Following the Master: Discipleship in the Steps of Jesus. By Michael J. Wilkins. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992. 400 pp. Paper, $14.95.
Wilkins, Associate Professor of NT Language and Literature at the Talbot School of Theology (Biola University), has written a substantial book on discipleship. It is refreshing to find such a biblical approach in a sea of popularly written practical books which never clearly establish the meaning of a disciple. That Wilkins has approached the subject biblically and has tried to define the exact meaning of disciple and discipleship is highly commendable, though I disagree with his final understanding.
The book has many strengths. It is thorough, tracing the concept of discipleship from the OT to the church fathers. It is biblical, analytical, and scholarly, yet easy to read and integrated with personal illustrations. Wilkins did his master’s and doctoral theses on this subject. I would venture to say that he has established himself as a premier authority on the biblical understanding of discipleship. Especially helpful are his background studies on the concept of discipleship in NT times, his comprehensive bibliography, and his development of Peter as a representative disciple for all believers. Wilkins is not writing polemically, but instructively. The reader will enjoy his friendly, personable style.
Unfortunately, Wilkins’s work is fundamentally marred because he confuses discipleship with salvation. To him, every Christian is a disciple who is following Christ. He never adequately addresses what we find in real life and in the Bible-the reality of those who are Christians and who do not continue to follow Christ. Nor does he adequately address biblical examples of those who are already Christians whom Christ continually calls to follow (such as Peter).
Early in the book Wilkins criticizes the “non-Lordship salvation” (Free Grace) view of discipleship (citing Zane Hodges) because it separates the issues of entrance into salvation and entrance into discipleship. He then criticizes the Lordship Salvation position because it takes Jesus’ conditions of discipleship (e.g., “hating” one’s family, counting the cost, etc.) and makes them conditions of salvation in a way that is confusing, because the conditions are not explained carefully and could imply a works salvation (p. 45). Later, Wilkins takes these same conditions and softens them, but the result is that his position is essentially the same as Lordship Salvation teachers (what someone has called “a soft Lordship position”). For example, “count the cost” means “to recognize that one entered into the life of discipleship through detachment from competing allegiances and through giving personal allegiance to Jesus as Master” (p. 211). His view of discipleship is seen in these words: “Luke reveals to us that self-denial, taking up the cross, and following Jesus not only characterize entrance into the Way but also characterize life on the Way” (p. 218).
Though he shows sensitivity to the fact that commitments such as these could encroach upon the doctrine of salvation by grace, he never resolves the conflict except to recategorize these conditions as “faith conditions” not “work conditions” (p. 183). But he misses the point that whatever they are called, the real issue is that they merit salvation, and therefore necessarily exclude grace (Rom 4:4–5).
This is an unfortunate flaw in an otherwise excellent study. However, the book is well worth owning, because it provides much other helpful information. The reader will enjoy a comprehensive biblical study. It is must reading for those interested in the biblical concept of discipleship.
Charles C. Bing
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Pastor, Burleson Bible Church