Buzz words abound in the church today. Sometimes they are little more than a publicity stunt, sometimes they are just below shallow, and other times they are genuine attempts to get to the heart of God’s mission in this world. Single terms will only take us so far so terms like “missional” or “formation” or “spirituality” may help but we need them all if we want a balanced and robust theology. When it comes to the Christian life, however, one term can take us to the heart of God: discipleship.
I found this term on a journey. As a high school convert I was absorbed with the joy of having found meaning and purpose in life. My pastor, God bless his heart, was deeply fond of the apostle Paul and absorbed in a theology that seemed to avoid the Gospels and Jesus as a historical figure. So it was not until I was in college both immersed in studying the whole Bible and working as a youth pastor that I discovered the Gospels. My world was suddenly aflame with a desire to know about Jesus and the Gospels, and while this flame was burning bright a professor recommended that I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. As a college junior or senior I pored over this book, soul and body quaking and aching for comprehension of the depth of this man’s great book. That journey – to Jesus and the Gospels and to the works of Bonhoeffer – changed the course of my life. When I heard anyone talking about Jesus or found a new book about Jesus, I turned in that direction; when someone directed my attention to Bonhoeffer I discovered that he kept on that Jesus and the Gospels path.
The “first day” with Jesus, if we begin with Mark, is a lesson in succinctness: Repent, believe, gospel, kingdom. Put them into a single bag of ideas and you get discipleship. I wanted to grow as a disciple and I wanted to teach about discipleship and I wanted to read about discipleship.
But I learned quickly that not everyone was on board. I heard some say that discipleship sounded like works righteousness and not like grace; others said we have to balance Jesus with Paul’s “life in the Spirit.” I even heard some say that salvation is one thing, conversion is one thing, but discipleship is entirely something else and optional. What I heard was that you can have the one without the others – that you can be saved and not be a disciple. I was young and I was enthusiastic, but I smelled a theological rat in that claim. So I kept teaching and I kept writing and then one day at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in the hallway outside my office, I met a young pastor who cared about the same thing, Bill Hull. He had heard that I was teaching discipleship and that I was teaching you can’t have one (salvation or conversion) without the other (discipleship). He thought I was right and I thought he was right, and here we are together again.
I endorse 100% what Bill Hull lays claim to in this book: when it comes to conversion or salvation and discipleship, you can’t have one without the other. There aren’t many books whose titles tell both the life story of the author and express the heart of the book’s message like this one. You can’t have one without the other, conversion and discipleship perfectly express everything I’ve known of the life, the ministry, and the writings of Bill Hull. Dallas Willard, if you read him carefully, wrote all his books toward a theology of Christlikeness. Bill has written everything toward discipleship, or toward a church composed not of the “saved” but of disicples.
Bill Hull begins in the right place, with the gospel. He offers a profound word: if we get the gospel wrong, we get everything wrong. If we get the gospel right, we are on a different and holy and healthy journey into discipleship. In saying these things, however, Bill does not hold back and he critiques some of American evangelicalism’s pet (and shallow) themes about the nature of the gospel and the kind of response to which it summons us. But if we get the gospel right – and Bill Hull is on all fours on this one – what flows is the beauty of what the gospel can create: churches packed with flourishing disciples.
There is in Conversion and Discipleship a profoundly healthy and holy impatience – Bill has been teaching, leading, preaching, and writing about this theme his entire ministry. But churches all around the world are not listening as they should – they continue to offer the same lame excuses. “Sure sounds,” they cough up, “like works righteousness” or “It’s all about grace, not discipleship” or “You can have one without the other but you should try to get the other.” Bill’s not alone in his holy impatience. I meet pastor after pastor who tell me the same thing: too many in the churches are fully satisfied with less than fully devoted to Christ, and they bank on grace and goodness and unconditional love. But the God of grace, the God of goodness, and that same God of unconditional love became incarnate in the One who called us to repent, to believe, to embrace the gospel, and to fall head over heels in love with the King of the kingdom, Jesus.
Discipleship is about conformity to Christ, as the apostle Paul once put it: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18). Behind the apostle Paul’s words about being conformed into the image of Christ himself are Jesus’ words about mission-defining and life-determining discipleship. I think of Mark 8:34: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Friends, these two words form the innermost core of Conversion and Discipleship. You will not find in this book a new program, but an old word: the word that says “discipleship” is the mission of the church.
This book is bold, it is courageous and it is biblical. Bill has worked the Bible; he’s not pragmatist trying to load up the pews of a congregation. He knows what the Bible says about gospel and grace and repentance and salvation and that the mission of God is to transform sinners into saints. That transformation is called discipleship and God’s gift is the Spirit that empowers each of us to become more and more Christlike. In Conversion and Discipleship: You Can’t Have One Without the Other, you will be treated to a creative combination, expansion and renewed application of the greatest ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dallas Willard. But behind them are the words and mission of Jesus, and in absorbing those words and that mission Bill Hull sends us on a journey into nothing less than what can be called “Christformity.”
No serious pastor and no serious Christian can ignore the message of this book. Bill is seriously right: you can’t have one without the other.
Julius R. Mantey Professor in New Testament