I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how local churches can best create contexts in which God’s truth is more likely, not just to be clear, but become “real” for people (for more on this concept, see my feeble post here, listen to Tim Keller’s fantastic lecture series Preaching to the Heart, or read Jared Wilson’s wonderful book Gospel Wakefulness). We cannot, nor should we try to force people to change. And yet, I do believe that Christianity is most powerful outside of the institution. By this, I don’t mean that local churches should have no structure. I simply mean that, to a large degree in the West, Christianity has become institutionalized.
We have largely helped people in the segmentation of their lives. We have encouraged them to abandon their “non-Christian” friends to enter into the “Christian” world. We have replaced their movies. We have replaced their music. We have replaced their friends. This, of course, has been done in order to protect Christians from “being pulled down.” Because, as we all know, it is much easier to pull someone off a ladder than it is to pull someone up onto the top of a ladder.
The result, of course, has been that many Christians have isolated themselves from those who don’t (yet) believe. We encourage our unbelieving neighbors to join us in the sports league at the local mega-church and we ask those who don’t (yet) believe to cross cultural barriers that we ourselves are not willing to cross. All the while, we forget how much we love to sing “Jesus, What A Friend Of Sinners,” without really wanting to live like Jesus lived.
I should have mentioned at the beginning that, alongside my thinking about making the Gospel “not just clear but real,” I have been thinking about the idea of discipleship in light of Matthew 28:18-20, which has become known as “The Great Commission:”
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
The more I think about these verses and its implications, the more I have come to personally distinguish between “disciples” and “discipleship.” In his fascinating book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard describes a “disciple” as:
A disciple or apprentice, then, is simply someone who has decided to be with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is.
I think (but please help me understand if I’m wrong), that we can safely distinguish between the process we have come to know as “discipleship” and someone who is actually a “disciples.” Let me explain. Based on Willard’s explanation, coupled with the “Great Commission,” I understand a “disciple” to be someone who has actively decided to follow in Jesus’ ways and strive to become more like Him.
“Discipleship,” however, I understand, to be the process teaching people to “observe” or “practice” all that Jesus commanded, so that we can baptize them “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit” in the promise and strength that, not only has “all authority in heaven and on earth” ben given to Jesus, but that He is with us, “always, to the end of the age.”
But, let me further explain. As I understand it, “discipleship” applies to both those who have made the decision to become “disciples,” but those who haven’t. And, to add to the mix, “discipleship” is not just about modifying people’s behavior. Because, let’s be honest: we can tweak people’s emotions and we can scare people into certain decisions, but, in our own strength, and in our own ways, we can never really change people’s hearts. That’s up to God and God alone.
So, what are some of the things that Jesus has commanded people to obey? Think about Matthew 16:24-28:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “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 will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
Here, Jesus basically says that we should love God so much that the rest of life is simply rubbish to us (a sentiment the Apostle Paul expressed years later). We love God so much that we’re living to give up the rest of life in order to follow Him. Or, when asked what the greatest commandment is/was, what was Jesus’ response, was, if I may summarize, “Love God and Love Others” (Matthew 22:36-40). Or, what about the time when Jesus said that it was by our love for one another (not our political affiliations or the “family friendly” radio we listen to or the movies we watch or don’t watch, or the neighborhood we live in, or the car we drive, or the church we “go to” or drinks we do or don’t drink) that the world would know that we are His (John 13:35)?
Here’s the thing: “discipling” those who profess to follow Jesus and those that don’t often boils down to the same thing: getting people to realize that they can’t possibly meet God’s standards on their own. They need Jesus. They need His perfect, Spirit-dependent, Law-abiding, God-loving, perfectly dependent, God-glorifying, joyfully obedient because it flows from Worship of the Almighty who created Heaven and Earth life. What Jesus did, we need but could never do. What Jesus is, we should be but don’t want to be. We have loved other things. We have pursued other loves. We have bowed down to the altar of _____________ when all that said “god” represents is only found in the One true, Creator God who somehow exists in Three Persons in One Being and demands our worship because it is good, right and perfect.
