In every church you will hear that the most important thing is discipleship. “Get discipleship right, and you get everything else right”, “Christians are disciples of Jesus” and so on. Is discipleship a trending buzzword or is it rooted in Scripture?
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “The Message of Discipleship: Authentic Followers of Jesus in Today’s World” by Peter Morden. 276 pages, published by Inter-Varsity Press UK in January 2019. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD8.99 and free in Logos until 15 November.
Peter Morden is the Senior Pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Leeds, England. He did his PhD on Charles Spurgeon, wrote a book on Charles Spurgeon, and worked at Spurgeon College, previously as the Vice-President and Director of Training, now Distinguished Visiting Scholar. Morden doesn’t only have Spurgeon in his mind, he also has Andrew Fuller, Baptist history and discipleship, which is the topic of today’s book.
Today’s book comes from that stable of utmost pedigree: the Bible Speaks Today series. The series editors are Alec Motyer, John Stott and Derek Tidball. I can easily recommend the Bible Speaks Today as your first commentary series. And before you buy the whole set, you would want a taster, for that I recommend any one written by John Stott. Or even today’s book by Peter Morden.
The series aims to:
- To expound the biblical text with accuracy
- To relate it to contemporary life, and
- To be readable.
While I have not read every book in the series, of the many I have read, they all achieve those three aims. And today’s book is no exception.
In the introduction, Morden starts by making the case for discipleship, what is it, why do we need to learn it and where do we start.
Morden lists four features of his book.
The first feature is a focus on Jesus. He writes:
Some studies on discipleship concentrate more on the life we are to lead than they do on the one we are to follow.
He later writes:
It stands to reason that if we are to follow Jesus closely we are going to need to look to him more than we look to ourselves. So, I have tried to give space in this book to contemplating Jesus, his character and his ways. This explains some parts of chapters which may — at first sight — seem to have little to do with discipleship. Their inclusion springs from a deep conviction: it is when we fix our eyes on Jesus that we grow most as disciples.
The second feature is “A Focus on the Gospel”.
The third, “A stress on whole-life discipleship”.
The fourth, “Grace and glory”.
These four features unify for the reader the key principles behind discipleship and they undergird every chapter here.
The book is structured as follows, I quote:
This book has three main parts. The first, which has four chapters, gives ‘foundational’ teaching for our journey of discipleship; the second, also four chapters, points us to the resources for that journey; the third, consisting of eight chapters, encourages us in the day-to-day practice of following Jesus. Finally, there is a chapter on finishing the race that is the life of discipleship.
Let’s jump into my reflection on the three parts.
Part 1: Foundations
What do you think is foundational to discipleship? And what would be the supporting verses?
What do you think is Morden’s answer to this question? I have already told you his answer. The foundation to discipleship is Jesus Christ.
In Part 1, there are four chapters, which are:
Chapter 1: Following the Crucified Lord (Mark 8:22-38)
Chapter 2: Following the Exalted Lord (Mark 9:1-13)
Chapter 3: Following the Missionary Lord (Mark 9:14-32)
Chapter 4: The Disciples Call (Isaiah 6)
I like how Morden does not assume that reader knows the Lord Jesus well enough and they just need to get on to some pointers to be a good disciple.
“I already know Jesus, I just need you to tell me what to do.”
No, no, no. Don’t go off in a rush. Morden brings the reader to the Gospel of Mark. Let us see what the Bible says about following Jesus. We don’t read about Morden’s discipleship journey, this is not a memoir disguised as a how-to book. We don’t learn how to grow one church to be a hundred. The foundation to discipleship is not your personal growth or even salvation or the great kingdom expansion, but the most basic, core, fundamental basis of discipleship is following the Lord. Let us not assume this is understood, let us stay here and Morden stays here for four chapters.
And what do you get here, I give you one example. Consider these verses, Mark 8:34–38.
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Taking that passage, Morden breaks it down. These are his five expositional points:
- The way of the cross is for all who want to follow
- The way of the cross means embracing the possibility of death
- The way of the cross requires complete consecration
- The way of the cross involves loss of rights
- The way of the cross is the way of life
Here, Morden quotes Richard France:
The metaphor of taking up one’s cross is not to be domesticated into an exhortation merely to endure hardship patiently.
And in the same quote, a bit later on:
While it may no doubt be legitimately applied to other and lesser contexts of suffering involved in following Jesus, the primary reference in context must be the possibility of literal death.
