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Entries in discipleship (33)

Hearing the Gospel for the First Time

I have a confession to make: I had been a Christian for five years before I ever heard the gospel.  One night at summer camp I listened to the story of a God who loved the world so much that he sent his only son to pay the price for other people’s sin.  My sin.  I believed the message, I prayed the prayer and asked Jesus into my heart--and five years later began to discover that the good news was so much better than I had been told.

Jesus didn’t proclaim the gospel of forgiveness and heaven, he proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  His gospel of the Kingdom of God differs radically from the gospel of go-to-heaven-when-you-die.

Why not take a few minutes and check out these passages:

  • John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by preaching the Kingdom (Matthew 3: 1-2).
  • The very first message Jesus shared was the Kingdom of God (Mark 1: 14-15).
  • Jesus said the reason he came to Earth was to preach the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:43).
  • He said the new birth was the way to enter the Kingdom of God (John 3: 5).
That’s all four gospels, and we’re just getting started:
  • The book of Acts opens and closes with the Kingdom of God (Acts 1: 3 & 28: 31).
  • The Kingdom of God was Paul’s message from Corinth to Ephesus to Rome.
  • The book of Hebrews describes a kingdom that can never be shaken (12:28).
  • Peter and James depict the Kingdom of God as the calling of all believers.
The Holy Spirit inspired more than 150 references to God’s Kingdom in the pages of the New Testament.  And don’t even get me started on pictures of the Kingdom in the Old Testament.

If the words “Kingdom of God” seem awkward when they appear after the word “gospel” perhaps it’s because we have shortened the gospel to mean exclusively redemption from sin and going to heaven. The rediscovery of the gospel of the Kingdom, along with Jesus’ commission to “make disciples and teach them to obey” stand as the greatest need in the North American church today.  Discipleship under the Masters’ hand and maturity in Christ depend on the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

We have confused Heaven with the Kingdom.  Heaven is a great place.  I’ll get there someday because Jesus paid the price, but in the meantime Heaven is breaking into the here and now.  I believe we have become preoccupied with an arrow pointing to Heaven when we should be looking for how God is bringing the Kingdom to Earth.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught us to pray, “Let your Kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”  (Matthew 6: 10, emphasis added)  Jesus said plainly that God’s Kingdom should be our highest priority: “Seek first the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew 6:33)  Do we really think he meant that we should place going to heaven after we die as our highest earthy priority?

Consider his actions and words at the very end of his earthly ministry.  Jesus chose to remind his friends about the message he had announced from the very beginning: the gospel of the Kingdom of God. He spent the 40 days after his resurrection teaching about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3)  In the few days remaining with his friends, the Kingdom of God was still his passion.

The Kingdom of God is the true context for discipleship.  No serious student of Jesus ignores his teaching or demonstration of the Kingdom.  Yes: demonstration.  Jesus explained his actions in terms of the Kingdom of God.  Healing, deliverance, and feeding the masses were all signs of the Kingdom of God.  The world longed for the rule and reign of God to come to Earth, they received their answer in the actions and teaching of Jesus.  In his absence, Jesus expects us to demonstrate and explain God’s Kingdom today.  To be about the Kingdom is to be about the Father’s business.

Perhaps one reason the church struggles in the area of spiritual formation is that we are not making disciples of the Kingdom.  In our enthusiasm over God’s forgiveness and mercy, we have overlooked his purposes and plans.  Everyone who trusts in God can expect to go to heaven, but Jesus is after more than eternal reward.  He wants us to join him in the family business.

Monday's Meditation: Does Jesus Trust Us?



