Gospel Discipling – The Crying Need of the Hour

Stephen E. Smallman
Executive Director, World Harvest Mission
November 1997

“Thirty years of discipleship programs, and we are not discipled.” This is the startling assessment of Jim Petersen, the visionary leader of the esteemed discipleship ministry, the Navigators. Petersen goes on in the first chapter of his important book, Lifestyle Discipleship, to ask some very hard questions about the real effectiveness of our various attempts at discipling believers.1 But if the situation in most of our American evangelical churches is lacking with respect to discipleship, the condition of many churches in developing nations is nothing short of tragic. Instance after instance can be cited of young and vital churches sliding quickly into debilitating legalism, with Christianity being defined by believer and unbeliever alike as essentially little more than the keeping of certain rules.

There is little need to draw out this lament about the current condition of “discipleship”. Almost anyone in ministry recognizes the need to rethink assumptions and approaches to this critical aspect of the work of the Church. In this article I would like to make the case for a fundamental shift in the paradigm we use with respect to the content of our discipling ministries. It seems to me that most of the work being done to improve the discipleship component of our churches or missions focuses on the matter of methodology–how to secure greater commitment from participants, whether we should work in small groups or one-on-one, how pastors should redefine their roles, etc..But the actual content of what is imparted can be largely described as the “doing” of the Christian life. It is my contention that before methodological issues are discussed, we need to recognize that the essential content of our discipleship is to be the Gospel–taking people who have believed the gospel back into the Gospel again and again. 2 This is what I will call “Gospel discipling”, which could just as easily be termed “discipleship in the Gospel.”

I believe it can be demonstrated that this was the approach of the Apostles, as evidenced by their letters to new churches.3 In particular I want to use the book of Romans as a model of Gospel discipling. I believe it can also be demonstrated that it is the Gospel itself that supplies the power to enable believers to become meaningfully engaged in the “doing” of the Christian life. Once I lay out these foundational issues, I will then explain briefly how World Harvest Mission, building on the seminal thinking of Dr. Jack Miller, is attempting to address the issue of Gospel discipling in a practical way.


At the outset, it is essential to contend for a much broader understanding of the word “Gospel” than is commonly held by evangelicals. In its essence the Gospel is the glorious announcement that God has kept his promise to bring salvation to the earth (Isaiah 52:7).4 The fulfillment of his promise is a person, his own Son, named Jesus, who is Messiah and who died for our sin and was raised to life. Remarkably, by believing this Gospel we are granted eternal life, and the break caused by the original fall and our personal sin is restored.5

But the Gospel is more than the announcement about the person and work of Christ, it is used by Paul and others to include all that comes to us when we believe the Gospel. In the words of Galatians, it includes not only God sending his Son to redeem those under the law, but also his sending the Spirit of his Son into our hearts that we might experience the privileges of sonship.6 In Colossians 1, Paul talks about the “word of truth, the Gospel” and seems to equate it with “God’s grace in all its truth”.7 It is also worth taking time to reflect on Paul’s use of Gospel in 2Timothy 1:8-2:10. I believe in the light of that context, Paul’s exhortation to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2:1) can be understood as challenging Timothy to find his strength to endure by returning again to the Gospel.

All of this points to a need to understand the Gospel as much more that rehearsing the facts of Christ’s death and resurrection–as wonderful as they are. Furthermore, teaching or preaching the Gospel is more than inviting unbelievers to put their trust in Christ for salvation. The Gospel is the word we should use for all that has been given us in Jesus Christ, which is why it is frequently called “the Gospel of grace”. This broader use is much closer to the historic distinction of Law and Gospel, which was commonly understood in earlier generations, but seems to have been largely ignored by ours.8 To be sure, the benefits of the Gospel are being taught today, but I believe our discipling of believers will be helped by recognizing that biblically, these are still to be thought of as Gospel. The posture of simply believing in Jesus as we learn of Him in the Gospel is as fundamental to our progress in the faith as it was to our initial receiving of it.9


It would be presumptuous to claim that we can discern precisely the approach Paul and the first missionaries would have used under direct leadership of the Spirit. But I would encourage a view of his letter to the church(es) of Rome as essentially intending to take those who already believed the Gospel, and who were therefore “saved”, back to that very Gospel, but at a more complete level of understanding.

It is clear from the explanation of his purpose in writing the letter (Romans 15:14-33) that Paul was intending to shift his center of ministry from the Eastern to the Western Mediterranean, since he had completed his work in the East. His particular vision and calling was to “preach the Gospel where Christ was not known,” and therefore following his visit to Jerusalem and a stop in Rome, he was heading for Spain (Romans 15:24-28). The clear implication of the letter is that just as other churches had an opportunity to contribute to the offering for the saints of Jerusalem, he was sure that when he visited them they would want to “assist” him on his journey to the new mission field.

