Two years ago, I wrote a book with my friend Bill Hull entitled The Discipleship Gospel. As the title suggests, it’s a book about the gospel—the gospel Jesus preached. Unlike some recent books on the gospel, Bill and I didn’t cherry-pick verses, mash them together, and exclaim, “Ta da! Here’s the gospel!” We also didn’t simply restate the plan of salvation either: you know, that truncated version of the gospel that says, “You’re a sinner (Rom. 3:23), Christ died for your sins (1 Cor. 15:3), if you believe in Jesus, you will be saved (John 3:16)—now, pray the sinner’s prayer.”
Instead, Bill and I went back to the Gospels and dug into what Jesus said when he preached his gospel, a gospel he referred to as “the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43).
In the Gospels, we’re told that Jesus preached the gospel many times. Surprisingly, though, there are only a few times where what he said was written down. In this regard, there are two passages that Bill and I are convinced make Jesus’ kingdom gospel crystal clear: Mark 1:14–17 and Mark 8:27–34 (and 1 Corinthians 15:1–5 in Paul’s letters makes a third). In our view, the church should pay much more attention to these passages. Here are two reasons for this:
- Jesus is the one speaking in both Mark 1 and Mark 8.
- What Jesus says here is specifically identified as the gospel. As it relates to the gospel Jesus preached, we don’t think it can get any clearer or more authoritative than that!
Seven Elements of “The Discipleship Gospel”
From these passages, we identify in the book seven elements of Jesus’ kingdom gospel. For those of you who haven’t read the book yet (and I hope you will soon!), here’s a quick recap of the major points of the “discipleship gospel”:
- God’s kingdom has come.
- Jesus is the Christ, God’s anointed King.
- Christ died on the cross for our sins.
- Christ was resurrected from the dead on the third day.
These first four elements are the gospel’s declarations. It’s not enough to hear the gospel, though. Jesus calls us to respond to it in order to enter God’s kingdom. He makes crystal clear in Scripture how we are to respond:
- Repent of sin.
- Believe the gospel.
- Follow Jesus.
At a basic level, these seven elements provide a helpful framework by which you can evaluate the gospel you’re proclaiming.
Since the book’s release two years ago, a lot of water has passed under the bridge. We have taught a lot on this “discipleship gospel,” a gospel that makes discipleship a natural part of salvation.
I’ve learned a lot during this time because the problem was worse than I thought when I first wrote the book—and the solution is more powerful than I even imagined back then!
My understanding of the gospel hasn’t changed, but I’ve definitely been pushed into a deeper understanding of it as a pastor.
My purpose in this article is to unpack five things I’ve learned since writing The Discipleship Gospel. My hope is to spur you on in fulfilling your own calling as a Christian to preach the gospel and make disciples.
Let’s start unpacking the five things I’ve learned!
1. America’s sugarcoated gospel is very addictive.
In the book, we identify different gospels being preached in American churches, gospels that are different from Jesus’ kingdom gospel (Gal. 1:6–9). My friend Eric calls one of them the “sugarcoated gospel” (the same one Bill and I call the “consumer gospel”).
It’s easy to preach the sugarcoated gospel because it doesn’t include anything hard to hear or hard to do. Basically, it calls people to give intellectual assent to a set of theological truths or pray a little one-time prayer, or both.
The sugarcoated gospel gets results.
People respond quickly to it, which enables ministry leaders to count decisions for Christ—as in, “We had five people raise their hands in the service last Sunday!” We live in such a performance-driven culture that getting results makes us feel good about ourselves.
When we wrote The Discipleship Gospel, I didn’t fully appreciate just how addictive the sugarcoated gospel is to ministry leaders. It can be really hard to stop preaching it. When I’d teach about Jesus’ full and robust gospel—before we wrote the book—I’d see a lot of lightbulb moments in ministry leaders’ eyes. I’d say, “The gospel you preach determines the disciples you make!” to which they’d say, “Yes!” They were excited to go back to their churches and begin preaching Jesus’ kingdom gospel.
But what I’ve learned since then is that it’s a long way from the classroom to the pulpit. When I’d check in with them later, they had fallen back into preaching a sugarcoated gospel.
