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  • The Forgiveness Only Gospel

    by Bill Hull

    In my previous post, "The Six Gospels We Preach Today," I discuss what I see as the six most common gospels people preach today. Of those six, the most common gospel preached today focuses almost exclusively on forgiveness. The forgiveness gospel is quite popular because it is simple, explains the basic requirements for getting your sins forgiven and gaining entrance into heaven, and is easy to publish on fliers, brochures, and booklets. The forgiveness gospel tends to equate faith with agreement to a set of religious facts. This decision to agree is typically followed by a prayer or some other protocol, after which a person is proclaimed a Christian forever more. What is wrong with this, you might ask?


    The primary weakness of the forgiveness gospel is what it doesn’t mention. Often this gospel covers the important topics of forgiveness and grace. But makes no mention of repentance, gives no invitation to follow Jesus, and does not discuss obedience to Jesus that Scripture teaches is required for a life of discipleship. The result in practical terms is what some have called the gospel of sin management. By it you manage your sin rather than having your life transformed. This gospel deals with a specific problem—God’s judgment of our sin—by giving a specific solution—Jesus’ death on the cross enables you to be forgiven. How do you benefit from this solution? You simply make the right decision, say the right words to make the right confession, and have the right experience.

    Only a Little Blood from Jesus

    As Dallas Willard adds, “For some time now the belief required to be saved has increasingly been regarded as a totally private act, ‘just between you and the Lord’” (The Divine Conspiracy, 35–39). This gospel preaches a Christ who exists for our benefit alone. His only work is to redeem humankind without requiring any further obligation from them. This understanding tends to foster what some have called “vampire Christians.” They only want a little blood from Jesus for their sins but want nothing more to do with him until heaven. By its nature, this gospel cuts off any ongoing life in Christ because it creates a person who has confidence in heaven but no stake in living for Christ now. Tragically, when so-called Christians like this stand at heaven’s gate declaring by the gospel there is no reason to keep them out, they may find there is no reason to let them in (Matt. 7:22-24ff).


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  • Discipleship Resource of the Year: Conversion & Discipleship [Award]

    Every year Outreach Magazine publishes a list of the top Christian resources for leaders interested in outreach. The list is the “Annual Outreach Resources of the Year”. For this year’s list, we're pleased to announce that Conversion & Discipleship received an award for the resource of the year in the discipleship category.

    Get a copy of Conversion & Discipleship by clicking here.

    Conversion & DiscipleshipFor this annual list, Outreach picked top resources by category based on hundreds of submissions from publishers and authors from November 1st, 2015 to October 31st, 2016. The panel chooses must-read resources for pastors and leaders alike.

    They select a book in twelve different categories: evangelism, church, leadership, cross-cultural, social justice, apologetics, culture, discipleship, counseling and relationships, Christian living, children, and youth. Their selection represents the most important ideas, strategies and trends for that category.

    This year, Brad Watson, the executive director of Gospel-Centered Discipleship and pastor of coaching and missions at Bread & Wine Communities in Portland, Oregon, evaluated books in the discipleship category. As a representative of Outreach, he selected Conversion & Discipleship: You Can't Have One Without the Other as this year's top discipleship resource for pastors and leaders.

    In response to this award, Bill Hull says,

    "I want people to read this book because it deals with the singular issue facing American Christianity right now: what gospel do we believe in? Dealing with this question is vital because the gospel we believe in will determine the kind of people we are. If we're going to love the world as Christ loved the world, then we need to be increasingly more Christ like. The extent to which we become more Christ like goes back to the gospel we believe and what it naturally produces. In Conversion & Discipleship we teach that all who are called to salvation are called to discipleship, no exceptions, no excuses. By aligning with the Gospel of Jesus, we align ourselves also with the core mission of Jesus.

    “In the end, my hope is that the reader will more clearly understand what it means to live as disciples of Jesus. Following after Jesus means we are called to make disciples who in turn make other disciples. It's about multiplication, not just reproduction."

    Outreach Magazine started in 2002 in response to the growing desire among church leaders for more resources on outreach. They provide through print and digital publications leading ideas, insights and stories for Christian churches who are interested in outreach. Their publications feature speakers, authors and leaders like Andy Stanley, Francis Chan, Craig Groeschel, Dave Ferguson, Rick Warren, Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels, and many others.


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  • Three Kinds of People

    by Bill Hull

    The founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, Lewis Sperry Chafer, wrote an influential book in which he presented a theory, based on 1 Corinthians 2–3, that there are three kinds of people: natural people, carnal people, and spiritual people.[1]

    Natural People and Spiritual People

    Natural people are unbelievers who are unable to sense or discern the things of God. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14 ESV). In contrast to natural people are spiritual people who we would consider believers in Christ. “The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:15–16 ESV).


    Carnal People

    The third type people are what Chafer refers to as the carnal. “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (1 Cor. 3:1–3 ESV).

    To be clear, Paul refers to these people as “infants in Christ.” Yet he also says that he cannot distinguish them from non-Christians. Is Paul creating a secondary class of Christians here, or are these just bad Christians behaving badly? Or perhaps these are professing Christians who are not born again and are simply acting like what they truly are, non-Christians? It could be that Paul was giving these Christians the benefit of the doubt. But outwardly there seems to be no distinction between the behavior of carnal Christians and natural people. Both appear to be deaf to the things of God.

    A Secondary Class of Christians?

    In arguing for the existence of this secondary class of Christians, Chafer makes the following argument (quoted in Stanley, Salvation by Works, 63):

    The difference between the spiritual man and the carnal man is as follows: the spiritual man has “no limitation on him in the realm of the things of God. He can ‘freely’ receive the divine revelation, and he glories in it. . . . The ‘spiritual’ man is the divine ideal of life and ministry in power with God and man, in unbroken fellowship and blessing.” The carnal Christian on the other hand “is born again and possesses the indwelling Spirit; but his carnality hinders the full ministry of the Spirit.” He is characterized by a walk that is on the same plane as that of the “natural” man. In short the carnal Christian is controlled by the flesh whereas he that is spiritual is controlled by the Spirit. From this it follows that there are “two great spiritual changes which are possible to human experience.” The natural man must become saved, and the saved man—if he is fleshly—must become spiritual.”

    The problem with Chafer’s argument is that it ignores the reality that every true Christian has carnality inside that is potentially debilitating. All believers struggle with the flesh, but all have the capacity to overcome it. In fact, true believers do overcome their sin and produce fruit in a consistent way. Chafer’s classification of carnal Christian, one as who has a ticket to heaven yet is fruitless and comfortable with sin, opens the door for confusion because, simply put, such a person does not exist.

    What then is Paul saying in 1 Corinthians 3:1–3? In effect, he is telling the Corinthians Christians to stop acting like unbelievers. This is a pastoral response to sinful behavior that is similar to the rebuke we find in Hebrews 5:11–13, where the author calls these Christians “spiritually dull” and hard of hearing. He says they are “like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food” (Heb. 5:12 NLT). This immaturity is a very real problem in our churches. The question is not whether such people exist but whether we should establish a separate category for them and make allowances for real believers who no longer repent of their sin. If we accept that the category of carnal Christian exists, we slit the throat of the gospel, and in accommodating their sinful behavior, we drive a stake through the call to discipleship.

