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  • Writer's pictureMcYoung Y. Yang

Theology as Discipleship: A Necessary Discipline for Christ Conformity


A Need for Substance 


Keith L. Johnson, Professor of Theology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, wrote a helpful book called Theology as Discipleship. This was during a time where my own theological developments were being solidified. I had come to the conclusion—by God’s grace—that the church’s discipling aim could not be consolidated to mere programs nor relational obscurity. That is to say, the substances that drove the church’s weekly functions needed a more foundational embodiment, a fuller direction. The church needs a transcendent aim guided by divine means. 

 

Let me illustrate it this way. Many young men struggle when transitioning from young adulthood to manhood. They find themselves at times with a half-way decent job and a group of friends to build a so-called strong, deep community. However, purpose can be hard to find. These activities—work, recreational sports, social gatherings, etc.—can become mundane. It can lose its flair in aptitude. What men need is substance. The façade of singleness will not due. They need something bigger than themselves. Marriage. Children. Establishing an inheritance for the next generation. Men need purpose and vision behind the everyday ordeals of life. Men don’t need more self-absorption; men need a gaze that is outside themselves. 


Similarly, discipleship for the church is more than mere activities—banquets, parties, or conferences—and deeper than the veneer of Christian fellowship—pickleball, volleyball, fantasy football, or (dare I say) Catan. Though these things are not bad in and of themselves, the church must be pointed toward a truer and surer foundation. They must embody a clearer reality. They need a God-centeredness, a theocentric aim. 


A Lens to Walk Amid the Call


Theology, through our union with Christ, seeks to troubleshoot our approach to the purposes of life (Eph. 4:1). It points us Godward in seeing all of life for all of Christ. Christian theology—ones that are mounted upon the exegetical work of Scripture—is the lens by which we make sense of the world. Or as the Psalmist says, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light” (Ps. 36:9; italics mine). Meaning, our study of God will give us categories to assess and discern the climate of our time and, more positively, the wisdom to build a Christocentric family, community, and world (Rom. 12:2).[1]


Therefore, this article’s aim is to showcase three (3) main reasons for the necessity of theology in the church’s discipling aim. Or rather, discipleship that is not undergirded by Christian theology will undersell the spiritual development of the believer. The three (3) reasons, then, will consist of theology as foundation (logos), theology as purpose (ethos), and theology as delight (pathos). 


Theology as Foundation. The Scriptures teach that humanity is made in the image of God by the Eternal Logos (Gen. 1:26–28; Jn. 1:1–3). The phrase “image of God” assumes her dependence upon the Creator; that is, man’s existence is not self-defined nor self-actualized. Rather, humanity’s identity is derivative.[2] It comes from another, namely, the triune God of Scripture. Moreover, God is Creator. Thus, all of creation finds its origin and aim from the One who designed it. Or as Cornelius Van Til exclaims,

What is true with respect to the existence of the whole space-time world is equally true with respect to the meaning of it. As the absolute and independent existence of God determines the derivative existence of the universe, so the absolute meaning that God has for Himself implies that the meaning of every fact in the universe must be related to God. Scripture says constantly that the world has its whole meaning in the fact that it was created for the glory of God.[3]

Therefore, theology as foundation presupposes that without the underlying knowledge of God humanity cannot definitively know herself nor the world truthfully. If left to herself, humanity will suppress the truth in ungodliness and be given over to a debased, perverted mind (Rom. 1:18, 28). However, the other side of theology as foundation is grounded in the redemption and salvation found in Christ Jesus; that is, Jesus’ atoning work is not merely a get-out-of-hell-free-card. Rather, salvation in Christ is that “they may have life and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10; italics mine). What, then, is this life? What is assumed by Jesus and John when using the phrase “life”? It is, in part, what Johnson conveys when he says, “When we see the world through the lens of Christ, we see the truth about reality.”[4] To this end, we live with renewed mind through the salvation of our Lord (Col. 3:10).


This is where theology as foundation serves the enterprise of disciple-making. Theology serves as the foundation to underpin one’s framework for life, to substantiate the mores of God’s design for the created world. Theology makes sense of the why’s of creation because the study of theology is tied to the Creator Himself.[5] Or, as Johnson goes on to say, “The God who spoke all things into existence is the same God who saves His people through the incarnate Christ, and so creation must be seen in relation to Christ and vice versa. Because Christ is one and the same as God, however, the relationship between Christ and creation is an ordered relationship.”[6] Or articulated in question form, without sound biblical theology, by what standard do we measure the foundations of life? 

 

Theology as Purpose. Theology not only fortifies our rational, cognitive foundation in the created world through the God to whom we delightfully study, it fuels the life that expresses the heartfelt truths of the transcendent Creator Himself. Or said more simply, our theology fuels our living. The ethos which substantiates the way by which believers must walk is tied to the theological grid that is captured through the inscripturated Word. Meaning, our doing is tied to God’s truth. Conviction is not merely an emotional fervor. Rather, it is truth captured in the heart which is enflamed by the Spirit for the purposes of joyful obedience to God; that is, the Gospel of Christ brings about an obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5). Therefore, our aim should be joyful obedience in conformity to Christ. 


