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 installment here.

The trouble is that we don’t really believe that the gospel matters for Christians. We only think of the gospel in the context of evangelism. We view the gospel as the ABC’s of Christianity, the starting point, the thing nonbelievers need to hear, the door you walk through to get “in.” Once you’re in, of course, then you move beyond the gospel to biblical principles and quiet times and religious books and worship CDs.

Ryan was pretty sure that we were “in” and he was “out.” He knew that in the eyes of the average Christian, he was a really bad guy—a transsexual, of all things! So Ryan consistently steered the conversation toward his lifestyle, the thing that seemed to keep him “out” in the eyes of most Christians. He had been to the gay church in town, and they told him that his lifestyle didn’t matter. On the surface, he was fishing for me to say something similar: “It’s okay to be transsexual, you can still follow Jesus.” But underneath, I sensed a much more powerful question in play: “Am I more broken, more sinful, more hopeless than you?”

So I moved the conversation away from Ryan’s lifestyle and toward the common brokenness and rebellion of all of humanity. I told him the real issue wasn’t his gender confusion. It was his sin. He wanted to hear that he was worse than the guy next door. I told him that he wasn’t. I took out my Bible and made him read out loud some of the famous verses about sin. I focused on the fact that all have sinned, that all have turned away from God, that everyone needs to be reconciled to their Creator. Our external sins may be different, but our hearts are all the same. Then I took it a step further: I told him about my own sin.

“Ryan, do you want to know about me? I am a control freak. I like to have everything under my power. I like to put myself in the place of God and manage the outcomes. I am rude and harsh toward my wife and kids. I am judgmental when people don’t live up to my standards. I fail to love people the way Jesus does. I love people on my terms, the way I think they deserve to be loved, based on my criteria. I am uncaring and critical and resentful toward those who don’t see things my way. I bow down and sell my soul every day to the idol of Control. Ryan, I am a sinner, and Jesus is my only hope.”

Suddenly, Ryan began to soften. The conversation turned a corner. He fell to his knees and, through his tears, trusted in Jesus right there in the middle of the coffee shop. (Actually, he didn’t. But that’s the ending you were hoping for, isn’t it? Stop it already!) The conversation did turn a corner, because Ryan finally began to realize that his lifestyle was a secondary issue. Here I was, a happily married heterosexual pastor, telling him that my heart was as dirty and sinful and broken as his. The only difference was that I was trusting in Jesus to make me right with God and transform my heart, and he wasn’t.

We are good at telling non-Christians they need Jesus. No wise Christian would look at Ryan and say, “Change your lifestyle first, and then we can work on your heart.” We know that deep inner change must come first; “make the tree good, and its fruit [will be] good” (Matt. 12:33). So why don’t we think the same way when it comes to discipleship?

The gospel is not the ABC’s of Christianity; it is the A to Z of Christianity. When we forget the gospel, we cheat our disciples. We give the impression that being a follower of Jesus means becoming less broken, less sinful, less hopeless. So we create a caste-system-Christianity: there are the really broken people (unbelievers), the pretty broken people (young believers), and the people who have learned to pretend they’re not broken (mature believers).

Not only is this blatantly unbiblical, it is contrary to common sense. Jesus said that those who are forgiven much will love much (Luke 7:47). The mature Christians are not those who are less broken, but those who realize the depth of their brokenness and are clinging all the more tightly to Jesus.

To test this truth, just ask yourself how my conversation with Ryan would have differed if I had said, “Yeah, you’re really messed up. But the good news is, if you trust in Jesus, you can be as good as me.” You might be smart enough (or politically correct enough) not to say this to a transsexual. But unless your discipleship efforts are rooted in the gospel, it’s exactly what you’re saying to the people you’re leading.