The Gospel of Sin Management and the Loss of Discipleship


I’m just going to say it…

When we reduce the gospel story to salvation and salvation to personal forgiveness and forgiveness to a plan of salvation that focuses exclusively on getting people to make a decision (what Dallas Willard referred to in The Divine Conspiracy as the gospel of sin management), we essentially de-storify the gospel of Jesus and offer people what proves to be a serious mutation. We move from the birth of Christ to the death of Christ and forget the in-between life of Jesus. As a result, we end up living as though the middle section (i.e., his teachings, miracles, healings, and other kingdom-of-God-has-come indicators) has no inherent significance and salvific import (check out N.T. Wright’s How God Became King).

When we couple this with our North American preoccupation and unhealthy interest in numbers, we end up trying to compel as many people as possible to make a decision (whatever it takes), but only end up presenting a powerless, lopsided, half-story. However, our methods of persuasion ask people to make a decision, not for Christ alone, as the goal of the gospel, but to avoid hell (fire insurance), make us happy, help us find a mate, heal our marriage, etc, setting people up for failure. Then we add up the ‘salvations’ as though numbers indicate success.

The problem with this emphasis is that the correlation between those who make a decision and those who become mature students of Jesus is not high. In fact, some statistics show that as many as 50% of those who make decisions do not become the discipled. As Scot McKnight wrote in The King Jesus Gospel, “we cannot help to conclude that making a decision is not the vital element that leads to a life of discipleship.” He goes on to say that, “getting people to make decisions – that is, ‘accepting Jesus into our hearts’ – appears to distort spiritual formation.” Why? Because it diminishes the significance of discipleship and does not require the decided to become the discipled. It also creates a false sense of security – ‘I made a decision to follow Jesus, so I must be safe’ – while at the same time removing the element of personal responsibility.

However, by reducing the story of Jesus, a story that calls people to a life of devoted discipleship, to a system of salvation that only asks people to make a decision, we effectively short-circuit the power of the gospel. As McKnight says, ‘we have created a salvation culture, not a gospel-discipleship culture.’

However, the ‘just believe and you won’t go hell’ approach is one that Jesus never employed. His approach was simple, yet demanding — ‘follow me.’ If you want to be my disciple, consider the costs, and place me first. And, if you cannot make that kind of commitment, you cannot be my disciple (see Luke 14-25-35).

That message sounds very different from the de-storified, don’t-go-to-hell, ask-Jesus-into-your-heart-message that has permeated much of Western Evangelicalism. Maybe we need to re-capture Jesus’ discipleship message if we truly desire people (and ourselves) to follow him along the path of discipleship. Maybe we need to begin creating a gospel culture of discipleship that sets people up for a lifetime of loving devotion to Christ and his church, rather than a short-lived, saved-from-our-sins, get-out-of-hell-free-card, system of salvation.

Maybe we need to re-consider the cost.

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15 Comments on “The Gospel of Sin Management and the Loss of Discipleship

  1. Good post Jeff. What I wonder is how this recovery of “gospel” as an encompassing story affects the understanding of the end of the story. Are you just enlarging the category of who is “out,” both now and in the end?

  2. Couldn’t agree more with the premise and development of this article. I’ve written on it many times. One thing that’s bothered me over the past couple of years though:

    How much of the story is needed to move someone from outside of the Kingdom, into the Kingdom?

    There’s no question about our heavy handed decision manipulation and I fear the statistics are worse than you said. Both Evangelism & Discipleship require story and the propositional truths that come from the story.

    Of all the “gospel presentations,” in the scripture very few, if any, contain the whole story. Either that’s because it was already known by the hearers, or it wasn’t needed.

    Appreciate this post! Grace & Peace

    • Thanks for your thoughts. If Jesus is the center of the story, that’s probably all we need to begin and end with to be included in the kingdom. Everything else we learn and acquire is added onto that.

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  7. How much story is needed is a good question. I think what is crucial is how the story comes across. Does it come across primarily as a personal escape route out of hell and into heaven? Or does it come across as a new way of life of obedience after being rescued from the old way of disobedience? The first way focuses on what the individual will get out of it and pretty much leaves out the idea of living for God and not for oneself. The second way has to be careful not to present rescue as dependent on obedience.

    The key here is what motive is the presentation appealing to–just being rescued in the end or having a new life in the now (with the end realizing a rescued and restored human reality).

