Gospel-Centered Discipleship: A Q&A with Jonathan Dodson

Jonathan Dodson loves Jesus, his wife and kids, and the church. He is the lead pastor of the Acts 29 church Austin City Life and provides directional leadership for PlantR and GospelCenteredDiscipleship.com.

Jonathan also recently released his first book, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, through Resurgence Publishing. So, I thought I’d take a moment to ask him a few questions about the book.

Mark Driscoll: Why did you find it important to write this book on discipleship?

Jonathan Dodson: There is so much excitement, confusion, and error regarding discipleship. I sensed it was important to write a book that would clarify, explain, and further stoke passion about being a disciple of Jesus. There has been a widening chasm between two major viewpoints on discipleship: one sees it as making Christians (evangelism), while the other sees it as maturing Christians (discipleship). Emphasizing activity over identity, both views miss the true center of discipleship. Seeing this “crisis” firsthand in my own life and in others’, I decided to write a book on discipleship that would re-center discipleship around our identity in Christ, not our activity for Christ.

MD: What does it mean to be a disciple?

“Disciple” is the fundamental category for Christian identity. A disciple is not a Christian who possesses greater commitment because there is no greater commitment than to Jesus Christ our Lord. The problem, however, is that many Christians have not learned what it means to have faith in Jesus as both Lord and Christ. And even if we know this, we all experience identity drift—sinking our identity into our roles as parents, professionals, pastors, students, and so on, rather than into the Redeemer. The gospel of Jesus makes it possible for us to re-center our discipleship in a thrilling, motivating, life-changing way, over and over again.

MD: What do you believe is the goal of discipleship? How do we obtain this?

JD: The goal of discipleship is to so believe the gospel that humanity reflects the glorious image of Jesus Christ.

The problem, however, is that we often believe (or trust) in something else to obtain a different image. We all have an image problem. We project false images of ourselves because we find the real image inadequate. We want to be more beautiful, more successful, more creative, more virtuous, more popular, or more intelligent than we actually are. The problem, though, is not that we lack beauty, success, creativity, virtue, popularity, or intelligence—it is that we believe the lie that says that obtaining those images will actually make us happy. We bend and distort our own image, the image of God.

The good news is that God wants to restore our image in Christ (2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10). He promises a restored image in Jesus, who is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). He holds up the image of Jesus as most glorious, and through the gospel, opens our eyes to his never-ending beauty (2 Cor. 4:6). Only by looking to Jesus can our disfigured image be restored and our contemptuous disregard forgiven. When we look away from ourselves and into the face of Christ, we behold “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (ibid.). This gospel knowledge corrects our vision again and again so that we not only behold but also become the image of the glory of God in Christ. This process is lifelong and full of grace. The Lord has given us the Spirit for the power to believe God’s promises and repentance for our weak disbelief in his promises.

The gospel gives us the eyes to see Jesus as well as the power to look like him. It changes us into the image of his glory: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). This transformative vision comes from the presence and power of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17–18) who has sealed us for that final day of redemption, when faith will become sight, and our image will be wonderfully, permanently, and beautifully restored.

MD: As a parent, I believe there’s a real temptation to raise kids who excel in their religious performance rather than rest in Christ. What advice do you offer parents in fighting this temptation when discipling their kids?

JD: Several things come to mind. First, teach your children the difference between religious performance and Christ’s performance on their behalf. When teaching them Bible stories, go out of your way to show them that there is a better, more successful Moses, David, Jonah who is sufficient for their every failure and strong for their every success; his name is Jesus. Second, teach your children the hope of the gospel by hoping in the gospel. Share your failures with them, ask for forgiveness, and tell them you aren’t afraid to do that because you know you are forgiven by Jesus. Don’t make yourself the hero in your children’s lives; point them to the one, true hero. Third, teach them that Jesus is King (he is worthy of their respect, devotion, and obedience), but that he is also savior (he forgives them for all their failures to treat him as King).

MD: In the book, you wrote, “We desperately need the Spirit to have affection for Christ, to believe his promises, to heed his warnings, to repent from sin, and to trust in Jesus.” Many don’t experience the Spirit in such a way in their life. What would you say to those who desire to experience the Holy Spirit’s work in their life in a greater way?

JD: Be encouraged that the Spirit of the living God indwells you and is eager for you to know him, walk in his power, and bear his fruit. He is not set against you! What is set against you are all the other things you look to for power: emotional motivation (obeying if you feel like it), your preferred image (successful, respected, beautiful, manly, etc.), or willpower (do-it-yourself Christianity). You need to pull the plug on your alternate power sources by repenting before God and receiving his deep, renewing forgiveness in Christ. Then, ask the Holy Spirit to replace those power sources with his power, affection, and strength. You can cultivate this by:

  • Repenting over your neglect of the Spirit. Confess your sinful self-reliance to the Father and the Spirit, ask the Son for forgiveness, and thank God for the gift of the Spirit.
  • Addressing the Spirit throughout the day in ways that reflect his role in your life (understanding, discernment, decision making, power to overcome sin, desire for God, faith in the gospel, etc.)
  • Memorizing and meditating on texts that show you who the Spirit is so that you can get to know him (Ex. 31:3; Num. 27:18; 1 Sam. 16:13; Joel 2:28–29; Acts; Rom. 8, 15; 1 Cor. 2; 2 Cor. 3; Gal. 3–6).
  • Rejoice in the gift of the Spirit as a person who indwells us with power to believe the gospel, glorify, and enjoy God!

MD: You argue, “the gospel converts disciples three times, not just once – converting us to Christ, to church, and to mission.” How do you encourage churches to create an environment where people experience conversion to Christ, the church, and to mission?

JD: Churches will need to create structures that cultivate the three conversions, as well as creating grace-lines, ways to transition into this whole way of following Jesus. Many people are emerging from a highly individualistic, self-selecting faith. They need grace, patience, teaching, and clear paths on how to transition to a communal and missional faith. We recommend doing this through small groups and missional communities, but also through forming smaller friendship-based relationships of two to three people (Discipleship Groups or Fight Clubs). These people meet regularly to encourage one another to so believe the gospel that you live it out in serving and loving others, and sharing and showing Jesus to your friends, neighbors, and coworkers. They help turn your attention to the image of Jesus, the grace of his gospel, and the life of obedience.

In order to practice your three conversions, it is important that you see your conversion to church and to mission as a direct result of your conversion to Jesus. Jesus is your head, true, but he also called you into a body (the church) and onto a mission (growing his body). Because of your faith in Jesus, immerse yourself in a community and look for opportunities to give and receive the gospel of grace with them. Invite people into your life, not just to meetings. Begin to notice the people in your life who don’t know Jesus and pray for them by name, and recognize the mission field God has placed you in, to share his wonderful, life-changing news.

MD: Thanks, Jonathan, for taking the time to discuss your new book with me. I hope that many folks will benefit from it. Are there any last things that you would like to share?

JD: Thank you, Mark. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share, to have published with the Resurgence, and to partner with you in the gospel of Jesus. It was very kind of you to host me.

A parting thought: the gospel is bigger and smaller than we often think. Sometimes we can’t imagine the scope of the gospel, as news so good that it changes everything—society, culture, creation. We diminish its power. Others of us can’t imagine the subtlety of the gospel, that it brings us exactly what we need in Christ: acceptance, approval, forgiveness, newness, healing, worth, purpose, joy, hope, peace, and freedom all in Jesus. The gospel is bigger and smaller than we think, as big as the cosmos and as small as you and me. It is the good and true news that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and evil through his own death and resurrection and is making all things new, even us! Be encouraged.

Pick up your copy of Gospel-Centered Discipleship here