What is the content for disciple-making? What are we delivering, what are we sharing?
This is a very basic question to ask. By basic, I don’t mean easy, necessarily. I mean logically basic, or foundational. You’ve got to have this question answered first. Before you begin making disciples, you need to know what you are giving, what message, what content. What is the subject matter.
Another reason for this question being so important is all the different answers that are in the world today.
- Some say personal, life experience is what you are sharing with someone.
- Others say rules and behavior, to make someone conform to a certain lifestyle.
- Others say it is as broad as public education (anything you would learn in school is discipleship material).
- Some Christians imply that it is secret, or special knowledge that is transferred to disciples (in contrast to “normal” Christians).
- And some churches think of disciple-making more about practical than cognitive content: training, skills (like this obsession with “leadership” seminars that they seem to have).
- Fundamentalism has narrowed the content down to a list of “fundamentals” with a whole lot of rules about what activities you’re not allowed to do (drinking, dancing, movies, etc.).
- Liberalism has done away with doctrinal content and replaced it with community service, social work, and political activism.
- The program-driven churches see the “content” of disciple-making to be activity, or service. Kid’s programs, youth programs, fun and games, small group activities, small group Bible studies, prayer meetings, evangelistic outreaches. If you’re really growing, you’ll do things like set up the chairs The most spiritual activity of all: short-term missions trips. Sure proof that you are a mature disciple.
- And the individualists, who view disciple-making as purely personal and anti-institutional (apart from the local church), see the content as personal disciplines: personal prayer, personal Bible reading/study (aka “quiet time”), personal evangelism, and maybe some “fellowship” (whatever that means). Discipleship is all about teaching them these skills.
So, who is right? Well, some are more wrong than others. To find out what the content for disciple-making is, we need to look at Scripture. And many of those listed above cite Scripture (some less than others!). Of course, when it comes to justifying beliefs and practices, select parts of Scripture are not enough, but the whole breadth (tota Scriptura).
We will argue that the content for making disciples is the Word of God, in general, and the Gospel, in particular. Notice that I am not distinguishing between evangelism and discipleship; we are not separating them. The content for both is the same.
How do we think about the content of evangelism versus the content for discipleship, usually? We tend to separate the two practices, and say that the content is different for each. The Gospel is for evangelism, supposedly. And the rest of the Bible (but not the Gospel) is for discipleship. The Gospel is to get you into Christianity, then you move on from the Gospel to everything else the Bible says, for your discipleship.
Now, is this an accurate view? No.
Paul didn’t just talk about Jesus as he evangelized; he talked about creation, God’s decrees, the judgment (Acts 17:22-31). And in every letter he wrote to the churches (Christian disciples), he focused on the Gospel.
Evangelism and discipleship are not two different kinds of things. Rather, it’s the same subject matter, the same content, just in different situations or contexts; a different audience. If you’re talking to unbelievers, you are obviously evangelizing. If you are talking to believers, they are already disciples. But even there, with disciples, they still need the Gospel. We still need to be “evangelized” all through the Christian life.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is central to both evangelism and discipleship. And the whole Word of God is the subject matter for discipleship and evangelism (at least implicitly).
*Why am I starting this way? Because I detect that it is not understood here, very well. Usually, I only hear the Gospel preached when it’s specifically targeted at unbelievers. But, if there’s only “church members”, the Gospel usually is not mentioned at all. So clearly, what unbelievers need to hear and what Christians need to hear are two different things.
But they should not be separated as to different kinds of things. They are distinct, but because of context; not distinct in content.
The Gospel cannot be understood on its own. The message about Jesus Christ fits within the larger redemptive context of the whole Bible. And you see this in the sermons preached in Acts. The whole Bible is the framework, the “covenantal context” in which the Gospel is interpreted.
So, in “evangelizing” to unbelievers, they need more than just a narrow “Gospel presentation.” They need broader instruction from the rest of Scripture to make sense out of the good news.
The Gospel is the climax, the center, whole point of the Bible. The Bible leads up to it, then expounds it. Jesus said that the entire Old Testament spoke about him (Luke 24:25-27, 44-48). That means, you are not actually teaching or preaching the Bible correctly if you leave the Gospel of Jesus Christ out.
