Monthly Archives: June 2018

Thinking about Discipleship

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw Him they worshiped Him, but some doubted. 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, baptising 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’” (Matthew 28:18-20).

The word disciple comes from the Latin discipulus, for pupil or learner. It corresponds with the Greek mathetes, from manthano – to learn. The corresponding Hebrew term, limmud, is somewhat rare in the OT, but common in the rabbinical writings. That said, the practice of discipleship is to be found throughout the Old Testament. In the Greek world, philosophers were likewise surrounded by their pupils. A disciple is thus in the most fundamental sense the pupil of a teacher. And since pupils often adopted the distinctive teaching of their masters, the word also came to signify adherence to a particular outlook in religion or philosophy.

The believers were first called Christians in Antioch, and were known as the Way in Ephesus. But the term disciple remained the most common term for them throughout the Gospels and the book of Acts. So saying reveals that Jesus both broadened and deepened the meaning of the word. He broadened its meaning by gathering around Himself concentric circles of disciples. The first circle comprised a tiny, intimate inner core. The largest a perimeter embracing thousands and reaching into nations. But all were His disciples. He also deepened its meaning. he extended a call to His disciples to deep personal allegiance and exclusive loyalty. This willingness to put Him above and before all else went well beyond the norm. For many, heeding His call has literally required the abandonment of home and family and business ties, and even meant relinquishing all possessions.

Conventional thought

With Jesus creating the initial impetus, the church has discipled people ever since. It has done so within three frameworks.

Firstly, and in the broadest sense, the local church is a discipling environment in and of itself. By definition, the church is a community submitted to God, His Word, and to one another. Vulnerability, malleability and accountability are inherent to the equation. This way of life is described in a rather fascinating way by doctor Luke in the book of Acts. In documenting the exponential increase in the number of believers, he reveals a culture of discipleship by describing it as the word having increased (Acts 4:31, 6:2, 6:7, 8:4, 8:14, 11:1, 12:24, 13:48-49, 19:10, 19:20). This warrants discussion later on.

Secondly, the church embodies choreographed order, exquisitely crafted by the Lord. The same thing is observable within the Trinity. Collaboration between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is carefully appointed. Nothing is at all haphazard. The same carefully appointed order permeates family and state also, when we allow it. This is so because Creator God is the founder of these institutions. What He creates is always consistent with His own nature. So it is that diverse gifts and callings collaborate seamlessly in their respective roles. Embedded within this dynamic flow of authority and responsibility is an element of discipleship. Teaching and training can occur along any appropriate interface. We all play a part, and build one another up in love.

And finally, the church disciples with in relationships especially constituted for this purpose. Jesus and the Twelve are the obvious role model. Barnabas and Paul are also an excellent example, as are Paul and Timothy. It’s this type of arrangement that most likely springs to mind at the mention of discipleship. The Scriptures reinforce the validity of the practise by encouraging imitation. First of Christ, but also imitation of the life of faith of the mature in Christ. Paul champions this thinking when instructing Timothy: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (II Timothy 2:1–2). Paul was raising a disciplers, who would in turn raise up other disciplers, and so forth. His aim was to establish a self-perpetuating cycle. Discipleship should multiply mature equippers ad infinitum.

Essential qualifiers

Our synopsis is thus far both satisfactory and Biblical, yet incomplete.

The inseparable relationship between authority and discipleship must be underscored. Whenever the Lord delegates responsibility, He also delegates the concomitant authority. Yet, in the final analysis, all authority remains with Jesus. All authority has been given to Him. He was Himself emphatic about this. For that reason discipleship can never be regarded as an exercise in authority. It is, and always will be, a function of servanthood. It undergirds. Church history records authority’s many abuses, and more than a few were in the name of discipleship. That fact alone adorns the subject in red flags.

The essential qualifier is that authority and submission always rests on the foundation of mutual submission. We submit one to another out of reverence for Christ. This is the great equaliser. Detach the flow of authority and submission from this essential foundation, and abuse must ensue. Leadership and governance devolves into a lording over. It is only because husband and wife are mutually submitted to one another out of reverence for Christ that the wife can safely submit to her husband’s headship in the marriage. The same applies, leader to follower to leader, in the context of church and state.

