Deeper Hope:

An Abiding Virtue

This book explores the meaning -- and application -- of Christian Hope. It takes the fuzzy concept of Hope and reveals it in everyday settings



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Entries in discipleship (36)

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.

Beyond Appreciation, beyond waiting for heaven.

If you want to know what your full potential looks like as a Christian, look at Jesus. All that he did during his earthly ministry was done through reliance upon the Holy Spirit and by looking to the Father for direction. Jesus lived his life as a model for us to follow, and that model is within reach of each person who receives him as Lord as well as Savior.

Jesus was fully God and fully man yet he was one person. This is vital to our understanding of Jesus as a role model in our everyday lives. He was not a man who achieved divinity, nor was he God merely pretending to be a man. We must make distinctions between the two aspects of his identity because each one drives different aspects of our Christian walk: we worship Jesus because he is God; we can pattern our lives after him because in his humanity he lived the perfect human life as our example.

We should recognize the difference between his unique sacrificial death on the cross and the pattern of living he set for us during his earthly ministry. His death on the cross is unique because of who he is—the sinless perfect Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. History is filled with examples of sacrificial deaths; soldiers have died on behalf of their comrades and parents have died on behalf of their children. But no one else could accomplish what Jesus accomplished on the cross, because his perfect sacrifice came by virtue of his identity as God come to earth. His sacrifice was for the sin of all people, at all times, in all places. Only God’s own blood could satisfy the guilt of our sin. His death was unique: one time, once, for all. God himself provided the lamb. No one else could do it and no one else will ever have to do it again. We have emphasized his death and resurrection on Jesus as God’s only Son precisely because only God could do it.

There is, however, the danger of over-emphasis: when we concentrate on the substitutionary death of Jesus to the exclusion of his life and teaching we limit his ministry to a divine rescue mission—a rescue mission that only becomes effective for us when we die. When we see his ministry exclusively as the action that purchased heaven for us it is difficult to make the connection between his sacrifice and our everyday lives. Many Christians are emotionally moved by his suffering on Calvary. Many are grateful that he paid a debt he did no owe. Many Christians understand that they have no hope of heaven apart from the price Jesus paid on their behalf. But apart from gratitude for his kindness, for most believers there is little connection between what Jesus did then and how we can live today.

Here is the challenge: our appreciation for what he did does not empower us to fulfill the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. Our gratitude for his suffering does not release the wisdom, insight, or strength for each one of us to live as a new kind of person. Jesus urged his followers to “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11: 29) The “rest” he speaks of here is not our eternal rest, but rest and peace for everyday living.

His gentleness and humility may have led him to the cross but they are also character traits available to his disciples today. Likewise, his power to heal and deliver may have offended the religious leaders of his day, but that same power is available to his followers today. He offers the opportunity for us to learn from him—not about how to go to heaven when we die but about how heaven can come to earth now. This is the very first request we are taught to pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Let Your Kingdom come, let Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6: 10, emphasis added). During his earthly ministry his wisdom, his actions, and his powerful works were examples of how we could live on earth as well. This is the radical nature of his gospel: the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

Students of Jesus can go beyond receiving Jesus as Savior and receive him as Lord. Through the record of the gospels and the active presence of the Holy Spirit Jesus still invites us to take the yoke of discipleship today. The good news of the gospel includes the glorious invitation to grow in Christlikeness right now. Will we respond to that invitation, or wait for the age to come?

Trying, or Training?

Let me tell you a story about what happened on vacation a few years back. We used to take my wife’s little sister, LuciAnn, on vacation with us when she was in high school. She was great company and cheap babysitting. One year we took her to San Diego for a week and almost killed her.

Luci wanted to try scuba diving. There was this little place in La Jolla that advertised scuba lessons and diving, all in one afternoon. It was pure southern California: the proprietor was a Vietnam veteran with pictures of his past life everywhere. Tie-dye had not gone out of style in his shop. He had a three-inch shark’s tooth on display; he claimed he had pulled it out of his head after the shark bit him! One Thursday afternoon Luci and I joined one other student for a scuba class. The shop was a mile from the ocean, and after suiting up we headed to his hippie-era van for a drive to the sea. I expected we would make our way to a marina but instead he drove to a public beach and said, “don’t put your fins on yet. It makes it hard to walk on the sand.” Turns out that was the only lesson we got.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Aren’t you going to spend any time training us?” I had been scuba diving two or three times in other locations, and each time we had spent an hour going over equipment, and had even trained briefly in a swimming pool. But that was me. I knew this was Luci’s first effort.

“Oh, yeah.” he said. “I’ll cover that stuff at the beach.”

Sunbathers and swimmers at the beach stopped and stared (children pointed) as our instructor and three students marched to the water in full wet-suit armor. We sat on the firm sand and the waves ran up our legs us as we put on our fins.

“Here’s what you need to do,” he offered. “Stay close to me.” He pointed to me and said, “You’ve been down before, right? You take the other guy, and I’ll take the girl.” Instruction-time had ended. Diving time began. The four of us waded out chest-deep into the Pacific in full gear: we had weighted belts to help us stay under water.

“Put on your masks,” said the boss. Luci had never worn a mask before.

“No! Not like that! Spit in it!”

“It’s doesn’t fit,” Luci offered.

“Didn’t you size it back at the shop?” he demanded. The water was up to Luci’s neck, chest-deep for the rest of us. He fiddled with the mask. “There. That oughta do it. Put it on. Let’s get going.”

We swam out about fifty yards when Luci pulled up. “My mask is full of water.”

“Give me that!” he barked. The four of us were treading water, with diving weights around our waist. Luci went under for a moment. I pulled her up. The instructor adjusted the mask one more time. Luci choked out a mouthful of seawater.

“You’re going to have to try harder,” he told Luci. “You could get in serious trouble here.” No foolin’! Luci was near tears as this time the instructor stretched the mask over her head. Of course, he did it perfectly, and it fit. “Tell you what,” he said, "just hold my hand the rest of the way.”

I gained a lot of respect for my young sister-in-law that day. I would have panicked: she was out in the ocean in water above her head, with no training at all, fighting to stay above water. All the instructor could offer was “You’re going to have to try harder.” Luci didn’t panic, and she managed to stay in control enough to enjoy the rest of the dive. 45 minutes later the beach-goers watched as we emerged from beneath the sea and waddled back up to the hippie van.

Luci learned how to scuba dive that day. I learned that there is a world of difference between trying and training.

Becoming a follower of Jesus requires training. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11: 28 – 30) His promise of rest is realized as we learn from him.

Too many believers have encountered the hippie-scuba-instructor model of following Jesus: “You’re going to have to try harder.” Someone told them that following Jesus results in rest and peace; no one trained them to hear the voice of God, or how to take the yoke Jesus offers. In fact, too many believers are unaware that Christian maturity even requires training. But it’s true: “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5: 13 -14)

If we are serious about using the phrase, “born again,” we must realize that infants need others to provide care until they can care for themselves. Ultimately it is Jesus himself who trains us as disciples. He is the master teacher, but most of us need someone to train us how to hear his voice and how to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Who has trained you? Who are you training?