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Posts Tagged ‘discipleship’


Tim Keller says “This is the best book for laypeople on this subject.” This book is Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God by Rankin Wilbourne. I think he is right.

Union with Christ is one of the more neglected doctrines in the contemporary church. This neglect has been addressed with a few releases in the past few years like the books by J. Todd Billings and Robert Letham. These tend toward the more academic or pastoral in nature. Wilbourne’s book is written for the lay person and is easy to understand, though the topic can still stretch our minds. He provides a number of good illustrations to help us understand this rather nebulous concept. Or perhaps enchanted, for in his introduction he relates this to our disenchanted (materialistic) culture, and to understand union we need our imaginations again.

“Coming to see your union with Christ is like finally putting on a pair of desperately needed glasses- Wow!”

He begins with reality of a gap between what the Bible says and our experience of that reality. We can often feel exhausted by our efforts and discouraged by a lack of “progress”. The gap is real and must be acknowledged. But God’s answer to all this is union with Christ.

“First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore … he had to become ours and to dwell within us.” John Calvin

Calvin, particularly his Institutes of the Christian Religion, is very present in this volume. United to Christ we have all the blessings of God (Eph. 1). Christ also dwells in us by the Spirit so we are empowered by Him to enjoy these many blessings. While this was understood by many in history (he quotes from Edwards and Goodwin, for instance) such talk is like a foreign language to many/most western Christians.

“If it ‘s true that nothing is more central or basic than union with Christ, and this book aims to show that it is, then it is fair to ask this: Why is union with Christ neither central nor basic to so many of us? Why, rather, is union with Christ, if it is talked about at all, reduced to some vague or optional aspect of Christian living…”

The only way we partake of the gospel promises is …. union with Christ. When we neglect this, the work of Christ for us is separated from the person of Christ in us and the gap between beliefs and experience begins to increasingly widen.

He moves on to what it actually is. One aspect of union is imputation: what happened to Him happened to us; what He earned we receive; and what we earned He paid the price for. Paul frequently uses the term “in Christ” to talk about how we live before God. Christ represents us so His death is our death to guilt & sin (Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20). His resurrection is our newness of life (Rom. 6; Eph. 2; Gal. 2:20). His obedience becomes our obedience. We have even been seated with Him at the Father’s right hand (Eph. 2).

“Faith is how union with Christ becomes operative and powerful in your life. Faith is a God-given gift that allows you to take hold of God’s having taken hold of you. … Your life, your story, becomes enfolded by another story- Another’s story.”

As Paul says in Colossians our life is hidden with Christ in God. United to Christ, Calvin says, we receive the double grace of justification and sanctification. Though distinct they are a package deal given simultaneously. We partake of His redemption because we are united to Christ, covenantally and spiritually. We enjoy our salvation as He works in us to transform us. Our faith is not simply in Christ’s work for us, but also that Christ continues to work in us and through us. He became like us to make us like Him so we look to Him to accomplish these things that are so beyond our doing.

Union with Christ also holds together some of the tensions that tend to tear God’s people apart. For instance, he mentions extravagant grace and radical discipleship. We see them both in Calvin’s double grace, but our tendency is to separate them. Apart from discipleship extravagant grace lapses into Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. Apart from extravagant grace discipleship degenerates into legalism. This conflict that has periodically emerged in the church is resolved in union with Christ. These two songs, as he terms them, meet in harmony in Christ. They cannot be separated because Christ cannot be separated (Ferguson makes the same argument in The Whole Christ). Wilbourne then explains and applies the “double grace”.

“Because we are relentless in trying to justify our lives, because we will use anything, even our virtue, to keep God at a distance, we can’t hear this song of grace too loudly or too often. … That hit home because that’s exactly what I had been doing- using grace as an excuse not to follow Jesus. … Undiluted grace and uncompromising obedience meet in the person of Jesus. He is always full of both.”

