Let me tell you a story. A true story the begins ages ago, so far back that it is, for us, beyond comprehension. Before stars burned in space, before the earth rotated in its orbit. Before there was anything but eternity and the only thing in that eternity was the eternal One. That is where the story I am telling begins.
Some details of the beginning of this story are as beyond knowing as eternity itself. But there are some things we do know, because the Eternal One has told them to us. Before there was creation, even the greatest and most glorious of that creation, man and woman – made to know and glorify their Creator as they reflect his character and rule on earth, God knew that man would use his unique freedom to attempt to throw off the rule of his Creator, he would seek independence from the One who lovingly fashioned him, made a covenant with him, and provided him with everything he needed and more. But God still created, because on the other side of this rebellion he had a plan that would magnify his glory even farther than it had been in the original creation. He had a plan that would lead to even greater and sweeter fellowship with his Creation. It was a plan to redeem.
Now we need to understand something else about God and this plan to redeem. He did not have to do this. The creation added nothing to God. He is entirely self-sufficient. In delight, He made the creation so that others who bear his image could delight in him. But when man fell, mankind for whom the rest of creation was constructed as a theatre of God’s glory, it was well within God’s rights to judge them in an instant. But just as creation was made to display to man the glory of God’s might and wisdom, now through redemption God would display the glory of his grace, justice, mercy, and love. He would do this by loving the unloveable, by redeeming the broken, by doing whatever had to be done to display his grace by bringing back from this mess a remnant made whole again.
It was in this plan that he fixed his love on a people, made up of individual persons. He chose to love people that were broken. People that were sinful. People that deserved his wrath. People that would become monuments of his grace. People that he would reveal himself to and call to himself, and do everything that was needed to turn them from enemies to friends, from bastards to children. He would pursue these people in love, make known to them his character and restore in them the image that had been broken.
So way back there in eternity past, with this design, in the mystery of it all, God fixed his love on individuals down through time. And among those was a man who lived in the Middle East in the 1st Century. Like us all, this man was a rebel against God, even though he belonged to a nation of people that God had shown grace and revealed his law to. This man, however, was probably despised by his own people, especially the religious. He was a tax-collector, a contractor for the nation that had Israel under its thumb. He gets lumped in with a group often referred to as “tax collectors and sinners”. His name was Levi, or Matthew as we more commonly know him. He was cursed. He was condemned. The image of God he was created to bear was broken because of the fall. He was dead in sin.
Then one day this Eternal One stepped into history, he breathed the air we breathe, he came to do what was necessary for redemption, to do what we could not. And one day as his feet crossed over a dirty stone street, he walked by Levi’s tax booth. This was no coincidence. This had been planned from eternity past. Something of eternal proportions was happening on that day by the Sea of Galilee in the life of one individual. And as he walked by the booth, the Eternal One who had taken on flesh, Jesus, looked at Matthew, and with mercy and authority he spoke words that would change everything for this man, words of eternal implications, he commanded this sinner, “Follow me.” And you know what he did? He got up. He left everything. And he followed Jesus.
Why should he get up? What was going through his mind that would cause him to ask no questions, to make no requests, but to simply rise from his source of income and earthly security and follow this man from Nazareth? We can’t know for sure what he was thinking. But we know he knew he had a need. Even as he heard the command, something was calling inside of him. God was doing something he had planned from eternity. Matthew was awakened to his need. And we know he knew he had a need, because Jesus went with him to his house where other tax-collectors and sinners like him gathered. And those that watched, that thought God owed them his favor, those that considered themselves worthy of God’s approval, looked on and asked Jesus, “Why are you with these people?” And Jesus responded that it is the sick that need a doctor, meaning, he explained, he didn’t come to save those who consider themselves to be righteous, but those that know they are sinners.
When Jesus walked past Matthew that day and said “Follow me”, what was he asking exactly? What did he call Matthew to? He called him to life. He called him to mercy. He called him on a journey of becoming like the one who called him. He called him to have the broken image restored and to seek its restoration in others. He was called to a new identity. A new life. He was called to trust and obey his redeemer. He was called to be a disciple.
A disciple – someone who disciplines themselves to become like their teacher. Someone who submits to their teacher. One who follows – in creed and in character.
The journey Matthew was beginning is one that would not be easy. He was being called to become like the one that the world hated, because they hated God. By all indications his journey would end in his beheading in Nad-Devar, Ethiopia for the name of Jesus. But being called and loved by one who is eternal, from eternity, means that his sacrifice was not loss. Because his treasure, his life, his hope, his future, was found in following the one who loved him, wherever that may lead.
