Book Review: Gospel-Centered Discipleship, by Jonathan Dodson
Jonathan K. Dodson, Gospel-Centered Discipleship. Crossway, 2012. 176 pages. $12.99.
A few weeks ago I had coffee with several friends to read Scripture and pray for each other. At one point, one of the guys opened up about a sin he’d been fighting that week. I was thankful for his honesty, but concerned about him having a cavalier attitude toward sin. So I warned him about the seriousness of the sin and pressed him on what he was going to do about it.
Later that afternoon, another friend who observed our interaction called me out for being harsh and legalistic. As I thought about it, I realized he was right. Instead of trusting God and pointing him to the gospel, I took matters into my own hands. My takeaway from that experience? Fighting sin, and helping others do the same, is never easy.
“There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.” These words were penned by John Owen over 300 years ago, but they remain true today. Killing sin doesn’t happen by trying harder; nor can we do it on our own with a self-help manual. It’s only when we, by faith, are united to Christ in his death and resurrection that the Spirit sets us free from sin’s bondage so that we are able to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).
Jonathan Dodson understands this well. In his own struggle as a disciple of Jesus, there have been times he’s fallen into the legalism ditch on one hand and the license ditch on the other. Gospel Centered Discipleship is an accessible book that weaves together the author’s own experience and theological reflections to help the reader avoid both ditches as they seek to follow Jesus and help others do the same.
THE GOSPEL MAKES AND MATURES DISCIPLES
One of the helpful contributions of the book is the reminder in chapter one that making disciples involves proclaiming the gospel and teaching Christians the implications of the gospel. God doesn’t use the gospel to make a Christian and then set it aside to gather dust. It’s what he uses to shape the follower of Christ. Dodson writes that the “gospel-centered definition of discipleship collapses the dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship by showing that disciples are made and matured through repentance and faith in the good news” (40).
Does that mean the Christian sits back and does nothing? No! The New Testament calls the follower of Christ to work (1 Cor. 15:10b; Phil. 2:12; Col. 1:29a). Likewise, Dodson reminds us, “‘Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.’ If we are to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of Jesus, we must put effort into the noble fight of faith” (57).
Does that mean discipleship is all about what we can do in our effort? No! The New Testament calls the Christian to depend on God for growth (1 Cor. 15:10a, Phil. 2:13, Col 1:29b). Likewise, Dodson reminds us, “Gospel holiness is obedience to Christ procured from belief in the gospel, not from one’s moral effort” (88).
The work of the Christian is a laboring to rest or trust in Christ (Jn. 6:29). We cannot do this apart from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit (ch. 5). Dodson asks,
How can we practically rely upon the Spirit to trust the Savior? By the Word and the Spirit of God. The Spirit works through the Word. Like lightning works through steel, the Spirit’s power is released through Scripture to awaken our hearts to the glory of God dazzling off the face of Christ. (132)
After defining terms (part 1) and looking at the heart of discipleship (part 2), Dodson deals with the challenges of applying the gospel (part 3). Knowing that following Jesus is a fight for faith, the author focuses on how God uses community to keep us on track.
Dodson’s idea of a gospel centered discipleship relationship is a “Fight Club”: a group of friends who meet regularly to confess sin, communicate the gospel, pray, and read the Bible. The author does a good job of unpacking what they are, how they function, and the practical issues of getting them started. The Fight Club is at the heart of the book in the sense that it is the vehicle and expression of the gospel centered ideas discussed in parts 1 and 2.
A FEW QUESTIONS
I was helped and encouraged by the book and would happily recommend it as a resource to use in thinking through the role of community in avoiding the dangers of legalism and license. Praise God for his glorious gospel! That said, reading the book raised a few questions that gave me pause.
What about Examples?
First, what about the example of older Christians in the faith? When the Bible speaks of discipleship, it has much to say about examples (Phil. 3:17; 1 Cor. 4:16; 1 Thess. 1:6). Dodson rightly pushes against the professional/novice dichotomy, but the idea of a good example suggests that they are further along and we can learn from watching. If Fight Clubs are made of peers, what role do examples play?
What about the Church?
Second, what about the church? (What would a 9Marks review be without asking this?) Little is said about how a Fight Club can or should connect with the others in the church. If a pastor is going to cast a vision for these groups, how does he help them avoid the error that their Fight Club is their church?
What is meant by “Missional”?
Third, what is meant by “missional”? There are times when Dodson uses the word almost synonymous with evangelism (115). But most of the time he uses the word in a broader sense. For instance, he explains that horizontal discipleship “focuses on missional activity such as evangelism, social justice, and cultural renewal” (45). My concern is the way he uses the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) as the basis for this missional focus. The Great Commission functions to shape the mission of the church. When Dodson ties cultural renewal or social justice to it, he is reshaping the mission of the church.
The dangerous irony is that defining missional this way threatens to shift a church away from a gospel center—the very thing Dodson is fighting for. Say a church offers two opportunities to its members: evangelistic outreach or tutoring at a local school. Which one would people sign up for first? Human nature will usually pick the path of least resistance—in this case, tutoring. But if both are seen as equal aspects of the mission of the church, the church is at risk of communicating that evangelism is no more urgent than tutoring, or at worst, is optional.
GOSPEL, YES, BUT ALSO CHURCH
The mission of the church is to make disciples by proclaiming the gospel and gathering them into churches. There, Christians learn what it is to obey all God’s commands, including those commandments which call us to cultural engagement and social action. Gospel Centered Discipleship provides a much needed call to keep the gospel at the heart of our efforts to follow Jesus. But to protect this gospel, God has given the church, which is the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
 Overcoming Sin & Temptation by John Owen, edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor (Wehaton: Crossway, 2006), 79.
 In footnote 5 of chapter 1, Dodson points us to an article he wrote that explains this further. For a different perspective, see chapter 2 of What is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert.