Musings on Discipleship

Here are some thoughts on discipleship triggered by two things:

1. Being asked to give a ‘quick-fire trigger talk’ as part of a Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) gathering of church leaders, youth leaders and others reflecting on contemporary challenges around discipleship. It was a really good day organised by Rick Hill Discipleship Officer of the PCI (and MA grad of IBI), with lots of good input and discussion.

2. Reading Matthew Bates’ outstanding book Salvation by Allegiance Alone.

For various posts on Bates’ important book see:

Nijay Gupta has a fair and warm review here :

Michael Bird has two interviews here and here :

Scot McKnight did a series starting here:

The Gospel Coalition did an unsurprisingly critical review here

The fun part of a short talk is that you get to do what you tell students not to do: make deliberately provocative statements without following the niceties of detailed academic substantiation. The point of the talk is to raise issues and get open discussion going.

This is not to say these are random thoughts. They come from thinking about faith, gospel and works in teaching and preaching over a lot of years.

It’s also drawing on what Bates does with crystal clarity. He articulates a persuasive case for how themes of faith, gospel and works operate within the New Testament – from Jesus to Paul, John and other authors.

Here are 7 thesis statements with brief notes. Feel welcome to comment – whether agree, disagree or discuss …!

  1. THESIS 1: We have a major problem with discipleship in the West – and to be specific within the PCI.

Discipleship is patchy: in prayer, giving, service, training, Bible reading and study, evangelism, and a passion for holiness. Attendance is plummeting within denominations in the post-Christendom era, including the PCI. Membership is getting older. I can’t prove this, but formerly high levels of nominalism within Christendom are now being revealed within post-Christendom. The cultural pressure to ‘go to church’ has evaporated. Perhaps contemporary members are more committed and serious than many in the past? And there are lots of good things happening in various places, but no-one I talk to is bursting with optimism and confidence about the future of the institutional Church.

  1. Tinkering with programmes and courses isn’t going to address the problem

We can easily fall into the trap of imagining that ‘if only’ we got things right, that the Church can return to its former ‘glory’. Getting things right tends to mean things like having more attractive services, youth and children’s programmes, modern buildings etc. But reliance in externals is just rearranging the furniture. Something more fundamental is at issue. Treating symptoms is not going to address the root cause.

Neither is the solution dependence on pragmatic models of ministry. By this I mean adopting models of discipleship based on x principles of how Jesus made disciples and if we do the same mature disciples will result – as if discipleship is a nice easy recipe to follow and if we keep to the instructions – bingo! Some discipleship resources seem to owe more to management strategies for growing a business than they do to the teaching of the New Testament.

  1. That fundamental problem is theological

We need to think primarily theologically when we think about discipleship. So what’s the theological problem? Let me suggest it includes a superstructure of half-formed assumptions and misconceptions about both the content of the gospel and a proper response to the gospel (faith and works).

For various reasons there are deeply embedded and damaging popular misunderstandings of how gospel, faith and works are understood that distort both the way the gospel is talked about and how a proper response to that gospel is framed. This impacts both how discipleship is understood and how it is prioritised and practiced.

  1. The key issue revolves around the word pistis (faith)

What is faith? At what is it directed? How does it ‘work’?

These are very big questions indeed. Just have a read of Galatians for example to see how crucial a place ‘faith’ has within the argument of the letter. ‘Faith’ is clearly the key to Paul’s passionate appeal to the Galatians to come to their senses – but what does he mean by faith?

Popular understandings of the gospel and faith sound a bit like this:

“Have faith in Jesus and your sins are forgiven.”

“Forgiveness is a free gift, apart from works. Just believe in Jesus.’

“Jesus paid the price so I could be free.”

Or an ‘ABC gospel’: Accept. Believe. Confess. For an earlier post on ‘gospel lite’ versions see this.