A further essential is emphasis on the “Go” of the Gospel. All discipleship must ultimately be about establishing the nations in Christ, and under His government. Thankfully this cry continues to ring out from pulpits across the globe. All nations need discipleship. And it is the will of God that we disciple them. He has given all of us the job. This “Go” is important for two reasons. Firstly, it ensures that we disciple away from ourselves and towards mission. And secondly, only the multiplication afforded by a “Go” paradigm will get the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

But don’t miss the revelatory gem in the offing. Discipleship must establish the nations in Christ before establishing them under His government. People are to be immersed into Christ before they are taught to obey anything. Read it carefully. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising 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.” Many sermons could and should be preached at this juncture. Jesus was instilling in His apostolic band a theology that embraced the Trinity. The Eleven to whom the words were spoken were all Israelites. They had always been taught that the Lord their God was One (Deuteronomy 6:4, Mark 12:29, et al). But possibly even more important than that, He was emphasising the fact that all Christianity is identity-driven. Disciples “be” before they “do”. All training must therefore be on the foundation of grace through faith, for all authentic Christian behaviour stems from newness in Christ.

These observations impose significant caveats on our earlier observations. The machinery of discipleship is one thing; life and effectiveness in the process another. In practise, the leader of a congregation might well be the leader of the leadership team, a husband and father, and the convener of several discipleship forums. In an authoritarian culture, this would make him a very powerful individual indeed. He could exercise enormous control through simple approval or disapproval. Unless of course he is first submitted. To his fellow leaders, to his wife, to the congregation, and even to his kids as age-appropriate. And unless he is discipling away from himself, relinquishing power and authority wherever possible.

Biblical curriculae

As the Gospel first spread, doctor Luke documented it as the word increasing. This was more than a mere turn of phrase. It points to an important component of discipleship’s gambit of essentials. Discipleship requires curriculum. Any training exercise requires suitable training material. So, the word increased. Good. But what word was it?

We know that the Luke could not possibly have been referring to the written Word as we know it today. The New Testament had not yet been written. It could also not possibly have referred to the words of Moses. The Old Covenant had been set aside, replaced by a new and better covenant, founded on new and better promises.

Jesus’ words shed light – “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”. And while He taught many things, do the scholastic legwork and you’ll discover that He only issued two commands: Believe, and love. Love as you have been loved, that is. Which takes us right back to the Gospel!

Paul’s curriculum statement echoes the words of Jesus. “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men”. Paul’s discipleship curriculum was what he taught wherever he went. His “whole counsel of God” in Ephesus was his “knowing nothing amongst you except Christ Jesus and Him crucified” in Corinth, was his “word of Christ” through which faith comes about which he wrote to the church in Rome.

The word in question is the Gospel, of course. It is the power of God for salvation for all who believe. Discipleship is nothing other than the application of the perfect, finished work of Christ, and this to every area of life. A narrow curriculum, but one which impacts on everything else. It does so without condemnation. There is no guilt and manipulation; no stick and carrot. It leaves responsibility with the individual in unmitigated ways. But it offers love, acceptance, and the gift of righteousness in equally unmitigated ways.

A rather useful bottom line is simply this: When discipleship is undertaken off an unsuitable foundation, it centres around accountability. Behaviour is policed, and the exercise devolves into people pleasing. But when discipleship is appropriately embarked on, in the Gospel, everything revolves around encouragement. The perfect work of Jesus is what is kept central. This allows limitless opportunity for failure, and equally limitless opportunity for restoration. Love abounds and life flows. Even discipleship, in the final analysis, is all about Jesus.

Disciples of whom?

One final matter, and an important one at that. Christians are disciples, but disciples of whom?

In the broadest sense, all believers are disciples of Jesus. The Scriptures are unequivocal on this matter. Peter tells us that He left us an example to follow. John insists that, “Whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked” (I John 2:6). Differentiating, as some do, between believers (the saved) and disciples (the obedient saved), is judgmentalism. It introduces unhelpful class distinctions in the church. Far better to insist that every believer is in fact a disciple. That makes obedience the natural and anticipated outflow of faith.

Yet caution is necessary. Implying that discipleship is the conforming of believers to Christ is problematic. We carry such varied paradigms on the matter. White people tend to have a white Jesus, and black people a black Jesus. Reducing the Christian life to imitating “our” Jesus is thus folly. The outcome must be a form of legalism of our own crafting.

The Bible also encourages us to imitate the way of life of those beyond us in maturity in the Lord. We gladly do so. We learn from them, imitating their faith and faithfulness. But without becoming imitations of them. One of religion’s more abhorrent characteristics is that those trapped by it reproduce themselves. This is certainly not the discipler’s brief. Every believer is already a clone of Jesus. Born again of the Spirit, every believer has a new nature which is His identical twin. Discipleship should never work towards conformity. It works towards nurturing the new life already granted, in fullness and freedom.

Fortunately Jesus made matters plain, and emphatically so. Believers are His disciples in the broad sense, but followers of the Holy Spirit in the specifics. He is the Helper within, our teacher and guide. He is the One who will never leave us. He will lead us into all truth, making the things of Jesus and the Father known to us. It is He we are following, moment by moment, day by day. He is our teacher. As Jesus said to His own on the night of His betrayal, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for He will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that He will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:12–15).