    Carnal Christianity?

    Carnal Christianity fits nicely with the alternative vision of the Christian life. Carnal Christians can assume they are forgiven and that discipleship is optional. This is a form of cheap grace, or as Bonhoeffer put it, the death of discipleship.

    Carnal Christians make much of the forgiveness of sin. In fact, they love to hear that their sins are forgiven and see this as is the defining reality of being a Christian. But forgiveness detached from repentance and the call to follow Christ is not the gospel. A real Christian responds to discipline and changes to live and behave according to the standard of Jesus’ teachings. This is why we must include the call to discipleship in our proclamation of the gospel.


    [1] Lewis Sperry Chafer, He That Is Spiritual: A Classic Study of the Biblical Doctrine of Spirituality (Philadelphia Sunday School Times, 1918; reprint Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), 15–22.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • Having a Saving Faith

    by Bill Hull

    In his short letter, James addresses the topic of faith and its relationship to works. At one point, he asks a question that is quite relevant to our discussion: “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone?” (James 2:14 NLT, emphasis added). The obvious answer to his question is no. Faith that never does anything is not a saving faith. James continues to illustrate his point by employing the example of helping those who are cold, hungry, and in need. A so-called faith that does not help the needy is “dead and useless” (James 2:15–17). True faith is made visible by the works it does. “I will show you my faith by my good deeds” (James 2:18 NLT). 

    When Faith is Real

    Faith is only real when it manifests itself in obedience to God and love toward others. James even ridicules an inactive, dead faith by comparing it to what demons believe. “You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?” (James 2:19–20 NLT).


    Martin Luther once said, “Christians are saved by faith alone but not by faith that is alone.” He meant that true faith would necessarily produce works and joked that while people were arguing whether faith produced works, those with true faith were in the streets doing good works. In this Luther followed the consensus of the Patristic Fathers.[1] Augustine made sure to link faith to works in his commentary on Jesus’ words in John 15:5, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”[2] Augustine’s point was that real faith is not passive but active. Real faith moves people; action is faith’s primary property.

    In his letter, James concludes by explaining how faith works, using Abraham as his example. Abraham confirmed he had faith when he was willing to sacrifice Isaac on the altar. James writes: “You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete” (James 2:22 NLT).

    What We Can Conclude

    So we can conclude with James and the church founders that a faith that saves is a faith that acts. Yet we must understand this truth in light of Paul’s words, “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Eph. 2:9 NLT). Recall that the essence of the good news of salvation is that it is a gift. Grace cannot be earned; salvation cannot be attained without God’s mercy. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23 NLT, emphasis added).

    So whatever we conclude about the relationship between faith and works, we know that works even done in faith will not earn our salvation nor earn us merit before God. I believe that the best way to reconcile faith and works is to say that we are saved by faith, but this faith must be one that acts—a living, active faith that expresses itself in love. If it does not, we are not saved. As James reminds us, we cannot be saved by a dead faith.

    Problems in Our Churches

    Here is where we run into problems in our churches. Because faith has been taught as agreement to a set of beliefs or a praying a specific prayer one time rather than obedience to Jesus, our churches are crowded with confused people. Many think they are Christians and wonder why they have little interest in what their pastor or priest is telling them. Conversion for these individuals has never included Jesus’ call to follow him, and they have never been taught what it means to be a disciple. If discipleship is not taught as the normal calling of every follower of Christ, then we have a mess of people who see themselves with a ticket to heaven but view the Christian life as a collection of optional activities. Their faith is weak, if not altogether dead. If we think we will make Christlike disciples from a flawed gospel, we are wrong.


    [1] Most Patristic Fathers held that salvation was not by works, yet that no one can be saved without them. See Alan Stanley’s fine work, Did Jesus Teach Salvation by Works? The Role of Works in Salvation in the Synoptic Gospels (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2006), 20–60.

    [2] Augustine quoted by Stanley, Salvation by Works, 25.


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  • What Does It Mean to be Saved?

    by Bill Hull

    The Greek word translated “saved” and its synonyms primarily mean being delivered from something or someone. But salvation is not just a past experience. The Bible speaks of salvation as a present and future reality. While the modern, Western church primarily views salvation as a past event that begins a Christian life, the New Testament speaks of salvation as both an event and a process—a journey. 

    The Journey

    This journey begins with repentance and belief that are followed by a lifetime of discipleship. The ongoing discipleship journey leads to greater sanctification, and in the end, we experience complete transformation in the eternal state. Salvation, then, is much closer to the process of discipleship than our typical gospel presentations depict. 

    The following section breaks down several elements of salvation and sets them into the lifestyle of discipleship.


    In Ephesians 2:1–5, Paul speaks of our salvation. “Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers of the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else” (Eph. 2:1–3 NLT, emphasis added).

    Sin Affects Each One of Us

    In Conversion and Discipleship I highlight three phrases in this passage that show sin is a problem that affects each one of us. Every person begins life in the grip of sin and under the control of the commander of the unseen world, the devil. We are dead because of our sin, and in our spiritual deadness we follow the desires of our sinful nature. For God to rid the world of sin, he must address its presence in each of us. One way of destroy sin is by destroying the world, which God did in the days of Noah. But it did not solve the problem because he saved sinful humans. We are still in the line of fire, or as Paul writes, “By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger.” Not only do we need to be forgiven of our evil deeds and cleansed from our desire to do evil, we must also face the consequences of our sin. Humanity is currently slated for destruction, along with all that is evil.

    In the midst of this depressing situation, Paul explains how God saves us. “But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead” (Eph. 2:4–5 NLT). Paul introduces alternatives to death, anger, wrath, and sin—a life of mercy, love, grace, and salvation. That God shows mercy means that saving us and forgiving our sin are not something we should expect and certainly not what we deserve. By all rights, God should punish us for violating his house rules. Instead, he shows us mercy. Though all people are sinners who deserve punishment, God has offered an alternative to punishment—an act of mercy whereby sin is paid for by another. Christ paid the price, and God raised him from the dead as Exhibit A, proof of his ability to solve the death problem. And he extends his offer of forgiveness and salvation to everyone.

    Only By God's Grace!

    In addition, Paul explains, “It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!” (Eph. 2:5 NLT). The fact that our salvation is by grace means that we are incapable of saving ourselves. What we need to remedy our sin problem is more than better conduct or trying harder. Given the right motive, we know that people can improve their behavior. Rehab clinics and peer pressure tell us that behavior modification is within the range of human capabilities. But it is one thing to change outward behavior and another thing to transform motives so they are no longer selfish and self-centered. The Bible is clear that we do not have the resources to change ourselves in this way and require someone greater than ourselves to do it.

    At this point, some will protest that none of us chose to live, and being sinful is not a choice we have willingly made. It is the result of our ancestors, Adam and Eve. Some say, “I never asked for this! And now you tell me I should be grateful that you are going to save me from a fate that I am responsible for but never freely chose?” But this response reveals our tendency to think of ourselves as individuals, apart from relationship to others. The reality is that our accountability for sin is like being born into a family. We may not like our family, but it’s our family. We didn’t get to choose the context into which we would enter this world. That’s just not something we get to control or decide.

