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Jeremiah 9:23-24 Obedience-based discipleship

Usually my posts are either book reviews or simple expository posts on a certain Bible passage.  This post will be a bit more thematic in that I want to evaluate an approach to discipleship called “obedience-based discipleship.”  I’ll close with some thoughts from Jeremiah 9 that are appropriate to this topic.

For those unfamiliar with this approach, you can read a blog post by David Watson describing the basic philosophy here:

You can see an example of “obedience-based discipleship” curriculum here:

Even if you are not aware of this approach to discipleship, I encourage you to keep reading.  Thinking through the issues will help us all to better grasp what our role is as proclaimers of the gospel, as disciplers, and as church-planters.  Besides, the corrective that I would like to propose to the “obedience-based” approach is a corrective that needs to be applied to many other discipleship methods as well, including those that the “obedience-based” approach is reacting against!  The issue isn’t whether or not an approach is training people to obey, but more deeply, where obedience comes from.  What makes disciples walk in submission to Christ?  Is the problem that we aren’t teaching them to do so?  Is the problem in our methods? Our approach to scripture?  Or is it deeper than that?

Before talking about what I consider to be errors of emphasis in the “obedience-based” approach that need to be corrected, I want to briefly state what I see as some tremendous positives…

1.  Disciples are being made with THE BIBLE!  Novel idea, huh?  I think the process of teaching people to turn to the Bible first is absolutely essential.  The developers of the approach are using the Bible as their curriculum rather than someone’s course material.  To me, this is the biggest positive of this approach.

2.  Disciples are being taught to be not just hearers of the word, but doers (James 1.22).  The Great Commission calls us to teach disciples “to obey.”  I celebrate the intention behind this approach that seeks not just “right belief,” but also “right practice”.  It is a worthy goal and a necessary corrective on approaches to discipleship that emphasize only head knowledge and not a life lived in conformity and obedience to Jesus.

3.  Disciples are being taught to meditate on and think about the passage they are studying.  Disciples need to be taught to feed themselves from the Word of God.

3.  The Bible story being studied is repeated to make sure that disciples firmly grasp it.  This repetition of the story being studied shows a high regard for God’s inspired Word.

4.  Disciples are encouraged to share the story with someone else.  We receive grace that we might share it with others.

I celebrate these tremendous positives!  But here is my fundamental concern concisely stated:

In emphasizing obedience to Jesus as the core of discipleship, we run the risk of failing to adequately communicate that the gospel provides the only road to a transformed life.

The blog post I referenced above makes the connection between love for Jesus and obedience to his commands, but what the author fails to do is to even mention where that love comes from!  He does not mention the love that flows from a heart that is part of God’s “new creation” (2 Cor. 5.17).  He does not talk about a view of the glory of God in the face of Christ that transforms us from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3.18)

In fact, the author in my opinion incorrectly understands John 14:15, making the gift of the Holy Spirit, our adoption as sons, our vision of Christ, God’s father love for us, and Christ’s love for us and his revelation of himself to us, all the result of obedience.  In Watson’s own words…

This passage from the Gospel of John gives us tremendous insights into the results of obedience for individuals and groups. Examine this list of benefits.
• Jesus will ask the Father to give us a Counselor (the Holy Spirit) who will be with us forever
• The Holy Spirit will live with us and be in us
• We will not be abandoned as orphans, but Christ will come to us
• We will see Christ even if the world cannot see him
• We will live because Christ lives
• We will be loved by the Father
• We will be loved by Christ
• Christ will show Himself to us

Watson goes on to equate “abiding in Christ” only with obedience to his commands.  In this post (see his rebuttal in comments below), he appears to miss the fact that abiding in Christ is a Spirit-wrought faith relationship uniting us to Christ that results in obedience.  He appears to be making obedience the foundation of our being “in Christ.”

To stress obedience to Jesus’ commands without helping people understand and apply the gospel is to preach “another gospel”.  This is what the judaizers were doing:  they stressed “obeying” the mosaic law and being circumcised.

