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May 8, 2012

Gospel-Centered Discipleship: An Interview with Jonathan Dodson

It is interesting to me that Austin, Texas has become one of the hotbeds of gospel conversation over the past few years. A few years ago, LifeWay Research did a city study in Austin and looked at how churches can effectively engage in God's mission in their context.

One of the leaders God is using in Austin is Jonathan Dodson.

His new book Gospel-Centered Discipleship is a short, yet powerful examination of and motivation for true discipleship within the context of the local church.

He writes on page 11:

When discipleship is gospel centered, it integrates more than evangelism and discipleship; it integrates all three aspects of a disciple through faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. Jesus uniquely brings the rational, relational, and missional aspects together as our Lord and Christ.

I recently asked Jonathan to answer some questions about the book for the blog, and his answers are below. Jonathan will be interacting in the comments on the blog today as well.


You've said that both freedom and religion are really bad masters. Explain. How does the concept of gospel-centered discipleship respond to these misconceptions?

Spiritual license is the tendency in the human heart to find meaning in freedom from rules. Disciples who operate on spiritual license perceive themselves as liberated, set free from the bondage of more conservative Christians. Instead of believing the lie of religious performance--If I perform, God will accept me--they believe the lie of license--Because God has forgiven me, I'm free to disobey. Liberated Christians possess a license to break the rules, to disobey God's Word. They see holiness as negotiable. These disciples don't think of themselves as disobedient; they think of themselves as free, liberated Christians.

Liberated Christians boast a spiritual license that says they are not bound to rules. This license may be expressed by drinking too much, watching inappropriate films, or refraining from Bible reading, all in the name of spiritual freedom.

The subtle assumption here is that true freedom comes from the ability to not keep rules. However, when freedom is constructed against rules, it is a false sense of freedom. The lie of spiritual license is partially true. Because of the costly death of Christ, forgiveness has been purchased for our disobedience. Because judgment has fallen on Christ for our sin, we are free, but not as we might think. God's forgiveness frees us from judgment, not from obedience. Everyone obeys some kind of law. We are all enslaved to something. Even the rebellious disciple is obedient, bound to obey his or her fleeting desires. Those fleeting desires are connected to other "gods." For example, the god of self limits Bible reading while allowing an unlimited stream of Internet reading. "Free" to read whatever they like, the liberated Christians allow unfiltered data to float through their hearts and minds without the redemptive lens of Scripture. Consider the god of alcohol. The god of alcohol rules over the "free" drunk, who obediently takes drink after drink in pursuit of pleasure or escape. Those who are motivated by spiritual license are actually ruled by the ultimate god of freedom. Freedom to not read the Bible or to drink in excess actually ends up hurting more than helping.

Freedom is a deceptive master. So while disciples who operate on spiritual license may appear liberated, they are, in fact, bound to a false, self-injurious form of freedom. The god of freedom actually deceives us by creating the illusion of freedom. In the words of Ray LaMontagne: "And freedom can be an empty cup from which everybody want to drink." Spiritual "freedom" looks full and satisfying but eventually proves empty and bitter. Spiritual license will eventually leave you with a hangover. Anyone who has chased this so-called freedom for any length of time can testify to its eventual, gnawing emptiness.

A disciple motivated by spiritual license drinks from the empty cup of spiritual freedom. Gospel-centered disciples drink deeply from the cup of costly grace and fight to live lives of obedience to King Jesus. Faith in the gospel actually makes us slaves of Christ, who frees us from sin and graciously binds us to his side. At his side, we discover a better God and enjoy a more gracious Master. Spiritual license deceives us by saying: "Because God has forgiven me, I'm free to disobey." The truth of the gospel is: "Because God has forgiven me in Christ, I'm bound to obey." The gospel points us to Jesus as Christ and as Lord. No one is truly free. The religious are bound to keeping rules, and the rebellious are bound to breaking rules. The gospel, however, tells us that we are bound, not to rules, but to Christ. We have been crucified with Christ, and he now lives in us (Gal. 2:20). In Christ we are liberated from sin and delivered into the arms of our Savior. The gospel steeps our hearts in a new motivation of grace, which neither flaunts disobedience nor feigns obedience.

Grace gives us a new identity, not a new set of rules. We all need grace. We all need to be continually awakened to the beauty and glory of Christ and the sufficiency of his grace, which will in turn compel Christ-beholding obedience.

What role does confession play in discipleship?

