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.