That being said, obedience obviously is a fruit of the gospel.  The book of James teaches this and people should be taught to apply the word and be “doers and not hearers only”

…but only in the context of living in the gospel!

To teach people that they need to “DO” without grounding them in the gospel can be soul-destroying.  The essence of our Christian walk is living by grace, and living by the gospel–learning to live each moment with the knowledge that our obedience doesn’t make us more acceptable to God–we already ARE acceptable to God because of what Jesus did for us.

How should we read the Bible?

Related to this problem is the way the “obedience-based” material (and I’ve heard others do this too) speaks against “knowledge-based discipleship”.  That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  If people are not applying and obeying the knowledge they receive, the answer is not to trash the impartation of knowledge!  Granted, I don’t think the “obedience-based” approach necessarily is doing that, but I think that discipleship/learning God’s Word/growing in grace can’t always be boiled down to a simplistic:  “What is God telling me to do?”  There are pieces of knowledge that we get over time and they work their way out in our behavior in complex ways not always related to a simplistic one-to-one relationship to specific truths.  I would argue that knowledge of God and of his person, his character, his acts in history, and his redeeming purposes in the future and in eternity is essential, but much of what you learn in that process can’t easily be boiled down to an “I will do such and such…” Sometimes God teaches us truth and it is only later that the Holy Spirit speaks to us about an area in which we need to obey, drawing upon that truth.

Let’s not pit “obedience-based” approaches against “knowledge-based” approaches, but recognize that truth is what transforms our lives, and if it isn’t transforming us, then perhaps we aren’t fully grasping it as we ought.  As Jesus himself said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8.32)

Jeremiah 9:23-24 says,

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”

In order to boast about something, we first have to devote ourselves to it.  If we want to boast that we are a great author, we have to devote ourselves to learning how to write.  If we want to boast of our physical, athletic prowess, we have to train hard.  If we want to boast about how we are making a difference in the world, then we have to devote ourselves to whatever cause it is where we feel a difference needs to be made.

So when God tells us here in verse 24 that we are to boast in this:  “that he understands and knows me.” it means that we have to devote ourselves to understanding and knowing the Lord God.  I’m grieved that many times I see Christian workers devoting themselves to serving others and perhaps even sharing the gospel, but yet they are not going deeper and deeper themselves in the knowledge and understanding of who God is and what he has done through Jesus and what he has revealed to us of himself.  Of course that knowledge of God is not just a list of facts that I know without any life transformation, it is a personal encounter with God as he revealed himself in holy history, recorded in the Word of God, that transforms me from the inside out.

Verse 24 also gives us a basic outline of what that knowledge of God looks like:  “that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth.  For in these things I delight.”  God is telling us that as we get to know him, we will see his steadfast love (his mercy toward undeserving sinners), his justice (expressed in his condemnation of sin, but also in his willingness to judge Jesus in our place), and his righteousness (which is God’s acting in accordance with his character).  Where do we see these things most clearly?  Where has God revealed himself to us?  If we are going to devote ourselves to him, we have to know how to go about it.  It is in his Word that God reveals himself this way.  I’ve just recently read 15 chapters in Jeremiah that are all about judgment, judgment, judgement.  It can be easy to say, “I don’t like this… it’s depressing.  How could God say such things?!”  But it is his revelation of his character and I must wrestle with it.  If I don’t then I’ll never understand what Jeremiah means later on in the book when he talks about God by grace delivering his people from the judgment that they deserve.

Does this mean I just learn facts about God? about doctrine?  No, as I spend time getting to know God, it is going to make me a person who practices steadfast love, justice and righteousness as well.  Just as God does, I will delight in those things as well.

In John 6:28-29 the crowd that had been fed by Jesus asked him…

“What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Teaching disciples to obey isn’t the same as teaching them to follow rules.  It is teaching a lifestyle of submission to the Jesus as the source of all true life.  The disciple’s task given to him by God is “to believe in him whom he has sent.”