Rankin then spends a chapter showing us where all this is in the Scripture, a chapter on where it pops up in Church History (Augustine, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Bernard of Clairvaux, Luther, Owen and Lewis) and then what happened that we have fallen to this low estate. As mentioned, there is the disenchanted or materialistic worldview, the increase in self-centeredness (due to the eclipse of the gospel), our poor pneumatology, sound-bite culture, and pragmatism.

“Paul is saying union with Christ not only gives you a new identity; it gives you a new mindset, a new grid through which to filter everything that happens to you. For it’s not so much what happens that defines you, as how you interpret what happens to you.”

From there he delves into the problems union with Christ solves. We have a new identity, new destiny, new purpose and new hope. So many of the stories we love focus on people seeking to discover their identity. We think we have to establish our identity so we are insecure and exhausted. Many famous musicians (interviews with Madonna and John Mayer come to mind) feel the need to re-establish themselves, prove themselves. In Christ, we receive an identity we neither win or can lose. We don’t have to prove ourselves. This identity also shapes how we live, providing appropriate boundaries for us. We have a new destination too- not simply to decompose in the ground or simply cease to exist. Our destiny is to be what Adam and Eve once were, the image of God. Jesus, in His humanity, the perfect image of God restores God’s distorted image of us. We don’t lose our sense of self (just as in a healthy marriage we are one flesh but don’t lose your sense of self). You become more fully you with the unique gifts and experiences but without the sin and weakness.

“The purpose of the gospel [is] to make us sooner or later like God; indeed it is, so to speak, a kind of deification.” John Calvin

“Because love was central in the life of Christ, love is at the heart of the image of God. Your win is learning how to love. And your greatest losses are your failures to love.”

We are here for holiness, which for many of us, as he notes, is like broccoli. Good for us but …. (personally I like broccoli). Holiness is good, beautiful and attractive. It is something we only pursue properly in union with Christ (see Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification).  We are positionally holy due to our union with Christ, and dwelling in us He works to make us personally holy. These two tensions are brought together in harmony in Christ. The more holy we become the more we enjoy communion with God, in part because we now find His holiness more attractive and a greater source of joy.

“God wants us to grow in holiness, not as some sort of test or punishment, not even just as preparation for the future, but because he wants us to enjoy life with him more. The more we grow in holiness, the more we can enjoy his presence. He wants us not simply to press on but to soar. He wants holiness for us, for our joy.”

Our hope is life in the presence of God where Jesus currently is. This is unattainable for us apart from our union with Christ. He is there now, seated and interceding for us (Heb. 7:25). This means that our continuing sin does not separate us from God. We don’t have to look to our circumstances to gauge if God is pleased with us, we look to Jesus and know He is. Union with Christ holds the facts that God with for us and with us together.

“John Calvin said, ‘Let us therefore labor more to feel Christ living in us.’ John Owen added, ‘Labor, therefore, to fill your hearts with the cross of Christ.’ And Jonathan Edwards exhorted, ‘We should labor to be continually growing in divine love.'”

Wilbourne then moves into our daily life as people united to Christ. He begins with abiding. He brings up the illustration of sailing. Sailing depends on the wind, but you still need skills to get where you want to go in the power of the wind. This is communion with Christ, the subjective or experiential aspect of our union with Christ. We cannot be more or less united to Christ. But our sense of communion with Christ grows or diminishes. Faith always precedes our sense of communion for faith lays ahold of Christ. He warns us of our tendency to drift (pride, complacency etc.). If we are not manning the sail and the tiller we will not go where we long to go. He moves into the means of abiding, or the means of grace. Our sense of communion is tied to prayer, meditation on Scripture, and worship including the sacraments (signs of our union). This does not mean all will be exciting. There will be doldrums, just like in sailing. There will be times when all seems stagnant, and no progress is made.

“Jesus lived a perfect life and terrible things still happened to him. Jesus was the only one who ever trusted and obeyed God perfectly, yet he nevertheless was made to walk the way of suffering unto death…”

We are united to the Christ who suffered. As a result we should expect to suffer (Rom. 8; Phil. 1 & 3; 1 Peter 2-4). Because He suffered, He is able to comfort us in our suffering. He also provided an example for us in suffering, to continue to do good and entrust ourselves to our Creator. Will our suffering drive us from God, or deeper into God?

