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.