It’s easier. It gets results. It’s addictive.
We need to recognize this reality if we are going to persevere in preaching Jesus’ kingdom gospel. It is so easy to fall back into preaching a soul-shriveling, sugarcoated gospel.
But whenever I face the temptation to preach a sugarcoated, easy-to-believe gospel, I think of Ulrich Zwingli words: “For God’s sake, do something brave.”1
King Jesus has called us into a glorious work to preach his kingdom gospel. It’s not easy. It takes courage. It takes time.
But the rewards are both great and eternal. When we grasp all Christ is calling us to be and to do in the gospel—and we count the cost of following Jesus and giving him our everything—conversions still happen. Over the last two years, I’ve learned that witnessing one true conversion is far more addictive than five sugarcoated ones.
2. God’s kingdom isn’t the Disney Castle.
Another thing I’ve learned since the release of our book is just how thin our many people’s understanding about God’s kingdom is. Many Christians know something about God’s kingdom, but they can’t explain much about it.
This shows up in the way Christians often share the gospel. Nine out of ten gospel presentations I have listened to over the last two years didn’t mention the kingdom of God.
Can we say we are preaching Jesus’ kingdom gospel if we don’t speak at all about God’s kingdom?
And if the kingdom is mentioned, it’s spoken about more in terms of the Disney Castle than in terms of biblical truth. It’s like they’re talking about a wonderful and faraway place where everything is nice and pleasant with Tinkerbell flying overhead sprinkling pixie dust.
I knew there was an absence of God’s kingdom in gospel preaching when I wrote the book, but now I more fully appreciate just how central and radical it really was to Jesus’ gospel.
If we pay close attention to Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels, the absence of God’s kingdom from our understanding of the gospel should be deeply concerning.
The kingdom of God was Jesus’ favorite topic.
He talked more about it than anything else. It was the first thing he preached about, the last thing he talked on, and he spoke about it many times in between. As I highlighted above, Jesus called the gospel he preached “the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43). Nothing communicates how important to the gospel God’s kingdom is than that!
Without an understanding of the kingdom, we can’t fully appreciate Jesus’ gospel.
Not only is it central, God’s kingdom is far more radical than we often think it is.
Johannes Weiss wrote a pivotal book that began reviving an understanding of God’s kingdom in the modern church called Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God. In it, he wrote, “The Kingdom of God is a radically super worldly entity which stands in diametric opposition to this world.”2
Jesus spoke of God’s kingdom with war-invasion terms and hostile takeover images (see Matt. 11:12; Luke 11:21–22). He didn’t speak of it in terms of militarily overthrowing the Roman Empire, as many first century Jewish people hoped, but in terms of crushing Satan’s rule in this earthly realm.
When we begin to grasp these things, and consider them in light of the gospel, we understand that Jesus’ gospel call is the call of a victorious king calling his followers to join him in a fierce spiritual battle.
When I first wrote the chapter in The Discipleship Gospel entitled “Preach the Kingdom,” I must confess, I didn’t fully appreciate what I was writing. It’s now two years later, and I’ve learned a lot more about God’s kingdom (and I’m still continuing to learn). It’s a big topic; there’s a lot to learn.
One super-encouraging sign has been a resurgence of kingdom language in the songs I’m hearing churches sing. I hear more references to Jesus being king and to his kingdom. Even Kanye West got in on this, releasing his album Jesus is King! This resurgence should push all of us to expand our grasp of God’s kingdom as we seek to proclaim Jesus’ kingdom gospel.
3. “Justification by faith alone” isn’t the heart of the gospel.
A third thing I’ve learned since the release of the book is how easy it can be for Christians to inadvertently overemphasize one aspect of the gospel. That overemphasis can lead to a subtle tweak that takes the focus off Jesus. The people who do this don’t have bad intentions. They’re not false teachers. These are people who love the Lord and have high regard for the gospel.
Even so, an inadvertent overemphasis on one aspect—or even emphasizing our response or the results of the gospel—can result in a concerning gospel tweak. For example, how many of you have heard it said, “The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the heart of the gospel”? I have. Numerous times, especially among my more reformed friends. Usually such a statement receives a strong “Amen!” But is justification by faith alone the heart of the gospel?
