Editors’ note: 

This week, Bob Thune explores how the gospel drives discipleship from beginning to end by sharing his experience working with a friend, Ryan, who identifies as a transsexual. Read the first, second, third, and fourth installments.

By this point you may be thinking that all this gospel stuff is pretty abstract. It’s not about doing, but believing; it’s not about surface sins, but heart idols. When do we get to the tangible, practical, applicable stuff?

I’m trying to convince you that heart idols and belief are the practical things. They may not lead to easy assignments like, “Read your Bible more” or “Get into community.” But when you start allowing your discipleship efforts to revolve around the gospel, you will see profound change, because the gospel changes everything.

Ryan began to tell me all the reasons he didn’t trust Jesus. And they all came back to one common denominator: He didn’t trust Christians. He told me how he had been rejected by the students, even the youth pastor, in a large evangelical youth group because he was small and frail and not “manly” enough. He told me about the pastor who told him matter-of-factly that all transsexuals would go to hell, and the other minister who insisted that his transsexuality was demonic and required an exorcism.

But these painful memories paled in comparison to the rejection he felt from his family. His mother and stepfather were both professing Christians. When Ryan had begun to live an active transsexual lifestyle, they had cut off their support and affirmation. From their point of view, it was a tough-love measure, a “love the sinner, hate the sin” sort of approach. But to a sexually broken young man who had been rebuffed by Christians his whole life, it was yet another evidence of Christian hypocrisy. As Ryan spoke about his parents, his whole body seethed with visible rage.

So we talked for a long time about the pervasiveness of sin, and how Christians often fail to live by their own moral standards. And I talked about Jesus a lot, and how Jesus loved to hang out with whores and cheaters and social outcasts. I was trying to get Ryan to see that he could trust Jesus even though he had a hard time trusting Christians. I reminded him that he trusted Amy and me. And I talked about how he needed to forgive his parents, because otherwise he was only rejecting them the same way they had rejected him.

I was utterly unprepared for what came next. “If I asked you to do something for me, would you do it?” Ryan asked.

Now, when you’re talking to a transsexual, you naturally get a little uncomfortable with that sort of question. But since I had just been preaching to him about trust, I had to give him the benefit of the doubt. So I said, “Sure . . . anything.”

“Would you call my mom and ask her to come here?”

“Here? You mean Starbucks?”

“No, I mean Omaha. She’s never been here. I’ve asked her to come here again and again, but she won’t. She thinks it would be ‘validating my lifestyle’ for her to come here. But I just want to see her. I think we have a lot to talk about . . . a lot of anger and pain to sort out.”

“So let me get this straight,” I asked. “You want me to call your mom, whom I’ve never met, and ask her to fly to Omaha to see you?”

“Yes! Bob, listen . . . you’re a pastor. She’ll trust you. You can speak her language. She thinks I’m a depraved sex addict. But she’ll listen to you. Bob, you’re my friend. Get her to come here.”

For a moment, I felt time slow down, like in the movies. “You’re my friend.” I couldn’t escape the magnitude of that statement. Ryan was asking for my help in overcoming the one issue that clouded the gospel more than anything else in his life: his broken relationship with his family. Ryan was beginning to want to trust in Jesus. But he would never trust Jesus if he couldn’t forgive his mom. And he would never trust Jesus if he couldn’t trust me.

So I grabbed a napkin and a pen and wrote down his mom’s phone number.

Not Just You and Jesus

Somewhere along the line, we have individualized the gospel. We said it was just about “you and Jesus.” We forgot that the gospel doesn’t just change eternal destinies; it changes everything. The gospel transforms societies, renews families, and heals relationships. That’s why Jesus called it “the gospel of the kingdom” (Luke 16:16). The gospel is all about the rule and reign of Jesus. And where Jesus is rightly honored as Lord, there is more than just personal salvation; there is redemptive action! The gospel is holistic. For me to say that I cared about Ryan’s soul without caring about his relationship with his family would be the pinnacle of hypocrisy. The answer wasn’t, “Get saved and then we’ll deal with your family relationships.” The answer was, “God wants to heal the wounds in your family. He is a redemptive God.”