In all these formulations, believing in Jesus is the key to salvation. As Bates says at one point, they frame faith in problematic ways that:

  • Confuse the content of the gospel (a narrow focus on sin and personal forgiveness)
  • Obscure the nature of true faith (emphasis on mental assent)
  • Misdirect the focus of faith (focus on my faith, my salvation, my choice)
  • Artificially separate the relationship between grace and works (former makes the latter of secondary importance and of no soteriological significance).
  • Mask what Christians are actually saved for (little or no space for the necessity of personal transformation and growth in holiness and Christlikeness).
  1. Faith tends to be set against works

Popular views of faith are imagined to work something like this:

  • Faith is opposed to works due to the ‘anxious Protestant principle’ of not importing works into saving faith.
  • Grace tends to be set against works as well. Grace invites, but does not obligate.
  • Thus works (which is essentially what we are talking about when we talk about discipleship) are artificially detached from both faith and grace
  • Works (discipleship) happen as a fruit of faith: a secondary cause.
  • But the real hard lifting has already been done (forgiveness, salvation, assurance, justification) by faith. Sanctification is secondary.
  • Some propose that ‘works are the fruit of faith’. But this itself is not how the Bible talks about faith – works are intrinsic to saving faith. We are judged ‘according to our works’.
  1. Pistis has a much broader sense of meaning than assent or trust: in both in the Bible and outside it

No-one is rejecting the central place of faith. Take Ephesians 2:8: It is by grace you have been saved through faith. But what does faith mean and how does it work?

Matthew Bates (and others) argue that pistis has a wider semantic range than in popular models outlined above. Pistis includes faithfulness; loyalty; fidelity; or as proposed by Bates as allegiance to the risen Lord. Faith here is best seen as a personal commitment for all of life.

If this is the case, Bates proposes that when it comes to discipleship we would be better off dropping faith language altogether in order to try to get back to what Scripture means by pistis.

In brief, the gospel is about the good news of Jesus the resurrected Lord and King. The gospel is therefore first and foremost Christology that calls for a response in faith to a person (not an abstract idea). Salvation is past present and future, lived out in hope of resurrection life in the new creation.

In Jesus’ teaching, discipleship is right action in light of his authority. Faith in Jesus = allegiance to Jesus the king. And this sense of allegiance fits the sense of pistis in wider Greco-Roman culture in NT times. A sense of fidelity and loyalty

Bates proposes it has three inter-related themes.

  1. Mental assent – the story of the gospel is true
  2. Confession of loyalty to the risen King
  3. Embodied fidelity – life lived as a citizen of the kingdom

John Barclay comes into the story here with his magnificent book Paul and the Gift that I posted on here and here and here.

He has shown how grace in the NT world is more subtle and complex than theological systems (both Protestant and Catholic) have often allowed. Certainly for Paul there is no problem in expecting grace involves reciprocity. Whereas ‘gracism’ that says that free grace ‘requires nothing’ is an alien concept to the NT.

This is not to say that salvation is not utterly and completely due to the grace of God. We cannot save ourselves. There is forgiveness and new life in the Spirit through confessing and repenting – turning to Jesus Christ in faith. But God’s grace is not opposed to a response of embodied obedience. Grace is not opposed to works, it leads to works shaped by loyalty and action in the world. It is opposed to merit.

  1. How faith, gospel and works are understood will impact discipleship

How we understand gospel, faith and works (and discipleship fits in the category of works) will have practical implications for how we think about evangelism and discipleship.

However you read the NT, any idea of ‘easy believism’, or ‘cheap grace’ is utterly alien. Both Calvinists and others should agree on this. Believers have assurance built on the person and work of Jesus, but since only God knows all we should be wary of offering any blanket easy reassurance.

How I read the NT is that there is a very high expectation of moral transformation. For Paul and Luke especially this is built on the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit. Maybe a basic starting point for discipleship in local churches is to aim high rather than settle for basic and often misleading indicators like church attendance …

What does ‘successful’ discipleship look like? And how can what goes on at church foster development towards that goal and vision?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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Ben Witherington @ Irish Bible Institute on ‘Rethinking Romans’

Last Friday we had the great pleasure of hosting Prof Ben Witherington for IBI’s 2017 ‘Summer Institute’. The theme was ‘Rethinking Romans’.