Which is why Paul could state so unequivocally, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:14).

It is true that disciples are made, not born. But they are made by the One of whom they are born. Discipleship is by grace, through faith, and always, always, in the power of the Spirit.

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Do Who You Are

The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

As good news goes, it’s simple and straightforward. Jesus lived the sinless life none of us could live. He then died the sinner’s death we all deserve. He did this all as our substitute, and His resurrection ratified His substitutionary sacrifice.

As good news goes, though, there is so much more going on with the Gospel than mere information. It is revelation. Word and Spirit. That’s what gives it power in and of itself. Wherever it goes it imparts faith. And anyone who believes receives. More than that, everyone who receives is received also. In that first moment of faith, Holy Spirit unites new believers with Christ. He literally immerses them into Christ’s crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection, even while recreating them in Christ’s image. From that moment on, they are in Christ, and He is in them.

The Gospel comes to us, enters into us, and draws us into itself. We Christians live because of the Gospel, by the Gospel, in the Gospel, through the Gospel, and for the Gospel. Prepositions abound as we attempt to give words to it all. Christ and His Gospel are inseparable; Christ and Christians are inseparable; Christians and the Gospel are inseparable. It is the power of God by which we are being saved. Paul put it this way to the Corinthians, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (I Corinthians 15:1-2). Its claims are all-or-nothing. Either it is fully saving for all who stand in it, or else it is sheer vanity, saving none at all.

We will always be grateful to the Reformers for restoring the Gospel to the church. They did what they could see. Yet they unfortunately stopped short of its full application. They restored it as the only means of salvation. They even sought to restore it as the only means of living the Christian life. But what they didn’t do was establish it as God’s exclusively ordained means of ministry. The New Covenant’s way. This limited follow-through saw the Reformers themselves remain identified with the ecclesiastical elite of the day, and deprived the rank and file of it’s freedom and fullness to the point of themselves becoming the New Covenant’s fully-fledged torchbearers.

This is not said in criticism of the Reformers. They walked by the light they had. But it is said to underscore the need for a further reformation in the church of our day. Jesus was clear that there is no room for an elitism in His church. His Gospel is His gift to His world, for the salvation of all who believe; there for the possessing by the whosoever will. Most Evangelicals and Charismatics are a far cry from this. In these circles the Gospel tends to be the domain of the evangelist, while the bulk of the church remains mired in a mixture of Law and Grace. Nowhere is this more prominent than in matters of leadership and governance.

It’s time for change!

Dismantle the heirarchy

In Luther’s day, the priesthood had positioned themselves between God and His people. In our day, the church has positioned herself between God and His world. Just a slightly different manifestation of the same misbelief.

In Christ, God came to His world. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:17–21).

God has reconciled the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them. This is the Good News of the Gospel. Grace and truth have come. All that remains is for men and women to believe and receive. Access has already been granted into the kingdom of heaven. All that men and women have to do is accept His invitation, and in so doing make the journey from where they are (in Adam) to where they belong (in Christ).

This proclamation is unfortunately seldom heard. That’s thanks to the convoluted belief system of most of His ambassadors. Most somehow believe that if they’re ambassadors for the kingdom, then their local churches are somehow its embassies. It then follows that these embassies must have been charged with issuing Heaven’s visas. This of course is definitely not so. God, in Christ, has already personally issued a visa to everyone on the planet. They just don’t know it yet, and our job as His ambassadors, is to tell them! Our ambassadorial role is nothing more than to herald that which has already been decreed. Far too many Christians are so far away from understanding this that they also see their church leaders as the visa issuers, which is not too different to the way things were in Luther’s day. Little wonder the church as a whole is insecure in her salvation and so fickle in her witness.

Discern accurately

The church is not between God and His world. Unbelief is.

Our priestly role celebrates His work, but does not mediate it. Our inclusion in the outworking of it all is by His condescension, and is our privilege. He does use us, but He does not need us. Any other view, even subconsciously, will inevitably subject those who hold it to unbridled pressure and debilitating condemnation. Even incarnate Jesus wasn’t perfect enough to impress His brothers. If He fell short, how can we even begin to believe that the salvation of those around us can possibly hinge on our performance.