Now ask yourself: How often do you connect your disciples’ life struggles to the gospel? If Ryan were a Christian, we’d probably say: “Read this book on how to honor your father and mother,” or, “Do this Bible study on forgiveness,” or, “Just keep walking with Jesus and things will work out.” But gospel-centered discipleship asks these questions: How does the gospel need to be expressed in this situation? Or: What heart sin is at the root of the problem? Or: What gospel truth is not being believed or lived out?

This is what distinguishes biblical Christianity from pop psychology. Any pagan psychologist can say, “Control your anger; forgive each other; treat others with respect.” But what is it that gives the power to love or to forgive or to respect others? It’s the gospel! And what is it that keeps us from doing these things? It’s our unbelief, our lack of trust in God, our heart idols. In Ryan’s case, I knew two things: His own idols of control and selfishness were preventing him from loving his parents, and his parents had some heart idols of their own that kept them from really loving Ryan like Jesus would. So getting Ryan’s mom to fly to Omaha was more than a friendly favor; it was gospel-centered redemptive action. It was living the gospel in a real, tangible way. It was what Jesus would do.

So I found myself engaged in the most awkward phone conversation I’ve ever had in my life. “Hi, my name is Bob, and I’m calling from Omaha. I’m a friend of Ryan’s. Well, not that kind of friend. Actually, I’m his pastor. Well, technically he’s never been to our church. But he’s a friend of a friend, and now he’s my friend. Is any of this making sense?”

“Is everything okay with Ryan?”

“Yes, why?”

“Because the only reason I can think of for a pastor to call me from Omaha is that something bad has happened.”

“No, no . . . actually something very good is happening.”

The Gospel Frees You to Risk

What is it that keeps us from this sort of gospel-centered redemptive action? It’s a lack of belief in the gospel. When we really believe that God is for us, we don’t fear rejection by friends, family, and peers. We’re no longer living for their approval; we already have God’s approval. It’s what Paul was talking about when he said, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31) The gospel is what enables us to love dangerously, the way Jesus did. And dangerous love is what spurs effective evangelism, social justice, community, mission, and reconciliation.

Ryan’s parents did come to town a couple weeks later, and it was a great visit. They took the risk of acknowledging their sin and asking Ryan’s forgiveness—regardless of his lifestyle. And Ryan took the risk of beginning to forgive them. Their visit didn’t solve all the problems or erase all the hurt. But it was a starting point. And Ryan was right: Working through things with his parents helped to remove some of his animosity toward God.

Up until this point, Ryan had only set foot in our church one time. It happened to be the night we were discussing biblical manhood and womanhood, which was either a really bad coincidence or a divine comedy. Could there be any topic more awkward for a man who thinks he’s really a woman? What’s worse, we had actually split up into two groups that night, men and women. Ryan had come up to me, grinning, and asked which group I wanted him to go to. I told him he should go to the men’s group, but he only lasted a couple of minutes. He ended up sitting in the back of the women’s group while all the girls glanced uncomfortably at him. I was pretty sure he’d never be back. But on the weekend of his parents’ visit, they all showed up to our worship service together.

A few weeks later, Ryan and I went out for a steak dinner at one of the finest restaurants in town. It was his way of thanking me for setting up his parents’ visit. If I thought about it too much, it was slightly awkward: I, a married minister, was basically on a date with a cross-dressing transsexual. But my wife was okay with it, and after all, the Bible talks about being “all things to all people.” Besides, it was fun to watch our waiter try to figure out what was going on.

Ryan hasn’t yet trusted in Jesus. But I dare say he knows the gospel better than many Christians. He knows that he’s a broken person—but not any more broken than the guy next door. He knows that the idols of Selfishness and Control dominate the landscape of his heart. He knows that Jesus can change everything, including his own desires, if he’ll humble himself and surrender. And he knows that being a disciple of Jesus isn’t about just getting out of hell or being sexually healthy. It’s about the pursuit of a redemptive God who offers a whole new kind of life.

The gospel doesn’t just make you right with God; it frees you to delight in God. So saturate your discipleship in the gospel. Because you’re a sinner (and so are your disciples). And Jesus is your only hope.