Is there any relationship between discipleship and sound theology? In the understanding of many Christians, the answer would be “not much,” or even a feeling that theology gets in the way of a serious commitment to follow Jesus. There are certainly plenty of examples of theological study or discussion being a drag on true discipleship, but I would argue that sound theology must be foundational to discipleship, particularly when we study how Paul discipled the churches he wrote to.
In The Walk, my book presenting discipleship to those with very little background in the faith, I teach that Step Three of discipleship through the gospel is Kinowing the benefits of believing the Gospel, that is to say, understanding gospel doctrine. Step One is to keep our focus on Jesus Himself, presented in the gospel story. Step Two is to understand how we came personally to believe the gospel (through the work of the Holy Spirit). The next “step” is to take in and embrace all that is given to us “in Christ.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism, which we are currently studying on Sunday mornings, specifically identifies those blessings as justification, adoption and sanctification. When you study Paul’s letter to the Romans, the same three doctrines are emphasized, although because of Romans I change the order slightly in The Walk because it seems to me that justification (ch. 3-5), leads to a discussion of sanctification (ch. 6, 7), and both are then celebrated as our adoption into sonship (ch. 8). But the point is that the Apostle is careful to explain in great detail the blessings of our being in Christ (theology) before he goes into detail about what it means to walk the life of obedience (ch. 12-16). This is an unpacking of the Gospel—presenting what God has done for us through the work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit—before presenting what we need to do for him. Others have explained this as Paul always writing in the indicative before the imperative.
Probably the most important example of why this is important is the common confusion between justification and sanctification. Justification is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith—that is to say, God accepts us as righteous because of what Christ did in his death and resurrection and there is nothing we can add to that but believe it. Those who don’t really grasp justification find themselves believing in Jesus, on the one hand, but still determined to do what they can to make themselves worthy of his acceptance. In effect they are trying to be justified through their sanctification—which is the ongoing work of the Spirit to makes us more and more into the likeness of Christ. In my observation, the number one reason for discouragement in growth as a disciple is the feeling that we can never measure up to what the Lord expects of us—so why keep trying. The fact is we can’t measure up, but by faith we believe God’s word that “there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), which is the core of our justification. And because we are justified we also believe that we are not the people we once were and God’s Spirit it making us (ever so slowly it seems) in his new people who “belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” (Romans 7:4). This is not theological abstraction—it is basic Christian living.
There is so much more that can be said about justification and sanctification. In fact, appreciating and applying this distinction is the heart of the program known as Sonship that was birthed here at New Life and has impacted not only our church but believers around the world. This summer we are planning to play some of the early tapes from Rose Marie and Jack Miller and their son, Paul, and you will discover how important and practical the teaching is. But the point I’m making is simply that our own spiritual growth as disciples cannot be disconnected from the sound theology of Scripture, teaching us who we are in Christ and all the benefits that have been given to us in Him—truly we are saved by grace alone.
(PS – The Walk is available for purchase through Amazon.com or other online booksellers, but I will be glad to give a copy of it to any reader of this blog who asks me for one.)