So, in “discipling” believers, in teaching or preaching to Christians, the Gospel must be central! Every sermon must include the Gospel. The Gospel is the center of Scripture, so disciples cannot be taught from Scripture properly without the Gospel. Disciples constantly need to be reminded of the grace of God provided in Jesus Christ. That’s the primary motivation for obedience, in fact. Indeed, every text is implicitly a Gospel text. If it’s telling us to do something, then it’s Law that shows us how we fall short of God’s requirements, and shows us our need for Christ’s righteousness and death. If it is a grace text, then there’s the Gospel. In short, if we are not “evangelizing” disciples, we are not discipling correctly.
It should be clear, then, that the body of content for making disciples is the Word of God, in general, and the Gospel, in particular. Your audience will change (believers or unbelievers), but the content will not. What do we use to evangelize unbelievers? The whole Word of God. What do we use to disciple Christians? The Gospel. Both are true.
This explains why we will spend so much time on doctrine in this class.
Once more, from the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q. 89. How is the Word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.1
(1) Neh 8:8-9; Acts 20:32; Rom 10:14-17; 2 Tim 3:15-17
Notice how the Catechism doesn’t distinguish one part of the Word (the Gospel) for “convincing and converting”, and another part for “building them up.” It’s the whole Word of God that is made an effectual means of salvation, for the conversion of sinners and the edification of believers.
Just like Jesus said: teach the Word. And just as the Apostles did. This should shape our methodology of evangelism and discipleship.
Go back to the Great Commission: what was the second thing that the Lord Jesus command the disciples to do, to make disciples? Teach. And what did he say to teach, in order to make disciples?
“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:20)
Notice that keyword: “ALL”. Not a few things. Not as little as possible. Not a bare minimum. Not a “mere Christianity.” Everything. Jesus’ commission is not a lowest-common-denominator approach. ALL!
Disciples are to be taught to obey all the words of Christ. That means the whole Word of God. All of it is the content for disciple-making. Nothing is to be left out. Clearly, the Apostle Paul understood this, declaring that:
. . . I did not shrink back from proclaiming to you anything that was profitable or from teaching it to you in public and from house to house. I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus.
. . . Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of everyone’s blood, for I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole plan of God.
—Acts 20:20-21, 26-27
Paul did not hold anything back. He proclaimed anything profitable, and in public or private settings. He did not hold back any of God’s Word, from them. That’s why he is innocent. Everyone there has been given all the information, left without excuse. No one can point fingers at Paul, accusing him of not telling them everything that they needed to hear.
The same needs to be true of anyone engaging in making disciples. Anyone that shares God’s truth with unbelievers must hold nothing back. Anyone who shares God’s truth with believers must hold nothing back (including the Gospel).
- A Misunderstanding. Don’t misunderstand: this is not saying anything about time, or how long it will take. Don’t think this means you have to dump all of Scripture on someone every time you talk. Or if you had 20 minutes talking to an unbeliever, you should said “the whole counsel of God.” That’s not the point, here. The point is that evangelism and discipleship hasn’t been done if the whole Word of God hasn’t declared. Naturally, that should take a period of time. It’s a process. If you’ve only got 10 minutes with someone, then say what you can in 10 minutes. And pick up where you left off the next time you see that person. If, by God’s providence, you never see them again, that’s not your fault.
- An Excuse. Now, having said that, do not use that as an excuse to not teach the whole counsel of God. Yes, making disciples is a process. You simply cannot say everything all at one time. Though that is true, do not use that as an excuse for never declaring the whole plan of God, and for not proclaiming everything that is profitable, in public and from house to house. I heard this excuse recently. The idea was that we slowly instruct and teach, so that these people [unbelievers] learn and eventually obey the Bible. Sound good and right? Yes. But, these people have been here for years, and those who have learned the basics of Christianity are still are not obeying the basic things, and the others haven’t even learned the basics (see Heb. 5:12-14). So, the idea was correct. But I don’t believe that’s actually the intention, because I don’t see any evidence of it. It was just words, without actions. The fact that making disciples is a process can be used to justify laziness, dumbing down, “shrinking back” (contrary to Paul), and not “teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” It must be our intention to obey Christ, like Paul did. And it will be obvious over the long term if we ever did intend to declare the whole counsel of God, or just pretended to.
All that has been said obviously means that whoever is making disciples needs to know the whole breadth of Scripture. Again, ALL. That is why we will survey a lot of doctrine in this class.
Thank God that we have tools to learn the whole counsel of God for ourselves, and in turn to help us in teaching all of Christ’s words to others.
Tools: Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms.
Apostles’ Creed is a summary of the Gospel. Know that, and you know what you need to tell an unbeliever. Of course, you don’t leave them at that level, but it is a good starting point.