He then moves into the fact that each of us is united not only to Christ individually but also to one another. In Christ we are the people of God. Here, in a footnote, he surmises, that the tension revealed by the New Perspective of Paul finds reconciliation. In Christ we are justified by the imputation of His righteousness AND we are part of the community of God; soteriology and ecclesiology are united in Christ. Another tension that tends to tear the church apart is also reconciled in Christ: we declare and demonstrate the love of God to the nations. Many conservatives so fear the social gospel that they deny the social aspects of the gospel (and throw accusations at any who do). This is because Jesus not just declared God’s love but demonstrated it (see 1 John 3-4) and calls us to do the same (see also 1 Peter 2).

I found this to be a very encouraging book. He had a number of helpful ways to explain our union and its implications. I heartily recommend it to pastors, elders and ordinary people who want to grow in grace. He makes a difficult subject understandable, interesting and practical.

 

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The next of the Mistakes Leaders Make is to spend too much time on hurting people and not enough time developing future leaders. Dave Kraft is not the only one to warn of this propensity. It comes up in The Trellis and the Vine.

He isn’t saying churches, and leaders, should not care for the hurting people in the congregation. He is saying that you need to make sure you spend time cultivating future leaders too. The hurting can often demand your time. The hungry usually aren’t calling you to set up appointments.

“If all the leader’s time is devoted to shepherding and counseling hurting people to the exclusion of nurturing hungry future leaders, the ministry cannot continue to grow as God would desire.”

So it can be easy, particularly as a smaller church pastor, to focus too much energy on the hurting.

I suspect some of this has to do with gifting. The more priestly pastors are highly empathetic. They will spend lots of time working with the hurting. They will not place as high a value on the future. They won’t be preparing future leaders as much as a pastor with a strong prophetic or kingly gifting.

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One of the things I don’t like about buying books on line is that you really can’t flip through it (Amazon is trying) and see if it is what you are looking for in the first place. The Walk by Stephen Smallman is one of the books I wish I’d been able to flip through. It was recommended in another book about discipleship. Since he’s in the same denomination in which I serve it, unlike the book I had read, would come from a more consistently covenantal perspective. This is not to say this is a bad book, because it isn’t. It just isn’t the book I had thought it would be. I was looking for a more theoretical book that had application. This is a book intended to actually be used to disciple new and renewed followers of Jesus. I guess I should have noticed that subtitle. But I do have a good resource to recommend to those, or use with those, who want or need to be discipled. One of the strengths is the progression that he uses from basics to discipleship thru the gospel on to mission. The goal is not information accumulation, but growth in grace, sanctification into greater obedience and maturity to disciple others and join Jesus in His mission (2 Cor. 5).

“If ‘going to heaven’ is the key objective of evangelism, perhaps that begins to tell us why discipleship is viewed as optional by so many ‘converts.'”

It is a 12 lesson course that could be used in SS, or throughout a year in a small group. He has a reading plan that goes with each lesson which he refers to often (largely Mark and Romans). He also has a reading plan in an appendix that can be used afterwards. We aren’t talking a verse to proof text. These are longer chunks that coincide with the material in the chapter. They build on one another to develop the context of the larger text. It gets people reading the Bible, since this is a large part of discipleship. (more…)

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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.

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In his first letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul mentions how the gospel came with power. This power was seen in that they turned away from idols to serve the living God. They were converted. Conversion involves a putting away of idols. There just seems to be no way of avoiding this reality. All of us depended on something to save us: our goodness, our IQ, our race or background, some ritual (circumcision, baptism, walking the aisle …). Finally we turned from them to a God who can really save us- Jesus!

But our hearts didn’t stop their nefarious work of producing idols to either supplant or supplement Jesus. Nothing ultimately can, because He is all-sufficient. But we are foolish and sinful. We are prone to wander, distracted like a kid in a toy store.