Confession isn't to be viewed as a ritual bargaining chip we cash in to obtain a clear conscience. Our forgiveness has already been bought in Jesus; we simply procure his purchased forgiveness through confession. This may seem abstract. Perhaps it would be helpful to think of confession in terms of authenticity. Confession is a verbal way of spiritually recovering our authenticity in Christ. Confession rejects an inauthentic image in order to realign with our true image. Sin stands in the way of authenticity. It is a silent, spiritual rejection of our identity in Christ. It denies judgment and grace. However, when we confess our sin in true repentance, we come to our senses in Jesus. We return to ourselves. Confession of sin is a kind of repentance from being inauthentic. It's as if we say: "Heavenly Father, forgive me for not acting like your child, for pretending to be someone I'm not. I want to return to my authentic self as your beloved child and live accordingly." Confession relies on Christ's judgment and grace. He bears our judgment (for sin) and gives us his grace (as his children). The gospel reminds us to live authentically as his children, either through repentance or obedience. In confession, we become authentically Christian, agreeing with God about our judgment-deserving sin and trusting in his sin-forgiving grace. We return to the reality of grace, in Christ, which in turn compels real obedience.

How do you nurture and multiply gospel-centered disciples?

By equipping people to fight the fight of faith with Spirit-empowered faith in the gospel. We do this through small communities of 2-3 men or women who gather regularly to encourage one another to avoid the fleeting promises of sin and believe the enduring promises of God. We call them discipleship groups or fight clubs. We all need relationships of trust, gathered around Jesus, that promote gospel-motivated discipleship.

In the book, how do you differentiate between holiness and morality?

Gospel holiness is obedience to Christ procured from belief in the gospel, not from one's moral effort. In John Owen's distinction, the latter is the product of human effort, not of grace. Although morality and holiness may, at times, look similar on the outside, they are altogether different on the inside. Morality is self-centered; gospel holiness is Christ centered. Morality holds self up high in reaching for moral virtues, but gospel holiness holds Christ up high in virtuous failure and success. Gospel holiness requires the truth of God's Word and his grace to believe and obey the truth.

What is the role of the Holy Spirit in discipleship?

The "Holy" Spirit produces gospel holiness. To bluntly summarize Owen, it is impossible to have gospel holiness apart from the Holy Spirit. No Spirit, no gospel holiness. You might get morality, even a veneer of Christianity, but no gospel holiness. True joy will escape you. Discipleship devoid of the Spirit's power is no discipleship at all. Apart from the presence and power of the Spirit, our attempt to desire God, believe his promises, fear his warnings, and walk in his ways is absolutely futile. Disciples need more than resolve to believe the gospel; they need the Holy Ghost. Without the Spirit, we are powerless to believe the gospel of Jesus, but those who are in Christ have the most powerful motivation for discipleship present in them--the very Spirit of God! The challenge, then, is to actually so know the Spirit that he becomes our motivation in following Jesus. What we need is a relationship with the Holy Spirit.

Communion with the Spirit brings us a general happiness and contentment that cannot be found anywhere else. Communing with the Holy Spirit produces a vertical relationship with the Lord that has horizontal results. When we re-personalize the Spirit, he reintegrates us as disciples who have a whole way of living wholly under God's redemptive reign in Christ by the Spirit. The more we relate to the Spirit, the less we will be concerned about balancing vertical and horizontal discipleship. Communion with the Spirit will take us deeper into holiness and send us further into mission. Spirit-empowered belief in Jesus Christ as Lord leads to an integration of piety and mission. This communion with God takes us deeper into holiness and sends us further into mission. As we relate to the Spirit, he empowers us to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Gospel holiness can be as simple as surrendering to the promptings of the Spirit and as difficult as fighting the flesh. He wants to commune with us in everyday decision-making. God has called us to surrender to his Spirit and to fight our flesh. We have every power necessary in the Spirit to fight for the noble image and beauty of Jesus. Father, Son, and Spirit are collaborating for our gospel-centered discipleship. Along with the power of the Spirit, God have given us another grace--the church. Disciples of Jesus are part of a community that fights the fight of faith. The Spirit indwells and empowers us to be gospel-centered communities that fight for communion with God in everyday life.

Be sure to ask any questions you might have and interact with Jonathan in the comments. A few questions I have for my readers: How do you balance "discipleship as discipline" (do these things and you will grow and be good) and "discipleship as grace" (don't worry about doing, just rest in grace and you will grow)?

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Posted:May 8, 2012 at 12:00 am

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Gospel-Centered Discipleship: An Interview with Jonathan Dodson