Over the next few posts we are going to see what would motivate him to be willing to do that, why this happened to him, and what waited for him on the other side of this suffering identity with his Savior. But for today I want us to only consider the beginning of it all. The foundation of a disciple of whom Matthew is just one example. The foundation of the normal Christian life. Yes, what we are going to be talking about the next few weeks are the foundation, fuel, function and future of the normal Christian life. And it is my prayer that this will challenge us, stir us, and awaken us. Perhaps some of you as you read this description today of the foundation of the normal Christian will realize that this does not describe you and you will, by God’s grace hear Jesus call “follow me” today. Perhaps some of you will see that you have only had a partial understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Perhaps some of you will have your vision refocused, be reminded of your foundation, and will therefore be helped along the journey.
To understand what it means to be a disciple, a normal Christian, we need to understand the beginning of a disciple. Because if you call yourself a disciple, a follower of Jesus, but the foundation is not there, you will fail and be without hope. The foundation is everything.
So what is the foundation of a disciple? What is the beginning of the Christian?
We will consider this in three points: Calling, Conversion, Community.
What Matthew and others (laying down nets) experienced was a calling that had two parts to it. Matthew heard the external call “Follow me” and then he responded because of an irresistible call from within.
So what is the external call? The external call is the warning of danger, the news of loss, and the announcement of rescue and restoration through Christ. It is the proclamation to rebels that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord. It is not an invitation, but a command. A command to acknowledge your sin, turn, and trust in the Savior. But it is not a call to only a one-time event, it is a call to follow.
As Jesus said, he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. Disciples begin as sinners who hear the good news of salvation. This is not good news and is not worthy of being responded to with an abandoned life if one does not first know that they are a sinner and all that entails. The call to rise and follow will not be compelling if you don’t know that you need to be rescued. Unless you know that you are broken you will not long to be clothed with the wholeness found in identification with Christ.
This external call goes out from those who have already been called. From Christ the messages flows forth from his people. We have the awesome privilege today of proclaiming Christ crucified – hanging forsaken, beaten and torn, in anguish for sin that was not his own, to open the way to life, to redemption. We proclaim the call that the nail pierced hands, pierced for our transgression, beckon to you and say, “Follow me.”
The external call is required for salvation. Paul makes clear in Romans 10 that apart from the preaching of the message of Christ no one is saved, no disciple is made. But the external call alone is not sufficient.
Many hear the external call and they respond like many responded to Jesus. They turned away, or they made excuses. Jesus told parables about this, about those who hear the call and they all have reasons not to respond. Many hear the external call, but do not respond ultimately because of the absence of an internal call which overcomes their rebellion and apathy. This is what Jesus meant when he explained why some do not respond to the external call: For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:14) I say this to highlight the fact that life of a disciple begins as a result of God’s sovereign grace that he does not owe anyone. We are completely reliant on his mercy to us because we are so hardened and blinded by our rebellion.
But the good news is this. All that the Lord calls, come! This is what Jesus means when he says things like “all that the Father give me will come to me”, and “no man can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” and “my sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me.”
I feel it is important to teach about the internal, irresistible call of God, because Jesus taught about it. And later Paul would teach about. And I think it is important to have this foundation for two reasons. First, to give you assurance if you are a disciple and second, to remind you that you are a disciple by grace. And if you are not a disciple, I don’t say this to discourage you, but to assure you that if today you will respond to the external call, you can be assured with confidence in God’s salvation because a desire to respond is the gracious work of God within in you and you have his promise that if you respond he will save you and will never let you go, because he finishes what he begins. And if you call on him in faith it is because he has begun something. The foundation of a disciple is in eternity past.
So putting the external and internal together, what is calling? It is when at the hearing of the gospel, we have the knowledge of sin, the knowledge of the Savior, awakened in us by God’s gracious inward call. Saving calling is when both occur. It is when after hearing the good news of Christ slain for sinners and risen, God declares to your darkened heart “Let there be light” and you see the glory of grace come streaming in upon your wretched soul, the beauty of Christ, the allure of him who calls you. Which makes response irresistible. A response that we call “conversion”. Conversion is the “getting up from the tax booth”. It is responding with action to the call of the Savior to follow him to life.
The proper response to the call is to get up from the table, to lay down your nets, place all your trust in Christ, and pursue him. It is abandoning hope of salvation and meaning in anything else. It is forsaking all flimsy saviors, and harsh masters, it is abandoning your quest for independence. Jesus used many examples to speak of this. Conversion is finding the pearl of great price and giving up everything to have it. It is selling all your possessions to buy a field that has a treasure buried in it. It is, as Paul experienced, counting all things as loss to know Christ – to follow him, even into suffering. It is doing what Christ commanded in his call in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.” This is what Paul is speaking of in Romans 10 when he declares that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord (repentance) and you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (faith) you will be saved.”