    We can protest. But in the end, we must admit that Paul’s description of the problem is an accurate reflection of human experience. Though we may not understand why and how, we are accountable for the actions of our sinful nature and stand in need of God’s mercy and grace. We need to be saved from both our sinful nature and the consequences of the sins we commit, and from both the sinful world we live in and our personal slavery to the devil.


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  • The First Word of the Gospel

    by Bill Hull

    As I show in Conversion and Discipleship, the gospel is the proclamation of God’s good news. The first word of the gospel, which is often overlooked, is repentance. In the New Testament Gospels, the proclamation begins with John the Baptist “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). While Jesus had his own nuances, the Gospels indicate that he continued the preaching tradition that John started. “Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. ‘The time promised by God has come at last!’ he announced. ‘The kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:14–15 NLT). The first word of response to the good news that came from Jesus’ mouth was repent.


    However, the gospel begins as the story of God’s relationship to his people Israel and relates the fulfillment of his promises to them to send a Messiah, a savior who would deliver them and through them bring his blessing to the nations. In Acts, we see this historical background in the preaching of the apostles and hear the prominence of the call to repentance in Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (See Acts 2:38; 3:19; 7:2–53; 8:22). Paul summarizes his message in his farewell to the Ephesian elders, “I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike—the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God, and of having faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21 NLT). The gospel begins with a call to repent from sin and turn to God.

    More on Repentance

    Though we discussed repentance in the last chapter, more on the topic here will be helpful. Wayne Grudem defines it as “heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ” (Systematic Theology, 713). In other words, feeling sorry about an action does not qualify as repentance. Genuine repentance includes both an emotional component and a corresponding decision of the will to make an about-face turn in the right direction and to change behavior. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians speaks of the need for more than sadness over wrong doing. He says that he was not sorry for his first harsh letter because it created a productive sorrow in them: “Now I am glad I sent it, not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way. For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death” (2 Cor. 7:9–10 NLT, emphasis added).

    As Paul clearly indicates here, repentance involves sorrow that leads us away from sin, and the process of leaving sin results in our salvation. So a necessary aspect of our salvation is real repentance from sin. While this repentance is an ongoing process, we can safely say there is no salvation when sin has not been forsaken.

    The Vital Importance of Repentance

    This is what I mean when I say that the first word of the gospel is repentance. No one can decide to follow Jesus without repenting. Assent to a doctrinal truth is one thing; it is another to forsake sin. Grudem writes, “It is clearly contrary to the New Testament evidence to speak about the possibility of having true saving faith without having any repentance for sin. It is also contrary to the New Testament to speak about the possibility of someone accepting Christ “as Savior” but not “as Lord,” if that means simply depending on him for salvation but not committing oneself to forsake sin and to be obedient to Christ from that point on” (714).

    Yet some have argued that repentance is not required for salvation. Their objection is that repentance in conversion is a form of salvation by works.[1] If the work of actual behavioral change is required for salvation, then by this human effort we somehow contribute to our salvation. In addition is a genuine pastoral concern that we are adding a stumbling block or an unnecessary requirement to the gospel. While we may need to address some of this concern, we need to be wary of the alternative—a diluted gospel that promises forgiveness yet demands nothing from us. This diluted gospel preaches grace without calling us out of our willful slavery to sin. It speaks to one issue, not being punished for our sin, yet leaves out God’s work with Israel, his law for living on earth, and his greater purposes in redemptive history. It also leaves out the call to discipleship.

    I am convinced that the time has come for theologians, pastors, and church leaders to turn this ship around and preach a gospel that calls people to repent.


    [1] The Lordship Salvation controversy in the 1980s was between John MacArthur in his book by the same name and some prominent faculty at Dallas Theological Seminary including Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges. Ryrie and Hodges claimed that requiring repentance added a work to faith, while MacArthur claimed saving faith required repentance, commitment to a new life, and fruit to prove that new life was a reality. Some also teach that the gift of believing faith inherently includes the desire to repent. However if this is the case, why did John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and Paul include repentance as a requirement for salvation?


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  • The Importance of Defining Salvation

    by Bill Hull

    Salvation is a big word that covers a great deal of territory. We talk about the need to be saved, or we ask people, are you saved? But what does that mean? What do we need to be saved from? Why do we need to be saved? While we inherently know that humankind is in a complex conundrum of trouble, the great minds of the world have been unable to come up with an answer.


    God has provided an answer for us, but our churches also struggle with some of these basic questions. What we are saved from? What we are saved for? The popular understanding of salvation that dominates evangelical churches today has little connection with discipleship or life transformation. Dallas Willard once concluded, “Simply put, as now generally understood, being ‘saved’—and hence being a Christian—has no conceptual or practical connection with such a transformation.”[1]

    This is a serious problem. 

    Our understanding of salvation has been divorced from a commitment to following Jesus. Discipleship is relegated to the status of optional, an add-on to the normal Christian life. Many Christians today believe that if we would like to live closer to Christ, we should be more godly people and live a life of peace, joy, and goodness. That’s great. But in fact, people believe it is one of several options for those who are safe in the security of salvation. It is certainly not something for all Christians.

    What is the motivation for becoming like Christ when doing so is no longer seen as a requirement for heaven? People believe that getting into heaven is simply a transaction based on acceptance of a doctrine, irrespective of any behavior change. Being saved is being delivered from the consequences of sin. But all too often being saved does not lead one to become the type of person who actually wants to be in heaven, let alone someone who would enjoy it.[2]

    More on Defining Salvation

    The truth is that if we are saved by acknowledging belief in a specific doctrine, and yet spend most of our life ignoring God’s will and using him for our own purposes, we are unlikely to want to be in heaven. If a taste of God and a God-centered life is too much for us now, what will we do with a full dose of God forever? If we don’t like God nor agree with him in the here and now, why do we think our desires will change with a change of scenery? If we think that God will someday change us to like him and want to be with him, we beg the question—isn’t loving him now a large part of being a follower of Jesus? And why should we do now what in the end God will do for us in an instant?

    God wants willing disciples who love him and are eager to follow him. The notion that we can be saved without loving him is a plain falsehood (See Eph. 2:10). Yet this notion is the central problem we face in contemporary Christianity. Many Christians claim to be saved but have no interest in the ways of God.


    [1] Dallas Willard, “Spiritual Formation as a Natural Part of Salvation,” transcript of a talk given at Wheaton College, 2008, 19.

    [2] This is another way of agreeing with what Paul saw to be his task, “So we tell others about Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all the wisdom God has given us. We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ. That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me” (Col. 1:28–29 NLT).

    This is an excerpt. Continue to follow this blog to learn more of Bill Hull's understanding of the meaning of salvation.


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  • Specific Callings

    by Bill Hull

    Belief leads action. If we are not acting on our belief, we do not have true faith. To this point, I explore in Conversion and Discipleship (Chapter 2) how Jesus’ call to discipleship is for everyone. In various ways, Jesus invites anyone who hears him to follow him, and he gives no specific timeframes or tasks with general call. The call was often issued to the crowds or groups of people (See Matt. 16:24–27; Luke 14:25–35).

    But there is another category of calls to follow Jesus that we find throughout the gospels. These are specific calls to particular people. A classic passage of a specific call is Mark 10:17–21. Jesus told a rich man, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).


