Discipleship Isn’t Optional
The church’s greatest barrier toward thriving today is that she believes in distortions of the gospel. This comes, in part, because of what we preach (and what we leave out of our preaching). The most common gospel preached in the developed world—in places like the United States, Canada, Western Europe, parts of Africa and Asia, Australia, and New Zealand—is the forgiveness-only, consumer gospel. The problem with this gospel is that it’s only part of the truth.
Many of those in the developing world, however, don’t quite have it down either. In our experience, the most common gospel in underdeveloped countries is the prosperity gospel, which makes discipleship almost impossible to teach as an essential part of the Good News. This kind of gospel turns everyone into a consumer of religious goods and services.
Neither version—neither the forgiveness-only gospel nor the prosperity gospel—includes discipleship as a normative part of what it means to be saved. Both gospels make no room for the ways and means of the kingdom that Jesus passed on to his followers. Neither has a serious connection to character transformation, and neither really expects everyone who is “saved” to actually follow Jesus. Moreover, these “gospels” don’t set the precedent for making disciples who make disciples. The idea that every believer in Christ is a follower of Christ is not a common part of the theology, programs, or curricula of these churches. In other words, both of these gospels have a fatal flaw—they separate conversion from discipleship, thus making discipleship optional.
This is an excerpt from The Discipleship Gospel (available in eBook and paperback). Get a discount by using code ‘TBP’ at checkout when you order here.
Through our work with The Bonhoeffer Project, a community of people and resources bent on helping participants to become disciple-making leaders, we have made a lot of noise in speeches and in print about two important statements that are both vital to the message of this book:
You can’t make a Christlike disciple from a non-discipleship gospel.
The gospel you preach determines the disciples you make.
These statements show us that even a very aggressive missional effort over the next fifty years that preaches a gospel to the ends of the earth would leave Jesus still waiting to return if it’s the wrong gospel. Jesus said, “The Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14).
False gospels say, in one way or another, “Jesus died for your sins, he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and he will return someday to gather his church. Everyone who has agreed with this set of religious facts is a Christian. By the way, you don’t need to do anything about it; in fact, you can’t do anything about it because it is all by grace.”
As the late theologian and author Dallas Willard once quipped, “We have not only been saved by grace, we have been paralyzed by it.” The church today is truly paralyzed, and it’s largely because of a contorted view—even deification—of grace. As a whole, the church lacks commitment to making disciples through its ordinary members on a global scale. Leaders do not expect us to make and multiply disciples, so we’re not doing it. As long as we preach the wrong gospel, Jesus’ work won’t be completed; only a small fraction of lives will be changed.
Non-discipleship gospels may be advanced through various powerful forms of media, but they won’t multiply and transform lives of disciples who make still more disciples. These gospels can’t do it. The ways and means that Jesus prescribed have not changed. To see reproduction and multiplication, we need people with “discipleship DNA.” They must have this DNA, no substitutes. Converts as far as the eye can see will never accomplish what a few committed and multiplying disciples can do when given enough time.
If the church continues down the path it’s on, the world will be awash with nominal Christians shaped by a gospel that doesn’t reproduce, doesn’t transform, and doesn’t represent the truth. False gospels will insulate and corrupt nations, and those gospels will fail to accomplish God’s will.
When the true gospel is preached to all nations, however, Jesus said the end would come: “All nations will hear it; and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). Disciples who make other disciples, who in turn make still more disciples multiplied throughout the earth, will preach this gospel. The Danish philosopher and theologian SØren Kierkegaard has a pertinent observation here: “The main difference between an apostle and a genius is that a genius does not speak with authority but has to rely on skill.”
The spread of this gospel will come from ordinary people with the authority of the gospel. These people will accomplish more than what the most innovative and technologically savvy group of genius Christians without gospel authority could ever fathom. As we hold up the gospel that Jesus preached, we have power to penetrate every part of society and every corner of the earth. Let’s start today by truly understanding the gospel, then proclaiming it broadly into a world of men and women who desperately need all that God has to offer—including the call to follow Jesus in obedience.
9. For a complete treatment of this subject, see the Introduction and Chapter 1 of Conversion and Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016).
10. Bill is co-founder with Brandon Cook of The Bonhoeffer Project, which is devoted to creating disciple making movements in local contexts. Ben helps Bill as they train ministry leaders toward this end.
11. From a personal conversation Dallas Willard had with Bill.
12. This is a summary of Kierkegaard’s thoughts by Stephen Backhouse in Kierkegaard, A Single Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016) 151.