Given Paul”s stated ambition to take Christ to those who had never heard, it is curious that he was “eager to preach the Gospel also to you who are at Rome” (Romans 1:15) when he came for the long overdue visit. I would argue that this did not mean that he wanted to do evangelism with them among the people of Rome (no doubt he would do that, too), but that he wanted to preach the Gospel to the church of Rome. In other words, he wanted to give the Gospel to those who had already believed the Gospel, who were “called to belong to Jesus Christ…called to be saints” (Romans 1:6-7). As he moves into the body of the letter, it becomes clear that there is far more to the gospel than is immediately apparent to a newly awakened believer. It reveals a righteousness of God that leads from faith to deeper faith (Romans 1:17).10

In the chapters that follow, the Apostle unfolds with great precision the righteousness revealed in the Gospel. The exposition of this deeper understanding of the Gospel begins first with justification, then an explanation of our union with the risen Christ (often labeled sanctification)11, then the extraordinary privilege of adoption or sonship12, and climaxing in the celebration of the predestinating purposes of God. Chapters 9-11 continue to wrestle with the Gospel and its relationship to the Jewish people. Throughout his explanation of the Gospel, Paul makes application, but it is not until ch. 12 that he begins specific teaching about the “doing” of the Christian life.13

Here then is a demonstration of just how Paul worked out his constant prayer that believers would grow in the “knowledge of God”14–he was eager to preach the Gospel to them. In this light, his reference to the gospel as the “power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16) should be understood as empowering believers through every aspect of that salvation. Our more limited idea of gospel has resulted, it seems to me, in a similarly limited view of the power of God for salvation–we only think of this verse in terms of conversion, when we first believe. So understanding and continuing to believe the gospel is not only the essential task of discipleship, it provides the basis or power for attending to the doing of the Christian life–a life appropriately identified by Paul as the “obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 1:5).15


World Harvest Mission was founded in 1983 under the leadership of Dr. C. John (Jack) Miller. Dr. Miller’s ministry had been revolutionized by his own rediscovery of the Gospel16 through studies in Galatians and the work of Martin Luther, and the results of that revolution became evident in multiple conversions in his church and subsequent interest in missions and evangelism. Dr. Miller asked, “How can we take the Gospel to others if we have not been mastered by it ourselves?” And so as part of its ministry preparation, the church began discipling people in the Gospel in a program now known as “Sonship”.

The response to the ministry of Sonship has been remarkable. World Harvest Mission continues to offer the materials (tapes and manuals), and provide phone discipling, week long conferences, and weekends. But the teaching of Sonship has spread beyond World Harvest itself, and is being used in church and home study groups, on mission fields, and in schools. The results have been ministries renewed and transformed and in many instances, pastors and pastoral marriages rescued from devastation. The materials are currently being adapted to other cultures and translated into other languages.

New City Fellowship has taken the basic sonship program, revising it for our “Adoption” classes. Adoption is in a continuous state of revision and improvement, but its essential focus has been to assist believers to rediscover the gospel, and then to learn how to actually live out of the gospel in a life of repentance and faith. The central ideas taught in Adoption include:

  1. The glorious truth of our sonship, even though we often act like orphans;
  2. The basis of our sonship in the finished work of Christ–this includes not only receiving the passive, or alien, righteousness of Christ for our forgiveness, but also understanding that because of the active righteousness of Christ we are actually welcomed by the Father as well-pleasing in his sight;
  3. A careful look into the true demands of the Law as a prerequisite for a full appreciation of our constant need for the Gospel17;
  4. Repentance as a lifestyle for the Christian18;
  5. Sanctification as well as justification by faith. This leads to a new paradigm for Christian living rooted in believing the gospel rather that the futile attempt to destroy the “flesh”;
  6. Faith expressing itself through love;
  7. The absolute centrality of prayer.

Just as critical as the truths taught in Adoption (which are certainly not unique)19 is the commitment to see that the gospel truths actually penetrate the heart and are beginning to affect the life, relationships and ministry of participants. It has been the experience of Adoption “trainers” that it is when people are actually discipled in the Gospel, not merely taught it, that real change takes place. Furthermore, this discipling is extremely personal in that continuously believing the gospel allows one to be frank about the reality of sin because any hope of righteousness is found in Christ and not in outward performance.20

The Gospel is for sinners, and there is ample evidence for that in those who teach Adoption. As a mission we recognize that living in the reality of the Gospel is a constant battle. In fact, it could be argued that the essential issue of spiritual warfare is unbelief. Therefore we are in constant need of repentance and being renewed in the Gospel ourselves21. Much of our joy in Gospel discipling is the way it encourages our faith as we witness the power of the Gospel transforming others.