Voddie Baucham, on Confessions:
Christians have always been creedal/ confessional people. And these creeds and confessions have always served at least three purposes. First, confessions of faith serve to unite believers with their historical roots. This has been important since the time of the New Testament, when Paul wrote, “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2: 2). Paul also admonished Timothy to “follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1: 13– 14). And again, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed” (2 Tim. 3: 14).
The urgency of passing on this “pattern of sound teaching” did not end with the apostles or the New Testament church. This is the obligation of every Christian generation, and our confessions are an expression of our acceptance of that reality. I find it both ironic and disturbing that Christians want to (1) forsake confessionalism and (2) make disciples. The result of this is a kind of remaking Christianity over and over again. It’s a bit like having a commitment to training doctors without relying on what we’ve learned through years of practicing medicine. Certainly we must not be slaves to tradition. However, it is equally wrong to ignore tradition altogether. It’s one thing to try to improve on Gray’s Anatomy; but trying to write an anatomy textbook without relying on or referring to this influential work would be ridiculous.
Second, confessions served to clarify the distinct beliefs of various groups of Christians. For example, in the foreword to the Second London Baptist Confession, the authors wrote, “For the information, and satisfaction of those, that did not thoroughly understand what our principles were, or had entertained prejudices against our Profession.” Did you catch that? There were people who, for whatever reason, misunderstood what seventeenth-century Baptists believed, and the confession was designed, at least in part, to confront and correct those misconceptions. In other words, the confession was an apologetic!
Third, confessions serve as a standard and starting point for disciple making. As a father to nine children, I confess that the idea of bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6: 4) is overwhelming. The same is true for me as a pastor. I can’t imagine having to figure out where to start and what to teach.
Again, the foreword to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession is helpful:
And verily there is one spring and cause of the decay of Religion in our day, which we cannot but touch upon, and earnestly urge a redress of; and that is the neglect of the worship of God in Families, by those to whom the charge and conduct of them is committed. May not the gross ignorance, and instability of many; with the profaneness of others, be justly charged upon their Parents and Masters; who have not trained them up in the way wherein they ought to walk when they were young? but have neglected those frequent and solemn commands which the Lord hath laid upon them so to catechize, and instruct them, that their tender years might be seasoned with the knowledge of the truth of God as revealed in the Scriptures.
Note that this is the foreword to a thirty-two-chapter minisystematic theology! The idea here is clear: We ought to use our confessions in the discipleship of our children as well as recent converts. This is a hallmark of the Reformed tradition, and we would do well to revive it.
—Baucham Jr., Voddie. Expository Apologetics: Answering Objections with the Power of the Word (Kindle Locations 1437-1464). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
Appropriately, we will be using Confessions and Catechisms in this class! This will serve several purposes at once:
- You will be instructed by them. Surprise! You’re being discipled in “Evangelism & Discipleship” class. You will learn the doctrines that are foundational to evangelism and discipleship.
- You will learn the content of evangelism and discipleship, the subject matter that you need to communicate to unbelievers and believers.
- As an example. From experiencing this class, you will have learned how the Confessions and Catechisms can be used, and so you can use them yourself as tools for evangelism and discipleship. You have had it done to you, so now you know how to do it for others. Even if all you did was copy this class and use it, you would be doing well.
The Rest of the Class:
From now on, the class will be divided into two. We will finally be getting into Evangelism & Discipleship.
We’ll cover Evangelism, the doctrine and practice, then Discipleship, the doctrine and practice.
Now, I split the doctrine in two for pedagogical reasons. Even though, as I argued earlier, the content for both evangelism and discipleship is the whole Bible, for teaching purposes will divide it. We’ll survey the doctrine that’s more directly relevant to evangelism before talking about evangelistic methodology. Then we’ll cover the doctrine more directly relevant to discipleship, before covering discipleship in practice. Rather than cover all the doctrine, then forget half of it before getting to discipleship, will have it fresh in mind.
Some doctrine is more immediately relevant to evangelism: God’s decrees, sin, regeneration, justification and adoption, repentance and faith, Jesus and his offices as mediator.
Other doctrines are more immediately relevant to discipleship: sanctification, the church, sacraments and church discipline.
Unbelievers need to be instructed in all those biblical teachings. So do Christian disciples. But purely for teaching reasons, because I know how our memories are, we’ll divide them between evangelism and discipleship.