The Gospel Works from the Inside Out
Gospel-centered discipleship focuses on internal change – which is why you’ll probably hesitate to use it. We naturally default to an outside-in view of spiritual growth. I think we do this because external things are easier to measure and quantify and track. So we give the impression that discipleship means DOING more. Disciples need to be sharing the gospel, or leading a small group, or serving in ministry, or praying for the city, or making better use of their time, or whatever. These things are all good – assuming they’re driven from the right heart. But very often they’re not. The problem isn’t that your disciples are not doing these things. The problem is that they don’t really want to. You can tweak external behavior all day, but to change heart-level desires, you need the gospel! The gospel fuels change from the inside out. It addresses beliefs and desires, not just actions. A truly deep and biblical belief in the gospel will always result in character change. If change isn’t happening, you can be sure that there’s a heart problem.
This isn’t biblical rocket science; it’s simply the principle Jesus himself used. Good trees bear good fruit. When the people asked him how they could do the works of God, he answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29).
But your disciples are good at faking it, so they are convinced that the external solutions are what they need. They think they believe the gospel. In fact, they’ll probably argue with you if you tell them they really don’t. But just disciple a transsexual or two, and you’ll understand that it always comes back to belief.
See, I know that Ryan needs to change his lifestyle. It’s not glorifying to God. And every Christian he’s ever met has taken the lifestyle-change approach to discipleship. They’ve pushed him to repent and change his external behavior. But why should he? He doesn’t want to. He wants to be a transsexual. Until he wants not to be a transsexual, nothing else matters! In the same way, until your disciples want to obey Jesus or pray or reach out to others, nothing else matters.
How do you make someone want to change at this deep level? I don’t really know, but I’m good at trying lots of stuff. So that’s what I did with Ryan. That first meeting had built some trust between us. He trusted that I wasn’t going to hate him or judge him, and I trusted that he wasn’t going to hit on me or tell me I was sexy or something. I began to think and pray about what to do next.
The following week, another student handed me a CD of a lecture she’d heard on homosexuality. It was given by a former homosexual activist who had been radically transformed by Christ. I listened to it, and I thought: maybe this is it! Mike, the guy on the CD, was so refreshingly real. He talked about how much he hated Christians during his gay-activist days, and how it took a strong community of loyal friends to really draw him to Jesus. I knew Ryan hated Christians, so I thought he might relate well to what Mike said. I gave the CD to Amy the Bubbly Jesus-girl and asked her to pass it along to him – not to try and change his behavior, but to see if it might surface some deeper desires in his soul.
A few days later, Amy called. “Ryan wants to meet with you as soon as possible. He’s listened to the CD three times and he has all sorts of questions.” I knew that could mean two things: either Ryan was convicted by some of the stuff on the CD, or I was Genghis Khan again. Maybe both.
So, after putting my kids to bed that night, I rolled over to Starbucks. The three of us sat down at one of the incredibly small and useless tables – the one right in the middle of everything. I was extremely self-conscious. We were going to be using the words “Jesus” and “transsexuality” a lot, and that meant every other customer would be trying to eavesdrop on our conversation.
Every Sin is Idolatry
Ryan started the dialogue by making it clear that he utterly disagreed with everything on the CD. Mike’s statistics were wrong, he hadn’t done enough research on gay issues, maybe he was never truly gay anyway, and so on. Had I been trying to change Ryan’s behavior, I might have been more apt to defend Mike or to enter into a gay-apologetic debate. But none of those things mattered. At this point, I wasn’t trying to convince Ryan that his lifestyle was wrong. I was trying to surface some deeper issues in his heart.
“Okay, so there was lots of stuff that you disagreed with. Did you invite me here to argue about that stuff? Or did you invite me here to talk about some things that you’re really thinking about?” With those few questions, I changed the focus of the conversation.
