What Qualifies as a Theology of Discipleship?

In this blog, I deal with an 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.

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 DiscipleshipImage credit: Shutterstock.

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

Chad Harrington