That’s not to suggest that the obedience of faith is to be taken lightly. Even Paul, who was well aware that he could not save anyone, told the Ephesian elders that he was innocent of the blood of all, having declared to them the whole counsel of God. He also relayed to the Galatians that he regarded his own sufferings as a necessary extrapolation of the sufferings of Christ. I’ve encountered similar views amongst persecuted believers who suffer for their faith even today. Thought forms like these in no wise trivialise the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ, but honour it. The Gospel is a life and death matter, and eternally so. To treat it as anything less is to dishonour Christ’s work, His world, and His Gospel. We who have been redeemed by the blood of the Saviour would do well to consider ourselves as under orders, and do as we’re told. No other response could ever approximate appropriate.

Nevertheless, a careful distinction must be drawn between fruit and success. Or, perhaps better put, we ought to give careful thought to how we define success. A local church might exhibit every sign of being successful, yet be less fruitful than one might think. That’s because fruit stems from the members of the congregation walking in the good works the Lord has prepared in advance for them to do. No matter how grand the vision, or how vibrant the programs, unless these are works done in the obedience of faith, they are the dead works of human effort. For many of us, the thought that much of what happens in a local church could be wood, hay and stubble, is somewhat unpalatable. Yet when we take a step back, and we consider how far short we are of evangelising the planet, and that after two thousand years of concerted effort, we can begin to open ourselves up to the notion that perhaps an entirely different approach to being and doing church might be needed.

Truth is, in the Gospel we’ve already been given everything necessary for maximum fruitfulness. Everything within the New Covenant operates by grace and through faith. Fullness and freedom have already been granted in Christ Jesus. All God’s promises are yes and amen in Him. For that reason, all that is needed is a revelation of the Gospel, and the faith to follow through on what and where that takes us. Because the Gospel contains all, and is given to all, the great deliverance needed is not from our shortcomings and weaknesses, but from our unbelief.

As earlier observed, unbelief typically manifests in self-absorption. Self-awareness, and especially so in the context of our new nature in Christ, is a good thing. We only love others because we ourselves are loved. And we can only serve others well when we are conscious of our own impact upon them. Self-awareness is thus foundational to maturity. But self-centredness is something entirely different. It is of the flesh, and not of the Spirit. It considers self above all else and before all else. It is self-conscious, self-serving, self-preserving, self-promoting and self-indulgent. In a nutshell – selfish. And sinful. And as it is with the individual, so it is with the corporate. The mature local church, secure in the Gospel, is self-aware, but not self-absorbed. Her Christianity is all about Him. She does not see herself awkwardly poised between God and His world, but at one with Him, and serving His world in and for Him. It is not Him who is sought, for she is His and He is hers. It is His will that is sought. It is His will which is loved, longed for, embraced and done.

Respond appropriately

This makes leadership under the New Covenant a simple matter. This is because it asks nothing different of leaders than what it does of anyone else.

The underlying premise under the New Covenant is the same for everybody. All are in Christ, and indwelt by the Spirit. Fullness and freedom have already been granted. Design and destiny are hand and glove. All the necessary gifts and callings, graces and anointings are in place. Remember that everything the Lord ever asks for, He takes full responsibility for by providing first.

Now take a moment to factor in our supporting cast. It’s similar, no matter who we are. The fact that there even is a supporting cast is quite remarkable, given the fact that He alone is always more than enough. Yet the New Covenant is a covenant that just keeps on giving. The Lord places brothers and sisters beside us. His has given us His written Word, pulsating with revelation, to aid and abet us. The bread and the wine are constant reminders, and they assist us in the appropriation of all that He has promised. The impartation we receive when our brothers and sisters lay hands on us does the same. Unlimited, unhindered access to His throne of grace is ours also. And if that were not enough, the Lord Himself never slumbers or sleeps, but is behind the scenes, working for good in all things. Someone has said that He does far more behind our backs than we’ll ever know.

His grace abounds indeed. As we’ve seen, its means are many. And as it finds us, it’s first gift is always faith.

What then must we do? How are we to respond. There is no script to follow; no task to complete, standard to meet or goal to achieve. Any battle to be fought will be won by standing in His victory. The faith that is to be kept is kept in His strength, in His wisdom, and by His abundant grace. And the race which we are to run is entirely unique. It is ours. No one can run it for us, and no one can run it better than what we can. It is ours, and ours alone.

What then do we do? How do we respond? And this much applies to leader and follower alike also, for all that differs are the roles to be played.

We believe!

Live authentically

And in believing, we love. Loved ourselves, we extend to others that which has been freely given us. We are alive thanks to the Gospel, and we are alive in the Gospel. We therefore live for the Gospel, and we do so by allowing it to flow through and from us, in words, ways, works and wonders. In believing, we love, and in believing and loving we do, and as we do, we find ourselves walking in the obedience of faith.

Nothing could be simpler. Being who He has made us to be, we quite naturally then do what He has called us to do.

This is the only legitimate point of accountability for our lives. We are new creations in Christ. Are we living authentically?

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