Believing the Gospel to the Point of Implementation
Is gospel identity a part of your discipleship strategy? Most local-church discipleship programs effectively focus on doctrinal instruction (this is what we believe and what God’s word teaches) and behavioral disciplines (this is what growing Christians do). While both areas of emphasis are essential, neither one is sufficient for authentic, core, gospel transformation.
To say it another way, it is easy to “know the right stuff” and “do the right stuff” but still not actually be transformed by the power of the gospel. We teach new believers, “You are in Christ.” We say, “You are a new creation—put on the new man.” We express phrases like “find your identity in Jesus.” But do we actually have a practical framework that explains these ideas in tangible, touchable, truly transforming ways?
Before we talk strategy, let me share a short story of how the theme of gospel identity is producing devoted disciples in an unlikely place.
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“Congratulations on your call to New England, but be prepared. It won’t be easy. That part of the country is very hard and cold, and not many people want the gospel.”
This is the statement I heard over and over in the summer of 2012. Our family was facing a difficult transition in answer to the clear call of God. We were fearfully stepping away from key leadership in a thriving megachurch on the West Coast with no early knowledge of where God was leading. His call, at first, was simply “Follow me—I’ll show you where later.”
“Later” revealed God’s direction to be a small, discouraged church near Hartford, Connecticut. Friends meant well, but their warmly pessimistic responses grew old very quickly. Less than 10 percent of the responses had a faith-filled tone of optimism.
I remember saying to my wife, “If one more person says ‘New England is hard and cold . . .’ ” Well, let’s just say I was tired of the negativity. We believed God was calling us to a gospel harvest, and so we chose to ignore the pessimists and rather to anticipate that God was already at work before we arrived. Jesus clearly emphasized to me a passage in John 4:
Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work. Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest. And he that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal: that both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together. And herein is that saying true, One soweth, and another reapeth. I sent you to reap that whereon ye bestowed no labour: other men laboured, and ye are entered into their labours.—John 4:34–38
So, by faith, we accepted His call and chose to follow. Obedience is success. Success is obedience—doing the will of Him who sends us—so we told ourselves again and again. But we also chose to believe that He was leading us into a ready harvest and that we would enter into the labors of others before us. We earnestly desired to see new Jesus-followers born in faith and increasing in gospel maturity.
This summer we celebrate ten hard but hope-filled years. What began with the vote of 93 people, by God’s grace, has become a thriving, healthy body of new believers. God has brought a hurting church back to life. New England truly is a fertile field after all—despite the naysayers. Every week someone says to me, “I’ve been thinking about going to church soon,” or “You know, I’ve been asking God to show me a sign that He’s there . . . ” The stories are too numerous to share.
The core of the story traces back to one value—gospel centrality.
When the church was losing $20,000 every month and the building was in radical disrepair (the need exceeded one million dollars) and there was very little in the way of music or quality ministry options, we had only one thing. We had the gospel of Jesus—His good news. And that’s all we needed. The gospel is the power of God, and it truly transforms both hearts and churches.
We committed to preaching the gospel every week and during the week—to both unbelievers and believers. Unbelievers hungered for timeless truth, durable identities, and the grace life. And believers fell back in love with Jesus and with fresh understanding of how the gospel both saves and sanctifies. We watched the gospel recaptivate Christians in a renewed, transformational way.
The gospel works profoundly in the lives of both unbelievers and believers. It saves and shapes. It justifies and sanctifies—if we choose to believe to the point of implementation.
As the gospel is the scarlet thread that weaves throughout the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation, so it is the scarlet strand that holds together every day of growth and transformation in the Jesus-follower. Just as all of scripture points to God’s good news, so every day of following Him flows from that same good news.
The burning question of an undershepherd in a growing body of new believers is simply, “How?” How do we help new believers understand that faith in Jesus is not merely an escape from eternal condemnation, but that it is actually the birth and starting point of a new life? How do we let the gospel run free and tangibly materialize in the form of new identities in Christ?
May I propose a simple road map of formational Christian discipleship that includes gospel identity? We call it “Growth Track”—four recurring classes, each involving a ten-week commitment, and each focusing on a specific gospel emphasis.
Stage 1—Gospel Starting Point: What is the gospel, and why should I accept Christ?
This first ten weeks we explore the basic gospel—what Jesus has done for us and why it is so wonderful. For unbelievers, it’s a time to seek, understand, question, and reason through gospel concepts—sin, guilt, spiritual death, atonement, substitution, salvation, grace, mercy, justice, justification, reconciliation, new birth, etc. For believers, it’s a time to renew wonder and strengthen vocabulary for gospel conversations.
Stage 2—Gospel Relationship: How can I cultivate a relationship with Jesus?
This second ten weeks explores a real relationship with Jesus. We seek to move believers forward, not merely with a foundation of beliefs and behaviors, but with a Person—Jesus—learning to know, love, and relate with Him. We often say, “If we can’t get there by loving Jesus, we don’t want to get there any other way.” This class cultivates themes of daily grace, faith, flesh-struggles, growth, repentance, God’s Spirit, confidence, maturity, and sustained hope. It touches on vital spiritual disciplines, but approaches them relationally and organically rather than merely behaviorally. We speak of loving Jesus more than “doing stuff.”
Stage 3—Gospel Theology: What foundational doctrine does scripture provide?
By this third ten weeks, a core of disciples have become friends. They have explored the same questions and shared the same growth struggles. The goal of this class is good doctrine. We survey the “-ologies” of Christianity. The class covers a lightly academic view of bibliology, theology, Christology, anthropology, soteriology, ecclesiology, missiology, and others.
Stage 4—Gospel Identity: Who am I, really, in light of the gospel of Jesus?
Growth Track concludes with the powerful theme of gospel identity. It began as an all-church series which led to the book Stop Trying: How to Receive—Not Achieve—Your Real Identity. The study proved so transformational for the church family that we chose to fold it into the Growth Track model this year.
For ten weeks, we will unpack the concept of identity and the world’s weak and fragile alternatives. Traditional identity forms externally and horizontally, dependent on the approval and affirmation of others. Modern identity forms internally, seeking to self-identify and to be liberated from the definitions of others. Both of these identity options are deeply broken and insufficient, and yet we all typically ping-pong hopelessly between the two.
On one hand we need the external validation of others. On the other hand we long for expressed individualism—to be true to our hearts. After exploring the weakness of both structures, we explore the third identity option—the gospel. A gospel identity doesn’t look outward or inward, but rather upward—it is vertical. It rests in the abundant affirmation and validation that only a Heavenly Father can confer, while also fully realizing the individuality that only an infinite Creator could produce. Of course, all of this was made possible by Jesus through the gospel. It truly is a study on receiving your truest identity rather than attempting to achieve it—and no concept has proven more transformational in my own Christian life.
Many Christians struggle with knowing that the gospel should transform them, but not understanding how it does. An effective study on gospel identity will move theological information from the head to the heart, making it experiential—not in mystical but in practical ways. It will organically move the gospel into everyday aspects of life, relationships, work, and struggles. It brings definition and durability in a world that often speaks in terms of identity but doesn’t offer true solutions.
Help your new disciples grow deeper and more durable. Help them to be free from the comparison of the social media stream, the competition of the secular world, and the condemnation of their own hearts and histories. Lead them to discover who they really are!
The truth of gospel identity will transform the heart authentically and sustainably.
Whatever strategy or track you choose to employ, including gospel identity not only speaks to the contemporary narrative of our culture, but it places believers on a journey of organic transformation.
This moves the truth from theory to beauty and reality.
To say it simply—it wins the heart. After all, isn’t that our goal?
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.—Matthew 22:37–38