Theologians and missiologists have spilled volumes of ink expositing these words, reading both too much into the text and too little out of it. As with all of Scripture, each word of this passage glimmers with meaning. Yet for all our inspection of the leaves, bark, and branches of this great oak, we miss the biblical forest.
What does it mean to teach disciples to obey all the commands of Jesus? One answer comes from missiologists advocating obedience-based discipleship (OBD), an increasingly popular method employed in frontier missionary contexts. Despite its simplicity, OBD is a technical term describing a set of practices particular to the disciple-making movement (DMM) methodology. OBD essentially consists in the practice leading groups of unbelieving “disciples” into regular obedience to the imperatives of Christ in pursuit of eventual conversion. Jerry Trousdale, in his Miraculous Movements: How Hundreds of Thousands of Muslims are Falling in Love With Jesus, describes this method as follows: “Disciple makers are prepared to invest weeks, months, and maybe years developing genuine friendships, facilitating someone’s discovery of and obedience to God’s story from creation to Christ, and eventually giving Jesus his life allegiance” (24). Obedience to Jesus’ commands, hence, becomes a tool in pre-evangelism, as each week unbelievers are required to immediately put into practice what they are learning in the context of chronological Bible study, prior to any proclamation of Christ’s redemptive work.
Trousdale and other writers make great boasts of OBD’s effectiveness. Paul and David Watson describe OBD as resulting in four generations of church plants for a “minimum” of one hundred indigenous churches within three years (Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery, 4). Surely such figures, if they are at all accurate, are cause for celebration.
But it is my contention that OBD, practiced in its purest form, is loaded with troublesome assumptions about the nature of conversion—and in particular, one flaw which undermines its entire validity as a mode for cross-cultural evangelism.
A Loaded Term
Like many ministry methodologies, OBD assumes a certain legitimacy by virtue of its very name. Who, after all, would argue for disobedience-based discipleship? Teaching obedience is integral to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19). Further, standing in line with historic Protestantism, we recognize that there is no use in discussing conversion apart from a life of obedience. Faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:26), and all who truly belong to Christ will evidence their regeneration by bearing fruit (John 15:1-6). If we love Jesus, we will obey him—imperfectly, but sincerely. We cannot have Christ as Savior without having him as Lord.
We must even recognize that the law of God is an evangelistic tool (Deut. 4:6-8). God’s commands to his people form them into a community of love to which the lost are attracted. The commands of Christ are not only binding; they are good.
But OBD goes further than the bare assertion that Jesus, as Savior and Lord, must be obeyed. It is built on the assumption that discipleship is something that exists independent of conversion. It is supposed that true discipleship, thus, both can and should occur prior to conversion, and that the “Western” pattern which places conversionary gospel preaching prior to discipleship is ineffective and unbiblical (Trousdale, 101).
Integral to the methodology is the assumption that Jesus modeled OBD by instructing his twelve disciples with various commands for three years before they embraced his Messianic and divine identity. This is faulty on multiple biblical grounds, including (1) the fact that Jesus’ ministry began with a theophonic recognition of his identity (Matt. 3:16-17), (2) Jesus recognized his disciples as regenerate (John 15:3), (3) the disciples confessed Christ’s identity (Matt. 16:16), and (4) some ignorance of the nature of Christ’s mission on the disciples’ part was excusable given their unique standpoint in redemptive history under the old covenant prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and this ignorance was later removed (Luke 24:45-47).
Even granting, for instance, the truism that before Christ’s death and resurrection the disciples were ignorant of the precise nature of his redemptive work, it does not follow that normative disciple-making in the New Testament period and beyond should treat such ignorance as a strategic advantage. Following Christ’s death and resurrection and the opening of the disciples’ eyes to understand the meaning of his work (Luke 24:46-48), the book of Acts records an invariable, apostolic pattern of ministry:
- The risen Christ is proclaimed as Savior, Lord, and Judge (Acts 2:36, 4:10-12)
- Repentance and faith are commanded (Acts 2:38, 17:30-31)
- Those appointed to eternal life respond in faith, being baptized (Acts 2:41)
- Those baptized are numbered among the disciples and commit themselves to continued learning and obedience to the teachings of Christ and the apostles (Acts 2:42-47)
Although Luke takes occasional authorial liberty to telescope some of the apostolic preaching and conversion narratives in Acts, nowhere is this fundamental order reversed so as to place point 4 prior to point 1.
But even this is not the fatal flaw of obedience-based discipleship.
The Fatal Flaw
At root, we must ask the question: can an obedient disciple be unconverted in terms of faith in the gospel message? OBD answers “yes.” Moreover, OBD posits that this is the normative trajectory of New Testament disciple-making.
