Here’s the question I heard Dallas Willard put to a roomful of church leaders that led to this post:
Does the gospel you preach naturally lead people to become disciples of Jesus?
Meaning, is there a natural connection between the gospel I proclaim and a life of being with Jesus to learn from him how to be like him? Does the latter flow from the former in an obvious, natural way, or does discipleship feel like an “add-on” or extra-curricular activity for those who are into that kind of thing?
I think this question cuts right to the heart of a problem I’ve seen with some popular definitions of the gospel. Many people claim the gospel has to do mainly with forgiveness of sins; that in its essence the message is “You are a sinner and are headed for hell, but because of Jesus’ death on the cross in your place, you can go to heaven when you die instead of hell.” This is the gospel-as-forgiveness.
But I am convinced it’s not the whole gospel. It certainly is an essential part of the gospel; sin needs to be dealt with. But in speaking as though it were the whole thing, we’re taking one (essential) part of it, claiming it is the whole gospel, and ignoring the rest of it. A host of issues result from this, including the church’s massive discipleship problem.
Here’s Willard again:
“People who are taught that salvation is forgiveness do not make the natural connection to Christ as teacher, and so they don’t become disciples… If you look at congregations that have been told that forgiveness is salvation, you do not see and natural development into discipleship. I’m not being theological about that, just observe and see. And there’s one line [of thinking] that goes with the more Calvinistic side of things that says, ‘Well, gratitude will make you a disciple.’ Well again, you just have to look: it isn’t doing it.”
The proclamation of this gospel makes it damnably difficult to move people into daily interactive relationship with God, because they believe they only need Jesus for his blood (“Vampire Christians” as Willard has called them). They can’t fathom a reason to follow him now, because they think the deal is simply a contract to stay out of the bad place, payable-upon-death. Discipleship to Jesus simply doesn’t make any sense on this understanding of the gospel.
“We’ve gotten ourselves in this odd position where we believe that we can trust Jesus for forgiveness of sins but not for the next sandwich, not for guidance today, not for the power to minister to this individual that I’m with right now.”
And it’s because it’s a deficient understanding of the gospel! When justification is proclaimed as the end-all be-all of the gospel, it almost never leads to discipleship, because it isn’t the gospel the New Testament preaches. There is one gospel in the New Testament: the present availability of life in the kingdom of God through trusting Jesus. That’s what Jesus preached. That’s what Peter preached. That’s what Paul preached. That’s what John preached. That’s the good news, and it includes forgiveness of sins, but also so much more than that.
We respond to the gospel of the kingdom by trusting Jesus, not just for forgiveness for sins, but for everything. We enter into an apprenticeship with him: being with him to learn from him how to do the thing he was “good at:” living abundantly in the kingdom of God.
There’s way more to this than can be said in a blog post, so if you’d like to explore further, here are a few things you can do:
- Read Gary Moon’s interview with Dallas Willard: “Getting the Elephant out of the Sanctuary.” See especially his comments on the atonement.
- Watch these two videos from Greg Boyd, where he talks about the impotence of mere forgiveness without transformation:
Thoughts? Questions? Does this observation resonate with your experience?