This is the season to contemplate the death and resurrection of Christ as our Substitute. Too often we are prone to focus on our justification. But we can’t stop there. We have to move into our sanctification. Why? Because Jesus did. And Paul did.

I’m preaching out of Luke 9 this week. It is the passage where Peter makes his profound confession that Jesus was the Messiah. Not that he understood all that it means. Jesus proceeds to tell the disciples just what it means. He moves to his death and resurrection. This is the means by which we are delivered from the wrath of God that is justly due our sin.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He moves into discipleship. If we are united to Christ and he is the suffering Messiah, we too must lay down our lives and suffer as we follow him. There are the three commands: deny yourself, pick up the cross and follow me.  In other words, this is the path of sanctification. There is no coming back- we are on a death march. We do this in the hope of life everlasting, that Jesus is true to his word and his work is sufficient.

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Uneven.

If I were given one word to describe Disciple: Getting Your Identity From Jesus by Bill Clem, that is the word I would use. It is published as part of the RE:Lit line and has a forward by Mark Driscoll. It comes with blubs by people like Paul Tripp. In other words, it intrigued me.

Bill is trying to create a paradigm shift in how we think about discipleship. Someone in the church I pastor has been asking me questions about discipleship recently. My answers were in many ways close to what Bill is shooting for. But this runs against the grain of a church shaped by life in America which is filled with standardized tests and a concept of time consumed by efficiency. Programs aren’t discipleship. They can be a means of discipleship, but aren’t necessarily discipleship. Communicating theological knowledge and understanding isn’t either (though people need to grow in their biblical and theological knowledge to grow as disciples).

Bill Clem’s premise is that disciples primarily image God to the watching world (and unseen world). We were created in God’s image. As image bearers, Adam and Eve were to reflect God’s glory, and represent Him to the rest of creation. In their sin, the image was marred.  In redemption, Christ’s work in us (sanctification) is to restore that image in us. We reveal God’s character and represent Him more clearly over time. This premise is a giant step in the right direction. It is a necessary corrective to our thinking about discipleship.

Back to my one word assessment of the book. There are some very good chapters in this book. They are filled with red ink from my pen. And there are some chapters that have little additional ink, or the red ink is expressing my confusion. There were times when I was really tracking with Bill Clem, and there were times when I was under-whelmed or just plain frustrated.

“To disciple people is not to make them like everybody else; it is to shape them into the image of Jesus.”

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Radical by David Platt is one of the books that has been enjoying lots of word of mouth among American Calvinists (mainly neo-Calvinists) since its release.  When I had the opportunity to get a review copy, I took it.  I wanted to read it to see what the buzz was about, and the topic interests me.

“I am convinced that we as Christ followers in American churches have embraced values and ideas that are not only unbiblical but that actually contradict the gospel we claim to believe.”

Years ago, I preached my Advent series from Revelation.  One of those sermons was on the dual strategies of the Evil One to destroy the church.  The Beast represents governments that persecute the church.  The Prostitute represents seduction, as the world seduces the church such that she slowly becomes like the world.  In some countries the church experiences persecution, but here in America we face the Seductress.  It goes without saying that the message was not well received by some.  So, that being said, I get what David Platt is trying to say in his book.

This is not a new subject.  Michael Horton has written numerous books on the subject of how American Christianity has been warped by American values (instead of the influence going the other way).  People like Ron Sider, Francis Chan and a host of others have tackled this subject in the 25 years since Christ rescued me.  In fact, this book is part Horton (he stresses some theological ideas contrary to American thought- Calvinism), part Francis Chan (a ‘radical’ approach) and part Ron Sider (“pack your bags, we’re going on a guilt trip).  Which makes this a difficult book to review.

“A command for us to be gospel-living, gospel-speaking people at every moment and in every context where we find ourselves.”

Radical is not as good as the hype nor as bad as most (poorly informed) critics make it out to be.  But let me start with some good things, because there are things I appreciate about the book.  There are things the American Church needs to reckon with regarding how we’ve been seduced by our corner of the world.

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