Another challenge to the ministry has been to discover how easily Adoption can be divorced from its missionary setting. The mission of World Harvest Mission is still to take the Gospel to a lost world through our own evangelism as well as encouraging the witness of others. Sonship is a means to that end, as was certainly the case with the Apostle Paul’s preaching the Gospel to the church of Rome. To lose the missionary character of the Gospel in the process of Gospel discipling is to attack the essence of the Gospel itself.


Not only is Gospel discipling the very heart of discipleship within churches, it is also the critical issue in the matter of renewal or revival in the church at large. The ministry of World Harvest is in full accord with the work of Dr. Richard Lovelace on this matter22. Dr. Lovelace asks why the Church must think in terms of what he calls “cyclical renewal” when the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit should allow “continuous renewal.” As he explains his “primary elements of continuous renewal,” they are summarized in what he calls a “depth presentation of the gospel”.23 We believe this is another way to speak of gospel discipling, and we are seeing evidence of such quiet but deep renewal in ministries in the United States and in other nations.


Another area of major concern within the evangelical church today is the ineffectiveness of much evangelistic effort, when it is undertaken at all. I think one key element in this ineffectiveness is the mind set evangelicals have established that concludes that the unbeliever needs an entirely different message from the believer. When there is a recognition that, in fact, we both need to hear the same message, am important change takes place both in the attitude of the Christian and in the atmosphere of the church. Instead of thinking we need to preach the gospel to them, the environment becomes one of mutual seeking to know the gospel, and the recognition that we are at different stages of understanding.24 Furthermore, the proclamation of the gospel means more than evangelistic appeals. Pastors and teachers who understand grace personally and know how to distinguish Law and Gospel in their proclamation, will teach the gospel from anywhere in Scripture25.

For all of the cultural changes we are experiencing, I still believe the church is a place where conversions can take place. But this requires that we have a setting in which all who come, come to hear and believe the gospel. This is happening today, and there are wonderful examples of churches where there are numerous conversions both in the services of the church and through the joyful overflow of the gospel in the daily lives of members.


My intention is not to laud Adoption or claim anything exceptional for World Harvest Mission. But I have attempted to offer one case study for the abiding truth of Romans 1:16The Gospel continues to be the power of God for salvation and ministry for those who believe. I believe that we can offer empirical evidence that Gospel discipling is not only the New Testament pattern, but it actually works. Gospel discipling has taken many other forms in the past, and in our own day can be “packaged” in other ways than Adoption. But any discipling that will actually empower believers, and therefore do what discipleship programs promise, must be deeply rooted in the Gospel of the grace of God.

Appendix to Gospel Discipling

1 Ch. 1, Lifestyle Discipleship (Navpress, 1993)

2 AWhat one word describes the message we most need to hear as believers? I get a lot of different answers to that question, but most of them can be summed up with one word, discipleship. … But there is something more basic than discipleship, something that actually provides the necessary atmosphere in which discipleship can be practiced. The one word that describes what we must continue to hear is “gospel”. pp. 20.21. The Discipline of Grace, by Jerry Bridges (Navpress, 1994). Mr. Bridges expresses appreciation to Jack Miller for teaching him the meaning of “preaching the gospel to ourselves” (p.25) as we seek to live by grace.

3 Implicit in this approach is a question about how carefully we can model our approach to discipleship to that of Jesus in the Gospels, as is commonly done. There can be no question that he was the master discipler, but the fact of his physical presence with the disciples was unique to that moment in history, and inasmuch as the most essential element of the Christian life is knowing Jesus, that must not be assumed on the part of disciples today as it could be when he was with them.

4 This is the sense in which it is the “gospel of the Kingdom.” So it is first of all an announcement of deliverance for the sin-cursed world, and secondarily deliverance for the individual.

5 The critically important issue of how we actually come to believe in the first place is beyond the scope of this paper. I have written a paper called “Understanding the New Birth” which tries to deal pastorally with the mystery of the Holy Spirit actually initiating the process of salvation by giving us the faith to believe the gospel which in turn saves us. (Copies are available on request from World Harvest Mission.)

6 Galatians 4:4-7

7 Col 1:5-6

8 A recent book to remedy this void is The Law and the Gospel by Ernest Reisinger (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997). I am currently working on this issue in a paper entitled “Law and Gospel and Sonship” which challenges the practice of calls for obedience (know in some circles as the “third use of the Law:) without taking believers to the gospel so they can be empowered to obey.