As I highlight above, we outlined in our book different aspects of the gospel:
- Gospel declarations
- Gospel responses
- Gospel benefits
The gospel’s declarations all have to do with Jesus: it’s his kingdom, he is the king; it’s his death and his resurrection.
Then, we outline responses to the gospel: repent, believe, follow.
Then, there are the gospel’s benefits. These are blessings we receive from God as a result of receiving his gift of salvation. Benefits include forgiveness of our sins by God, adoption into the family of God, being justified in Christ’s righteousness by God, being sanctified through the indwelling Spirit of God, and so on. Take note:
Justification is a gospel benefit—and an amazing benefit at that!
But it is not the heart of the gospel. Matthew Bates makes a full argument for this in his book Gospel Allegiance.
So, when I was asked on a podcast interview about the book if I thought justification by faith alone was the heart of the gospel, and I said “No, I don’t think it is,” I got a surprising response.
The host sounded concerned and said, “Really? What do you mean?”
Once I talked to him about the gospel’s declarations, responses, and benefits I said, “The heart of the gospel is the main subject of the gospel’s declarations—and the gospel’s declarations are all about Jesus.
“Jesus, not justification, is the heart of the gospel.”
The host said, “Wow! That’s a subtle distinction but it makes all the difference, doesn’t it?”
I said, “Yes, it makes a huge difference.”
We need to be careful when we talk about the gospel. Saying things like “Justification by faith alone is the heart of the gospel” isn’t clear gospel thinking. It muddies the waters.
In fact, saying this puts the gospel’s focus on us in a very subtle way. We start thinking it’s about our justification. That’s dangerous.
In seeking to emphasize an incredible benefit of the gospel, we’ve inadvertently taken the focus off of Jesus and put it back onto ourselves. But before the gospel is about how it results in our justification, it is first about the Justifier, King Jesus (Rom. 3:26).
When we are crystal clear on the gospel’s essential elements and different aspects, it enables us to avoid subtle, even erroneous tweaks.
4. We must not only believe the gospel but also live it out.
Another thing I’ve learned in the last two years is that many Christians think they graduate from the gospel once they believe in it.
Oh, I’ve already done that, they might think. Now I’ve got bigger, more important things to dig into than the gospel.
This kind of thinking is the fruit of accepting the sugarcoated gospel, even if someone is unaware that they’ve done this. It puts so much emphasis on praying a little prayer—on a specific moment in time—but once that simple moment is over, people think they no longer need the gospel. But that type of thinking is garbage.
As the apostle Paul emphatically declares, the gospel is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). In other words, nothing is more important than the gospel, either on the day of our salvation or any day afterwards. Jesus calls us to live in the truth of the gospel, not only believe in it.
We never graduate from the gospel.
Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection frames not only our response to the gospel but also our daily life of discipleship.
Consider this: Jesus calls us to repent of sin, believe the gospel, and follow him in order to be saved, as we outline in Chapters 7 and 8 of The Discipleship Gospel. This threefold response to the gospel is framed by Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Repentance is a kind of death, belief a kind of burial, and following a kind of resurrection. This all makes good sense to us—as one-time actions.
What hasn’t been as readily apparent in the American church’s teaching of late is the ongoing implications of the gospel for how we live.
Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection not only frame our initial response to the gospel but they are also the pattern by which we are to live a life of discipleship.
For instance, take Jesus’ call to discipleship: “If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). This call is threefold: denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him mirrors (and builds upon) his gospel call to repent, believe, and follow.
Jesus’ apostles reflect this same threefold gospel and discipleship pattern in their writings. For example, Paul calls believers to die to sin, bury themselves in Christ’s identity through baptism, and live in the power of Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 6:1–14).
In another letter, he calls us to put off the old self, be renewed in our mind, and put on the new self (Eph. 4:20–24).
Over and again in the New Testament we see how this threefold pattern not only defines our gospel response but also how it shapes our life of discipleship.
From my perspective, I’ve heard very little practical teaching in churches on how to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. Don’t misunderstand me here: Christians know they are supposed to die to sin, be buried with Christ, and live in the power of Christ’s resurrection. They also know they are supposed to put off the old, be renewed in their minds, and put on the new.
