Can You Have One and not the Other?

The following description of Bill Hull comes from his web site: “Bill Hull’s passion is to help the church return to its disciple making roots and he considers himself a discipleship evangelist. This God-given desire has manifested itself in twenty years of pastoring and the authorship of many books.” Bill’s latest book, Conversion and Discipleship: You Can’t Have One Without the Other  framed this conversation.

David George Moore conducted the interview. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.

Moore: Late in life, St. Augustine wrote his Retractions (some like to translate it reconsiderations). He was working through the body of his works to see what might need to be changed or clarified. You’ve written several previous books on discipleship. To what degree is your present book akin to Augustine’s Retractions?

Hull: Augustine wrote over 100 pieces of significant literature, my corpus is twenty-two books and a few articles and I suppose hours of video, blogs, tweets, and other recordings. Overall I have less to regret than the Bishop of Hippo, but your question gives me an idea for the next book.

At the twentieth anniversary of each of my disciple making trilogy, Jesus Christ Disciple Maker, The Disciple Making Pastor, and the Disciple Making Church, I reread the books and contemplated some changes. I found it easier to write a reflection at the start of each chapter than reconstructing the book’s arguments. What I found to be true in that exercise was that the problem of nominal or weak Christianity still existed, but that I would choose some different modes or methods to solve the problems. Conversion and Discipleship is like throwing a “smart bomb” into the middle of the church and see what is left after the smoke clears. What is significantly different than my previous work is that it starts the conversation at the “What is the gospel?” level rather than the “Make Disciples” level. There are really three levels of conversation when it comes to the world revolution that is the Great Commission. Upstream it is, “What does the gospel we produce naturally produce, disciples or consumers? The midstream conversation is, “What is a disciple, why are they important, and what difference do they make?” Finally, there is the downstream conversation, “What is your plan? Because if you don’t have a plan, you don’t intend to do it.

Moore: I’ve been the beneficiary of discipleship for almost forty years now. I’ve had several men invest in me and I love doing my own part with other men. In both of the seminaries I attended (Dallas and Trinity), I was constantly surprised how many of my classmates (many coming from solid, Christian families) never were discipled. Why is that?

Hull: Everyone has been discipled, by a family, a church, a culture. Everyone has a spiritual formation; even a terrorist has been discipled. I know their meaning when they say such a thing; they have not been worked with by another person in a systematic way where there was some start and finish to the process. That reveals how powerfully the insularly educational discipleship process has been embedded into the evangelical mind. I think Winston Churchill put it nicely, “We teach what we know, we reproduce what we are.”

Most contemporary discipleship runs aground because it is educationally based, and self-focused. It is about finishing curriculum and evaluates itself by asking the question, “ How am I doing?” This is not the kind of question or life than Jesus invites us into. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Jesus, “A man for others.” As his disciples, we are to live for others; the church exists at its best when it exists for others. If you try and make a Christlike disciple from a conventional gospel you will fail, every time you will fail. Another factor is that discipleship has not been central to the teaching available in seminaries, churches themselves and the pastors have very little theological or practical basis for beginning such a process or developing a workable plan.

Moore: We live on the far side of mass evangelistic outreaches with the likes of Sunday, Moody, and Graham. To what extent do you think that approach to evangelism has brought confusion about the integral nature of discipleship?

Hull: There is a lot to say here. I will restrict myself to how modern mass evangelism separated conversion from discipleship. The first step in the separation was to replace the gospel with the plan of salvation. The gospel is the complete story of God, humans and the redemptive drama. The early fathers saw the four gospels together as the “gospel.” The drive to evangelize and get decisions created the “Plan of Salvation,” a four or five point extract of the gospel. Through the popularity of mass evangelism the plan of salvation replaced the gospel in the perception of the American church. The split between conversion and discipleship was complete when the Navigators and others created a category called discipleship. Discipleship included a system, a planned curriculum or study, and had tiers of ascendance. You would start as a convert, the after a period of time you would earn the moniker, disciple, then worker and finally leader. This all meant that conversion or being a convert was an entry level Christian. Discipleship then was a post conversion option for those who were so inclined, but it had no bearing on heaven, forgiveness of sins or eternal life. This of course has led us to the present need to reunite conversion to discipleship, and realize truly, that we cannot have one without the other.

