The growth of the evangelical church has been ocean-wide, but often puddle-deep. Why so shallow?
Over the next five weeks, I’m going to suggest five reasons why those of us in evangelical churches often do a poor job of discipling one another. (For the biblical reasons we should be discipling, here’s last week’s post).
Firstly, our churches very often teach “cheap” grace.
You’ll remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian. He defined cheap grace like this:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” (The Cost of Discipleship, 43-44)
When we preach the gospel, what do our hearers hear? Do they hear, “Of course you’ve sinned, but now everything is forgiven. Everything’s ok.”
The problem with this is that it contains no demand for discipleship. No repentance is required. Isn’t that at odds with Jesus’ insistence in Mark 8:34 that anyone who wants to follow him must deny themselves and take up their cross?
Grace may be free. But it is not cheap. It cost Jesus his life. And it will cost us our lives too, if we want to follow him. The invitation may be extended to all, but only those who obey Jesus’ call – to deny self and take up their cross – can receive it.
And the question is, are we teaching this uncomfortably Christian gospel in our local churches? Does our gospel contain the demand for discipleship? Or do we cough loudly over Mark 8:34, and relegate it to the small print, hoping no-one will notice until after they’ve signed on the dotted line? Are we lowering the cost of discipleship in the hope that more will buy?
Another, related question: do we speak of God’s love as “unconditional”? If we do, we unwittingly contribute to the problem of cheap grace. Because in one sense, God’s love is not unconditional at all.
Listen to what David Powlison says here:
“While it’s true that God’s love does not depend upon what you do, it very much depends on what Jesus Christ did for you. In that sense, it is highly conditional. It cost Jesus his life.”
If we fail to teach the “conditionality” of God’s love, we’ll serve up cheap grace. Grace that requires no radical obedience, only a sleepy nod. Grace that cannot stir, only sedate.
My fear is that in our evangelical desire to get “decisions” from people, we may have rendered many of those “decisions” meaningless. It is one thing to “pray the prayer”, another thing entirely to repent and believe. It is much easier to walk the aisle than it is to walk the Calvary road. You don’t even need to change your footwear.
Cheap grace may help churches to fill, of course. But they will fill with people who aren’t disciples, and don’t particularly want to be. Can we expect such a person to be discipling others?
Next week, assuming you’re not already depressed beyond retrieval, I’ll suggest a second reason we’re not discipling well.