I grew up with this understanding that discipleship happened in a classroom in front of a flannelgraph and that the only way to grow as a follower of Jesus was to sign up for Bible studies, attend Sunday school, get your kids to VBS, don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t have sex and be good. Rules, rules and more rules. It was a cyclical pattern of condemnation. I could never be good enough.
When Jesus commissioned us to make disciples he certainly desired for us to engage the world. We are to go to the nations, teach them to observe what Jesus said, baptize them, and then do it again—all with the gospel Story as the center. But what I was missing was real life-on-life, Spirit empowered, Story-formed community.
It’s not, “Come to Jesus, join our church and then get discipled.” It’s, “Here is the gospel. Here’s what Jesus has done for you. Repent and believe, and live a life on mission with the Church through the power of the Spirit as you learn to make disciples who make disciples. Your life, which is not your life now, is to be gospel-saturated and set on fire for the mission. Now go.” The gospel Story tells of freedom from condemnation. If freedom to live life on mission comes with the gospel driving your life, what holds us back? Let’s take a look at a couple of all too familiar scenarios.
Condemnation Scenario One
We sat in my office, and I listened to her story for nearly an hour. She was in tears as anger, bitterness, frustration, anxiety, depression, and uncertainty all plagued her. She had moved out of the house away from her husband, and things were not going well. I had a couple of meetings with the two of them, but we never seemed to be able to get anywhere with the situation. They had both been married before and now this marriage was about to crumble. Again. She couldn’t live with herself if another marriage fell apart. Not this time.
She talked a lot about the problems in their marriage, but the common, underlying theme in all of her analysis was condemnation. How could God still love me? Why would God allow this to happen? I still feel ashamed of my past. I still feel distant from God. There is no way I can live like this and still have a relationship with Jesus.
Condemnation Scenario Two
Steven (not his real name) is not a Christian. He had been coming to our worship gatherings for quite a while now, and sat in the back curiously looking around. If he as a not-yet-believer was likened to anything, it would be that of a window shopper. He enjoyed browsing the flurry of activity that was a Sunday morning. He was here each week and was engaged with everything, especially the sermon. He was here each week and was engaged with everything, especially the sermon, though he didn’t necessarily care for our music. Almost every week, I would stand in the back of the auditorium and greet him, and he thanked me for my message each time.
Steven and I got to know each other as he took the initiative to come meet with me. I had previously given him a Bible and he had been reading it every single day. As far as I could tell he’d read the New Testament a couple of times over. Steven was searching.
One day he sat on the couch in my office and told me his story. His background didn’t shock me, for I had worked in the social work field in inner-city Philadelphia during seminary, but I was blown away by the fact that he was still alive. Steven interrupted me that day (which was highly unusual because he was normally quiet and reserved) and said, “Pastor Jason, I understand why Jesus died. I understand my sin. I’m not ready to become a Christian yet.”
What in the world do I do with this, I thought. The man had heard the gospel over and over again, was reading his Bible, talking with me, praying with me, and had a better attendance at our Sunday gatherings than most everyone else. What gives? Then he told me, “I don’t understand how God could accept me.”
Justification in the Gospel
Both scenarios I laid out above are about shame; both have guilt. Both are desiring to be accepted by God. One is a believer struggling with identity; the other is not yet a believer struggling with identity. But both require the same approach to discipleship: the gospel. This gospel says that you are accepted, not because of anything you have done or will do, but because of what Jesus has done. You are accepted now!
The Apostle Paul was intoxicated with the gospel. He was stunned by Jesus and penned the greatest theological treatise ever written. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul’s entire premise hinges on this all-important doctrine of justification. He says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
This word, “therefore,” is the crescendo of all things gospel-centered. It is a powerful word especially because of where it is in chapter eight. Paul has just laid out in the previous chapters the doctrine of sin and justification and in Romans 7:23-25 says that we have an impressive victory won “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Backing up even further, Paul says in Romans 7:6, “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”
Don’t miss this statement. Paul is giving us a new grid to work with, and it is that of the Spirit’s working in our life because we died with Jesus. This is a significant part of Paul’s robust doctrine of justification. We are free from the law of sin and death! (Romans 8:2). And “now” we have this status—this right-standing-before-God status that was inaugurated by Jesus, and because of what he has done we have been united with him. Justification is always connected to our union with Christ.
Paul says that the condemnation is gone. It’s finished. Obliterated. Never-to-return. The fruit of sin is death and because we have peace with God, because of what Jesus has done, we are acquitted. Sin and death were condemned on the cross. Their verdict was rendered “finished” by Jesus’ substitutionary death. The Spirit in our life points us back to that reality over and over again, to drink deeply from the gospel well. The future verdict of “not guilty” has been given to us now. We’ve been adopted (Romans 8:15). We’ve been changed. We’ve experienced the gospel.
Gospel Identity through the Trinity
At the center of all things discipleship is an identity crisis. Finding hope with the doctrine of justification requires that we look deeply at our identities. At our church I use something I call “The Trinitarian Story” with our people. The Father, Son, and Spirit are all at work in the mission of God. Each Person plays a role during the life of the believer. The Father is our heavenly father and we are a family. The Son is Lord and came to serve us, so we worship him as servants. The Spirit was sent by Jesus to shape us as a community on mission, and therefore we are missionaries. Each of these identities are connected to the gospel. Each of these give us a profound sense of worth, dignity, and value. Notice that we don’t give ourselves this worth; it comes from God.
Taking it a bit further, I’ve heard fellow Soma Communities pastor Jeff Vanderstelt and others talk about four key gospel-fluent questions for whatever you find yourself dealing with in life (be it success, problems, sin, or trial). I have framed them this way:
- Who is God?
- What has God done in Christ?
- Who does that now make me?
- What’s next, Holy Spirit?
The key to growing in holiness by the power of the Spirit is to learn to appropriate the gospel and do so by connecting it to our identities. We must learn to allow the Spirit the opportunity to help us revisit this, over and over again.
Hope in the Gospel
My counsel to these two? No matter the circumstance, trial, or tribulation, you can find hope. Paul says that nothing can separate us from Jesus (Romans 8:35-39). Nothing. Do you believe it? Now let’s try the gospel-fluent questions:
Questions 1: Who is God? He is Righteous, therefore he is Judge.
Question 2: What has God done in Christ? He has offered his Son Jesus as a substitution for our sin. Jesus bore the wrath of God on himself in our place, and in doing so was crucified and raised on the third day. The Scripture says that this Christ event is what gave us justification.
Question 3: Who does that now make me? A justified sinner, saved by God’s grace, who’s condemnation is null and void. My guilt has been destroyed, my shame put to death. I can now be a joyful person because Jesus has taken my punishment.
Question 4: What’s next, Holy Spirit? Rest in my justification, praising God for the gospel. I can find hope because Jesus stepped in my place to get me.
Counseling and discipling in these situations is incredibly difficult. It takes time. It takes us remembering the gospel and learning to listen while making fresh applications of what Jesus has done. By God’s grace, there is hope. May we spur on our efforts of disciple-making by the power of the Spirit for the glory of God, resting in what Jesus has done to justify us.