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Friday, June 10, 2016

"Conversion and Discipleship (Bill Hull)

TITLE: Conversion and Discipleship: You Can't Have One without the Other
AUTHOR: Robert W. Hull
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016, (256 pages).

What is discipleship? For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it is dying with Christ as described in his famous words: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." For the late Dallas Willard, he laments that modern evangelicalism lacks a "theology of discipleship." For many of us, we seem to treat discipleship as a separate thing from conversion. Is conversion different from discipleship? Yes. Can we have one and not the other in order to be a Christian? No. Summing up his life's passion about discipleship, Bill Hull asserts right from the start that the Christian faith requires one to have BOTH. Challenged by the late Dallas Willard to develop a theology of discipleship, Hull aims to build on his previous three other books about discipleship. This time, he is more conscientious about developing a theology of discipleship that encompasses the gospel, the call, salvation, Holy Spirit, ways & means, Church, the pastor, and the end times. It is a full treatment of essential theological subjects.

Some of us may have known Hull for his work and writings on discipleship. Hull has been a champion on all things discipleship. It is not surprising that he has even extended his passion to deal with conversion as well. Hull makes a few propositions which should make readers sit up and listen:

  • Conversion and discipleship are two sides to the same coin
  • We need a theology of discipleship because only through that can we participate in God's redemptive plans
  • We cannot separate conversion from discipleship
  • Most of our theologies of discipleship are defective in some way but the primary defect is the unwitting separation of conversion from discipleship
  • A theology of discipleship already exist in the Bible. We just need to pay attention and put them into practice. 
His conviction is that the Bible already has everything we need to know about conversion and discipleship. Hull shows us the three dimensions of salvation.
  1. Restoration of Luther's vision of salvation
  2. Scriptural interpretation and Theological Reformulation
  3. Radical Changes with regard to doing Church.
He then applies them to eight core theological subjects. Instead of a salvation-centric gospel, we need to move to a complete gospel of Christ's work and discipleship. As far as discipleship is concerned, we are not called to a set of programs or activities but to the Person of Jesus Christ. Salvation is not mere conversion but the whole gamut of repentance, grace, forgiveness, regeneration, faith, reconciliation, redemption, and so on. Rather than to put the onus of conversion on one prayer alone, we need to be reminded about the work of the Holy Spirit in us that moves us toward true conversion. Hull lists four different understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit to show us the diversity of opinions through the main branches of Christianity. He then shows us from Scripture the four phases of transformation:

  1. Our desires are transformed
  2. Spiritual Exercises train us
  3. We develop Christlike habits 

On Church, he challenges us to move from the question: "How are you doing?" to "How are you doing loving the people God has put in your life?" He has several important correctives to our modern Church methods. Church ministries need to be shapers of disciples. Through the gospel teaching, we declare everything that Christ has done and expound on the implications. In fellowship, we must remember not to use our idealized image of community to define our gatherings. Instead, we need to learn to build our ideals in the midst of brokenness, disappointment, and disillusionment. Only when we press through them can we plow the depths of grace and love. In worship, we need to learn to downplay the significance of technology and techniques, to bring back the need for obedience and worship. The goal is consummation (union with God), not consumerism for people. On numbers, we cannot be mindlessly concerned about membership growth. We must focus our resources on the growth of disciples. Disciples are revolutionaries.

So What?

Conventional thinking about being a Christian is this: First is the phase of conversion after saying the sinner's prayer. The next steps are basically follow up and discipleship. Bill Hull argues against such thinking. Instead, he says: "Some believe you can have conversion without discipleship. I believe that the proof of conversion is discipleship." This one sentence essentially summarizes the key point in this book. Hull then goes on to show us the biblical support for such a thesis. He does this by showing us how a deficient understanding of the gospel leads to an erroneous understanding of discipleship. A "forgiveness only" gospel leads to passivity. A needs-based gospel emphasizes accommodating the gospel to culture. A prosperity gospel leads to self-entitlement. A consumer-based gospel leads to self-indulgence and addiction. A "Be right" gospel leads to detachment and theological aloofness. Finally, he reinforces Scot McKnight's King Jesus Gospel by proclaiming the need for a "Kingdom gospel." There are no two-tier levels of Christians. It's only one-tier. Either we are or we aren't.

The gospel in Christ is not simply salvation but a way of life. Hull is right. I find myself nodding each page I turn. Discipleship is the key ministry activity of the true Church of Jesus Christ. If discipleship is not taught or emphasized, we will become spiritually deficient. Perhaps, by addressing the perspective of salvation via conversion right from the start, we are called to recognize the cost of discipleship and not merely the cosmetics of conversion. It is nice to get people to become Christians via a short prayer. It is also nice to see numerical growth. Yet, most important is the need to follow Christ not just at the beginning, but all the way. This is something that Hull is passionate about. This is something all pastors and leaders of the Church must be concerned about. This is something that we must all remember, for if we call ourselves Christians, then we must be Christ-followers. The synonym for this is discipleship. Great book!

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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