Book Review: Conversion & Discipleship: You Can’t Have One Without the Other, by Bill Hull

Review
08.18.2017

Bill Hull, Conversion & Discipleship: You Can’t Have One without the Other. Zondervan, 256 pp. $18.99.

 

You’ve probably heard advice on how to get the most out of a book—survey section headings, read the first and last paragraphs of each chapter, and the first and last chapters of the book. Perhaps most importantly, distill the central idea of the book into a sentence or two.

That last step is refreshingly simple in Bill Hull’s book on conversion and discipleship. He defines the link between the two from the outset: “All who are called to salvation are also called to discipleship, and there are no exceptions to this” (19). Over nine chapters, he examines the nature of the gospel and salvation, the role of the Holy Spirit, and the implications for pastoral ministry.

Scan the introduction and conclusion of each chapter, and you’ll find clear, biblically faithful statements:

  • “Conversion and discipleship, while distinct, are really two sides of the same coin.” (19)
  • “We become disciples at conversion, when we answer the call of Christ to follow him. Then we spend the rest of our lives becoming in reality what he called us to be.” (55)
  • “Being a disciple doesn’t mean we are perfect in our obedience. But it does mean that we take Jesus and his expectations seriously.” (69)

PASTORAL USEFULNESS

Though his book is as systematic as others on the topic, it’s at least as practical, and likely more so. Hull paints a picture of pastoral ministry that echoes books familiar to 9Marks readers—like The Trellis and the Vine and Dever’s Discipling. “Can every pastor become a disciple-making pastor?” Hull asks. “I believe every one can, in fact, must” (200).

He also laments disturbing patterns in American evangelicalism: “We’ve defined discipleship as optional, a choice and not a demand” (21). And: “Our understanding of salvation has been divorced from a commitment to following Jesus” (72). Though Hull doesn’t interact with popular “free grace” authors, he builds a strong biblical case against their reluctance to proclaim the demands of discipleship.

Hull wants pastors to preach that salvation includes not only justification, but also regeneration—so that conversion initiates a new kind of life. This, he says, must shape pastoral ministry:

Lead your people on the journey of discipleship. Lead them out the door of your meeting place and show them how to live, to be witnesses, and to be relevant to the needs of those around them. Teach them to be the kind of people who light up the darkness, who live with moral clarity, who love others, and who live to serve others” (218).

His diagnosis is on target. Many American evangelical influencers really do separate conversion from discipleship. Many minimize or simply ignore the biblical truth that people who confess “Jesus is Lord” must and will follow him in obedience. Ignoring that truth isn’t just wrong. It’s dangerous. It distorts the gospel to call people “Christians” who make no commitment to follow the Lord Jesus. As long as that distortion persists, Hull’s argument that “all who are called to salvation are also called to discipleship” must be taught and defended.

TROUBLING AMBIGUITY

That said, as grateful as I am for the central thesis and pastoral application, some of Hull’s arguments are troubling.

First, I sense unwarranted suspicion toward the Reformation and its emphasis on justification by faith (29–30, 46). On this point, he leans heavily on the author of his foreword, Scot McKnight, and his book, The King Jesus Gospel. (See Michael Horton’s review for relevant background.) Hull and McKnight may be right about deficiencies in the gospel presentations of Finney, Graham, and Campus Crusade, but is the Reformation emphasis on justification really responsible for those deficiencies? Hull himself notes that Calvin and Luther accurately saw the relationship between justification and inner renewal (76), so it’s difficult to see a valid critique here.

This could be taken as a tangential issue were it not for lack of clarity elsewhere. That’s my greater concern. On several occasions, Hull’s wording is unhelpful. He writes that Jesus taught merely “claiming to have done God’s will is not valid—it is doing God’s will that gets you in. Doing is the proof, the visible verification, that you do indeed know God” (68). So, is the doing what gets you in, or is it the proof that you already are in? These are not the same, so his meaning is imprecise.

Similarly, he said, “To access this gift of God [the gospel], people need to acknowledge their need for it”— I agree!—“turn toward Jesus”—absolutely!—“and start following him as proof of belief in him” (27)—hmmm, not sure about that. This statement demands explanation that I didn’t find. Does a person need to believe in order to receive saving grace? Yes. Turn to Christ? Absolutely. But does a person need to start demonstrating evidence of belief in order to access that grace? I believe Scripture teaches it does not. The difference is subtle, but crucial. (For a discussion of related issues, see Paul Alexander’s review of Sinclair Ferguson’s recent book, The Whole Christ.)

To be fair, Hull affirms “we need to avoid adding extra conditions or requiring certain behaviors as conditions for being saved. As soon as we do these things, the gospel ceases to be a gospel of grace” (74). Amen to that! But it’s difficult to understand how Hull weaves together these seemingly divergent threads of his argument.

For example, he writes, “Works even done in faith will not earn our salvation nor earn us merit before God.” But in the next next paragraph, he says, “Because faith has been taught as agreement to a set of beliefs or praying a specific prayer one time rather than obedience to Jesus, our churches are crowded with confused people” (84). I hear him saying that works don’t earn salvation, but saving faith is obedience to Jesus. I can interpret those sentences in a way that they’re compatible and orthodox, but that way isn’t satisfyingly clear to me.

By the end of the book, I couldn’t avoid wondering whether Hull’s understanding of the relationship between key elements of salvation looks like:

belief + repentance + transformed behavior secures forgiveness.

This would depart from the historic Protestant expression, which looks more like:

belief + repentance secures forgiveness and necessarily leads to transformed behavior.

In personal communication regarding this review, Hull offered encouraging clarity on this particular question. But I still believe the book itself needs more of it. Despite its substantial contributions, I could only recommend it to those who are able to sort through its ambiguities, and I suspect that most people who could do that already agree with its thesis.