It’s easy to be against something. Within any wrong system (i.e., Church Planting Movements theory), we find much fodder for articles on why a particular method isn’t biblical. But it’s not always as easy to write the articles on positive alternatives. So, while not shirking our responsibility to point out error, let’s make extra effort to champion what is biblical.
This essay focuses on sanctification in the task of making disciples and details the discipleship “plan” once someone has trusted Christ.
Fruit and the Centrality of the Bible
The biblical text must be our guide. All of us want to be fruitful, especially those of us overseas. First Timothy 4:16 says, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” The Bible is all sufficient. Yet certain teachers of popular methods, while affirming the sufficiency of Scripture, smuggle in extrabiblical formulas for rapid growth: encouraging lost people to share the gospel, the preeminence of goal setting, and an overemphasis on participative Bible study groups. Our fruitfulness is intertwined with the biblical text, not popular methods.
Second Peter 1:3-8 says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him…. to supplement your faith with virtue… knowledge… self-control… steadfastness… godliness… brotherly affection… love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Christian growth isn’t so much about goals and a disciple’s activity, but about God-centeredness.
If we think we earn God’s blessing through our outward behavior, we end up with little joy.
We also see God’s work and faithfulness in making disciples more like himself. “His divine power has granted….” While we know the Lord uses the means of grace to grow us in Christ, this only happens as we keep leaning into the gospel. If each time we gather, we taste God’s greatness and mercy in the biblical text, disciples will bear fruit. God makes sure it happens (2 Corinthians 3:18). As we gather to hear his Word, we can become entranced with God himself and realize we bring him nothing (Psalm 50:12). Our growth is character transformation from the inside out, as saved sinners help each other look to Jesus. We can only grow or serve because of what Christ has done for us. For instance, in 1 Thessalonians 5:22-24, Paul says to abstain from evil. Apparently, the Christian life is filled with things to do, but the foundation is God’s faithfulness, not our performance. We will put forth effort, but that effort must be fueled by what the Lord has done through his resurrection. We need him desperately, and many Christians need to celebrate more that Christ did what redeemed sinners never can do. Believers keep resting in what Christ has done on the cross. The biblical text guides us to trust God’s faithfulness.
A Simple Way Forward in Missionary Work
The pathway toward healthy discipleship is fleshed out well in the article, “Gospel-Driven Sanctification” by the late Jerry Bridges. He carefully distinguishes between healthy Christian growth and a performance mentality. He avoids some common pitfalls of Obedience Based Discipleship theory. Too many churches base the Christian life on performance. While the process of healthy discipleship isn’t formulaic, leaning into the biblical text (and not primarily in what we can do for God) ultimately will be more biblically fruitful.
An overview of Bridges’ article reveals the gems in his basic “plan.” Bridges points out real dangers of too much focus on performance in the Christian life. Bridges shows us how our mentality can be close to the biblical picture, yet slightly off. We might think God’s blessing depends on our disciplines. How many believers, especially missionaries, live under constant guilt for not sharing the gospel more? Bridges does not encourage disobedience but promotes a proper emphasis on how grace works in us to obey Christ’s commands. Obedience is in order, but driven by something deeper than outward behavior: dependence on the Holy Spirit. Bridges wisely points out that God’s blessing doesn’t depend on how we perform. If we think we earn God’s blessing through our outward behavior, we end up with little joy.
Bridges quotes Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” We are free to obey Christ because we already are accepted. We must daily return to passages that remind us of what the gospel is, objectively in history, and what it means in our lives. Our Father accepts us because of Jesus, not because we got our act together after salvation. Bridges stresses definitive (or positional) sanctification, that believers are dead to the penalty and dominion of sin. To walk actively in this dead-to-sin life, we consider ourselves dead to sin (Romans 6:11). Bridges shows this is not something to do but something to believe. Struggling with sin is a sign that Christ lives inside. This truth has helped our disciples overseas.
The gospel is not just a tool for the overseas worker; it’s the Christian’s key to growth.
Bridges notes that, while we’re positionally seated with Christ in our sanctification, ongoing daily growth involves our progress in the faith. We cannot grow by our own strength but must have what he labels “dependent effort.” It’s not earning (performance and bad); it’s effort (good). As we grow in holiness, we see our sinfulness. Such insight into our badness keeps us going back to the gospel for help, not merely trying harder with outward behavior. We’ve tried to apply these truths to the lives of our national disciples in Asia, and they have found them helpful. We suggest it’s because all disciples need encouragement in these areas more than they need certain methods about evangelism or discipleship. Some methods are appropriate, but gospel truth always is profitable for life and godliness because it’s a foundational element in Scripture. It nourishes growth but isn’t reducible to mere church planting principles or how to evangelize or multiply disciples. It’s basic and paramount, yet not something we can put in a spreadsheet to report back home.
Fuel for our souls
The key is God using the gospel, which gives us what we need to bear fruit, as we keep looking to Jesus. We must live prayerfully dependent on the Holy Spirit. The more gospel-oriented we are, the more we’re going to bear fruit and, hopefully, the more our national friends will bear fruit. Bearing fruit, however, must be more than seeing the lost repent. Christ died because of sin and has risen to destroy the works of the devil. Such truth aids the believer not just with information for the lost, but to help himself fight sin—and to assist other disciples.
The gospel is not just a tool for the overseas worker; it’s the Christian’s key to growth. So, while discipleship may be a process, it’s not so much a strategized plan. It certainly shouldn’t be formulaic, even though many teachers of CPM and Disciple Making Movements disagree with that. Bridges himself states it best: “But the success of our struggle with sin begins with our believing deep down in our hearts that regardless of our failures and our struggle, we have died to sin’s guilt. We must believe that however often we fail, there is no condemnation for us (Romans 8:1).”
We can’t guarantee this approach will lead to a movement, but it will lead to solid disciples and healthier churches.
*Kenneth Hayward (pseudonym for security reasons) has been overseas with his organization for approximately 15 years, lives in Asia with his family, and can be contacted at: stand4truth 777 at hotmail.com (no spaces and with @).