IBI was full and it was a terrific day of teaching on Paul’s most famous epistle. It was also a pleasure and privilege to meet Ben and his wife Ann. He is remarkably prolific and has blessed the Church worldwide with a lifetime of top-class scholarship made accessible for teachers, preachers and lay believers.

He is also a top-class communicator. There are lots of video resources out there, but what doesn’t come over in those more formal recordings is Ben’s wit and humour – it was a fun day as well as an educational one. Thank you Ben.

Romans is perhaps the most influential letter ever written in human history. Every chapter resonates down the centuries of Christian theology. Themes like Christian anthropology, sin, justification, ethics, pneumatology, eschatology, predestination, Israel and the church, and Christian morality all emerge in the course of Paul’s persuasive argument for Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome to be united.

For example, take justification. From Luther, Calvin & co onwards – right on through to the New Perspective on Paul from the late 1970s to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) between the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation – justification has been a continuously ‘live’ theological issue for centuries and Romans is at the heart of it all.

I’m not going to recount all that was covered in a packed day, but here are 8 snapshots. For more you can always go to a copy of this book sitting on my desk!

Snapshot 1: A female Apostle

Romans 16:7: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia’ – a husband and wife team, both apostles, who are noteworthy in that group.’Deal with it’ said Ben in regard to Junia being a female apostle.

They have been jailed with Paul. Women did not tend to go to jail in antiquity. This is an indication of a remarkably courageous and counter-cultural witness which is also a deconstruction of patriarchal paradigms.

Following the work of Richard Bauckham, Ben suggested that Junia – which is the Latin name of Joanna – is the SAME person who is a patron of Jesus in Luke 8:3. Andronicus and Joanna were ‘in Christ before me’. Was this Joanna, wife of Chuza, of the gospels who was a patron of Jesus who then later became a co-worker of Paul? She went to Jerusalem with Jesus. Chuza could have had the Latin name Andronicus, or she may have been widowed and remarried.

If so, Ben suggests that we should think of TWO prominent names among the Jerusalem believers – that of the apostle Peter AND the Apostle Joanna (Junia).

Now that’s a head-wrecker for all sorts of theologies build on male apostleship AND those that elevate the primacy of Peter. All sorts of implications follow …

Snapshot 2: What is Romans all about?

Ben argued at length that Romans is best understood through the lens of ancient rhetoric – hence his series of NT ‘socio-rhetorical’ commentaries on the New Testament. The key ‘thesis statement’ of Romans is, he argued, Romans 1:16-17.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

The whole thrust of the letter is aimed at Gentile believers in Rome to understand their place in God’s story of redemption, and the place of Jews, and Jewish believers in Jesus, in that story.

Paul’s big concern is to ‘level the playing field’ between Jewish and Gentile Christians and to appeal for real embodied unity, love, and common worship among the Christian communities in Rome.

The gospel is first to the Jew. Gentiles are not to think more highly of themselves than they should. It is God’s power and God’s gospel that graciously includes both Jews and Gentiles.

The gospel is shocking and surprising – a crucified Messiah. But rather than be ashamed of the cross (as everyone in antiquity would have been), Paul is determinedly not ashamed. The only explanation for embracing the cross in this way is if the cross has been shown to be a place of God’s victory over death – in the resurrection of the Son.

Along with Richard Hays and N T Wright, BWIII goes for pistis Christou meaning ‘the faithfulness of Christ’. But his faithfulness is always accompanied by others placing their faith in Christ. The faithfulness of Christ is the basis of faith in Christ. Jesus’ faithfulness in mission means that anyone (you or I) may believe (response of faith)

When if comes to righteousness, Ben contends that it would be better if the dikaio word group was not translated as ‘justification’ at all. It is too redolent of legal / impersonal language to capture the way righteousness is all about God setting relationships right. It is all about moral transformation – that is the heart of Paul’s concern for the believers he writes to in the New Testament.