9 An interesting example of the restricted understanding of the gospel modern evangelicals have is their use of the Charlotte Elliot hymn, “Just As I Am”. It is certainly an appropriate way to conclude an evangelistic appeal, but it is also of immense value in expressing the constant confession of every Christian, but is seldom used for that purpose.

10 Note that Paul’s statement of the gospel in Romans 1:2-4 is fully consistent with my earlier comment that the truth about the person and work of Christ is the essence of the gospel. Salvation is a gift of God to those whose faith is in Jesus. This core truth should never be obscured by efforts to understand what is revealed in the gospel in the chapters that follow. It should be noted that in Galatians Paul briefly states the gospel in the same way (1:3-5) before launching into his attack on those who have departed from it.

11 If Paul’s discussion in Romans 6 of the death of the “old man” and our current life in union with the risen Christ is the biblical doctrine of sanctification (as I believe it is), then sanctification needs to be understood as a gift of God. Therefore sanctification is properly included in the gospel. In recent teaching on the subject, I have been making the statement that “obedience is not a part of sanctification, it is a result of sanctification.” This also helps illuminate the concept of sanctification by faith. This is a term used by Jack Miller and many others whose meaning has eluded me until I saw it simply as a restatement of Romans 6:11.

12 This is a slight variation of the order presented in the Westminster Confession of Faith of justification, adoption and sanctification, but a very important one. Adoption, which results in sonship, our relating to God as sons and daughters, deserves to be placed at the pinnacle of our gospel privileges (cf..J.I. Packer’s chapter on Adoption in Knowing God). This is how I believe Paul treats it in Romans 8:12-17.

13 This is the same pattern followed in Ephesians and Colossians. 2Peter 1:1-11 is also a wonderfully concise statement of the gift of the gospel (“…given us everything we need for life and godliness…”), and the living that follows (“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith…”).

14 Ephesians 1:15-18, Ephesians 3:14-19; Philippians 1:9, etc..Note particularly the form that the prayer takes in Colossians 1:9-10: “praying for you…to fill you with the knowledge of his will…in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord…”

15 In one of his lectures, Jack Miller referred to a book on sanctification highly recommended by the theologian John Murray. The book is The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, by Walter Marshall (1692, reprinted in 1981 by Evangelical Press). Marshall argues extensively and persuasively that there are two means by which the Holy Spirit enables us to offer true obedience to the law. They are the gospel and faith. (A digest of this book is available upon request from World Harvest Mission.)

16 Explained in his Outgrowing the Ingrown Church (Zondervan, 1986).

17 Jack Miller was well known for unfolding the true dimensions of the Law in its demand for perfection, and then as the weight of the righteous requirements of it would begin to sink in, he would smile and say, “Cheer up–you are worse that you ever imagined!” only to then say, “But cheer up–God’s grace is greater that you ever imagined.”

18 This also calls for humility. Jack would say, “Grace always flows downhill.” cf..his Repentance and Twentieth Century Man (Christian Literature Crusade, 1975, 1995).

19 Actually one of the joys in the process of studying to teach Sonship has been the discovery of many resources from earlier generations. The need to go back and rediscover the gospel for the believer is a recurring theme in the church, and is often part of deep revival within the Body of Christ.

20 This appears to be just what Paul was doing in Rom. 7, in that he knew his true sense of worth came out of the gospel explained in ch.8.

21 A mission statement of World Harvest is, “Testifying to the gospel of God’s grace, to ourselves, to the Church, and to the world.”

22 Cf. Dynamics of the Spiritual Life, particularly ch. 2-6. (Inter-Varsity Press, 1979).

23 “Only a fraction of the present body of professing Christians are solidly appropriating the justifying work of Christ in their lives. … Few know enough to start each day with a thoroughgoing stand upon Luther’s platform: you are accepted, looking outward in faith and claiming the wholly alien righteousness of Christ as the only ground for acceptance, relaxing in that quality of trust which will produce increasing sanctification as faith is active in love and gratitude. “In order for a pure and lasting work of spiritual renewal to take place within the church, multitudes within it must be led to build their lives on this foundation.” (pp.101-102)

24 The only imperative (command) in the Great Commisssion is that of “make disciples of all the nations” which includes both baptizing and teaching to obey. Thus, what we call evangelism is really the first stage of gospel discipling.

25 Cf.. “A Theology of Christ-centered Messages” in Christ Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell (Baker, 1994). This is an extremely helpful discussion of what Chapell describes as a “redemptive approach to preaching.”