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Missions 101

What’s Doctrine to Do with Discipleship?

Mar. 30, 2015By: Jackson WuAuthor Bio

Editors note: This is part of a three part series. The first post addressed the definition of incarnational ministry. The second addressed the application of incarnation to ministry. 

In the previous posts, we looked at 1 John 4 to discern how John applies the incarnation to the Christian life and ministry.   

When reading the Bible, it’s tempting to divide passages into two categories––those that practical and others that are theological.

Take 1 John 3–4 for example. John wants his readers to know that they abide in God as20140507_doctrinedisciple demonstrated by the love they have for other people. He speaks very practically about Christian love. However, we can’t stop there. To do so would be to miss the bigger picture of what John is saying. Application concerns our head, heart, and hands (not simply our hands)

Conventionally, when someone talks about “incarnational” ministry, they focus on ways to live and communicate in a culturally appropriate way. The conversation typically centers mainly on anthropology, not Christology.

I’ve met many missionaries who have something of the following attitude, “The Bible is not for teaching doctrine; it’s for making disciples.” As we’ve seen in the past few posts, John didn’t choose between these two options.

In 1 John, the practical application is love, but John hopes to spur obedience via theology. John’s letter is an example of how theology provides a perspective necessary for obedience. To order to manifest God’s love, we often need to change the way we see God, ourselves, and others. Often, it is easy to overlook the way in which perspective shapes practice.

How Doctrine Makes Disciples

“Incarnational” ministry, as seen in 1 John, weds doctrine and discipleship.

In 1 John 4:15, John writes, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” At one level, this seems completely out of the blue, not fitting to the context, which emphasizes practical love.

Yet, this confession and belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, is highlighted a number of times throughout 1 John (like 2:22–23; 4:2, 15; 5:5). These verses are fundamental to bearing the fruit of love. How so? I’ll list two reasons. 

(1)  Supreme Authority

When someone denies that Jesus is the Christ, he or she denies that Jesus is one who God has declared king over the entire world. In effect, one divides Christ’s kingdom into different spheres. In practice, a person might reject Christ’s jurisdiction over some aspect of his or her life.

For example, people may divide the week in parts. On Sunday, they think about God but the other six days are for “real life.” Or, people may compartmentalize the work, marriage, and hobbies from their faith. Practically, this perspective does not honor the universal Lordship of Christ.

When we see the world in this manner, we will also tend to divide people around us into groups. We label people as “insiders” or “outsiders” based on some secondary criteria like education, appearance, position, etc. Clearly, this sort of discriminatory love is not the sort John describes in his letter.

(2) Divided Worldview

A verse that runs parallel to v. 15 is 1 John 4:2, which says, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”

In John’s context, he probably refutes people with gnostic tendencies, who doubted whether Jesus truly took on “flesh.” Few today have that objection. Most modern objectors to Christianity would deny Christ’s divinity, not his humanity.

So, does this difference in context make John’s words obsolete? Not at all.

I suggest that when we deny the incarnation, we undermine the framework through which we see the world and thus love people.

At the heart of what John opposes is the notion that we have a split-level spirituality. It’s as common today as it was in the ancient world to divide the world in two parts . . . physical and spiritual, this life and the next life, secular and sacred, etc. The incarnation however obliterates this dichotomy. God, who can’t be seen (1 John 4:20), in fact manifests himself in the person of Christ.

What does this have to do with obedience? When our worldview is fragmented and we split our lives into parts, then other things like obedience and love also get distorted.

For instance, some people have the attitude that evangelism is first level obedience and everything else is second-class obedience, whether serving the poor, helping orphans, or doing theological education. After all, they suggest, “If this world is going to hell in a hand basket, why worry about social issues?” Or, another version of this thinking says, “We need to focus on practical matters, not theology.”

The incarnation shows us what holistic ministry looks like. It is not concerned merely for the “spiritual” needs while neglecting physical needs.

The incarnation is not concerned merely for the “spiritual” needs while neglecting physical needs - Tweet this

In context, John provides a blatant rebut to such thinking. First John 3:16–18 says,

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

I conclude by summarizing a few key ideas, each representing a part in this blog series. A truly “incarnational” ministry . . .

 . . . it is mainly about Christ, not culture. (Part 1)

 . . .  is practical, not sentimental (Part 2)

 . . . is holistic and highly theological (Part 3)

Jackson Wu (PhD, SEBTS) teaches theology and missiology in a seminary for Chinese church leaders. Previously, he also worked as a church planter. He has just released his second book One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization. In addition to his blog, jacksonwu.org, follow him on Twitter @jacksonwu4china.

Tags:  incarnational ministry, ministry
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