Certain titles attract your attention as a pastor. Jonathan Dodson’s Gospel-Centered Discipleship has one of those titles. There is a discipleship crisis in the American Church. We too easily lapse into moralism or legalism instead of pursuing a healthy biblical vision of holiness. Or, some churches barely pursue any form of discipleship. Wanting to strengthen our discipleship, I was drawn to this book.
It is hard to live up to the hype. This is an inconsistent book. There are some very good, even excellent sections. And then there are sections, even chapters, that were frustrating, confusing and not very helpful.
Dodson is heavily dependent on Keller, Owen, Edwards, Lovelace and Piper. The best portions of the book bear their mark. Those sections focus on how the gospel keeps us from both legalism and license. The gospel calls us to holiness- godly character and actions- but also provides the proper motivation and power for that holiness. Our sinful hearts default to trying to be good according to our own wisdom and power. So, we slip into legalism, rules and try to obey in the power of the flesh. Dodson does a good job of stressing the importance of the gospel for sanctification.
“The gospel is necessary for getting right and doing right with God, for salvation and sanctification.”
One of the strengths of the book is the chapter on Gospel Motivation. There is explores how the gospel produces “religious affections” which are the motivation for godly living. He also discusses the role of confession and repentance in the process of sanctification.
Dodson uses a fair amount of Scripture to make his point about the centrality of the gospel in sanctification, and therefore discipleship. But as a lay in bed a few days later, something struck me. Sometimes when we read books we miss things (perhaps we should be more charitable with other reviewers). I missed the fact that he didn’t spend time on one of the more important texts in this regard. That text is 1 Timothy 1:8-11.
8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.
This text shows us that sin is contrary to sound (healthy) doctrine. Sound doctrine is that which is in accordance with the gospel. There is such a thing as unhealthy doctrine. Not only is it not true, but it leads to a corrupt life. Part of discipleship is doctrinal instruction. But note the centrality of the gospel to that doctrine. We must see and show how sound doctrine relates to the gospel. If we can’t, either we need more grace to see it (see down below in discussing the Spirit’s role in illuminating Scripture), or what we want to teach is actually unsound, unhealthy doctrine that distracts people from the gospel. I’m not sure how you write a book on gospel-centered discipleship and completely miss this important passage.
Dodson also addresses some tensions that don’t exist in my corner of the kingdom. He spends an early chapter on whether or not making disciples is evangelism or discipleship. Is this really a problem? Yes, it is. Sadly. I’m not sure why considering the language of the Great Commission. I’m glad this is not a problem in my circles (we have other problems), but it seems to be in his.
“A disciple of Jesus, then, is someone who learns the gospel, relates in the gospel, and communicates the gospel.”
Dodson also shares from his own failures, personally and pastorally. He does not come off as an expert with a secret. He shows that he failed until he realized that the answer was the gospel and its application. He covers this in his chapter Twisted Motives. He’s fallen into all the traps, and is honest about it. At the end of the book, he focuses on how Austin City Life disciples people. Their fight clubs become the focus of the last section- essentially his application. Not an innovation, but a means. But the last few chapters seem more about promoting them than the ends of gospel holiness.
There are some weaknesses in his framework. He doesn’t have a strong, vibrant covenant theology (the theological context in which Owen, Keller and Edwards think and write). It shows up in various ways including his view of baptism and the function of the warnings and promises. He doesn’t really see the Great Commission within a covenant context. This is where the distinction between “Calvinistic” and Reformed comes into play. He is “Calvinistic” in his theology, but not Reformed. So, his lack of covenantal vibrancy and theology makes it less useful in my context.
For instance: “Baptism is a sign that we have learned the gospel.” No, it is a sign of the gospel. He admits this later in the paragraph. The issue is not merely that he advocates believers’ baptism, but that he seems to have at least a very confused theology of baptism.
This sloppy theology is particularly problematic when he talks about regeneration and the ministry of the Spirit. He starts with a straw man argument. He misrepresents the cessationist perspective.
“Those who have taken a cessationist or ‘open but cautious’ position toward spiritual gifts of healing, tongues, and prophecy have carried their caution to an extreme. In truth, “safety barriers” are erected around the third person of the Trinity, effectively dividing him from the second person of the Trinity.”
This statement is uncharitable and inaccurate. Sure, some do this. But in this chapter he mentions John Owen often about the ministry of the Spirit. He would be classified as a cessationist. Dodson didn’t offer qualifications (just say ‘some’). He makes an over-generalization, and puts forward a position unrecognizable to the people he claims hold it. Those of us in the Reformed community tend to stress the role of the Spirit in regeneration and sanctification.
His discussion of regeneration in that chapter is sloppy. At times he sounds Calvinistic (regeneration preceding faith), and at times Arminian (faith preceding regeneration). For instance, “by faith in Jesus we can receive new hearts, which are able to trust God.” Perhaps he is not clear about this in his own mind, but this chapter would prove confusing to people who don’t have a solid understanding of regeneration.
“Motivate: to provide with motive or motives; incite, impel.” Dictionary.com
I was surprised to see Dodson claim that “Jesus depended on the presence of the Spirit to motivate his obedience to the Father.” We clearly see, in Luke, that Jesus acted “in the power of the Spirit”. He provides a model for us in how to live as Christians. But I don’t see evidence that Jesus depended on the Spirit for holy motives. I am not sure how he is using motivate. Especially since he just wrote a chapter on Gospel Motivation. This section adds to his pneumatological confusion. And sloppy theology stifles sanctification. If he had used “empower” this section would make far more sense. He really seems to have needed a theological editor. He also uses some false dilemmas that can add to the less mature Christian’s confusion.
“If you had a choice between Jesus and the Holy Spirit for your ‘discipler,’ who would you choose?”
We cannot separate them from one another. All who are in Christ have the Spirit. They have been baptized in the Spirit. We do not choose. The Father graciously gives us both to disciple us. This points us to another implicit issue. Reformed theologians, particularly Owen (whom he quotes often) and Calvin, tie the ministry of the Spirit with the Scriptures. The Spirit illuminates and applies the Scriptures to us to lead us, or disciple us. Dodson doesn’t mention this. At times he implies a more mystical experience of the Spirit, one separate from the Scriptures. Later in the book he does stress the importance of the Scriptures in sanctification. The fight clubs need to focus on the Scripture. But in his passages regarding the ministry of the Spirit this would be a healthy, helpful, and important addition.
Dodson’s book has some very helpful material. But is also has some less than helpful material as well. A mature Christian will be able to sort through the material and spit out the bones. But the book is geared toward those who haven’t yet grasped the central of the gospel to sanctification and therefore discipleship. So, in addition to eating the meat they may choke on those bones. I would be careful about referring the book, particularly within the Reformed Community. He mentions Stephen Smallman’s book The Walk: Steps for New and Renewed Followers of Jesus as a resource. This title has popped up in a few contexts lately. I should read that, and may find a book more consistent with my theological heritage.