It’s a privilege to welcome my friend Jonathan Dodson to the blog. I met Jonathan at Bethlehem Baptist Church about 10 years ago. Both of us were newly married at the time and met regularly for encouragement and accountability. A couple years ago, we reconnected through the blogosphere. Jonathan is a church planter, pastor and author. His new book, Fight Clubs: Gospel-Centered Discipleship, just came out in August. Jonathan has also written several published articles for various journals and webzines such as The Journal of Biblical Counseling and Boundless. He blogs at Creation Project and Church Planting Novice.
I love Jonathan’s heart for the gospel and developing gospel-centered, missional communities. I’ve learned much from this man! He was kind enough to do an interview about his new book, Fight Clubs, with me over email.
Jonathan, thanks for making time to do this. It’s an honor to interview you, brother. For those who may not know you, please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Thank you, Doug. I remember our times at BBC with fondness and appreciate your zeal for the gospel. I have a British mother and an American father. I became a child of God when I was six. I was captivated by the idea that the God of the universe wanted to have me as his very own son. The Gospel of Adoption blew me away, so much that I spread the gospel as much as I could. I read missionary biographies like crazy. After returning from England in 1980, I lived in East Texas where I learned to mud hog, play tennis, wash windows, and love Jesus. After graduating from high school, I studied at Capernwray Hall and University of North Texas, where I received a degree in Anthropology.
During the college years I tried to find acceptance in the affection and approval of women, which proved pretty devastating. Fortunately, Jesus led me into significant repentance and renewal of faith, as I learned to rest in his perfect acceptance and love. In 2000, I married a woman out of my league. I love Robie. We have two delightful and very imperfect children ages 4 and 2.
After college, I moved to Minneapolis to study under John Piper. It was under his teaching that I first learned how to really fight the fight of faith—with the promises of God. Book after book, sermon after sermon, class after class, I was immersed into the riches of the gospel in the form of Christian Hedonism and exposed to other great pastors and theologians, both living and dead. It was there that I met Jonathan Edwards and John Owen, both of whom have significantly shaped my discipleship.
So, what prompted you to write this book? How was it born?
I was prompted to write the book out of a desire to strengthen Fight Clubs in our own church, as well as promote gospel living in community beyond the boundaries of our church.
The book began during my time as a Pierce scholar at Gordon Conwell. As students with significant experience in discipleship, Pierce scholars are expected to cultivate a culture of peer-to-peer discipleship on the campus of Gordon-Conwell seminary. As I met with burned out seminary students and people in my church, I realized that many of them carried a lot of discipleship baggage. Sometimes it was a failure to take sin seriously, other times it was a failure to take obedience seriously. Both aberrations were a result of not understanding and applying the Gospel.
As I began to reflect more on my own discipleship experiences in college, I started writing an article on the topic of Christian accountability. I realized that my view of discipleship was defunct. It was too hierarchical, viewing myself as the professional and my disciple as the novice. This can breed pride and legalism. It can also make discipleship more about “wisdom” than about the gospel. I was beginning to repent of this professionalized view and practice of making disciples.
As I wrote, the image of an evangelical confessional booth to describe loose discipleship, and ascetic monasticism came to mind for legalistic discipleship. As I worked these out in conversations and writing, it became apparent that this was a topic that needed serious attention. The article went through many forms and many journal rejections before it was published in The Journal of Biblical Counseling. This article formed the basis of chapter two of Fight Clubs.
I love the title, Fight Clubs: Gospel-Centered Discipleship. Tell us more about the title. And specifically, why do you use the phrase, “Gospel-Centered Discipleship?” Can you define what “gospel-centered” means? Lately it seems to be somewhat of an evangelical buzzword.
Great question! This is something I am continuing to work on both theologically and practically. The Gospel is so robust that your question deserves a book-length response. I’ll try to keep it to a few lines.
When I first heard the phrase “gospel-centered”, I thought to myself, “How arrogant!” The word assumes that there are faithful Christians who aren’t concerned with the centrality of the gospel. However, as I continued to press into the gospel, and the writings of Tim Keller, I began to appreciate the technicality of the vocabulary.
When I use the term “gospel-centered” I am making a theological and practical designation. Theologically, I am saying that the “good news that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and evil through his death and resurrection and is making all things new” is news that should affect everything we desire, do, say, and think. The gospel is not the information that we believe to get saved; it is the good news that keeps us saved. It is the grand announcement of Jesus’ death and resurrection that is relevant for Christian sinners and non-Christian sinners. The gospel calls everyone to repentance and faith every day. It is not a ticket to glory but the promise of glory on earth. Not escape from creation but renewal of creation. It reconciles sinners and all things by the blood of Jesus’ cross (Col 1:15-23).
The Gospel is three dimensional. It is doctrinal-historical, personal-communal, and socio-cultural. It affects everything. It changes how we think (doctrinal), who we are (personal), and where we live (social). The gospel should be central in our vocation, family, community, participation in culture, and commitment to mission. While I believe that the gospel addresses all of these things, I do not think these things are what should be central to discipleship and the church. If the gospel is central, we affect everything in Jesus by the Spirit.
Practically, gospel-centered gets at what motivates a disciple of Jesus. It means that neither obedience nor disobedience is central, but the grace of God in the person of Christ working through the presence of the Spirit in us. That gospel comes to us and remains central (we often de-center) when the grace of God motivates us to obey Him. That grace comes in the form of: religious affections, promises, warnings, the Holy Spirit, repentance and faith. These graces are gospel graces that motivate our obedience. They motivate by gracious wooing us to Jesus, warning us of the consequences of disobedience, promising us ten thousand things in Christ, empowering and directing us in the Spirit, and repenting of sin and trusting in Christ.