    When we read specific calls like this, we can forget that Jesus was speaking to an individual in a particular context. Many readers have assumed that through his command to his man, Jesus was telling all disciples to get rid their possessions. But I argue that Jesus’ purpose wasn’t to convince the man to sell his goods but to get him to think about a level of faith and trust in Jesus that would enable him to leave it all behind and become a disciple. Jesus knows people’s hearts and their particular idols and strongholds (See John 2:24). In this specific calling, he wasn’t laying out a rule for all of us to give everything away. He was speaking to this man and his specific struggle. This call was what this man needed to do to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, but not necessarily what everyone else needs to do.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • Constantly Learning

    by Bill Hull

    Jesus’ teaching led to a variety of responses from his followers.  Sometimes they complained, “This is very hard to understand. How can anyone accept it?” (John 6:60 NLT). At other times, they resisted or were anxious about what he was teaching. “They didn’t understand what he was saying, however, and they were afraid to ask him what he meant” (Mark 9:32 NLT). Sometimes they had no idea what Jesus was even talking about, and they would just throw up their hands. “Those who heard this said, ‘Then who in the world can be saved?’” (Luke 18:26 NLT). Clearly they often lacked faith or insight to grasp the full meaning, causing Jesus to respond, “You faithless and corrupt people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you?” (Matt. 17:17 NLT).


    The first disciples didn’t always measure up. But far from discouraging us, this is actually good news, because it shows that being a disciple isn’t a state of perfection. Disciples are people in process who are still learning, still growing. They make mistakes. The first disciples help explain our own experience, and their stories provide comfort and encouragement because we know in the end, almost all of them produced great fruit. A developing faith is not a flawless faith. Discipleship is realistic, not idealistic.

    The Process of Discipleship

    Alan Stanley explains the nuance of understanding discipleship as a process: “We must be careful to distinguish between the call to be a disciple and the reality of being a disciple. Since many define discipleship only as the conditions laid down by Jesus in the Gospels, it is not surprising that ‘disciple’ has become virtually synonymous with ‘committed Christian.’ Yet as we have seen this was patently not the case with the Twelve and neither is it the case for the rest of the NT (227).

    This leads another statement we can make about discipleship: it is the ongoing reality of anyone who desires to follow Christ. Discipleship is not a one-size-fits-all process, and he doesn’t churn out disciples every hour like a widget factory. He calls all of his disciples, and he lays out the same demands and requirements. But he makes allowances for our individual ways of learning and uses our entire lifetime to develop our faith.

    We become disciples at conversion, when we answer the call of Christ to follow him. Then we spend the rest of our lives becoming in reality what he called us to be.

    Note: The first paragraph has been gleaned from Stanley, Did Jesus Teach Salvation by Works?: The Role of Works in Salvation in the Synoptic Gospels, 226.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • Disciples Come in All Shapes and Sizes

    by Bill Hull

    We should notice that Jesus calls different disciples to different roles, and during his life on earth, disciples followed him in different ways. In the come and see period of his first four months of ministry, Jesus collected more followers that the twelve who became closest to him. Many joined Jesus for a time, even though they may not have been personally invited. Other disciples were marginal or secret, like Nicodemus who came to Jesus under the cover of night and Joseph of Arimathea who was a secret disciple. 

    True Disciples

    But they were still considered disciples. Thousands of curious people gathered to hear Jesus teach and pretended to be disciples, but left when the teaching or situation became difficult. (For example, Jesus fed 5,000 followers in John 6:1–15, but many disciples left him after hearing his hard teaching in John 6:60–70.) True disciples are those who continue into the Come and Follow Me period.


    After the Come and See period is the Come and Follow Me period, but this following has different forms for different disciples. While Jesus was on earth, many disciples left their jobs and homes and physically followed him around the countryside. But Jesus would sometimes tell followers to leave him or return home rather than join his band of disciples. For instance after the woman anointed his feet with perfume, he told her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50 NLT). He instructed a healed leper, “Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you” (Luke 17:19 NLT). When the delivered demonic begged to go with him, Jesus said, “No, go home to your family, and tell them everything the Lord has done for you and how merciful he has been” (Mark 5:19 NLT).

    Following Jesus in Different Shapes and Sizes

    Jesus left scores of people in small towns and villages behind him and did not invite them to physically follow him. However, they also became his disciples because they believed in him and followed his teachings in the ordinary terrain of life. These differences are helpful for us to remember, because the vast majority of those following Jesus—throughout history and today—are called to work ordinary jobs, raise families, and be lights in their communities rather than being called to leave home to become missionaries, pastors, or international aid workers.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • Jesus Asks for More

    by Bill Hull

    What was Jesus asking from his followers? When he said, “Follow me,” what did he expect them to do? Once again, the answer is more straightforward than we might imagine. He asked them to leave their tax booth, drop their nets, and leave their home behind, and he implied that he would handle the rest. Jesus didn’t ask for a creedal recital or a formal confession. He asked for a demonstration of just enough faith to begin walking with him.

    The story of Peter and Andrew provides an illustration. “One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers—Simon, also called Peter, and Andrew—throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, ‘Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!’ And they left their nets at once and followed him” (Matt. 4:18–20 NLT).


    Mark’s account fills in the rest of the story. “A little farther up the shore Jesus saw Zebedee’s sons, James and John, in a boat repairing their nets. He called them at once, and they followed him, leaving their father, Zebedee, in the boat with the hired men” (Mark 1:19–20 NLT). James and John may have already warned their father that this might happen, since they had probably already met Jesus. So Zebedee was left holding the nets, but he probably wasn’t surprised. He knew the affect Jesus had on his sons. Yet regardless of what he thought, they left to follow Jesus.

    Did leaving behind profession and family qualify as “saving faith?” The truth is that we don’t have a nice, neat compartment into which we can place these men. We can’t say they were Christians because no church or organization existed at this point. All we can say for sure is that they were followers of Jesus and had much to learn from him at this point.

    Footnote: More on Come and See

    The Come and See period was about four months and is recorded in John 1:35–4:46. While this episode with Levi is recorded early in Matthew, it is placed after the Come and See period when calendared out in a Harmony of the Gospels, and begins the Come and Follow Me period as recorded in Matthew, which is about ten months long. For further explanation, see Bill Hull, Jesus Christ, Disciplemaker (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004). Robert Thomas and Stanley Gundry, The NIV Harmony of the Gospels (New York: HarperCollins, 1988) is a good resource for seeing the stages of Jesus’ four calls to his followers: Come and See, Come and Follow Me, Come Be with Me, and Remain in Me. This four-fold call is derived not only from Scripture but was also noted by A.B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1988), 11.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • Three Characteristics of the Kingdom Gospel

    by Bill Hull

    In my post, "The Kingdom Gospel," I shared the nature of the Kingdom Gospel of Jesus. In this post, I’d like to draw out three characteristics of the kingdom gospel to show why it is unique.


    First

    The kingdom of God grows by investing in a minority population. Jesus describes the kingdom of God through parables and claims that those who have spiritual insight will understand. Those who are not inclined to hear cannot understand. “For they look, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand” (Matt. 13:13 NLT).

    Using a parable of sowing seed, Jesus explained how the word of God receives a variety of responses. His audience was observant Jews who were expecting a political and military revolution but who were not inclined to believe a rural, untrained rabbi. So Jesus told them that some who hear the message will not accept it. Others will respond but be lack luster, nominal, or casual. But the good news was that others hearers would respond and produce a harvest of their own, reproducing from a third to a hundred times as much (Matt. 13:18–23).