Morden does not smooth out the difficulty of discipleship. Yet, even as he stresses the glory of the cross, the radical nature of discipleship, as he elaborates later, Morden is also quick to stress the radical grace of discipleship. We need grace because despite our best efforts, we will fall.
If you paid attention, you will notice that the structure of his five point outline follows closely with the Bible passage. That is what Morden does for the whole book. He puts his nose to the Bible and he shoves our noses so close to the Bible that we can smell the ink off the pages.
Some readers may find this approach to be tiresome. I say to you, please for the sake of your soul, adapt yourself to this writing style. Let the Bible’s outline be your outline. Follow the contours of Scripture. Let its thoughts, be your thoughts. Not every book needs to be written in this way but when it comes to core beliefs, we need more Scripture not less.
Part 2: Resources
Let’s move to Part 2: Resources for Discipleship. If you could pick four resources for discipleship, what would you pick? What do you think every disciple needs in order to be a true disciple?
Let me tell you Morden’s pick and see how do you compare.
First, the Bible. I’m sure you picked that!
We also have here the Holy Spirit. “How dare we take the Third Person of the Trinity to be a resource!” Before anyone gets too uppity, all Morden means is disciples need to lean on the Holy Spirit. We cannot do discipleship without the Holy Spirit.
Fourth and lastly, Morden picks the church as an essential resource for discipleship.
Do you have anything else you would consider important? If you do, just keep it and we will come back to that before the episode ends. I’ll tell you where to put your idea.
Now that Morden has picked his four resources: Bible, Prayer, Holy Spirit and Church, what are the best supporting Bible verses? How can you demonstrate from Scripture that this is important for the disciple.
For the Bible, how about that verse… “All Scripture is God-breathed”? Good, good. It’s here. How about something from the Old Testament? Well… what about that super-long Psalm… where it goes on and on about the law, precepts, commands? Great. That’s Psalm 119 and Morden has got that down.
What about Prayer? What Bible verse would you pick to bring out prayer? That’s easy! The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-15. Yup, Morden has the chapter built on the Lord’s Prayer.
We are on a roll!
Third one. What about the Holy Spirit? Hmmm… would it something from the Gospel of John, that passage where Jesus tells the disciples about the Holy Spirit? Good choice but that’s not the one he uses. Morden picked Ephesians 5:15-20, “do not get drunk with wine but be filled with the Spirit” and 2 Timothy 1:6-7 to speak on the spiritual gifts. I would have picked 1 Cor 12-14 but Morden’s choices are just as good.
Lastly, the church. What verse would you pick? This is hard. You have lots to choose from and Morden picked Hebrews 10:11-25. Not the easiest verse to link to the church. It would have been easier to speak about the body of Christ (1 Cor 12), the bride of Christ (Eph 5, also in Revelations) or the living stones or the royal priesthood of all believers (1 Peter).
Why did I ask you about your choices?
Because I want you to see that you could have picked those topics and those Bible verses. And if you didn’t know anything about discipleship, if you called a friend, they would have told you something similar.
Then you could very well ask, “If I have the answers, why read this book?”
It is comforting to know that the answers are not new. As Christians we are not in the business of creating new products, we are in the business of the old rugged cross. We are literally doing things by the book, the good book.
What Morden offers is point by point clarity. He unpacks what Scripture says and if there is someone who can do it better, he lets them.
In the chapter on the Holy Spirit, Morden begins with these words:
If we are going to follow Jesus faithfully then we need God the Holy Spirit. Yet many disciples today do not pay sufficient attention to the Spirit, at least in practice. Jim Packer expresses powerfully what happens when we fail in this area.
Here is Packer’s quote. Packer here describes the consequences of neglecting the Holy Spirit:
You slip, he says, ‘back into orthodoxism and formalism’, getting stuck in a ‘religion of aspiration and perspiration without either inspiration or transformation, the religion of low expectations, deep ruts, and grooves that become graves’.
Morden loves this phrase because he brings it up a few more times in the chapter. I love it too so I am going to read it again.
religion of aspiration and perspiration without either inspiration or transformation, the religion of low expectations, deep ruts, and grooves that become graves.
Morden is clearly a man who likes a good turn of a phrase. And I am happy to be served his collection of quotes related to discipleship.
Part 3: Practices
After finishing Part 1: The Foundations of Discipleship and Part 2: Resources for Discipleship, we are now ready for Part 3: The Practices of Discipleship.
