Josh Howerton: The Discipleship Interview

Today I continue my 2013 Discipleship Interview Series with Josh Howerton, the lead pastor at The Bridge Church in Spring Hill, Tennessee.


howertonDiscipleship is such a broad term, often a junk-drawer term that has been used to describe many things. How do you define it?

Until very recently, I don’t think think people have realized how crucial it is to form a clear, Biblical response to this question, so I love it! Our thoughts about “discipleship” are built wholly upon our understanding of sanctification, as discipleship is the “hands-on” sanctification process. Simply put, sanctification is the process of our “practice” catching up to our “position”. Before a person is a Christian, they are unrighteous in both their position before God and their practice in life. When a Christian is glorified in future resurrection, they will be righteous in both their position before God and their practice in (new) life. However, when someone is a living Christian, their position and practice are different; they are positionally righteous, but practically unrighteous and still a sinner. Sanctification is the process of their practice catching up to their position. Discipleship is the hands-on process of helping a Christian be transformed into Christ’s righteousness practically as a response to receiving the imputed righteousness of Christ they have positionally.

How do you articulate the holy tension in God’s role in transformation and the believer’s role?

There’s a fascinating set of paradoxical statements that pepper the New Testament and brazenly hold forth this tension. Two of my favorites are…

  • Philippians 2:12. “Therefore, my beloved as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence, but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
  • Hebrews 4:9-11. “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”

A couple thoughts…

  1. First, it’s critical that we embrace living in this tension. If someone either adopts an “if it’s gonna be, it’s up to me” approach to discipleship on the one hand, or adopts a Keswick, “let go and let God” approach to discipleship on the other hand, they’re A) missing the Biblical tension, and B) going to be stunted and ineffective in their discipleship.
  2. These two passages give us insight into the shape of the tension. The first shows that we “work out what God has worked in” as many have said before me. We respond to the inner working of the Spirit by “outer working” of discipline and obedience. The second – which is my favorite – shows that discipleship is a “striving to enter rest”. It is the blood, sweat, and tears work of getting our hearts to rest in the “it-is-finished-ness” of the gospel in such a way that our hearts fall under its spell. As Scotty Smith has said better than me, when the lyrics of the gospel become a song in our hearts, our feet dance the dance of holy obedience. Paradoxically, we must strive to enter that rest.

Who has been influential to you in forming your view of discipleship?

In the words of my friend and mentor, Ray Ortlund, there’s somewhat of a “Gospel Renaissance” afoot these days that I’ve personally been heavily influenced by. This, in turn, has helped bring me to a (oh-so-joyously liberating) understanding of the role of the gospel in discipleship. That being said, some of the guys who have influenced me the most have been Ray Ortlund and his son Dane, Tullian Tchividjian, John Piper, Scotty Smith, JD Greear, Matt Chandler, John Owen (especially his ‘Mortification of Sin in the Believer’), Martin Lloyd-Jones.

What has changed, for good and bad, in the practice or methods of discipleship in recent years?

Since the gospel itself *is* the power of God, this a Biblical, unifying, powerful practice of discipleship that’s currently resurgent. To see extremely practical and thoughtful application of the good news to the life of a Christian being teased out to tremendous effect right now makes me giddy. That’s a change from when I was a high school and college student, and it’s decidedly a change for the good. My fear for this “gospel recovery” is that the “resting” is being emphasized to the exclusion of the “striving” and the “work out with fear and trembling” is getting lost in the emphasis on “look what God has worked in”. We need practical, blood-earnest men who are teaching others to live aggressive lives in light of the “kill or be killed” message of the Bible with respect to sin.

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