Moore: I’ve had many conversations with those who advocate a “free grace” perspective when it comes to the gospel. (I don’t even like the term. Kind of like the “Department of Redundancy Department.”) As you know well, it came to prominence during the 1980s. I was at at Dallas Seminary at the time and the teaching of Zane Hodges, the late professor of New Testament, was influential. Others continue to advocate the “free grace” position. What do you think about this recent interpretation of the gospel? Has it had any effects on how we understand the integral role of Christian discipleship?

Hull: Dallas Willard commented on the misunderstanding of grace, “We have not only been saved by grace, we have been paralyzed by it.” He meant that it created a passivity among Christians. Bonhoeffer was disturbed about what his own Lutheran church had done to Luther’s understanding of grace. Willard said the grace was not opposed to effort, but was opposed to earning. Bonhoeffer famously, called what his church practiced, “Cheap grace.” All that needs to happen to corrupt grace is to it assign it a single place only in our spiritual journey, the point of conversion. Therefore, when someone says, “I was saved by grace on July 1, 1986, we then leave that big dollop of grace behind as a memory and we live on that memory. Grace becomes only a memory, but not a means of power and energy to strengthen our effort to work for Christ and his Kingdom. Grace too often breeds passivity. We keep waiting for a special work, command or power before we act. God’s grace is an active force that is ever ready to empower us.

The only way out of this corruption of grace I know is to act, quit asking a lot of personal therapeutic questions about self, and start obeying, doing what God has already commanded us to do, then you will experience grace. Much better than sitting around and contemplating its meaning.

Moore: You regularly refer to Dallas Willard in your latest book. What role has he played in your own understanding of Christian discipleship?

Hull: My first attraction to Dallas was his writing. He reached my mind before he did my heart. I first met him in 2001 and he complemented me on something I had written. Of course, that warmed by heart. I heard him say two things that stand out in the development of my life and understanding. The first was, “ I never try to make anything happen.” I really did question his sanity when I heard him say it. I thought, “ a typical philosopher who doesn’t need to make anything work.” But he was talking about forcing the action, attempting to get people to accept or recognize his work, or to through human effort attempt to earn God’s favor. I found this a profound truth, coupled with this: “ Don’t seek to speak, seek to have something to say.” This was not a call to passivity. It was a call to humility and allowing God to provide the opportunities.

The second statement was, “There has not been in twentieth century anyone who has put together a theology of discipleship.” I questioned this statement as well, because I thought I had done it. But in conversation with Dallas over a period of months I came to agree with him. His comment and subsequent conversations was the impetus for the publication of Conversion and Discipleship. Upon Dallas’ death, I sensed it was time for me to give it a go. While it didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned, it is my good faith effort as a writer to put out a respectable street level theology that can help leaders make disciples.

Moore: Another friend of yours, Robert Coleman, wrote the influential The Master Plan of Evangelism. For those who may not be familiar with the book, there is much in that relates to the subject of discipleship, and discipleship is what Coleman continues to do even now at 88 years old. This book continues to sell at a rather brisk rate, yet I don’t hear it mentioned much in evangelical circles. Is my own experience unusual or do you think there is a rather pervasive neglect of Coleman’s message?

Hull: Dr. Coleman is a national treasure, not just for the church, I mean for the nation. There are so few people of such an age who are so full of Christ. The Master Plan is one of those books that everyone remembers they read, even if they never read it. It is short and simple. It is the reason it remains one of the best sellers of all time. I believe somewhere around five million have been sold. It was used by Billy Graham in follow up to his crusades and offered on television. It is no longer marketed or repackaged strongly and that explains partly why it is less known to the younger generations. There are a few discipleship classics, but none with the history, clarity and brevity as the Master Plan. It is the gold standard.

Moore: What are a few things you would like people to take away from your book?

Hull: I would hope that it would change the way you think. I have always believed that the most important part of a leader is what he or she thinks, for it drives everything else. The book’s thesis is, “All who are called to salvation, are called to discipleship, no exceptions, no excuses.” If that is believed and practiced, then the church will fill the world with Christlike disciples, they will preach the gospel to the end of the earth and then the end will come. Our choices do matter, our efforts do count, and in the end, God has given us this work to do. Discipleship is about world revolution.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.