A Review of “Gospel Centered Discipleship” by Jonathan Dodson

Gospel-Centered-Discipleship-Jonathan-Dodson-Book-CoverWhat does it mean to be “gospel-centered”? “Gospel” has become a bit of a buzzword. Want to sell a book? Call it “Gospel-centered.” Want to trend a podcast? Call it “gospel-focused.” Everything seems to be gospel driven, focused, centered, grounded, or saturated these days. But what exactly people mean when they say that isn’t always entirely clear. Jonathan Dodson has, I think, a better grasp on the idea than perhaps others do. In his simple discipleship book he focuses on a process of making disciples that is not driven by programs, nor motivated by rules, but is rather shaped by the believers identity in Christ. Gospel Centered Discipleship is a book that spells out the centrality of the gospel in sanctification, and then helps us to apply that gospel in the process of making disciples. It is truly “gospel-centered.”

The book is broken down into three parts. We might speak of them as simple definition (part 1), expanded definition (part 2), and application (part 3). Dodson refers to them as “Defining Discipleship,” “Getting to the Heart,” and “Applying the Gospel.” In each part he is refocusing our attention on the gospel’s central role in the process of making disciples. The refocusing begins as he considers the weaknesses of our common definitions of discipleship.

The two most common ways we refer to discipleship, according to Dodson, are as either straight evangelism or as a “hierarchical system for spiritual growth, a way for professional Christians to pass on their best practices to novice Christians”(15). Instead of these weak and misguided definitions, Dodson focuses us back on the gospel as the heart of what it means to live as and make disciples. The gospel is necessary both to make initial disciples (evangelism) and to grow disciples (the process of maturation). While others are attempting to define discipleship by one or the other pieces Dodson combines both. To separate them out is to do a disservice to the whole idea of discipleship. He writes:

The attempt to clarify discipleship by separating it from evangelism actually muddies the water. The problem is twofold. First, both evangelists and disciplers refer to their ministries as “disciple making.” Should discipleship be understood as evangelizing non-Christians or the maturing of Christians? Second, and more importantly, the separation of evangelism from discipleship implies that “sharing the gospel” with non-Christians is an activity that is unnecessary with Christians. It intimates that the gospel doesn’t need to be shared with disciples. (28)

It is this same gospel, Dodson argues, that is needed to help disciples mature. We can’t separate the two ideas because “sharing the gospel” is an ongoing, lifelong, process of discipleship for all of us.

This gospel focus shifts the entire conversation away from performance. One of the more interesting things Dodson does in his book is to speak of discipleship less in terms of performance and more in terms of identity. While most works on the subject focus on the idea of disciple as a verb, Dodson focuses on disciple as a noun. He defines disciple by three key aspects of identity: rational, relational, and missional. So a disciple is one who “learns the gospel, relates in the gospel, and communicates the gospel.” The process, then, of making disciples, focuses on our living out these three aspects of our identity within community. The Great Commission calls us to “gospel going” (relational), “gospel baptizing” (missional), and “gospel teaching” (rational). In each case we are making disciples by being disciples within community. This focuses shifts Dodson’s entire conversation away from the discipleship/evangelism distinction. He writes:

If making disciples happens through gospel-centered going, baptizing, and teaching, the semantic distinction between evangelism and discipleship is superfluous. Disciples are made, whether for the first or the fiftieth time, through the gospel. Jesus’ real concern was not evangelism versus discipleship, but the good news. Both are a product of the gospel. The evangelism/discipleship debate misses the point of the Gospel Commission. Jesus’s Commission is not mission centered but gospel centered. (36)

The gospel makes and keeps on making disciples. This is the foundation from which Dodson builds the rest of his philosophy of discipleship.

Part two focuses on the heart of a true disciple by exploring the motives for obedience. He outlines for readers “three overlapping gospel motivations” (76): religious affection, belief in the warnings and promises of God, and the gift of repentance. He then talks about the powerful role of the Holy Spirit in discipleship, exploring particularly how the Spirit shaped Christ’s life on earth and can do the same in our lives.

Part three, then, shifts the attention to the practical steps of discipleship. With the theology in place, Dodson wants us to be able to practical live it out. While much of the content of these last three chapters won’t be new or surprising the arrangement is helpful and fresh. Looking at concepts like accountability groups (“fight clubs”) through a fresh perspective gives us some helpful insight into using community for the benefit of mutual spiritual growth. The fresh perspective can inspire new insights.

Gospel Centered Discipleship is a great tool because it takes seriously the role of the gospel in both salvation and sanctification. It reiterates the gospel for believers as a part of their ongoing growth and maturation. While other discipleship resources focuses on what we do, this tool focuses on who we are. From that foundation, then, it takes us to application. If anyone gets and uses the concept of “gospel-centered” well, it may be Jonathan Dodson in this wonderful book. I highly recommend it to those thinking about their disciple-making.

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