    We could argue the parable gives the impression that a majority will either not respond or will fall away and produce no fruit. So Jesus may have been implying to his disciples here that they should focus on nurturing the minority who respond positively. In this they would be following their Lord, for he spends his time where his efforts with produce fruit. The fact that he spent most of his time recorded in the gospels with these few men is evidence. As disciples of Jesus, we should not fret over those who refuse to follow him but focus our energy on responsive people who will grow.

    Second

    The kingdom gospel teaches us to obey God by living intentionally in the middle of diversity and ambiguity. Jesus uses another parable to liken life in the kingdom to a farmer who planted some wheat, but then weeds grew up with the wheat. The wheat and weeds were so intermingled that the farmer couldn’t pull the weeds without destroying the wheat. To get any harvest, the two had to be allowed to grow up side-by-side and then separated at harvest time when both were cut down. Jesus explains that the wheat plants are his followers and the weeds are the disciples of the enemy. In the end the angels will separate the two, and off to their respective abodes they will go, wheat to heaven and the weeds to life without God (Matt. 13:36–42).

    Following Jesus requires us to live next to those who do not believe or follow our King. It also means we have an obligation to love them as Christ has modeled for us. We are not charged with determining and declaring who is in the kingdom and who is out. Only an omniscient being is able to do this, and we are clearly not qualified. We are simply to live and love, pray and tell, and some of those weeds will develop ears to hear. The strategy is that if we live among them, we have access. The institutional church does not have the same degree of access or opportunities that its members have every day.

    Third

    The kingdom gospel reminds us that growth is slow but will ultimately permeate everything. Jesus uses two illustrations to explain how his plan is in all of life, a mustard seed and yeast in bread. A mustard seed is small, but it grows so large that it can provide birds with shade and even a home. This illustration reminds us of many Christians who started with only a helping hand but went on to build orphanages and hospitals. The mustard plant is like the Red Cross, or Christians who help when disaster strikes, or those with a Christian legacy.

    Yeast, of course, permeates an entire loaf. Jesus’ point is that like yeast, his word spreads in a quiet way, but once it does, it cannot be stopped any more that yeast can be removed from a loaf to keep it from rising. Like yeast, the King’s disciples must be worked into the middle of the community to have the greatest contact and impact.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • The Kingdom Gospel

    by Bill Hull

    In my previous post, "The Six Gospels We Preach Today," I described the most prevalent gospels people preach today. Here I will focus on the one that I believe is the Gospel of Jesus: The Kingdom Gospel. 

    What we can call the kingdom gospel best captures the preaching of Jesus and the early church. This is the gospel first announced by John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 3:2). Jesus preached this gospel as well: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). Right up to his ascension, Jesus’ disciples expected him to establish the kingdom (Acts 1:5–8). The early church also expected this throughout the thirty years after, right up to Paul’s last days. “For the next two years, Paul lived in Rome at his own expense. He welcomed all who visited him, boldly proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. And no one tried to stop him” (Acts 28:30–31 NLT). Jesus promised that this gospel of “the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached through the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14).

    What is the kingdom gospel? It is the proclamation of the rule and reign of Christ over all of life. This good news began with his deliverance of ancient Israel and his promises to save human kind from the kingdom of darkness, despair, sin, and death through a Messiah. It is the announcement that the promised Messiah has come as Jesus, who is the long-expected king who will sit on God’s throne. Though him we have access to eternal life, and we come under his rule by following him and becoming his disciples. From him we learn how to live our lives to the fullest. The good news is that it doesn’t matter if we are Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. Jesus came for us. He lived for us, died for us, was raised from the dead for us, and will return for us and reconcile all things to himself. Those who follow him will live in his presence, under his rule. Those who reject him will eternally exist apart from his loving presence, which is called hell—the best God can do for those who don’t like him or desire to be with him.

    How do we enter this kingdom of God?

    Entrance has always been the same. Jesus has invited us to follow him, and he is the entrance to the kingdom. So start walking! We enter by accepting him as our rabbi and our king. We agree to learn from him by following his teaching, submitting to his direction, and praying for his help and provision. As we do, we grow to know him and love him, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, we start to become like him.

    Mark Twain once said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why." The kingdom gospel tells us why we were born— for the kingdom of God. The kingdom is the realm of God’s effective will, where his will is done, and it has arrived. His will is becoming a reality in the lives of those who follow Jesus and who make up his body, the church.

    More Than Forgiveness

    While the kingdom gospel speaks of forgiveness of sin and eternal life, it is about more than forgiveness, where we will go after we die, or how to get into heaven. It is about more than self-interest, and more than trying to create a better world that fits our political or religious perspectives. Unlike the aforementioned gospels, the kingdom gospel includes a call to self-denial. It is focused on giving ourselves for the sake of others rather than on becoming financially prosperous or satisfied religious consumers.

    In short, the kingdom gospel calls us to discipleship. Being a disciple of Jesus, learning from him and submitting to his leading and his teaching, is the norm rather than the exception or the option. It calls us to become apprentices of Christ and learn from him how to live our life as though he were living it. If he were a plumber, what kind of plumber would he be? If he were an accountant, what kind of accountant would he be? This is the gospel for real life.

    Dallas Willard speaks of the power of this gospel in his classic work, The Divine Conspiracy:

    If [Jesus] were to come today as he did then, he could carry out his mission through most any decent and useful occupation. He could be a clerk or accountant in a hardware store, a computer repairman, a banker, an editor, doctor, waiter, teacher, farmhand, lab technician, or construction worker. He could run a housecleaning service or repair automobiles.

    In other words, if he were to come today he could very well do what you do. He could very well live in your apartment or house, hold down your job, have your education and life prospects, and live with your family, surroundings, and time. None of this would be the least hindrance to the eternal kind of life that was by his nature and becomes available to us through him. Our human life, it turns out is not destroyed by God’s life but is fulfilled in it and in it alone (13).

    For the Ordinary People

    In other words, the kingdom gospel speaks to ordinary people and brings transformation to ordinary lives as people listen to and obey the teachings of Jesus. This is the gospel Jesus preached to ordinary people and related to their everyday experience. Yes, we need to remind people of the background story of Israel and include the apostles’ teaching. But the heart of this gospel brings us to knowing, following, and obeying Jesus.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • How Spiritual Disciplines Form Habits

    by Bill Hull

    When we start to train our mind to look at life differently, a great struggle will ensue. And if this training is not in the context of supportive relationships, we will probably fail. Lack of relational support is also why so many people gain weight back after significant weight loss. If they think it is a terrible loss to not eat chips, cookies, pasta, and ice cream, they look on these unhealthy foods with longing and miss eating them. Eventually, they go back to their old habits because they want to go back and think they need to.


    So like the goals in weight loss and healthy eating, the goal for spiritual growth is to form the will through the process of transforming desires and then through obedience to exercise good desires until they establish good habits and godly character. As Willard says: “We want to have a will that is fully functional, not at war with itself and capable of directing all of the parts of the self in harmony with one another under the direction of God” (Willard, Renovation, 156).