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  9. You raise some interesting and difficult issues on the problem of the purely salvific emphasis in much of contemporary evangelical Christianity. The issue, alas, is not a new one in the American experience. The question goes back to the earliest days of the camp meeting movement (about 1800), where spectacular displays of the conversion experience were expected and, indeed, encouraged. Attendance and conversion reports were disseminated through the religious as well as popular press, and the success or failure of a particular camp or preacher was judged based on the numbers who came forth during the altar calls.

    Then, as now, the durability as well as the utility of such conversion was often questioned by the more sober elements of the religious community. While the more extravagant displays were curtailed across the 19th century, they have never wholly gone out of fashion, they have simply gone underground. As you correctly note, the emphasis is on the ritual, not the religion behind it. Evangelicalism may claim many converts, but embarrassingly few disciples.

    An article in The Methodist prompted these observations by Theodore Flood in the Jamestown (New York) Journal in 1868:

    “… from 1850 to 1861 there applied for membership in [the Methodist Episcopal Church] 1,200,000 persons. These were placed on probation, and only 175,000, about one in seven, persevered in the intention by actually becoming members. More than one million turned back from their first purpose. We regard this not as an argument against the probationary plan – for we doubt if the church or the converts would have been better off if the whole number had been received in full connection; if they couldn’t live religion three months on trial they certainly could not for a life time. It is rather an illustration of the unabiding effects of sensational preaching and great revivals. In noticing this fact an exchange tells the irreverent anecdote of a young man who made application for membership of a church, and was placed on probation for the usual period. His conduct having been exemplary, he was notified that he would be received; but he replied that he had made up his mind to join a fire company.”

    Flood, it should be noted, became a significant personality in the Chautauqua Movement which would emerge a few years later. John Heyl Vincent, the visionary behind the movement, was quite radically opposed to the pressure-cooker atmosphere which provoked the “instant” conversions. As the Chautauqua Movement developed, its emphasis shifted to educating its audience as a means of spiritual development, becoming a driving force in the evolution of universally-available higher education. Needless to say, this is a far cry from the anti-scientific, anti-academic bent of evangelicalism today.

  10. Thought provoking.

    We believe confession and belief ARE sufficient for salvation (Romans 10:9) and salvation is not dependent on human works (Ephesians 2:8,9). Confession and belief are sufficient to keep one from hell.

    Jesus surely demonstrated this with the thief on the cross. 1 Corinthians 3 makes it quite clear that Christ is the foundation and that what is built upon it will be tried. The works of him who has laboured in vain will be burnt up, but he will be saved, “yet as though through fire” (vv.13-15). We believe that one can accept Christ and not make much headway on the path to maturity and yet still inherit eternal life. Is it the ideal? No. Is it what Christ wants? No. Do we pursue this as a model? No. Are babes in Christ (the first part of 1 Cor 3) denied entry to the Kingdom? No.

    I agree with your main point though: The gospel IS more than a get-out-of-hell-free card. Discipleship is key to the gospel.

    Holiness, godliness, the fruits of the Spirit, and maturation to produce “good fruit” come via discipleship, hence Christ’s insistence upon it.

    Discipleship is the model for advancing the gospel and growing the Kingdom. It is discipleship that helps the babe in Christ to realize that grace is not a license to sin the more (Romans 6), that there are greater depths of relationship with God to be realized, that his plan of salvation is not just for me/you, etc.

    But discipleship is a building block on the foundation of faith in Christ. It is not THE foundation. I think we need to be careful to delineate that which is a requirement for salvation and that which is the Biblical approach for maturation in the faith and the spreading of good news to the lost.

  11. I teach in a Christian school, and can tell you that the Gospel of Sin Management kills. It kills joy, it kills relationship, and ultimately can harden a heart.
    Sad that we have reduced this fabulous, joyful dance with our Father to a system of dos, don’ts, and drudgery.

  12. I enjoyed your post, Jeff. Jesus said, “Go into all the world and make disciples….teaching them to observe….” etc…. However, it is also true that there were instances in the New Testament when, “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” Acts 2:47. So, yes there is an initial decision to be made. The new creature thing happens in one moment. I remember that moment in my life. But then there’s discipleship and growing in our walk with God….. which takes fellowship around the Word and prayer (not just movie night and softball, etc…). Lots of folks don’t really get much of that, don’t even know they need it, and wouldn’t know where to look for it if they did know. I am so thankful that I have a handful of friends who are Jesus followers that I fellowship with around the Word, prayer and our walk with God. How’s the Lord been leading you lately? What is the Lord speaking to your heart lately? Those kinds of questions go on between us.

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