If there is any problem that I see right now in the church at large it is a failure to understand the power of the Gospel, not just to “get us in”, but to sanctify us, preserve us, and to bring us to the unity of the faith, the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, and to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4.13).  My challenge to those who are using “obedience-based” approaches to discipleship is simply not to neglect the gospel which is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.

By Bryan Jay

My name is Bryan Jay and I have been teaching the Bible full-time for almost 30 years now. In 1992, I began pastoring a new church in Asheville, North Carolina, and in 1997, I moved with my family to Brazil where we lived and served for many years. Since that time, we have moved on to other places, continuing to teach the Word of God.

9 replies on “Jeremiah 9:23-24 Obedience-based discipleship”

Fully agree Bryan, and trusting your comments will keep many people from falling into a navel-gazing bondage – that curriculum was dripping with ‘I’ and ‘me’.

‘And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God, overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.’

‘Looking nto JESUS, the author & finisher of our faith.’

It is interesting to see how you used the article I wrote. It is one in a long series dealing with the lifestyle of a disciple-maker. I have no disagreement with anything you say if you use only this one article as your straw man. There can be no obedience without knowledge. There is certainly a place for repository knowledge that the Holy Spirit may use at a later time. Our life in Christ is through grace only, but this is God’s love language towards us. To abide in Christ is a command, not a recommendation; and Christ said that his abiding in God’s love was a result of his obedience to God (See John 14:10). We cannot know God without His grace towards us. Nor can we love God the same way He loves us – we cannot show God grace or mercy. God’s love language for us is grace and mercy. Neither can we know God without our love language for Him – obedience. Abiding is a result of both love languages coming together in one life. The Gospel is the story of the relationship between God and Man and how men are to treat one another; and what God has done and what man must understand and do in order to know God. Many scholars and theologians choose to see only one side of the coin of love between God and man – God’s grace and man’s obedience. Obedience without understanding and accepting God’s grace as revealed in the Gospel is empty and meaningless. We become like the Pharisees that Jesus warned us not to copy. (See Matthew 15 and 23) To accept God’s grace without an obedience response is to fail to love the one providing the grace. Grace and Obedience are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they must be mutually inclusive. It is at the place where Grace and Obedience are mutually inclusive that you find one’s self abiding in Christ and God. Grace or Obedience taken out of the context of the whole counsel of the Word of God leads to anemic relationships with God and men. As I said at the beginning of this response, I agree with everything you have said. I live in the abiding presence and love of Christ and show my love to Him through my obedience to the commands and principles revealed His Word by the power of the Holy Spirit. By the way, one of the most frightening verses in the Bible for me is Acts 5:32 – “And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.” The most assuring verse in the Bible for me is Ephesians 1:13-14 – “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.” Both are absolutely true, and to abide in Christ we must live in both.

When we try to examine each dimension of our relationship with God as if only one dimension defines our whole relationship with God, we will find ourselves in error. Mercy, grace, love, faith, belief, obedience, abiding, and more make up the life of a Believer and Lover of Christ. It is the scholar’s duty to examine each of the dimensions, but we must never do so without the context of the rest of the dimensions. My body of work is mostly about how to make new Disciples of Christ in the really difficult places that make the headlines of our news services every day. As these disciples learn and live in Christ through the Word, and obey what the Holy Spirit reveals to them, they are growing into phenomenal disciple-makers and leaders in more than 167 countries. They are some of the most profound men and women of God I have had the privilege to know and call friends.

Blessings!

David Watson
Lantana, Texas (currently traveling in South Africa)

Hi David,

Thanks for responding to my evaluation of your approach. I hope that you understand my desire was to offer a corrective. This is why I began with a list of what I believe to be the very healthy and positive emphases that I see in the approach.

Please understand that I have written based on interactions with both colleagues and seminar-settings where your approach is being utilized. Admittedly I have not read all your blog posts so if I misrepresented your position I ask forgiveness for that. I’m writing out of a desire to preserve the gospel of grace as the foundation of all disciple-making. I am working among a religious group that you have a lot of contact with and that we both know is extremely legalistic and I find that even the Christian workers seeking to reach that group are often themselves in a continuous wrestling match with a “performance mentality” when it comes to our relationship with the Savior. My point is simply that disciples (both we and the people we are seeking to reach) need to realize that our relationship with Jesus is not just mentor-disciple, it is also bride-groom.