Snapshot 3. No imputed righteousness but moral transformation of the believer

Ben is a Wesleyan. His commentary on Romans is one of the few written from an Arminian perspective. While he said he has much to thank the Reformers for, not surprisingly he interprets Romans in a very different way to traditional Calvinist readings.

For example, take Romans 4, Abraham and righteousness. The righteousness in question is that of Abraham. It is NOT Christ’s righteousness somehow imputed to believers. God sees us as we are. Ben sees imputed righteousness as a ‘legal fiction’. Imputed righteousness is not there in Romans 4 – it is reading back into the text by the Reformers who were overly shaped by Latin translations of the text.

What is being talked about is an imparting of righteousness to believers, in the Spirit which leads to holiness and moral transformation.

Luther’s presuppositions led him to read Romans 7 as typical of the Christian life. But it is a total misreading of the text to see it as a description of the normal struggles of the believer (an internal conflict of flesh versus spirit). What Paul is doing is talking about the pre-Christian condition through the lens of Adam.

I agree wholeheartedly with this view of flesh and Spirit. For more on flesh / Spirit see this post. My chapter ‘Solus Spiritus’ in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life argues, as the title suggests, for the Spirit being at the core of Paul’s understanding of new creation life that leads to a transformed moral and ethical life in the world.

Snapshot 4: a transformed life of holiness

Ben’s reading of Romans 8 can be summarised like this:

This is not to say Christians cannot sin, it is to say that Christians are without excuse. Whatever your struggles are, greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. Call on the Spirit of God. We are in the process of being sanctified by Jesus Christ. I am saying that we sin against the grace of God. God’s grace and Spirit is sufficient to help us avoid intentional sin. Christians are MORE responsible for their sin than non Christians.

This reflects the high expectations of holiness in the Wesleyan tradition – and of course Ben would add – Paul and ultimately God himself.

So Christians should be eagerly pressing on to the goal of the new creation and resurrection life to come. If we are not, we are failing to fulfil our calling.

Snapshot 5: God is good – not all that happens in this world is of God

Romans 8:28 famously says

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him

Ben argues that this is a long way from God fore-ordaining all things such that cancer, violence, injustice and evil are all somehow part of his good plan.  God is not the one who blights us, sends us disease, and afflicts us. Not everything in this world is of God – there are powers of darkness and evil at work.

The ones for whom all works together for good are not some abstract humanity – they are the ones who love God. Paul’s concern is the destiny of those who love God. This is a word of encouragement. Today we can know that if you are in Christ you have a great destiny.

Snapshot 6: Can  you lose your salvation?

Basically the answer is ‘Yes’.

Ben argued that ‘lose salvation’ is the wrong way to look at it. Paul’s warnings are not about misplacing your faith – they are about intentional apostasy. Calvinism does not take Paul’s warnings at face value – or the warnings of Hebrews 6.

It is clear, he contends, that apostasy is possible. This is ‘throwing away your salvation’ rather than losing it.

Snapshot 7: N T Wright can be wrong

As is well known and I have posted about here, BWIII is not a fan of NTW’s equating Israel with the Church. The former argues that Romans 9-11 is about how the Jews are TEMPORARILY broken off from the people of God, but God is not finished with them yet. When the full number of the Gentiles is gathered in, there will be a divine overcoming of what Paul calls the ‘impiety of Jacob’ – which is non-Christian Israel. The church is not Israel. Israel will be saved when Christ returns – by faith in Jesus, by grace.

I’m still figuring out this one. Reading my old post and listening to Ben, the differences are not that great. There is one story, the only way in is by faith in Jesus, the Mosaic law has come to an end. The Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled.

The difference is BWIII’s insistence that ‘Israel’ does not mean church and Israel has a distinct future which involves many Jews being brought into the story of Jesus.

Snapshot 8: If you are a Christian, you are not your own

Quite simply the framework for Romans 12-15 is this

You do not belong to you. You belong to the Lord.

Live accordingly through faith in Jesus and by obedience to the Spirit.

You can’t get much more counter-cultural to Western individualism than that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.