Repentance and faith is particularly important. Turning away from the promises of sin and to the promises of Christ is repentance. It is a gift of grace that leads us to Jesus. It comes by the Spirit for our good.
See chapter 3 in Fight Clubs for more on all this.
In chapter 2 you write about the failure of accountability and how accountability groups tend to become either too strict or too loose. I’ve been in both types of groups. So how does the leader of a group “remove accountability from the center and replace it with the gospel?”
Several ways come to mind:
1. Repent from placing something else in the center of your discipleship other than Jesus.
2. Rediscover the centrality of Jesus in your life, not just ideally but practically. When tempted by sin, instead of fearing the checklist or questions of an accountability partner, begin to ask the question: “Who is Jesus in this temptation?” E.g. if you feel misrepresented at work, like you have no advocate, remember that Jesus is your great Advocate and cling to him.
3. Begin asking Gospel-centered questions about your discipleship and heart instead of asking moralistic and legalistic questions. E.g. “When I walk into a social setting what does my heart fear most?” Then ask: “Who is Jesus?” See my appendix in Fight Clubs for more.
4. Identify your legalistic and loose tendencies in discipleship. Confess them to a friend, and begin focusing on the gospel. What is it? How does it apply? Grow in your knowledge of the Gospel. Read authors and listen to preachers like Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, CCEF authors, Tim Keller, Jack Miller, Bob Thune, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, and so on.
I appreciate your focus on the Holy Spirit (in chapter 3) and how He motivates and directs our discipleship. How would you pastorally guide those who seem to be cautious or even fearful about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in their lives?
The Holy Spirit is, for Evangelicals, the red-headed step-child of the Trinity. It’s a shame, really shameful. We’ve allowed our fears of charisma to get the best of us, leading to a devaluing of God and a disfigured relationship with him. For those struggling in this area, I strongly recommend that you take your eyes off of charismatic extremes and place them back on the Spirit. Begin talking to Him, know him through study, and consider all the commands to “pray in the Spirit” and begin talking to the Spirit in prayer. One reason we are weak on the Spirit because we are weak on prayer. It is the Spirit who knows the depths of God and freely discloses the understanding of God’s will and Word (1 Cor 2). Therefore, to cut Him off is to diminish our understanding (and enjoyment) of God. It stifles the advance of the Gospel.
Here are some practical steps:
1. Repent for diminishing and ignoring the third Person of the Trinity. Repent for sinful self-reliance and fear-motivated neglect of the Holy Spirit. Mortify the sin that has been an obstacle to your knowing and walking with the Spirit. Receive God’s gracious forgiveness in Jesus and rejoice that the Spirit is in you!
2. Begin addressing the Holy Spirit in prayer every day. Talk to him as a Person; don’t ignore him as an energy force. Ask him for filling and direction for your entire day. Ask him to guide your decision-making, to direct your thoughts, and to fill your heart with affection for Jesus.
3. Read the Bible with a Holy Spirit lens. Look for him in the Bible and ask yourself: “Who does this text tell me the Spirit is?” Then, refine the way you relate to him. It’s like getting to know your wife, the more you study here the better you can love her.
What about pastors? How would you encourage a pastor who feels alone and has a hard time taking off his pastor’s hat and participating in something like a fight club?
Repent from going alone, from sinful self-reliance, idolatry of ministry, and the fear of man. Find fresh forgiveness in Jesus and someone you can trust. Run to Christ for your significance and joy. Look for another pastor outside your church to begin a Fight Club with. Read the book together and start fighting in the strength of the gospel.
I like your 3 rules of fight clubs: know your sin, fight your sin, and trust your Savior. Ironically, it seems that fighting the fight of faith flows from a constant resting in the finished work of Christ? Would you agree?
Yes, resting in Christ also compels us to fight in the Spirit. Until Jesus returns, our resting will fuel our fighting.
I’m sure there are many who will read your book and will want to start a Fight Club (or Fight Clubs in their church) but don’t know how. How would you recommend going about it?
Fight Clubs are small, simple, biblical, reproducible and missional. No more than two or three people to a group. If the group grows beyond three, it is important that the newest member only participate a couple of times to get the idea and then start a new group. This retains the intimacy and trust built in the initial group, while also fostering reproduction — more Fight Clubs! Fight Clubs are simple and biblical in their content, following a progression of Text-Theology-Life.
- Text: A Fight Club agrees to focus on a common biblical text. Each person in the Fight Club commits to devotionally read the same chapter from a book of the Bible each week. For example, your group could read through Colossians in four weeks. As you read, make a point of asking the Holy Spirit to draw your attention to whatever He wants you to know. The Spirit may be prompting you repent of a sin, rejoice in a promise or meditate on an insight. Each week when you get together, make the text your initial focus.
- Theology: Work through the verses in community, trying to follow the flow of the author. From there, try to understand the central theological message of the chapter. Be sure you ask the question: "How does the person and work of Jesus inform this text?" Strive to be Christ-centered, not application-centered. Jesus is sufficient for our failures and strong for our successes.
- Life: This is followed by bringing in your personal struggles and successes from your devotional reading. Be sure to allow plenty of time for this. Share your lives; promote godly accountability and faithful prayer. Finally, be sure to share the names of people whom you are trying to bless with the gospel. Pray as a group, asking God to help you trust His promises, as well as asking Him to give unbelievers the same gift of faith.
Thanks for joining us, Jonathan. And thanks for writing this book. It's a much needed gift to the Church. I pray its message would spread far and wide!