My daily devotional life as a disciple is not just getting my marching orders from Jesus and obeying them, it is delighting in him, finding in him the source of all my delight, forsaking the broken cisterns I have hewed out for myself and satisfying myself with him as the living water.

I see an over-reaction in your approach to a “hearers only” problem that most definitely exists in the church today. The answer to that “hearers only” problem is found, I believe, in a deliverance from legalism to a grace that changes the deepest heart motivations of an individual.

As far as your use of “love language” terminology to describe our relationship with God, I would say that our “love language” to God is worship, and as we both know worship cannot be divorced from obedience. An obedience-less worship plagues the western church today, but what I am seeing from my vantage point is the danger of a fledgling church with no firm grasp on the deep truths of Scripture because the westerners working with them are too afraid to tell them anything. We’ve overreacted to the colonialism of our forebears and fallen into the ditch on the other side of the road, afraid to explain scripture to them because we might “contaminate” them with Western ideas.

David, thanks for the personal reply. I appreciate very much your zeal for the Word of God and for making disciples. May God bless you and be pleased to use the offer of my thoughts for the edification of your disciple-making efforts.

Grace to you!

Hi, Brian. We are on the same page. You are dealing with the problems you see and I am doing the same. We all get taken out of context from time to time. We all just need to realize there is a context. I fight legalism in its many forms all the time. I teach that the difference in obedience and legalism is the motivation. Legalism is externally motivated – to please others or meet expectations, to fit in, to hide, to manipulate others, etc. Obedience is internally motivated by love for Christ.

Thanks for all you do.

Blessings!

David

Bryan,
A very well-thought post! And as I read David’s response and your response back, it seemed to me that you both were speaking from hearts that long for the “well done, good and faithful servant” words that will be spoken from our Lord, as I so long to hear myself.

I’ve been “around the Christian block” for a while and have seen many emphases that have come to the Christian community and are popular for awhile until the next great emphasis comes. But, in my opinion, the emphasis that has to stand over all others is seen in our relationship to God. The Scripture speaks of Enoch who “walked with God and God took him” I’ve often asked myself, “what was the distinguishing characteristic of Enoch’s life that caused God to look at him and say, ‘OK, I’m going to give you a special ride to glory and you won’t be seeing death come your way?'” It would have to be that Enoch’s heart beat as one with God’s heart. The scripture doesn’t tell us why God did this for Enoch, but He did!

I’m delighted to know that when others look at me and evaluate my life, that it’s God’s opinion that counts over everyone else’s opinion!

You know, it’s interesting that in recent years, God has been showing and teaching me exactly what you stated here. I’ve come to see how much of what I do (and I think this applies to many of us) is to gain approval of others. It really is liberating to live for God’s approval alone. Of course, love constrains me to care about what others think, but it is not for my sake, but for theirs that I would care.

Bryan, I appreciated your post. However, I thought you were actually too charitable to David’s reply. He always tries to backtrack and act as if he is not teaching the poor theology that he is actually teaching. If you look at all of his writing and talks he has given he makes some outlandish, even outright heretical statements. He is numbers driven and it shows. What he calls churches are often not churches at all. He has been a terrible influence on some of my coworkers.

Alasdair , You accuse Watson of heresy, yet you make no reference. There are Biblical ways we are taught for how we accuse a brother of heresy, unfortunately you do not… er… obey what the Bible says on that matter. If you are to accuse Watson of heresy, you had better be sure to lay out that accusation clearly, because according to the Scripture, I cannot entertain that accusation, unless it is duly substantiated with witness.

Alasdair, I am curious as to what your definition of ‘church’ is? And I mean that question honestly. Not trying to argue but I really want to know. I appreciate your response.

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