    Confusing Disciplines with Spirituality

    As helpful as spiritual disciplines are, they must not be confused with spirituality itself. They are not the basis for our relationship with God but simply practices that provide a context for him to work to transform us. I find it most helpful to think of spiritual disciplines as like the exercises we do to improve our physical well-being. Some disciplines will work indirectly like running, which changes the physiology of the body. The muscles burn energy, the lungs expand to take in increased oxygen, and the heart pumps harder. Over time (several weeks), the muscles grow stronger, the lungs have more capacity, and the heart’s ability to pump blood increases. The runner did not directly will the muscles, heart, and lungs to become better; this happened indirectly. The runner willed to run to attain the desired result but also gained greater general health.

    The spiritual disciplines work in a similar way. Let’s say that you desire to become a more loving person. You can’t command your feelings to suddenly change. But you can choose to take the actions that will lead to the desired result. You ask God to change your motives. Then like a runner, you begin a program of regularly praying, taking in God’s word, and worship him in a variety of ways. Over time, your heart begins to enjoy pleasing him, like many runners begin to enjoy running. You may choose to fast, transferring the physical desire for food to spiritual longing for a deeper experience of God and the nourishment he provides. Then you may choose to serve others by doing loving things for them. Suddenly one day you realize that you enjoy serving others and that loving others has become natural for you. Like running changes the body, your spiritual discipline exercises, developed into habits, change your character, which is revealed by how you act. You chose to keep at these exercises because God put the desire for change in your heart.

    Let me give you another practical, concrete example from real life. One fruit of the Spirit is self-control, the ability to do what we intend to do and not do what we don’t intend to do. Many people lack this ability. They cannot pass a pastry tray without having a taste, or pass by an attractive person without flirting. Often the desire for that food or person remains in their heart and mind.

    Jesus on Transformation

    In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of the process of spiritual transformation. The religious leaders, scribes, and Pharisees were focused on external behavior, ignoring the heart. But Jesus looks at the source of behavior, not just the outward appearance. He teaches that true godliness is driven from the mind, will, and spirit. For example, Jesus teaches that murder is the result of anger. If people are not first angry with others, they are not likely to murder them. So rather than avoiding the act of murder, we should focus on thoughts, attitudes, and feelings. Jesus tells us to deal with our anger, cultivate peace and love in our relationships, and forgive others who wrong us.

    Here is an analogy. If you are flying to Houston from Los Angeles, you don’t have to fly to Seattle. Flying to Seattle is not something you need to worry about. In the same way, if you learn to forgive others and deal with the root of your anger, you won’t need to worry that you will kill them.

    Lust provides another concrete example and connects to our earlier discussion about self-control. Suppose you are a man who meets an attractive woman, and you allow the image of her to take up residence in your mind. You can’t go through a day without thinking about her, having fantasies about her, and creating an alternative universe where you are together. You realize that something must be done to stop these desires. Our first impulse, trying harder to exert our will power, won’t work. You can’t command yourself, “DON’T LUST. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT HER!” Neither will attempting to obey commands and keep promises. No, the problem is too deep for these solutions. You need to address the source of your thoughts and the reasons behind your desire. The goal is to get to state were not thinking about the woman does not seem like a loss. You need to examine your longing and why you feel deprived when you don’t have what you desire. You need to bring the provision of God into that place of longing.

    The Remedy

    These situations are where the spiritual exercises and disciplines are helpful. The good news is that we have remedies to cure wrong desires! Whether our longing is for a person, food, a house, a job, or some other thing, the remedy is the same. Consider some basic things:

    • Begin by asking God, “Why am I longing for this person, thing, or situation?” Pray for help in discerning the source. Find another person you trust to talk with about it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer often spoke about how sin wants nothing more than to be alone with you. Sin is empowered when we shut others out.
    • Take a close look at your expectations and think about the consequences of satisfying your sinful desire. Often, we fail to think through to the end. So we need to ask what would it be like, honestly, to get what we want? Our dreams are filled with assumptions about the world that are not aligned with reality. Graciously, God will show us the fallacy of our dreams, which may have been fed by the values and idols of the culture in which we live. Also, you may have triggers in your life, unconscious ways of responding in which you’ve been trained to be dissatisfied with what you are or have. Remember that the enemy’s goal is to make us dissatisfied with what God has given us and to doubt that he loves us. The enemy wants us to think that God is withholding good things from us.
    • Be patient. Change takes time. You may ask why and then have to wait in trust for God to reveal the answer. In the meantime, practice what he tells you. Avoid the triggers and practice the antidote: remember that everything you have is a gift from God and learn to be thankful for what you do have. Focus on the good news of what Jesus has done for you in the cross and resurrection. Your mind will eventually change and inform your will. Over time, you will begin to want what God has convinced you is good. One day it will dawn on you that you no longer miss thinking about that person, food, house, job, or whatever. Its power is gone, and that is just fine with you.
    • Keep exercising the spiritual disciplines such as worship, service, Scripture reading and memorization, prayer, fasting, confession, submission, silence, and solitude. These disciplines expose our motives and bring the flaws in our character to the surface. Negative thoughts that have been buried for a long time and create destructive emotions will be exposed. The disciplines will provide the structure and context that you need for long-term growth and maturity.

    Continue to read this blog for more on spiritual disciplines and training.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • The Holy Spirit and How People Change

    by Bill Hull

    When George Whitefield was asked how many people were saved in a meeting where he had preached, he answered, “I don’t know. We should know more in six months.” Whenever the gospel is preached, we know that God works to convert people. But even Jesus indicated in the parable of the sower that we cannot judge if a person is converted by an immediate response (Mark 4:1–20). Outward appearances can be deceiving. Like in the seed in the parable, some people grow at first, but in the end they bear no fruit. Jesus teaches that we will know if people are true disciples if they bears fruit over time.

    In Conversion and Discipleship, I discuss how salvation is both an event and a process. We are saved, yet we are also being saved. But what actually happens within people to effect transformation? How do we change? How does the inward transformation we experience manifest in our decisions and conduct? The answer is to all of these questions is the Holy Spirit. This process of change can’t possibly happen without the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.

    How the Spirit Works

    The Holy Spirit is in the business of making us new people by transforming our mind and changing our character. The transformed mind informs the will, and from the will, we act. We all know this by experience. However, we don’t change by just wishing or praying it to happen. A simple exhortation to stop doing something will rarely make a dent in overcoming habitual sin. Some excuse their lack of progress by claiming they need more time to come up with a more profound insight or plan. But the brutal truth is that they use up this time in the same unproductive ways. We need the work of the Holy Spirit to change us.

    Keep reading this blog for more on this topic.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • The Six Gospels We Preach Today

    by Bill Hull

    So what gospel is preached today? Well, actually several different gospels. Remember, the kind of gospel we believe and teach directly determines the kind of disciples produced. If we are not preaching the biblical gospel, we are preaching what Paul would call a different gospel. A different gospel leads to a different Christ, a different church, a different Christian, and a different culture.

    I believe that six gospels are prominently taught today, and each creates a different kind of disciple.

    For example if you preach a consumer gospel that is focused on the religious goods and services available through Christ, you will create a consumer disciple. This kind of disciple is nearly useless to Christ and his work. Or if you teach a right gospel that is legalistically focused on measured performance, you will create a legalistic disciple.

