by Bill Hull and Ben Sobels: Why must we define the gospel today? Let’s start with a common scene that takes place in the counseling chambers of hundreds of pastors every day. Someone comes to the leader’s office and says, “I’m divorcing my mate”:
“I’ve fallen in love with someone else, and I’m no longer happy. I need to do this.”
The pastor protests, “You can’t do that—it’s wrong! You don’t have a good, biblical reason to divorce. If you follow through, you’re committing adultery, and whomever you marry again will become an adulterer, as well.”
This is from Bill Hull and Ben Sobel’s free eBook, The Discipleship Gospel Primer. Download the eBook here in your favorite format at no cost.
The person looks at the pastor, almost whimsically, and says, “Of course I can. You’ve been teaching me for years that God will forgive all my sins—that was handled on the cross. All my sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven. I’m going to heaven when I die, anyway, so no one can snatch me out of the Father’s hand. I am secure in Christ because it’s all about grace.”
At this juncture, it’s “game, set, match” for many church leaders. We don’t have much to say because the person is merely repeating to us what we have taught them. Of course, they are misconstruing our teaching, but the damage is already done. You could try to protest and say, “No, God won’t forgive you! At least anytime soon, unless you repent of your sin, which includes turning away from this new relationship.”
Or you could give a convincing presentation about, “reaping what you sow,” or about how God’s discipline will bear upon them one day, and they will have a long, hard life if they continue on this path. Chances are, though, they will ignore your advice, divorce their spouse, and marry this new person. In a few years, they’ll be serving, teaching, and leading people at another congregation like nothing happened.
You know what happens next, don’t you? They will ask God to forgive them for the wrong they’ve done, glorying in the fact that, “God worked all things together for the good.” They will rejoice in how much happier everyone is—both them and their ex-spouse—and how the children are “just fine.”
In my many years of pastoral experience, the scenario is all too common.
This kind of rationalization is possible, though, because the primary gospel preached in America, by default, is the forgiveness-only gospel, which is almost exclusively focused on sin and atonement. The “forgiveness-only gospel” is the idea of saying a magic prayer that gets you into Heaven one day. It’s sort of a transaction between you and God, where you get a salvation ticket. Behavior in this “gospel” is in no way connected to this initial transaction. As long as your theological barcode is correct, beep—you’re allowed through.
This kind of teaching leads people to think they believe the gospel because that’s what they’re taught. It’s an innocent error, though, because emphasizing forgiveness is part of the full gospel. The problem is that they don’t really believe Christ; they only profess faith in Christ. It is a grave error to equate profession of faith to belief. That’s why it’s important to set the record straight, rebuild our gospel, and crack the code of the gospel that Jesus preached—what we’re calling the “discipleship gospel.”
We wrote this book as a primer for a full-length book, The Discipleship Gospel. In this primer, our purpose is twofold. First, we introduce the problem with preaching non-discipleship gospels that don’t call people to be disciples. As such, these false gospels don’t lead people to make disciples. Second, we show that the New Testament Gospel writers made very clear to their audience seven essential elements of the gospel Jesus preached. Jesus’ gospel led his disciples to make disciples. As you read this primer, keep in mind that the seven elements do not comprise a definition of the gospel. They do, though, provide the critical framework for defining the gospel, which we explore in the full-length book. Read this primer to grow in your understanding of the gospel Jesus preached. We must be sure to preach Jesus’ gospel, which is a gospel of discipleship, because the longer we preach non-discipleship gospels, the more we delay the fulfillment of Christ’s great commission.
This blog is an excerpt from the free eBook, The Discipleship Gospel Primer. Download it free here.
1. Dallas Willard, “State of Discipleship in the Church Today,” Renovating the Heart: Forming the Christ in Me Identity (Christ Church of Oak Brook, Oak Brook, IL, November 4, 2005), MP3.
2. Bill has written on this topic extensively in Conversion and Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016).
3. This book includes material from the introductory chapters of The Discipleship Gospel from HIM Publications.
Written by Bill Hull and Ben Sobels
BILL HULL is cofounder of The Bonhoeffer Project and author of Conversion and Discipleship and The Disciple-Making Pastor. He speaks as a persevering prophet on the topic of discipleship around the nation.
BEN SOBELS is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and serves as Senior Pastor at Cypress Community Church in Salinas, California. He also serves as a regional director for The Bonhoeffer Project.