Jonathan Dodson is the Lead Pastor of Austin City Life providing leadership in Vision, Teaching, and Pastoral Care. He graduated from college with a B.A. in Anthropology and earned two masters degrees at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, one in Divinity (M.Div) and another in Biblical Theology (Th.M). This Fall Jonathan's new book on missional communities will release. In October a new version of the resource site, gospelcentereddiscipleship.com, will launch continuing to e-publish and promote new, practical gospel-centered resources in order to equip others for making disciples in Western culture. Jonathan is speaking on discipleship at the GCM Collective Conference in October, and will be teaching through Luke-Acts this Fall at Austin City Life also on the subject. It should be obvious why Jonathan's name came to my mind when considering theology and disciple making.
What is the relationship between theology and piety?
In an increasingly post-Christian West, words like theology/doctrine and piety/godliness trigger negative meanings (I will use the latter words throughout). Therefore, if we are to understand the proper relationship between doctrine and godliness, I think it’s important to address incorrect perceptions of both first. Otherwise, we end up heaping knowledge onto empty conviction and misunderstanding of our hearers.
Misperceptions of Doctrine and Godliness To head off these misperceptions, very briefly, we might say that the Bible calls us to be doctrinal but not doctrinaire. The difference between the two is that doctrinaire people misplace their identity in knowing the doctrine of Christ, whereas doctrinal people place their identity in knowing the Christ of doctrine. When it comes to holiness, we often think of the punk or the prude, both of whom are concerned with the appearance of holiness. The punk is obsessed with others’ holiness. The prude is concerned with his or her own holiness. We might say that the punk and the prude approach to holiness is character-centered not God-centered. As a result, they possess a form of godliness without its power (2 Tim 3:5). This, of course, leads us to ask just what is godliness and how does it relate to doctrine?
Doctrine-shaped Godliness In chapter one of 1 Timothy Paul shows us that sound doctrine is “in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” Literally, the good news of the glory of the happy God. Sound doctrine shows us the something about God, namely that he is glorious and blessed! Sound doctrine isn’t merely getting your beliefs right; it is getting your heart happy in a right view of God.
Sound doctrine isn’t merely getting your beliefs right; it is getting your heart happy in a right view of GodThis deep heart change happens through doctrine, God-centered teaching. Paul is trying to help us put spectacles on to clarify who God is, to see him as he is, to be God-centered not self-centered. And the closer we look through the lens of good doctrine, the more we see god-liness. This is precisely why Paul refers to sound doctrine as the “doctrine that accords with godliness” (6:3). The relationship between doctrine and godliness is Godliness, then, is being obsessed, excessively concerned, not with character but with God. Sound doctrine has a way of clarifying God because it brings our vision in alignment with the reality of God, his nature, character and work.
The Ideal Godliness Of course, it’s not enough to simply put the spectacles on. This heart-thrilling, doctrine-clarifying vision of God should lead us into godliness. In the words of Paul, we should train for godliness. The Greeks disciplined themselves, sculpting their bodies into the Hellenistic ideal of beauty. If we are to get the right perception of godliness, we will need the biblical ideal of beauty, of godliness. Where do we get that?
Paul borrows from an early hymn to delineate the “mystery of godliness”:
He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels,
proclaimed in the world, believed upon by the nations, taken up in glory.
The subject of each line of 1 Timothy 3:16 reveals the ideal godliness. The Lord Jesus Christ is the ideal godliness. Sound doctrine shows us Jesus, not just that Jesus is God, but that God is Jesus. He is the ideal godliness. If we’re to make progress in godliness, we must be continually taught and trained in Jesus. Who is Jesus in this hymn? He is incarnation, death and resurrection, the paradigm of mission. He is found entering our world. He does not drop a book from the sky for us to read about holiness. He is manifested in the flesh through birth, life, and death to show us godliness. He walks our streets and enters our homes, dies our death, lives our life.
Interestingly, the prudes and the punks were repelled by him. But “sinners”, unreligious, social outcasts, even some cultural elites were attracted to Jesus. Jesus’ godliness caused sinners to flock to him. Alan Hirsch says that Jesus’ holiness made him compelling, attractive, missional. This is the holy implication of the hymn. The first stanza shows us the paradigmatic message of mission. The second stanza calls us to proclaim this Jesus by embodying him in the world and among the nations. The ideal godliness is Jesus Christ as Lord, revealed in the flesh, resurrected by the Spirit, and proclaimed in the world.
With spectacles of sound doctrine on we see Jesus as the ideal godliness. We see the gospel incarnate and proclaimed. And if we truly see Him, we can not help but strive to be like him. What then is the relationship between doctrine and godliness? Is the role of doctrine to reveal Jesus and the role of godliness to imitate him? Not exactly.
Gospel-centered Godliness If we’re not careful, this approach to godliness could lead us back to a Jesus-shaped version of the punk or the prude. We need something to move our vision into affection before it becomes action. We need the gospel for ourselves, not just for others. This is why sound doctrine is “in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.
The gospel brings the doctrine to life; it warms our affections to the ideal godliness, carrying us forward in imitation of Jesus. But the gospel also carries us to Jesus, in repentance for our every failure to imitate him, to serve the poor, love the sinner, and walk the streets. A right view of God must be coupled with a right view of ourselves, not merely as imitators and emissaries of Jesus, but as his dependents and his forgiven sons.
What is the biggest mistake the church is making when working to make disciples?
I can’t answer that question definitively. However, the dearth of suffering, the absence of hope, the trivialization of the Spirit, and the lack of mission among disciples of Jesus is terribly concerning. We have tried to minimize suffering through convenience, eliminate hope through self-made retirement, reduce Jesus to redeemer of the past, and surrendered any sense of discipleship as a call to die to ourselves that others may live. . Instead, discipleship has been reduced to having a good marriage, handling finances well, raising good children, securing a future, and knowing your Bible. Our mission is very different than Jesus’ mission, our lives very different than Jesus’ life. This should scare us.
Practically speaking, how would you encourage churches to make disciples?
Recover the centrality of the gospel in producing Jesus-shaped godliness, a godliness that is missional and God-centered. Apply the gospel everyday.
Recover a practice of discipleship that is communal not individualistic. Jesus make disciples in community, sent them by two, make them by threes and a dozen. Be a disciple with other disciples.
Recover a discipleship that is missional not comfort or knowledge based. Sound doctrine sends disciples that imitate Jesus. The incarnation is the paradigm of mission. Be a disciples that makes disciples, not on your turf but on their turf.
Follow the biblical distinctives of discipleship in the Gospels. Ask yourself where you are 1) relying on the Spirit 2) embracing suffering 3) dying to yourself 4) living in the hope of resurrection. If our lives aren’t risky enough to force us to rely on the Spirit, to suffer the reproach of others or loss of comfort, to surrender our rights, and demonstrate hope in a much greater world to come, then we have very little to point to as Christian discipleship. Take these 4 areas, plucked from the Gospels and Acts, and ask a group of disciples to provoke you to live this kind of life, one that puts Jesus at the center of your failures and your successes.
In September I'm looking forward to speaking along side Jonathan and Dr. Bob Smart at Build: The Construction of a Gospel-Formed Man in Normal, IL. If you'll be in the area you should check it out.