    Gospel-Chart

    Most churches intend to produce mature, reproducing disciples, but this is generally not happening in reality. The answer is clear. We are attempting the impossible. We cannot create mature disciples from Christians who believe in a consumer gospel or a legalistic gospel—or any other gospel on the chart except the kingdom gospel. Trying to do so is like pushing a boulder uphill, because we are trying to get people to act in Christlike ways without correcting what they truly believe.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • Two-Tiered System

    by Bill Hull

    I've written extensively about the divide between salvation and discipleship, and here I want to answer the question: What has been the result in our churches of dividing salvation and discipleship? 

    In recent years, Christians have been divided into two categories. At the core of this division is the idea that salvation has two parts. First, a person receives Christ as savior. Sometime later, they submit to him as Lord. This understanding has led to the existence of a two-tiered Christian population those who are saved and just waiting for heaven and those who are serious about their faith.

    Bible-Study

    Practically, this two-tiered system has created an expectation that many Christians will languish and never bear any fruit or multiply thirty, sixty, or hundred fold (Matt. 13:19–23). Because we expect this, we create programs around it. In fact, we may intentionally avoid urging people to study the Bible and act on their faith because these discipleship activities can be interpreted as legalism. We call our church members Christians but refrain from calling them disciples because that term refers to a deeper level of commitment. The biblical terms used to describe believers—followers, disciples, slaves, and servants of Christ—seem much too serious for many church-goers.

    We need to reject this two-tiered system. We need to return to biblical labels and speak in biblical ways about the connection between conversion and discipleship and by doing so reclaim this lost understanding of salvation.

    For more on the connection between salvation and discipleship, stay tuned here at The Bonhoeffer Project blog.


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    This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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  • What is the Gospel?


    The word “gospel” simply means good news. The word occurs over ninety times in the New Testament and is a translation of the Greek noun euangelion. Both the noun and the verb form, euangelizo, are derived from the noun angelos, which is often translated “messenger.” “An angelos was one who brought a message of victory or political news that brought joy” (2.107, NIDNT). We should note there is nothing inherently religious in the word gospel itself.

    The Biblical Structure of the Gospel

    The structure of the gospel is best displayed in 1 Corinthians 15:1–8, which serves as a helpful, concise summary of the gospel. Paul reminds his followers of the core message in light of the resurrection: “Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the Good News I preached to you before. You welcomed it then, and you still stand firm in it. It is this Good News that saves you if you continue to believe the message I told you—unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place” (1 Cor. 15:1–2 NLT).

    Gospel

    Paul reminds us that believing something and standing firm in it are the same thing. His words indicate that belief is more than mere agreement or intellectual assent; belief involves existential living as a demonstration of belief. Paul includes a somewhat cryptic phrase, “unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place.” He may be referring to a belief in the gospel without the hope of the resurrection or to belief in a different “gospel,” one corrupted by his enemies or rivals. 

    The Origin of the Gospel

    Paul then speaks of the origin of this gospel message and its importance: “I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me” (1 Cor. 15:3a NLT). He wants us to understand that the gospel is not his, something he made up or created. He does not have permission or authority to make up the gospel or to write his own version of it. The gospel is something that is received, passed on, and entrusted to others. It is not to be edited, adorned, or removed from its proper context, here referring to the resurrection. Receiving the gospel and passing it on—unchanged—is the only way to preserve it from corruption.

    The skeleton structure Paul gives us in this passage has three parts: Christ died, Christ was buried, and Christ was raised.

    1. Christ died

    “Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said” (1 Cor. 15:3 NLT).

    “Just as the Scriptures said” is shorthand for the writings of the Old Testament. In particular, Paul is thinking of the predictions of the coming Messiah, the promises God gave to Abraham, David, and others that were fulfilled in the birth and work of Christ. When Jesus was born and formally began his ministry, he presented the full revelation of God to the world. My point here is to remind us that before Jesus died, he lived. Ninety percent of his time on earth he lived in obscurity—not exactly a strategy designed for impact. Yet in three short years, he rocked the world in which he lived and started a movement that continues today.

    Jesus’ death meant something far more than most deaths because of who he was: God incarnate. His death had greater meaning because of his godly heritage (John 14:1–14) and because those closest to him considered him sinless (1 Peter 2:22–23). In another passage, Paul interprets Jesus’ death to mean something that all Israel should have understood: “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:21 NLT).

    When Paul proclaimed “Christ died,” he meant several additional things that are a result of Jesus’ death. Because Jesus was the appointed one, chosen by God as a substitute, he took the penalty of sin in place of all who are guilty by birth through Adam’s curse. Why God decided on this plan is not explained here. But we have the simple revelation that Christ died for us and that his death in some way satisfied God’s requirements for humans to be reconciled with him (2 Cor. 5:15–16; 1 John 2:1–2) A living Christ was both chosen and volunteered to give up his life. This is where the gospel begins.

    2. Christ was buried

    At first, this second point may seem incidental (1 Cor. 15:4). You might think, “Of course he was buried. Why mention it?” But Paul includes this point because it establishes that Christ really was dead, locked away in a tomb with a two-ton stone wedged against the opening and a Roman guard making sure no one would steal his body. Jesus himself claimed that he would be in the earth for three days and nights and then would be raised (Matt. 12:40; John 2:19). So part of authenticating Jesus’ words and life and establishing the truth of the promise he fulfilled is verifying his death. Yes, Christ was buried. He really died. And as we shall see, he was truly raised from death.

    3. Christ was resurrected

    “He was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said” (1 Cor. 15:4). Again, the phrase “just as the Scriptures said” refers to all of the messianic promises God made, starting with his statement to the serpent that the deliverer would strike a fatal blow to his head while he would wound his heel (Gen. 3:15). However, the fact that Jesus experienced a verifiable death and burial does not hold much meaning for us without the final act, his resurrection. And resurrection is only an abstraction without appearances and eyewitnesses. Paul chronicles Jesus’ appearances to Peter, the twelve, and more than five hundred others and explicitly states that many of these five hundred could verify to Paul’s original readers what they saw (1 Cor. 15:5–6). Paul even mentions James and himself as among those who saw Jesus after his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7–8).

    These three points are the skeletal structure of the gospel. The remainder of 1 Corinthians 15 is devoted to explaining the significance of the resurrection and includes the fact that Jesus will one day return and subject all things to himself (1 Cor. 15:9–58). The resurrection naturally leads to the return of Christ, the consummation of the gospel and the believer’s blessed hope for the future.

    The Story Continues

    But the story of the gospel is not over yet! The good news for today is that because of what Christ has done, we will one day see God eliminate sin, free us from the distress of living in a broken world, give justice, creating a new, eternal world. These truths, guaranteed by the resurrection, should bring great joy for all who have placed their hope in Christ.


    bill_hull

    Written by Bill Hull, whom you can follow on Twitter here and Facebook here

    This is an excerpt that has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

    Image credit: Shutterstock.

  • What Qualifies as a Theology of Discipleship?


    Recently I wrote about why we need a theology of discipleship. In this blog, I deal with another important question: What qualifies as a theology of discipleship in the first place? 

    Here’s my answer: First, it must address the relationship between discipleship and salvation. Present day evangelicalism gives little place to discipleship in its view of salvation. Our doctrines of grace tend to keep us from clearly defining what it means to be a disciple. We tend to treat the experience of conversion as something entirely separate from the process of becoming a disciple.

    This separation has led to a common problem we face today. People profess to be Christians yet believe that they do not need to follow Jesus. We’ve defined discipleship as optional, a choice and not a demand. (John Stott characterized the gospel as being both a “gift and demand.”) For many who call themselves Christians today, being saved or being a Christian has no serious connection with an ongoing commitment to being formed into the image of Christ.

    Jesus

    Though it was difficult for me to hear at the time, Dallas Willard had pointed out to me that my theology was defective in a significant way. At the level of the gospel itself, I had misrepresented what it means to be saved. You see, the gospel we preach will dictate the result; the content of what we preach will lead to the kind of person created.

    My goal in writing Conversion and Discipleship was not to introduce new ideas. I believe that a theology of discipleship already exists and can be found in the Scriptures. In other books, some I have written, this problem of separation is addressed in a chapter or two. But in this, my newest book, I face the issue head-on. So with fear and trembling, I’m going to lay it out for you to consider. I’m sure that my thoughts will be flawed and criticized, and that as soon as they are published, I will want to change them. But my goal is to start a discussion, and not just in academic circles. I want to see pastors and church leaders—those who are engaged in disciple-making everywhere—participate in this conversation. My hope is to help them better understand the theological basis for discipleship so they can better work to reproduce the life of Christ in others.

    Over the coming months, as I post on this blog, I will cover eight subjects toward a theology of discipleship:

    1. The Gospel
    2. The Call
    3. Salvation
    4. The Holy Spirit and How People Change
    5. Ways and Means
    6. The Church
    7. The Pastor
    8. The End

    For each, I hope to address the challenge that my friend Dallas Willard laid out before us: “For Evangelical Christians, turning around the ship of their social reality, and restoring the understanding of salvation that characterized evangelicalism from its beginnings in Luther and periodically after him, will be very difficult if not impossible. It would primarily be a work of scriptural interpretation and theological reformulation, but modification of time-hardened practices will also be required. Radical changes in what we do in the way of “church” will have to be made.”

    We’ll get started by looking at the gospel.

    This is an excerpt that has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship. Image credit: Shutterstock.


    bill_hull

    Written by Bill Hull, whom you can follow on Twitter here and Facebook here.

  • Why We Need A Theology of Discipleship


    In the coming months I'll be posting content about the connection between conversion and discipleship. As I describe in my book by that name, you really can’t have one without the other.

    I propose that all who are called to salvation are also called to discipleship, and that there are no exceptions to this. Many Christians today, especially in the West, think they have salvation figured out. But if you were to ask them about discipleship, they might hesitate or look at you with confusion. 

    Discipleship? Isn’t that what you do after you become a believer? What does discipleship have to do with becoming a Christian? What does discipleship have to do with conversion?

    In the posts that follows, I want to show you that conversion and discipleship, while distinct, are really two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. But don’t just take my word for it. In this post and others, I will show you that this is what the Bible teaches and is what Jesus intended for his followers.

    Let’s begin with some definitions:

    Conversion: For our purposes, conversion is “theological slang” for when a person decides to become a Christian.

    Discipleship: Discipleship occurs when someone answers the call to learn from Jesus and others how to live his or her life as though Jesus were living it. As a result, the disciple becomes the kind of person who naturally does what Jesus did.

    A word from Willard

    A few years ago philosopher, writer, and Christian minister Dallas Willard was reflecting on the evangelical understanding of salvation and discipleship. Willard wrote in The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, “There has simply been no consistent general teaching or practice under the heading of discipleship among evangelicals of this period: none that would be recognizable as discipleship in terms of biblical teaching or of the Christian past . . . this most recent version of evangelicalism lacks a theology of discipleship. Specifically, it lacks a clear teaching on how what happens at conversion continues on without break into an ever fuller life in the Kingdom of God.”

    Dallas_WillardImage Credit: Christianity Today

    Reflection on Willard’s words

    When I first read these words by Willard, they went through me like a knife. At the time, I had written three books that laid out a new template for discipleship, so I had some skin in this game. I wondered what Willard would make of my modest contribution, so one day over lunch I registered my complaint with him. “What about my books, Dallas? You know, Jesus Christ, Disciplemaker, The Disciple-Making Pastor, and The Disciple-Making Church?” I remember Dallas pausing and then laying his big hand on mine. 

    He said to me, “Bill, I haven’t read all your work, but I don’t see it there.” Strangely enough, this didn’t discourage me. If anything, it made me even more passionate to address the problem. Dallas and I went on to discuss exactly what he meant by a “theology of discipleship,” what it is and why it is needed.

    Dallas has gone to be with God, and I no longer have the comfort of asking him questions at our leisurely lunches. But I have often thought of what he said that day. Now we see encouraging signs that the church is taking discipleship more seriously, especially among younger pastors and leaders. Victor Hugo reportedly wrote, “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” It seems that moment has come for discipleship. I think the time has come to craft a common language for the growing interest in discipleship. 

    At present we are using the same words, but we are speaking a different language. If we are not clear about why discipleship matters, what disciples actually are, the key role they play in God’s redemptive drama and how it is all tied together in the end, what the Holy Spirit has begun, will disappear into the theological mist of confusion. This is why we need a theology of discipleship.

    This is an excerpt that has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.


    bill_hull

    Written by Bill Hull, whom you can follow on Twitter here and Facebook here.

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    The Disciple Makers Podcast

    BIll hull is the guest on the first episode of “The Disciple Makers Podcast”.

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    Polling Spirituality

    The nature of our therapeutic culture is to confuse how people are feeling about their lives with truth. Karl Bonhoeffer, the most famous neurologist at the University of Berlin in the early twentieth century called this self-absorption the " The bad fruit of people busying themselves with themselves." He just happened to be the father of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the great leaders of that century. We all love to talk about ourselves, to think about our unique qualities and how special we are. This fundamental fact about human nature is why I am skeptical about pollsters asking the public about most things, especially about their spiritual well being. Just a couple of days ago a reporter asked Dr. Ben Carson how he was different than Donald Trump. Dr. Carson spoke of one of his favorite bible verses, an obvious dig at Trump for not having one when he claimed the Bible was his favorite book. Carson quoted Proverbs 22:4 " True humility and fear of the Lord lead to riches, honor, and long life. " The Proverbs are not promises, but wisdom that is generally true. The statement was coined by King Solomon who was known for wisdom and riches, but not so much for humility. Dr. Carson appears to be a humble man, Donald Trump appears not to be a humble man. But Carson said he has never heard anything that Trump had said about the Bible or his spiritual life. In other words, Carson came across arrogant, not humble when he gave his unstudied opinion about Trump, it was good TV, but a subjective statement that meant nothing. 

    Most polling of Christians about their church attendance or how close they are to God seems just as fruitless. Because the questions are subjective, the feelings are subjective, and the questions are all about how they are feeling. Instead of asking people how they are doing, how they area feeling, how much they like their pastors, churches, worship styles, youth groups, ask them this, " How are you doing loving the people God has already put in your life?" Ask them when was the last time you forgave someone, sacrificed a vacation to give money, sold a home to finance a new hospital, or returned good for evil? When was the last time you kept your mouth shut and didn't criticize someone you despise, that would be a survey worth reading.

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