They know these things, but more and more I’m realizing they don’t know how to do them. Our faith in the gospel is supposed to lead to a life of discipleship, but it’s not really doing that for many Christians. We are not raising up disciples who are committed to following Jesus no matter the cost, without conditions and without excuses, for the rest of their lives.
This isn’t a discipleship problem; it’s a gospel problem, I believe—and it’s a bigger problem now than ever.
5. We have an underdeveloped understanding of grace.
One of the main criticisms I’ve heard from readers of The Discipleship Gospel has been a concern about whether or not it teaches works-based salvation. Some people have outright accused Bill and me of doing so, even though we clearly address this concern in Chapter 7 of the book.
I remember how a man approached me once—red-faced—after I had taught a breakout session at a conference. He stuck his finger in my chest and said, “This is wrong. You’re teaching works-based righteousness,” and then he stormed off.
Before the book was released, I had prepared myself for some of this, but I didn’t realize how much of it would come at me. For all the talk about God’s grace in the American church, I would posit that Christians have a seriously underdeveloped understanding of this grace.
There are even books titled Did Jesus Teach Salvation by Works?—yes, it’s a thing—and obviously, the answer is “No, he didn’t.” Still, without a robust understanding of God’s grace, when you read Jesus’ preaching of the gospel in the Bible, you might begin to wonder.
While it seems that everyone knows grace is “God’s underserved favor” and may have even know the Sunday school acronym “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense,” these things are not enough for a robust understanding of his grace. When you get down to it, what do those statements mean? They describe grace, but they don’t define it. They don’t tell you what it is, nor how it works.
Jesus’ kingdom gospel reveals these things to us. For starters, the gospel’s declarations reveal that grace initiates; it acts first. The gospel’s responses show us that grace empowers; it enables us to obey. The gospel’s benefits disclose that grace blesses, and it blesses abundantly.
When we begin seeing grace in and through the gospel, we also begin to understand how grace is active. It initiates, empowers, and blesses. This isn’t the way grace is spoken about in the church today. It’s spoken about very passively.
In fact, if you listen to the way Christians talk about it, you might get the distinct impression that grace is an excuse for disobedience.
Grace is never an excuse for disobedience; it’s God’s empowerment for obedience.
Until we grasp this, though, we will never fully appreciate how amazing Jesus’ kingdom gospel is or why it is not works-based salvation. We will also not understand what it means to livebygrace, not only be saved by it.
So, What’s Next?
Two years ago, I wrote this book with a friend, Bill. The core message of the book was this: we must become crystal clear on Jesus’ kingdom gospel. Of all the issues confronting the American church this year in 2020 and beyond, I’m convinced nothing is more critical than this message.
Jesus’ gospel isn’t the “plan of salvation” Christians often create from a smattering of texts, and we need to know the difference between that and the real gospel. We need to overcome our addiction to preaching sugarcoated, easy-to-believe-in versions of the true gospel. We must restore God’s kingdom to its rightful place in our gospel proclamations. We need to avoid talking as if justification by faith is more important than Jesus being King.
And it’s critical we stop separating the gospel from discipleship.
I heard an ad the other day, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, which said, “The unthinkable has happened, and it’s caused us to rethink everything.”
I want to encourage you to do this with respect to your thinking about the gospel. Challenge your gospel thinking. Read the book The Discipleship Gospel. If ever there were a time when it was needed, it’s now. Allow Jesus’ preaching of the gospel to become the framework for your understanding it. You might find that your current grasp of the gospel is solid, and reading the book will encourage you.
If there are any aspects of your gospel understanding that are weak, however, this book will help you identify them and begin working to strengthen them. Whatever you do, though, make sure that the gospel you are preaching is the one that truly saves. Make sure it’s Jesus’ gospel.
Read Bill Hull and Ben Sobel’s The Discipleship Gospel: What Jesus Preached—We Must Follow here.
1 Bill Hull, Conversion and Discipleship: You Can’t Have One Without the Other (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 199.
2 Johannes Weiss, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 114.