In discipleship, we usually talk about the wrong things. We spend all sorts of time talking about petty sins and surface issues, when the real battle is going on in the heart. You can talk about behavior and external circumstances all day, but unless you drag some heart-idols out on the table, you’re just putting a Band-Aid on the problem. You can say it the way Jesus did: “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Or you can say it the way Tim Keller does: “The root of every sin is a breaking of the first commandment.” The real question is not what we’re doing, but what god we’re worshipping. That’s why what your disciples want is much more important than what they know.
As we talked, I discerned that Ryan’s dominant heart-idol was Pride. He wanted power, acceptance, love, control. He found these in his sexual identity. Before he accepted his transsexuality, he said he felt weak, unimportant, secretive. Now, he had an identity. He was socially powerful. When he dressed as a woman, he put others on the defensive. He could judge those who disagreed with his lifestyle as being bigoted, unloving, or intolerant. He was in control.
Our heart-idols set the trajectory for everything else. I could have spent countless hours talking about Ryan’s external behaviors. But now that I was beginning to see what he loved and worshipped, I could move the conversation in a direction that would address the disease and not the symptoms.
So how do you solve the problem of idolatry? Well, the gold-star Sunday School answer, of course, is to turn away from idols and turn to Christ. That is the ultimate goal: repentance and faith. But here’s the problem: we don’t worship idols because we’re ignorant or uninformed or bored. We worship idols because we LOVE them. We crave them. They are more important to us than life itself. I worship the idol of Control because I believe it will give me more than Jesus will. Ryan worships the idol of Pride – manifested in transsexual behavior – because it promises to provide what he needs and wants and craves. So sometimes dealing with our idols is not as easy as “repent and believe.” Sometimes it requires surfacing the deeper wants in our soul that will pull us toward God, if we will only let them.
Ryan began to talk with Amy the Bubbly Jesus-girl and me about some things on the CD that he did agree with. Mike had said that even during his gay years, he always wanted to be “normal” – to have a wife and kids and a house in the suburbs. Ryan desperately identified with that desire. He felt it would never be possible, because he was gay and transsexual. But deep down, the desire – the want – was there.
“Where do you think that desire comes from?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Can I offer a possible answer?”
“Understand that I’m going to talk about this from a biblical point of view, because that’s my world view.”
“Yeah, I know. Go on,” he invited.
“I think the fact that you desire to be married and have kids proves that God has implanted certain instincts deeply within your soul. If you were born gay, and if there was no God, it would make no sense for you to desire a wife and kids. The existence of that desire testifies to the fact that you are made in the image of God, like the Bible says, and that sexuality is a deeply wired, God-given part of your identity as a human being. That means that it’s possible for you to change.”
“No it’s not. I don’t want to change. I’m transsexual. I have been ever since I can remember.”
“Then why do you want a wife and kids and a house in the suburbs?” I queried.
“I honestly don’t know.”
“I think there’s more going on there than you’re willing to think about.”
Ryan sat in contemplation for a few moments. “What do you think it would take for me to change?” he questioned.
“I think you have a heart-idol called Pride that you are worshipping right now. You are your own God. It will take a work of God’s grace to change you. You’ll have to come to the point where you decide that Jesus is trustworthy, and you allow Him to reign in your heart instead of yourself. I realize that’s going to take some time.”
“Bob, let me tell you why I don’t trust Jesus…”
Bob Thune is the lead pastor of Coram Deo Church in Omaha, Nebraska. He planted Coram Deo in 2005 after prior stints as a megachurch college pastor and a Campus Crusade staff member. Bob is also the co-author of The Gospel-Centered Life, a gospel-driven small-group curriculum that has sold over 50,000 copies and helped Christians all over the world understand the centrality of the gospel in all of life.
Bob holds degrees from the University of Oklahoma and Reformed Theological Seminary. In addition to his work at Coram Deo, he serves the mission of God by coaching and training church planters through the Acts 29 Network and speaking at conferences and retreats. In his spare time, you can find him on the basketball court, in the coffee shop with a philosophy book in hand, on a date with his wife, or wrestling in the living room with his four kids. He takes great hope in the fact that though he is a great sinner, Christ is a great Savior.