Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gospel-Centered Discipleship, by Jonathan K. Dodson

Publication Date: March 31, 2012

Book Review by Chris Haven

After a brief introductory chapter, Gospel-Centered Discipleship is organized into three major parts: Defining Discipleship, Getting to the Heart, and Applying the Gospel.

Part one is divided into two chapters. The first chapter addresses the controversial subject of whether the disciplemaking mandate of the Great Commission should be seen as a command to evangelize, a command to edify, or both. The second chapter in this part concerns the goal of discipleship, which is to become like Jesus.

Part two, Getting to the Heart, contains three chapters. The first chapter deals with the failure of discipleship. Specifically, the topic of improper motivations for discipleship is discussed. The second chapter then identifies the Gospel as the proper motivation for discipleship. The final chapter of this part suggests that the power of discipleship is found in the leading, guiding, and sanctifying of the Holy Spirit.

In the third part, Applying the Gospel, there are three final chapters: communal discipleship, practical discipleship, and the maturing and multiplying disciples. These final three chapters put “skin” on the discipleship model advocated in the book, showing examples for implementation in the contexts of traditional small groups and intensive one-anothering cell groups which Dodson calls “fight clubs.”

Gospel-Centered Discipleship has a number of strengths.

First, Dodson wades into the dialogue concerning whether we should see discipleship as primarily evangelism or edification and rightly goes with a “both/and” approach over and against an “either/or” approach. In summary, he states that “the gospel that ‘makes’ disciples is very same gospel that ‘matures’ disciples,” and that we should collapse “the dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship” such that we see that “disciples are made and matured through repentance and faith in the good news” (p. 40). This perspective is similar to the one discipleship guru Bill Hull advocated several years ago in his book, The Disciple-Making Pastor, wherein he suggests that disciples are “born to be made.” Dodson provides a helpful graphic depicting on an x-y axis the balance in discipleship between mission (evangelism) and holiness (maturity) as what he calls "integrated discipleship," represented as a diagonal line on the graph.

Second, Dodson rightly advocates for discipleship which is holistic, stating “the gospel-centered disciple serves Jesus at work and at home, in the study and in the projects, in church and in culture. His aim is public obedience of every kind” (p. 48). This is a needed reminder that discipleship not only happens while serving on a mission trip or during a personal quiet time, but it encompasses all of life.

Third, there is a helpful discussion of how accountability, wrongly understood, turns into either law enforcement or cheap grace. The former involves one Christian policing another Christian’s conduct. The latter turns accountability into a “confessional booth” where “I confess my sin; you confess yours. I pat your back. You pat mine. Then we pray. We depart absolved of any guilt” (p. 65). Dodson rightly suggests that both of these approaches to accountability are devoid of the gospel and its transformative power. Both legalism and license are deadly to the Christian life.

The book also contained some weak points.

First, I think Dodson’s synthesis of discipleship identity into component parts of rational, relational, and missional (pp. 30-31) is not quite comprehensive enough to capture the essence of New Testament discipleship. This formulation captures the cognitive (rational) and active (relational and missional) elements of discipleship, but leaves out the internal dimension. A more holistic synthesis involves the head, hands and heart. This is essentially the perspective that The Trellis and the Vine provides in stating that disciple-making “involves nurturing and teaching people in their understanding and knowledge (their convictions), in their godliness and way of life (character), and in their abilities and practical experience of ministering to others (their competence)” (Trellis, pp. 154-55). Discipleship must be about bringing every facet of ones humanity under the Lordship of Christ; discipleship is about biblically-directed knowing, doing and being.

Second, I appreciate Dodson’s concern to make Jesus the center of discipleship. He rightly says, “Jesus, alone, should take the center place in our lives, not our Bible reading, evangelism, character, or effort to be different or spiritual. No disciple will ever graduate from the school of grace” (p. 40). I wonder, however, if perhaps at places in the book he overcompensates a bit. For instance, Dodson contends that “Bible reading, prayer, fasting, [and] confession,” which he calls “vertical piety,” leads to a situation where “disciples unknowingly try to cultivate righteousness on their own apart from Christ” (p. 44). Certainly it is possible for a Christian to focus too much on pietistic exercises. However, I do not think this is the necessary consequence for those who engage in what other authors like Donald Whitney would call the spiritual disciplines. Whitney’s perspective in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life actually sees the danger for most people in being that they have too little vertical piety. I have yet to meet a person who reads his Bible and prays for too many hours per day. The reality is that Jesus and the gospel do not immediately come upon us, they are the result of means.

Third, while I agree with Dodson that the indwelling Holy Spirit is Who empowers disciples to live Godly lives and provides guidance, I have some difficulty with the way he formulates the Spirit’s directing influence in our lives.

One the one hand, he seems to overemphasize the subjective directing by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. One example he gives for how one can better be led by the Spirit is, “Instead of just deciding which coffee shop or restaurant you want to go to, ask the Spirit to lead you” (p. 93). It is true that the book of Acts has examples of the Spirit leading individuals to take certain specific action like Philip approaching the Ethiopian Eunuch (8:29), Peter going with the men sent from Cornelius (11:12), the church at Antioch setting aside Paul and Barnabas for ministry (13:2), and Paul and Silas being directed away from Asia (16:6-7). While the Spirit may lead in this way should He chose to do so, it seems that the references in Acts should not be used as proof-texts to suggest this kind of leading is a normative means of the Spirit working in the believer’s life any more than the Spirit’s activity witnessed in Acts 2:1-4, 8:14-17, 10:44-46, and 19:1-7 should be seen as normative or expected with every believer’s conversion. The problem with making this element of the Spirit's ministry the primary focus is that it often becomes very subjective if not solidly anchored to the other ways in which the Spirit works in the life of the believer (i.e., the renewed mind, godly counselors, and Scripture).

This leads to the other side of the imbalance, where Dodson seems to downplay the intellect in the process of decision-making when he states disparagingly, “Decision making is reduced to a personal inner dialogue with our reason, not an opportunity to relate the person of the Spirit. We succumb to a ploy of the Deceiver who would have us ‘mistake’ the Spirit for fleeting personal preference or a rational option. When we do this, we depersonalize the Spirit” (p. 100). My question is why do we need to choose between reason and the Spirit? Do we not have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16)? Have not our minds been renewed (Rom. 12:2)? More balance needs to be brought to this issue.

In conclusion, while some concepts in the book seem to be more satisfactorily addressed by other authors, Gospel-Centered Discipleship provides some solid material on how to view discipleship with Christ and the gospel driving the process. Particularly helpful is Part Three of the book where many practical suggestions are shared for implementation of small group discipleship ministry in the local church.

I received this book for free from Crossway Publishing for this review.

1 comment:

David M said...

Hi Chris, thanks for your review. My daughter is reading this book in study with friends. She has concern of over balance of the spirit also.
Your words "One the one hand, he seems to overemphasize the subjective directing by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer."
Helpful. Thanks