Book Review: Following Jesus, the Servant King, by Jonathan Lunde
Discipleship is fundamental to Christianity. To be a Christian is to be a disciple—a follower, an apprentice—of Jesus. This entails a lifetime of grace-driven effort in pursuit of greater and greater conformity to Christ. Yet in many churches, real spiritual growth among church members is an anomaly. Stagnation is the norm.
There are many mutually reinforcing reasons for this apparent lack of genuine discipleship among members of evangelical churches. Our consumeristic and anti-authority culture predisposes us to chafe at the submission Jesus demands. Church leaders fail to proclaim and model a robust, biblical vision of what it means to follow Jesus. Entire congregations fail to hold their members accountable to actually follow Jesus because they do not practice church discipline.
Yet even if we clear away these hindrances, discipleship can still seem a dauntingly complex topic. What does it mean to really follow Jesus? How are we supposed to know how to apply Jesus’ teachings to our lives, much less the rest of the Bible? If we’re saved by grace, what’s with all this talk about effort and submission and obedience?
ANSWERING THREE CRUCIAL QUESTIONS ABOUT DISCIPLESHIP
Jonathan Lunde’s new book Following Jesus, the Servant King: A Biblical Theology of Covenantal Discipleship aims to address these kinds of questions. The second volume in Zondervan’s new “Biblical Theology for Life” series, of which Lunde is the general editor, this book attempts to bring serious biblical theology to bear on three crucial questions about discipleship. First, “Why should I be concerned to obey all of Jesus commands if I have been saved by grace?” Second, “What is it that Jesus demands of his disciples?” Third, “How can the disciple obey Jesus’ high demand, while experiencing his ‘yoke’ as ‘light’ and ‘easy’?”
The book’s subtitle “A Biblical Theology of Covenantal Discipleship” may lead some readers to expect that the book will address the whole Bible’s teaching about discipleship, yet the book’s scope is much narrower. In chapter one, Lunde states that his goal is to explore how the persistent experience of Jesus’ grace undergirds discipleship. Thus he explains, “What I have therefore written is part biblical theology of covenant, part life of Jesus, and part discussion of discipleship” (32).
After a brief introductory chapter, the body of the book addresses the three questions mentioned above. In chapters two through five, which address “The ‘Why’ Question,” Lunde first introduces the major biblical covenants, carefully delineating the difference between a grant covenant and a conditional covenant (ch. 2). He then explores the gracious grounding and righteous demand of each of biblical covenant (chs. 3 and 4), and the relationship between faith and obedience in each covenant (ch. 5). In all of this, Lunde gives special attention to the New Covenant in which Christians participate.
In chapters six through ten, which address “The ‘What’ Question,” Lunde explores Jesus’ role as the “Prophet Who is the King” (ch. 6) and then looks at three different facets of Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament law. As “Filter,” Jesus climactically fulfills and therefore abrogates certain aspects of the Old Testament law, such as sacrifices and circumcision. Though, as Lunde explains, these Old Testament injunctions have ongoing ethical implications (ch. 7). As “Lens,” Jesus clarifies the original intent of the Old Testament law and clears away distorting accretions (ch. 8). As “Prism,” Jesus intensifies the law’s demands in light of the new era of redemptive history which he ushers in (ch. 9). Rounding out the “What” section, chapter ten explores several key texts about the mission to which Jesus summons his followers.
Chapters eleven through sixteen address “The ‘How’ Question,” though the reader should note that the “how” question is not so much “What are the practical steps we should take to grow as disciples of Christ?” but “How is it that we are motivated and enabled to obey all that Jesus commands?” Thus, these chapters explore how different aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry motivate, enable, empower, and shape our covenantal obedience. Specifically, Lunde discusses Jesus’ role as our representative (ch. 13), our Redeemer (ch. 14), the restorer of God’s people and kingdom (chs. 15 and 16), and the reigning King (ch. 17). The book closes with a brief chapter which reflects further on practical application.
BRINGING THE COVENANTS INTO THE FOREGROUND
This book’s most notable contribution to a practical theology of discipleship is that it brings the biblical covenants into the foreground where they belong. It explores all of the major biblical covenants, amply expounding the nature of the New Covenant, and precisely details how Christians relate to the stipulations of prior covenants. As a result, this book does exactly what biblical theology should do: it helps us put the whole Bible together, so that we can rightly interpret and apply various portions of Scripture depending on how they relate to Jesus and the New Covenant.
For example, Lunde’s crisp and memorable discussion of the various ways in which we relate to the Old Testament law through Jesus is exactly the kind of thing pastors need to understand so that they can equip their people to read and apply the whole Bible correctly. Further, Lunde’s discussion of the ongoing moral implications of the sacrifices required under the Mosaic Covenant is a superb example of tracing out the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament and applying the Old Testament through that lens to the life of the church today (see pp. 128-132).
Have you ever wondered how to preach Leviticus? Or how to apply the Old Testament’s ethical teaching? Or how we as Christians relate to the various biblical covenants? If so, this book can help beef up the biblical-theological horsepower under your hood so that you are able to accurately explain and apply the whole Bible. If you’re well versed in biblical theology, this book may offer you little that’s brand new. Yet Lunde’s expositions of biblical texts, especially select portions of the Gospels, would still be well worth working through.
WHAT ABOUT THE EPISTLES?
My only substantive critique of the book has to do with its scope. Throughout the book, Lunde indicates that his aim is to help us understand what it means to follow Jesus and obey Jesus’ teaching. As one would expect, he therefore spends a lot of time unpacking Jesus’ own teaching as presented in the Gospels in relation to antecedent Scripture.
Yet one thing he fails to do is explain in even the most condensed, summary form what the ethical teaching of the rest of the New Testament contributes to the total picture of what it means to follow Jesus. Lunde does explore the alleged tension between Jesus’ demands of discipleship and Paul’s gospel of free grace (106-108), yet throughout the book he tends to make only passing reference to ethical teaching outside of the Gospels. Thus, while Lunde does a wonderful job relating the Gospels to the Old Testament, he provides little help in relating the Gospels to the ethical teaching of the epistles, or even in simply interpreting and applying the epistles on their own terms.
This neglect of the epistles results in an incomplete portrait of Christian discipleship. For example, the book contains almost no explicit discussion of the thoroughly corporate, congregational shape of discipleship, which is one of the most striking features of the ethical teaching of the epistles, especially to contemporary Western ears. Further, by failing to explicitly indicate that all that the apostles teach in the rest of the New Testament belongs in the category, “What is it that Jesus demands of his disciples?” Lunde unwittingly lends aid to those who would somehow privilege Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels over the rest of the New Testament.
Aren’t the epistles the Bible’s own device for unpacking what Jesus said and fleshing out what it means to follow him?
Overall, I’m very grateful for how well this book does what it does, and I genuinely recommend it. I wish it did a couple of crucial things it didn’t do, namely, consider both the epistles and the corporate nature of the Christian life. Still, Following Jesus, the Servant King is an illuminating exposition of much crucial biblical material that bears on discipleship. It is a model of biblical theology done in the service of the church, and pastors and other readers stand to benefit deeply from it.