Obedience Based Discipleship, Part 3

The previous articles in this series argued that American Evangelicals haven’t been teaching the Gospel that Jesus taught, and that we’ve misunderstood Paul’s teaching that we are saved by grace, not by works. The Gospel must include a call to repentance, which means among other things a change in attitudes and behavior, as well as the idea of discipleship, which Jesus defined as learning to obey everything that he commanded. Most American concepts of evangelism and of the Gospel bear little resemblance to the one taught in Scripture.

Let’s take a few simple examples: no one in Scripture was ever saved by saying a prayer, and yet some evangelicals seem to think that getting someone to say the “Sinner’s Prayer” is enough for their salvation. And while there is arguably some precedent for altar calls in Scripture (though not done “with every head bowed and every eye closed”), for example on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, they’re something of an exception and never occur during times when the Christian community is meeting for worship. So what scriptural grounds do we have for insisting on them at the end of our services?

On a larger level, the fastest growing segment of Christianity globally is Pentecostalism, but unfortunately in many places this is mixed with the Prosperity Gospel. The Prosperity Gospel says that God wants to bless us in every way, in particular by improving our life in this world through making us healthy and wealthy. Along with the abuse of the poor that sometimes accompanies Prosperity Gospel Preachers,[1] this completely ignores the martyrs of the Church Universal, including the Apostles: if they could have spoken health and prosperity into their lives why didn’t they? Why did they end up being tortured and killed if the message of the Gospel is a message of health and wealth? And what does this say about our persecuted brethren in the Middle East, or North Korea, or Nigeria?

Another popular American heresy is the Therapeutic Gospel. This is predicated on the idea that Christianity is there to make you feel better about yourself. Sermons are reduced to feel-good homilies or pop self-help advice. Its focus is on affirming people and accepting them where they are. Uncomfortable topics such as abortion and even sin are avoided because we don’t want to turn people off or make them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. After all, people have enough stress and negativity in their lives without encountering it in church!

This merges easily into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the de facto religion of a significant percentage of Millennials. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism holds that the purpose of life is to be happy and to feel good about ourselves. God created and watches over the world, but is uninvolved in our lives except when needed to solve problems.

In reality, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the Prosperity Gospel and the Therapeutic Gospel are all variations of the same flawed idea, which can best be described as the Gospel of the Self. Ultimately, this sees Christianity as fundamentally being about me, me, me. The Gospel is a means to get what I want, whether better health, more money, or self-esteem, not to be transformed by Christ into what he desires me to be.

This is no different from H. Richard Niebuhr’s description of liberal theology: “A god without wrath brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross,” except that we mention the cross without discussing its meaning much.

By preaching an undemanding Gospel, with no emphasis on the necessity for repentance and change in the fundamental principles by which we govern our lives, we offer what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church...Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing....

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God.... In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. “All for sin could not atone.” Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin....

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

If we are honest with ourselves, in many respects this is the message that too many churches teach and too many Christians believe.

So how do we fix this? If you’re still reading this you are already probably serious about your faith and are already doing some of what is needed already, but here are several concrete suggestions on how we should proceed.

First, we need to pray. Every major revival and reform in church history has been preceded by people praying earnestly, fervently, and persistently for the church, including prayers of repentance for the state of God’s people. Daniel 9:4-19 and Nehemiah 1:5-11 provide models of this kind of prayer. God does not often bring renewal to the church without this kind of prayer.

Prayer is essential, but it is not enough. We need to go back to school as disciples and learn to obey everything Jesus commanded. That means spending time in the Word and asking ourselves regularly and consistently how we can obey what Jesus is telling us. Then we have to do it. If we are not learning to be disciples ourselves, we cannot make disciples of others.

But we can’t do this as individuals: community is critical for the Christian life. We need to find others who are serious about discipleship and join with them to pray and to learn from and encourage each other to grow in faithfulness and obedience.

As we soak our work in prayer and learn to be disciples ourselves, we are also to be witnesses to what Jesus has done for us. Not every Christian is an evangelist, but we are all witnesses of the transforming power of Christ in our life, and we are called to testify to that fact. We need to get over our fear of what people will think of us and speak openly and honestly about the work of God in our lives.

Along with giving our testimony, we are also to call people to lives of obedience. We generally get this exactly backwards from the way Jesus made disciples. We try to convert people and then disciple them; Jesus discipled people to conversion. This is counterintuitive, but look for example at the Apostles: they were discipled for two to three years before Jesus asked them for a confession of faith. So the question is, do we want to make disciples the way Jesus did, or to make up our own way of doing it? We need to be creative about how we do this, whether through inviting them to discover Jesus’ teaching themselves through a Bible study, or by offering Jesus’ words as advice for their specific circumstances, but one way or another we need to invite them to obedience.

One thing is not optional: when we issue the call to follow Jesus, sooner or later we need to include the message of repentance and transformation of life. We need to be clear that although God may accept us where we are, He will never leave us as we are. Everyone is called to deny himself and become a new creation, without exception. We frequently don’t want to talk about this because we’re afraid of being seen as judgmental or intolerant, or because we worry that we will drive others away. And so at best we do a bait and switch as we talk about changing after they convert, or at worst we offer them a fake Gospel.

In the end, we need to learn to fear God’s disappointment in us more than we fear people’s disapproval. Only when that happens can we say we are truly living a life of faith, one which results in a life of love and obedience to the One we call our Lord.

[1] Through the “law of sowing and reaping,” they argue that to become wealthy you have to “sow” money into a worthwhile cause, which generally means their ministry. Thus you find people flying private jets to impoverished areas to preach their message and to encourage the poor to give to them.

Next Steps

As Glenn outlined above several versions of false gospels—prosperity gospel, moralistic therapeutic deism, theological liberalism, among them—did you detect anything in your own concept of grace that needs correcting? In your journal, or perhaps in a letter to a friend, write out your understanding of grace. Then ask, Do I live according to true grace?


Further Reading:
If you’ve never read Bohhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, now would be a great time. Order a copy from the Online Bookstore. Or download the article “Christianity, Culture, and Common Grace” by Kenneth A. Myers.

(1 Pet. 3:15).


Republished from March 5, 2010

Next Steps

Make it your mission to re-enchant the world, at least that part of it that you occupy week-in and week-out. You may be surprised to find that your enchanted lifestyle has begun to enchant some of your disenchanted neighbors and friends.


1 Comment

  1. Excellent work again Glenn! The need to understand that we come to Christ to be changed into God's image (2 Cor.3:18)is so very important. In the world of 'secular inclusion', where who you are is promoted as enough to guarantee your right to citizenship, the idea that change must occur is being denied by many Christians. I think of the song 'Jesus Take Me as I Am'. Yes, praise God, but we come to become like him!
You must be logged in to comment on Christian Worldview Journal articles.