The Heart Of It All (Part 9): The Call To Discipleship & Life In The Kingdom
Christian claim #9: “He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end.”
“When Christ bids a man, he bids him come and die.” The man who penned these words, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was a preacher in Germany during the years of Adolf Hitler. He took the calling of Christ seriously, and was executed because of it. And in this quote, Bonhoeffer challenges us to consider the high calling of discipleship.
Salvation has multiple dimensions; sadly, we often reduce the discussion to just one dimension. We tend to talk primarily about what we were saved from.
Salvation by God’s grace, through the faithful act of Christ, rescues us from the consequences of sin. We are saved from a life of futile darkness with no hope.
But to get the full picture, we need to think about what we were saved for. The Apostle Paul informs us of this exciting aspect when he reminds us that we were “rescued from the dominon of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son He loves” (Col 1:13). We left one kind of life…to walk in another. Throughout the New Testament, Christians are reminded that “since” we have left the country of sin, and entered the country of grace, we are called to live a new kind of life. We were set free from our evil desires and the mastery of the evil one; but we were not left to our devices: we are now under the Lordship of Christ, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the commandments of God.
Anything else, says Bonhoeffer, is “cheap grace.” Reminding us that “grace is free, but it is never cheap,” Bonhoeffer rightly says that the grace of God–which saved us from ourselves–is costly; it cost the life of God’s son, and it demands our full transformation.
Cheap grace is the moral enemy of the church… Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without the confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.
It is good, when first introduced to the gospel, to hear that the cross is the place where God did what no one could do for themselves. The cross represents Divine intercession, where Christ died in my place. But there is another, deeper dimension to consider: the cross becomes my calling as well, my pattern for living. Jesus’ words to his followers include the demand that “if any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
In other words, we are called to die. To be a Christian is not to have a gold-edged Bible on the shelf, Thomas Kinkade pictures around the house, or attending church fellowship meals. To be a Christian means to have a living, loving, serving-type of relationship with Jesus Christ. To participate in his life, death, and resurrection. To live out the story of Christ in our very lives. To accept the challenge and call to be in our world what Jesus was for his world. In short, to be a Christian–a Christ-like Christ follower–is to be a disciple.
The New Testament uses the term “Christian” only a handful of times; but the people who chose to follow the life and teachings of Jesus are called “disciples” almost 300 times! A disciple is a follower, a learner, a practitioner. A disciple follows in the footsteps of her master…and our master went to the cross.
As Dallas Willard writes,
The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples – students, apprentices, practitioners – of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.
It is important to remind ourselves that discipleship is not optional. When Jesus calls us to take up our cross, he is not primarily talking about attending church 3-times a week, going to all your Care Group meetings, and having bible studies with your neighbors on Thursday nights. It can include those things. If your heart is so hard that you refuse to take part in devoted service it may require those things. But Jesus is moving beyond a checklist of duties, and describing an attitude of the heart that characterizes a new kind of person. At its heart, this verse is basically saying “the Christian life is not about you. It involves service and sacrifice. It means letting Jesus take control; let him tell you what to think, what to do, and where to go.” Ask yourself: “Do I constantly focus on my own will, or do I constantly try to do God’s will…wherever it may lead?”When Christ bids a man, he bids him come and die. tell the world
The second thing to know about discipleship is that it is not temporary. Discipleship lasts the rest of your life…and into eternity. Following Jesus is not something you do 1 day a week, or simply 9 to 5. We are not called to “turn on” our lights while we are outside, but then “turn off” our light when we come home. No. We are called to be disciples at work, at home, when we are driving on the road, when we are playing tennis, when we hear good news, and when we hear the most distressing news. We are called to always act as Jesus’ representatives wherever we do, and whatever we do. “Whatever you do in word or deed,” writes Paul, “do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17).
The third thing to know about discipleship is that it involves discipline…and disciplines. There have been two extremes in Christian history on this subject, and it is important to find the right balance. On the one hand, some have defined Christianity as a system of rules, whereby one can fill out a “checklist” in service to the Master. This approach can lead to a view of discipleship as nothing more than will-power, a “touch not, taste not, handle not” religion masquerading as Christianity. Paul tells us that thinking of Christianity as a checklist religion is spiritless, lifeless, and pointless. There is no “checklist” to make sure we have done our “discipling” for the day, the week, the month, or the year. Whatever list you make, it won’t be long enough to cover everything God desires, and it won’t be comprehensive enough to cover God’s perspective. Besides, we are not serving as disciples in order to earn God’s favor, or make him love us. He loved us first, and chose us before we had anything to offer. For all these reasons, discipleship should never be reduced to a list of rules or actions or duties that give us a reason to assume we have earned our pardon or filled out a prescription for salvation.
On the other hand, God calls us to become brand new people; filled with a new Spirit (the spirit of God), modeled after the life of Christ, we are called to be transformed in every way–so that we desire and do the will of God. In the last two chapters of Galatians, Paul repeatedly warns his readers that those who live according to their fleshly desires (that is, those who live as if they never transferred their loyalty from self to the Savior) will not inherit the kingdom of God. Our habits determine our behavior, and our behavior reveals our heart. For these reasons, Christians desire healthy habits that reflect a change in character. As people of gratitude, we offer our lives as service to God, giving up every part of ourselves to His holy and precious will. To counter the deadly habits of selfishness, vice, pride, wrath, and envy, Christians are called to practice spiritual disciplines. These can include such things as prayer, meditation, service, worship, sacrifice, and giving. To those who conceive of the disciplines as “works righteousness,” Greg McKinzie offers these wise and challenging words:
I want to ask what happens to our understanding of the disciplines when we step onto a different theological foundation than fear of works righteousness. What happens when the story of God’s mission is our theological foundation, and that story includes a significant plot line about our capacity and responsibility to collaborate, not so that we may attain inner righteousness or merely be blessed but so that we may do justice and become a blessing–so that we may become conduits of grace rather than receptacles?
The last thing to know about discipleship is that it is progressive. Growth takes time, and God’s Spirit works within us to make us more and more able to serve Him. In John chapter 15, Jesus reminds his disciples that every branch which produces fruit, the Father prunes, so that it will produce more fruit. Don’t be discouraged at your “level” of discipleship in comparison with others. Give God your whole heart, and watch him grow your heart 3 sizes it’s present shape!
In summary, we are called to die to ourselves and participate in the life of Christ as new, resurrected people. Led by His Spirit. Walking in His ways. Called to a new life. When we gather as an assembled people, when we take of the bread and cup, when we pledge our loyalty and allegiance to Jesus as Jesus people, we acknowledge that we are, in fact, new people. Let N. T. Wright’s words challenge you today:
When we celebrate Jesus’ meal we aren’t just whistling in the dark. Bread and wine are taken up in the Eucharist into God’s future purposes, and become to us vehicles through which we can taste the fact that there is a new world, there is new hope, there is a new way to live and we are part of it. And our brokenness and tiredness, our crassness about the fish we haven’t caught, and the long hours we have wasted doing our own thing instead of God’s thing, somehow fall away, and we become people of the new celebration, people of the new creation, people of God’s new world, which is a world of fresh light, fresh forgiveness, new starts, new hopes. We must learn to celebrate the fact that Christ is risen, and that—puzzled though we may still be about it—we are risen with him.
(photo credit: Christ taking leave of the disciples, from the Maestá by Duccio, Cathedral of Sienna, 1311)
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. He lives in Florence, Alabama, where he serves as President of Mars Hill Bible School.