Biblically, however, the answer is “no.” Regeneration precedes not only faith but a life of loving obedience. There are no meaningful definitions of “disciple” or “obedience” that do not assume the reality of regeneration. The natural person’s mind is “hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7). Spiritual things, a category which certainly includes the commands of Jesus, can only be understood by those who possess the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14). Jesus taught that without new birth, one cannot even see the kingdom (John 3:3), much less obey spiritual truths. To obey God’s law willingly from the heart can only be accomplished by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit (Ez. 36:26). This is the very content of the new covenant, into which one must enter through faith alone. Only a regenerated person can truly obey Jesus in any meaningful sense.
We see this fact in stark relief when we consider that the first command repeatedly issued by Jesus and his apostles is impossible apart from the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit in conversion: to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15)! The obedience in which we are to walk as disciples is the obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5). Anything that does not come from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). There is no preparatory command of Jesus prior to this that can be accomplished in the flesh apart from new spiritual life operating in the human heart.
The problem is compounded when we consider the longer-term aims of obedience-based discipleship. Some advocates of disciple-making movements have as their goal the rapid multiplication of obedience-based discipling groups facilitated even by unconverted unbelievers (see David Watson’s comments on this very tactic). If “disciples” may be unconverted, and if part of a “disciple’s” mandate is to make other “disciples” thus defined, the inevitable result is that entire disciple-making movements can be statistically counted where no conversionary gospel preaching has in fact taken place. Yet if the Great Commission mandate is to fill the world with external obedience to Jesus’ general commands—love for neighbor and so forth—while remaining in unbelief, we might rightly say our task is quite finished!
The question, then, becomes: what sort of “obedience” is accomplished by OBD if not the obedience stemming from regeneration and faith in the finished redemptive work of Christ? To answer this, let us look back in time.
A Warning From Machen
Though not often looked to as a missiologist, Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen foresaw the same drift away from the gospel of justification by faith in his fight against modernism in the early 20th century:
“According to modern liberalism, faith is essentially the same as ‘making Christ Master’ in one’s life; at least it is by making Christ Master in the life that the welfare of men is sought. But that simply means that salvation is thought to be obtained by our own obedience to the commands of Christ. Such teaching is just a sublimated form of legalism. Not the sacrifice of Christ, on this view, but our own obedience to God’s law, is the ground of hope. In this way the whole achievement of the Reformation has been given up, and there has been a return to the religion of the Middle Ages.” (Christianity and Liberalism, Kindle Locations 1528-1532)
While we must enthusiastically affirm the obedience demanded by Christ as Lord, he demands such obedience from the overflow of gratitude for salvation. Our obedient relation to Christ as Lord presupposes a relationship founded on his saving grace accomplished in his death and resurrection. To advocate obedience among unconverted “disciples” apart from empty-handed faith is bald legalism—not to mention oddly reminiscent of the sort of externalist “Christianizing” from which OBD advocates would rightly steer clear.
Unless the goal of OBD is to show the unconverted how impossible it is to keep the commands of God, and thereby point them to Christ to find forgiveness and reconciliation to God, the methodology represents a harmful conflation of law with gospel.
In full disclosure, I am not a cross-cultural missionary. I approach this issue from a biblical and theological perspective—though I must note the eerie similarity between OBD and what I have observed personally in seeker-driven and attractional churches in North America. And as a further qualification, I am aware of self-professed OBD practitioners who, due to various moderating factors, are in actuality practicing a style of ministry much closer to “traditional,” proclamation-based evangelism. Thus, it is vital that we approach these issues with a spirit of charity and grace.
But with regard to OBD in its “purest” form, we must speak clearly. The gospel’s power to save is found in the grace of God purchased by Christ (Rom. 1:16, 1 Cor. 2:1-4), not the external obedience of seekers ignorant of the cross.
Church historian and theologian Carl Trueman has famously remarked that missions is often the tip of the spear in introducing heresy into the church. Though we must not wield the “h” word carelessly, even the briefest survey of church history indeed reveals that the gravest theological errors do stem almost invariably from the purest evangelistic motives. And to the degree that our brothers and sisters on the mission field are driven by genuine zeal for the lost, we must seek not to quench the Spirit.
But the murky waters of motivations are insufficient to baptize bad methods. And if there is any realm in which we cannot afford to be unclear or equivocal in our doctrine of conversion, it is the frontiers of mission. Let us with respect, humility, and confidence engage those employing OBD to ensure that the gospel we preach is front-loaded with its only true power—Christ crucified. And, laboring in that power, let us call Christ’s people to a grace-based obedience.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published November 22, 2019.