Why would Jesus save me from Hell?  That’s easy: most believers understand his infinite and sacrificial love on behalf of everyone in need.  Pastors and church leaders present this picture of Jesus again and again.  “Even if you were the only sinner in history,” they proclaim, “Jesus would have died for you.”  But here’s a question most Christians fail to ask: Why would Jesus want to disciple me?  We are comfortable with our need of a Savior; we are less comfortable with his vision for our lives.  Any unworthy fool can receive his mercy; believing that he trusts us is another matter entirely.
The truth is, Jesus wants to place his trust in us.  Jesus selected the most unlikely people to train as disciples: working-class fishermen, turn-coat tax collectors, members of the armed resistance against Rome.  After three years of intensive training, his followers scattered at the hour of his greatest need, and hid behind locked doors after his death.  The best disciple-maker in history left behind a decidedly rag-tag group!  Yet Jesus had confidence in these very men.  After his resurrection Jesus gathered these eleven fearful and scattered men and, under the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, set them loose to turn the world upside down. Jesus saw each one as pre-selected by the Father's grace and fully capable of Godly potential. (see John 17: 6 - 11)
Today’s Memo is addressed not only to individual believers, but also to a second group of people: pastors and church leaders.  Do we believe in our congregation as much as Jesus believed in his?  When pastors lack vision for their people the result is lowered expectations, dumbed-down preaching and a general chaplaincy that considers victorious Christian living a pipe dream. The lesson of Jesus the disciple-maker should be clear: even if individual Christians do not have confidence in their identity in Christ, at least their leaders should.
What would happen if pastors and leaders began to operate from the conviction that it is possible to reproduce the character and power of Jesus in his followers?  Jesus apparently held that idea:
I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. (John 14: 12 - 13)

Is Obedience Possible?


Imagine this scene: a man lies naked, hungry and cold.  A stranger approaches and offers these words, “I wish you well. Be warm, and filled.”  Then the stranger walks away.  Now imagine the stranger who walks away is Jesus.

Unthinkable, right?  Too many Christians possess just such an image of Jesus when it comes to the issue obedience.  God wants us to obey his will.  It’s good.  It’s necessary.  The problem is many of us see ourselves as incapable of obedience.   We have failed too often.  We find ourselves naked and cold, in desperate need.  And into our helpless situation, we imagine that Jesus walks up to us and says, “be obedient” without offering any practical help.

Would the grace God demand from us something we cannot give?  If we were “miserable sinners” before turning to Jesus, why does Jesus expect his followers to become obedient to his will?  How do we become something other than “forgiven miserable sinners?”  Some believers find themselves trapped in a Christian existence of forgiveness, more sin, and more forgiveness.

The good news is that God’s grace does something more than say, “Be warm and filled.”  Jesus calls us obey, but he does not leave us on our own.  He demonstrated how to become the kind of follower who is not trapped in the forgive-sin again-forgive cycle.

The Jesus way of teaching believers how to obey is contained in the famous verses we call The Great Commission:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
The Great Commission does not command obedience, but rather discipleship--which makes obedience possible.  Discipleship is God’s plan to grow in obedience.  Jesus breaks discipleship to two functions--immersing believers in the three revealed identities of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and instructing disciples in how to obey everything he commanded.  To separate obedience from teaching how to obey would be the same as merely saying “Be warm and filled” to a naked homeless person, and Jesus wouldn’t do that.

The church, however, has fallen into the “Be warm and filled” fallacy.  We attempt to “teach” obedience apart from relationship.  In fact, obedience cannot be taught apart from relationship, it can only be demanded.  Sitting in church listening to the demands of obedience usually results in guilt--a guilt incapable of producing fruit.

A better pattern is the family model.  Good parents teach their children to obey in an atmosphere of mutual love and commitment.  Fathers and mothers love their children, and children love their parents.  Relationship and obedience grow side-by-side.  The love felt by both parents and child provide the motivation for discipline from above and effort from below.  Healthy families provide examples of obedience.  Day-by-day children can witness whether true obedience lives in the household.

New life in Christ means the Father has provided a new family for each of us.  We become a part of God’s household.  If obedience resides in the house, it becomes a way of life--something for us to enter into, not something imposed from the outside.  Obedience becomes the natural response of loving hearts.  The family of God becomes the context for learning how to obey.  Our obedience helps provide a setting for others to discover the way of life.  This is one of the reasons that our obedience is not merely a personal matter.  It’s also why some Christian mystics describe God as Father and the church as the mother of our obedience.

Could you be God’s means of grace is someone else’s life?  If you respond to the Great Commission by making disciples, the answer is yes.