So, as I meet and talk and live life with my Christian friends, we are continually finding the myriad of ways in which we fail to meet God’s standards. And we are so thankful that Jesus has d0ne what we do not and could not and, frankly, do not want to do: glorify God in utter dependence with every breath. We learn to show one another how utterly dependent on Jesu we truly are and how utterly beautiful His life of perfect obedience not only was, but is for my everyday.
And, as I talk and live with my friends who do not yet belong to Jesus, my home becomes an example of my worship/joy-fueled pursuit of the Perfect Model, Sacrifice and Intercessor. They will begin to witness the way I lay down my own life for my wife’s best interests and, in response, she joyfully yields herself to my lead. They will witness how we sacrifice our time, our money, our resources for the sake of others. And we will continually seek opportunities to tell them that it is only because we have come to know the depths of how much God has first loved us by giving His only Son (1 John 4:8-12) so that we may have everlasting life (John 3:16).
In other words, as I see it, the point of “discipleship” is to get those who already believe and those who don’t to get to the point where they throw there hands up and say “I have no hope other than Jesus.” The point of “discipleship” is always to get people to the Gospel, to get them as close to hugging that bloody, splintery Cross as possible.
For some, this will result in belief and new life and following Jesus through earthly death unto eternal life. For others, this will result in eternal judgment from God. At some point, everyone, everywhere, at every time, must decide what to do with Jesus. He is the the one inescapable historical figure who everyone must deal with. After all, He claimed to be God and that makes Him either a “liar, a lunatic” or a truth-teller, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis.
So as I understand it, though a “disciple” is someone who has been spiritually raised from the dead (Ephesians 2) and has committed themselves to Jesus and the glory of God in all things, “discipleship” is the point of getting people to the point of realizing that they have no hope before God other than Jesus. So, “discipleship” applies both to “disciples” and not-yet discipels, since the Gospel is the hope for both.
I hope you’re tracking with me and I’m not sure I’m communicating my point here well, but what I’m trying to say is that I understand “discipleship” as something that applies to both “Believers” and “Non-Believers” (to use more traditional Evangelical terms) because the point of discipleship is never just behavior modification but heart modification which comes only through contact with God which comes only through the Spirit leading us through contact/confrontation with Jesus and His Work at the Cross.
As we bring everyone into contact with what is expected of them by God (Matthew 5:48, etc.), which is nothing less than perfection, we all begin to realize that the only way we can meet such expectations is by a perfect substitute inserting themselves between us and God, which is exactly what Jesus has done. So, the idea of “discipleship” means bringing a professed “disciple” through, not only the initial changes that come at salvation (I used to smoke/drink/think about that and now I don’t) but the heat issues behind the sins (I now realize that I smoked/drank/thought about that because I was looking for _____) and it also means bringing someone who does not yet follow Jesus to a point of crisis, whether it means they realize they can’t possibly do it on their own or they don’t want to curtail their “freedom” to follow Jesus.
So the point of “discipleship,” as I’m beginning to understand it, is to always make someone a better disciple of Jesus, no matter where they’re at on the continuum; to always bring them closer to fuller belief (while realizing that there will be some who simply never cross over the full threshold of belief, which, ultimately, is God’s business, not ours) and full discipleship. It is always meant to bring us to the point of brokenness (the intersection of “law/gospel”), where we realize that we can’t possibly meet God’s standards without Jesus.
What are your thoughts? Am I right in distinguishing form “disciples” and “discipleship”? Is the point always to bring us (as Sovereign Grace Ministries has taught me to sing}, “Deeper Into The Glories of Calvary”? Am I right in understanding the process of discipleship to begin even with those who don’t (yet) believe in helping them to confront Jesus’ expectations and guiding them to the realization that they will never meet such standards on their own? Am I right in understanding that the ongoing process for those who have already professed allegiance to Jesus is the same?
By the way, iff you wonder why the image for this post is based on Franz Kafka‘s brilliant short story “The Metamorphosis,” please read it if you haven’t and then e-mail me if you still have questions. Or, if you have read it and don’t like my associations, also please e-mail me. Otherwise, please