So let me ask for the final time, what would you like to include in practices of discipleship? Morden has included a variety of subjects including Love, Evangelism, Finance and Daily Work. And if you think he could have included more, Morden agrees! In the introduction he writes:
This is emphatically not ‘the complete book of discipleship’.
If he had more space, he would have included a chapter on the environment and a chapter on the home.
As Morden stated clearly, discipleship is a 360 thing. It’s not just about prayer with the family or worshipping on Sundays, discipleship touches every aspect of our lives so there are more topics than there are space in this book.
Among the eight topics Morden gives, I found one topic that stands out. It’s the chapter with the title, “Discipleship in the Dark”. It’s an exposition on Psalm 88.
If you can, you should read Psalm 88 now to see why it’s such a strange choice for a book on discipleship. It starts in despair and it ends… well… listen to how Psalm 88 ends.
But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together. You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.
It ends with darkness.
Let me read at length Morden’s explanation:
The psalm is, in fact, extremely bleak—from beginning to end. Taken at face value, there is little obvious hope. This is the reality—the bleak reality—of Psalm 88.
So, why expound it in a book on discipleship? In fact, I have a feeling that a detailed consideration of Psalm 88 in a book on Christian discipleship may be a first! Why do it? It is a fair question. The psalm seems at first sight irrelevant—no explicit mention of Christ, no explicit mention of discipleship, no mention of community, no mention of disciple-making mission.
And yet … As I have preached on this psalm and talked to Christian disciples about it, I have found it resonates with many. Yes, Psalm 88 is a bleak psalm and yet this is one of the very reasons it is a fine psalm and a vitally important part of God’s word for followers of Jesus. It relates especially to the times on our journeys of discipleship which are incredibly tough. The darkness closes in and we feel utterly alone. God himself feels distant and seems deaf to our prayers. Many fine believers have experienced such a time, memorably described by John of the Cross as a ‘dark night of the soul’. For all who find themselves in such darkness, this psalm speaks both to us and for us. It is a vital resource for all who want to live under the lordship of Jesus, the suffering servant who said, ‘Take up your cross daily and follow me’.
I was so impressed by what he wrote that I read it that night with my family before we went to bed.
And I asked them, where do you bring your sadness? Many go to alcohol, to girls (and the children giggle here), or go to movies and games, but where does the Psalmist go to? Or to who does he go to? He goes to God.
If we are to judge any book by any measure, it should be by how the book makes you read the Bible. How it makes you take the Word of God seriously. And by that measure, this is a wonderful book.
Here are my final thoughts. I finished this book in nearly one seating.
The book has the right focus: Jesus and the Gospels. It has the right approach: Just unapologetically expound the Bible. It has the right tone: Humble and helpful.
If I could, I wish this to be the first book on discipleship for every Christian. But for many it wouldn’t be because even though this book is easy to read, some prefer a book that stands alone and doesn’t trace through Scripture. And that is a pity.
If it’s not going to be your first book, then make it your main book. Let this book be the framework for you to hang your thoughts on discipleship.
What do I mean by that?
Remember how I kept asking you for your thoughts on what you would include in the book? What you thought were important?
Well, you could follow the outline of today’s book. Part 1: Foundation of Discipleship, Part 2: Resources, Part 3: Practices, and whenever you have deepening or broadening thoughts, you can put that thought into the way Morden has structure the whole thing.
I dare not say that this is the definitive book on discipleship, but I would say that it’s very difficult to go wrong with this book. It would guard you from many excesses, like putting a practice, for example evangelism, to make it the foundation for discipleship. The foundation is following Jesus.
It’s not flashy. It doesn’t promise a way to a million disciples. It just promises to let the Bible speak on Discipleship today.
This is a Reading and Reader’s review of “The Message of Discipleship: Authentic Followers of Jesus in Today’s World” by Peter Morden. 276 pages, published by Inter-Varsity Press UK in January 2019. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD8.99 and free in Logos until 15 November.
I just want to point out something that has happened at Logos for a while now. I used to review the free books from Faithlife. Well, they have moved the free books from Faithlife and renamed it to be free ebooks in Logos. That’s not all.
It used to be that there is one free book for the month. Now, the offer is a free book for two weeks, then they give another free book for another two weeks. So that is great news. More good books for free!
However, it is hard to read and review a book within two weeks. Unless the books is so readable like today’s one. Since I don’t intend to break myself to read and review a book in two weeks, I will just tell you that Logos has a free book. And you should get it since it’s free. Whether you read it or not, is one thing. But I hope my reviews will help you make the decision to read it or not.
Thanks for listening. Bye bye.