Gospel-Centered Discipleship: An Interview with Jonathan Dodson, Part Two
In part one of the interview with Jonathan Dodson, we primarily discussed his new book Gospel-Centered Discipleship. In part two, I asked him to discuss the recent emphasis on gospel centrality which we are seeing in many streams of evangelicalism.
Jonathan will be hanging around in the comments again today. Feel free to ask any questions you may have about gospel centrality, discipleship, or his book.
You can also visit www.gospelcentereddiscipleship.com for more on resources to make, mature, and multiply disciples of Jesus.
Over the past year, the phrase "gospel" or "gospel-centered" has been attached to virtually everything. We've had gospel-amnesia, gospel-centrality, gospel-wakefulness, gospel-repentance, gospel-holiness, and more. Are we in danger of robbing the word of its crucial meaning? To ask the question another way, how does "gospel-centered discipleship" differ from "New Testament discipleship"?
The context, not the ubiquity of a word, determines its meaning. The word gospel occurs numerous times in the NT and augments a lot of concepts. The NT writers use it in verbal and adjectival forms to describe preaching and evangelizing. What we need to ask is not: "Are people using 'gospel' too much, but are they explaining the gospel accurately?" Gospel literature has exploded because of the inaccurate explanations of the gospel. The accuracy, of course, should be determined by Scripture, which brings us to your second question.
I try to capture the biblical gospel as: "The good and true story that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and evil through his own death and resurrection and is making all things new, even us." This captures the cosmic and personal dimensions of the gospel in a Christ-centered way. Its redemption and renewal is as big as the universe and as small as you and me. To be more concise, the New Testament shorthand for the gospel is "Jesus Christ is Lord" (1 Cor 8; Col 1; Phil 2). This reminds us that the gospel is both public and personal. We have a Jesus who is King of all creation and messiah of his community. The gospel is rooted in Christological monotheism, dependent upon Jewish monotheism that has in view a God as the sovereign Creator of all things and Christ as the agent of redemption for all things. Simply put, the gospel is grand and Christ-centered. This is why I advocate for integrated discipleship, a whole way of living wholly by faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. In other words, disciples are called to honor king Jesus as Lord in every domain of life--family, government, education, the Arts, and so on--and they get to honor Jesus as Christ through obedience and repentance. What, then, makes discipleship "gospel-centered?"
The first time I heard "gospel-centered" I thought it was arrogant to specify some Christians as gospel-centered and others as not. Isn't every Christian "gospel-centered?" However, after exploring the meaning of the term, I realized the importance of its theological and practical specificity. I am even slower to embrace "New Testament" as an adjective for things for similar reasons. Both adjectives can be used to unduly discriminate against other Christians.
For instance, someone could say: "We are a new testament church" but that is very misleading. It assumes that their church is the only way for a church to apply New Testament ecclesiology. It implies that no other church is "new testament". However, biblical ecclesiology is flexible on many things, i.e. how you foster community, where you gather, how often you gather, how frequent the sacraments, types of music, and so on. Veli-Matti Karkkainen has a helpful discussion on flexible ecclesiology.
How then do we avoid the same arrogance with the use of the term gospel-centered? Unlike ecclesiology, the gospel is not flexible in meaning. John Mbiti, an African Missiologist, wrote: "The Gospel is God-given, eternal and does not change. We can add nothing to the Gospel. For this is a eternal gift of God; but Christianity is always a beggar seeking food and drink, cover and shelter from the cultures it encounters in its never-ending journeys and wanderings."
Gospel-centered discipleship focuses on the unchanging, eternal, God-given gospel as the means of salvation and the motivation for sanctification. There are other approaches to discipleship that emphasize the gospel as the means for salvation but methods, effort, or spirituality as the motivation. Then there are methodological debates over what discipleship really is--making or maturing Christians. These debates miss the center of discipleship; they often put methods or rules at the center of following Jesus. Jesus, however, died and rose to take the rules out and put the gospel in. He purchased new hearts with new motivations procured by the gospel of grace. These "gospel" motivations are: the presence and power of the Spirit, religious affections, repentance and faith, and biblical promises and warnings. In the book, I am attempting to re-center discipleship around gospel motivation, while allowing for discipleship methods to be flexible.
To be gospel-centered, then, is to be motivated by grace to honor Jesus Christ as Lord in all of life, either through obedience or repentance. The gospel shapes our world-and-life view and motivates our life in the world.