To this end, the Apostle Paul urges the church of Corinth to “[be] imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). The ethos of this imitation is mounted upon the fact that Paul’s living is undergirded by his union with Christ. Meaning, the context by which this command is conjured centers upon the believers’ responsibility to refrain from food sacrificed to idols for the sake of a believing brother’s conscience. The theological foundation for Paul’s directive is fundamentally the glory of God; “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Thus, the ethos of God’s Word does not stand in isolation from the theological foundation. Rather, the ethos is dependent upon the theological foundation. Or said differently, theology as foundation (logos) informs theology as purpose (ethos); they function as a chain link. 

 

This is where theology as purpose serves the enterprise of disciple-making. It does not conjure mere moralism for the believer. Christian theology provides the basis that shape the how’s to obedience. Or as Johnson articulates, “a theologian who thinks and speaks rightly about God will be one who also lives a holy life before God in the pattern of Christ.”[7] Thinking rightly, then, is not merely a cognitive exercise, it has an ethical component to its nature. 

 

Theology as Delight. Christian theology in disciple-making not only fortifies our rational foundation in relation to the created world and, in addition, not only does it inform our ethical obligations for service to one another in Christ, it brings into concert our passion (pathos) for righteousness (ethos) through God’s creative design (logos). Or said differently, as redeemed image bearers, Christ restores not only our action to the law but our affections in abiding with the law of Christ. As the Apostle Paul asserts, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom. 3:31). Or rather, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:13). Or as the Psalmist confers that the blessed man’s “delight is in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 1:2). 

 

The Christian faith, then, is not an emotionless religion. However, it is not driven by emotionalism either. Christianity is affections informed by truth to delight in her Creator and the covenant Lord Himself. Jesus reassures His disciples of this in the Upper Room Discourse when He said, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me” (Jn. 14:21; italics mine). He goes on to say, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn. 15:10–11; italics mine). Notice that Jesus’s usage of commandments and love function as synonyms when speaking of the intimacy between disciple and Master. This, in addition, is comparative to the relationship between Father and Son; that is, the Son showcases His love for the Father by His obedience. Simply put, Jesus’s obedience is a joyful obedience. Similarly, a disciples’ obedience must be a joyful obedience to Christ. Obedience, then, is an outgrowth of savoring, delighting, and loving the Creator God through Christ Jesus by the power of His Holy Spirit. 

 

This is where theology as delight serves the enterprise of disciple-making. What is the posture of your heart? What do you delight in? What stirs your affections? These are necessary questions in the guise of disciple-making that are not empty of theological discourse, but rather must be tempered by theological inquiry. Christian theology provides the joys in joyful obedience to Christ. As Johnson helpfully contends, “Our joy begins where our new life begins: with Christ’s redemption of us from our sin so that we can live as God’s children and share in His love through the power of the Spirit. We have joy because we know that when we pursue theological work we do so as partners of Christ and all those who also have been joined to Him by the Spirit.”[8]


Built Upon a Firm Foundation


To the untrained eye, Christian disciple-making that is theologically rich in comparison to so-called disciple-making that is psychologically or culturally driven may garner a similar outward appearance. However, the proof is truly in the pudding; meaning, substance will rise to the surface. Therefore, ministers and church members must reevaluate the veneer of Christian ministry—especially in the Hmong context—to see if disciple-making is faithful to the call given through Scripture. Meaning, the veneer of church life—church programs, institutional structures, etc.—void of the substance of spiritual knowing will provide an anemic attempt in disciple-making. Or simply put, disciple-making may be more than dogmatic theology, but it is never less than. 


Therefore, the groundwork for lifelong disciple-making is to think God’s thoughts after Him (cf. Jn. 15:1–11). It is to see the world and our very own self through His eyes. The foundation of life is not built upon human tradition or cultural sensibilities (cf. Mk. 7:11). Rather, the firm foundation of the Gospel is rooted in right relationship with God through the Savior, Christ Jesus Himself (cf. Isa. 33:6; Matt. 7:24–27; 1 Cor. 3:10–15; Eph. 2:10; 2 Tim. 2:19). Or as Johnson helpfully conveys, “Theological learning is pursued rightly when it occurs within the context of a life of discipleship, because the practices of discipleship enable and enrich our pursuit of theological knowledge.”[9] To this end, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Ps. 19:14; italics mine). Soli Deo Gloria


 

Footnotes


[1] See Piper, John. Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017. 


[2] See Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 56–70. Van Til has served me well in seeing that all of life—its most fundamental definitions—are grounded in God Himself. He is Creator and, therefore, Designer to which humanity finds understanding. 


[3] Ibid., 58. 


[4] Keith L. Johnson, Theology as Discipleship (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 51. 


[5] See Trueman, Carl R. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020.


[6] Johnson, Theology as Discipleship, 49–50. 


[7] Johnson, Theology as Discipleship, 162. 


[8] Ibid., 186.


[9] Ibid., 26.

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, SBTS; ThM, MBTS) is the husband to Debbie and a father to their four children. He is a Pastor of Preaching/Teaching at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN and the Executive Editor of Covenant City Church Content Team. Along with his ministerial duties, he is a homeschool dad. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO, and his ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.

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