Monday's Meditation: Making Disciples



Following Jesus includes making disciples.  The path to full discipleship includes the joy of helping others to become disciples.  Some have mistaken the “Great Commission” Matthew 28: 16 - 20) as a call to evangelism, but the Lord had in mind that we should also teach others to obey everything he commanded.  Others have mistaken the Great Commission as a call to personal discipleship without regard to the welfare of others.
Of course, we should share the good news of Jesus’ substitutionary death--he paid the price for us to be reconciled to the Father.  But the good news also includes the promise that anyone who turns to Jesus can be taught how to obey everything he commanded.  How many of us have considered evangelism in the light of raising up obedient followers of Jesus?
It’s no surprise that our example is the Lord Himself.  His proclamation that the Kingdom of God was breaking into the here and now also included “Come, follow me.”  When we encounter these words it’s easy to think, “Of course, everyone should follow Jesus.”  But Jesus of Nazareth was an unknown teacher from the hill country of Galilee; in effect he was saying, “I can demonstrate the good life.”  His message was more than information, it included the invitation to imitate his way of life.  The Apostle Paul understood the implications of the Great Commission when he boldly asserted to the Corinthians, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (I Corinthians 11:1)  How many of us are comfortable in making the same claim: “Imitate my life, and in so doing you will learn how to become like Jesus.”
Our personal growth as followers of Jesus is not complete until we lead the way for others.  It’s part of Jesus’ plan for us.  Pointing to Jesus is not enough.  Demanding obedience to God is not enough.  Real discipling is about making a way for others to approach the Father.  Jesus not only insisted upon obedience, he showed his disciples how it was done.  May God give us the grace to do the same.

Don't blame me, I didn't say it.

If you want to make a really offensive statement it’s always better to quote someone else. You should pick someone who is widely respected and is recognized as an authority: the kind of person that would make others think twice before they disagree. I think I have a quote like that. Here goes:

Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have never decided to follow Christ.” ~ Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, PhD., and professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Philosophy. He is the author of numerous books on spiritual formation. His work, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God won Christianity Today’s book of the year award in 1999. He would win every year he writes a book except the people at C.T. feel the need to share with others.

Christians in the United States are more charitable than any other demographic group. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we divorce, go bankrupt, cheat on our taxes, engage in extra-martial sex, and generally live life at the same level as everyone else in society. Christians—those who take the name of Jesus Christ as their prime identity—do not follow him in any significant way. We have taken his name, but we have not taken his yoke.

Worse still, a large section of the American church has presented the gospel message as exclusively a matter of going to heaven when you die. While this is a wonderful benefit of following Jesus the fact remains that the gospel message proclaimed by John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles was the “gospel of the Kingdom of God.” In most churches this phrase is altogether foreign even though there are more than a hundred New Testament references to the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is hard to miss in the New Testament, but we have somehow found a way. It’s right out in the open: for example, the first request of the Lord’s Prayer is, “Let your Kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Closely related to the message of the Kingdom of God is the need for Christians to heed the call to be Christ-followers. The Biblical word for this is discipleship, an idea that is nearly always omitted in evangelistic presentations. Our outreach efforts highlight the promise of heaven to exclusion of following Jesus. In his book, The Great Omission, Willard points out that following Jesus and teaching others to do the same is the mission of the church. This is accomplished through discipleship:

Eternal life is the Kingdom Walk, where in seamless unity, we “Do justice, love kindness, and walk carefully with our God.” (Micah 6: 8) We learn to walk this way through apprenticeship to Jesus. His school is always in session. We need to emphasize that the Great Omission from the Great Commission is not obedience to Christ, but discipleship, apprenticeship to him. (The Great Omission, p. xiv)

Is it any surprise that our churches are filled with people who do not demonstrate a significant difference from the rest of society? Is it possible that by concentrating exclusively on “eternal life,” the American church has largely gotten the message wrong? We are a church that has made following Jesus optional, while the words, “follow me” were the very ones Jesus used to call the disciples.

Of course, Dallas Willard didn’t make this stuff up. Willard knows that if you want to make a really offensive statement it’s always better to quote someone else:

A certain ruler asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'"

"All these I have kept since I was a boy," he said.

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Those who heard this asked, "Who then can be saved?"

Jesus replied, "What is impossible with men is possible with God."

Peter said to him, "We have left all we had to follow you!"

"I tell you the truth," Jesus said to them, "no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life." (Luke 18: 18 – 30)

Jesus connected eternal life with the call to come and follow. Do we dare to do the same? I’m just glad that I didn’t say it. He did.