But why do you do it? Why are you willing to go to such radical extremes? Again, it is because of God’s gracious call. Awakening in you a sense of your need. It is because “the God who said let light shine out of darkness has shone in our hearts to give us light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Through that internal calling you are moved to see your sin, to see the Savior, to see God in his beauty that you refused to acknowledge before. You are moved to see Christ, crucified and risen and your soul cries, “I want that! I need that!”
Friends, no one is born a Disciple. No one is a Christian because they go to church and try to do good. No one is a Christian because they say they believe in Christian truth. No one is a Christian because their parents were Christians. Understanding this is of eternal importance, Christians are those who have heard the Gospel call, and responded to God’s gracious work, by repenting of their sin and trusting in Christ alone. What does that mean? Notice that Paul in Romans 10 portrays repentance as confessing Christ as Lord, that means you acknowledge who he is. That he has the right to rule your life. It is acknowledging that up to this point you have not submitted to his rightful rule. Confessing that Christ is Lord is abandoning your independence and beginning a life of submitting to him. If you have not done that, you are not converted. The second part, believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead, has to do with trusting in how Christ has dealt with your rebellion and the judgment you deserve. Paul, also in Romans, says that Christ was raised for our justification. That mean that belief in the resurrection is belief that the sin that called for your just condemnation was dealt with in the death of Christ on the cross and now as he lives, you live as well. Conversion is calling on the name of the Lord for salvation. This is not merely agreeing in your mind with the truth. It is from the heart. Read the Psalms where we see this idea of “calling on the name of the Lord” for salvation. It is always preceded by anguish, by longing, by the feeling of despair and profound need. God! Save me!
Beloved, there are many churches that are weak, that are powerless as witnesses to the truth, dim as light in the darkness, because they are churches that have few disciples, which simply means they are churches where few are converted. We often have a strange way of judging the spiritual state of churches. Churches aren’t dead because the music is boring and the people are reserved and the preacher doesn’t tell good stories. Churches are dead when the people in the church are dead, because they have never been converted. They have never responded from the heart to the call. They have never got up from the table, they have never left their nets, they have never denied themselves, taken up their cross and followed Jesus. Oh, yes, that is perhaps the most shocking description of conversion Jesus gives, “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?” (Matt. 16:24-26)
Salvation and discipleship are inseparable. People that are saved are disciples. And conversion is where the path of discipleship begins. Why? Because the aim of discipleship is that you look just like your master. That you look like Christ. We are saved so we can become like the Savior. Understand that there is no such thing as casual Christianity. It is either your life or you have no part in it. Don’t put your hope in a one-time experience, because the life of a disciple is a life of constantly taking your cross, it is a life of ongoing faith in Christ’s atoning work, a life of repentance and submission to his Lordship. Because we fail, because the life of a disciple is a journey to becoming like the one who called us. The proof of our calling and conversion is not in what we say, but is found in shouldered crosses and lives that look more and more like Jesus.
Conversion, is the glad response of the heart to hearing the Gospel, by which we embrace Jesus as Savior and acknowledge him as Lord.
This takes place within. But just as all of creation displays the glory of God, and nearly every spiritual reality has a visible manifestation, so also in connection with our conversion the life of the disciple is marked by the sign of baptism.
We are visible creatures. What we see communicates things to us. And in his wisdom Christ commanded baptism as the introductory sign of what has occurred in our hearts. To show that we have to turned from sin to God, to show that by the power of God we have gone from darkness to light, from death to life.
The command we will consider more fully later is found in Matthew 28, where we see that we are redeemed to redeem – disciples of Jesus are to go to all people and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Acts, when Peter preached the gospel after Pentecost, the people that were convicted asked how they should respond, and he replied by saying they needed to repent and be baptized. Going down in the water in baptism was meant to display the death of our old, sinful, condemned self by it being united with Christ through faith in his death; rising from the waters displays our rising united with Christ by faith to new life, free from the curse of sin and its soul-destroying power. It shows that I am one with Christ – his work, my work; his life, my life. It says that I am a disciple and that you can now expect that I will look more and more like the one I have been identified with in Baptism. What baptism displays in a moment is to be seen all throughout our lives.
But why Baptism? Why is this outward act necessary? And that leads us to the final point on the foundation of a disciple.
Why baptism? Because though God calls individuals, he calls them into a community. From the very beginning the display of God’s glory in humanity was always meant to be in community. Because God has called a people, and not just persons, to himself, he has always given them forms which unite them in a visible, tangible sense. Ways of communicating and even experiencing spiritual reality – we call these sacraments. And at the front door, at the foundation of discipleship, is baptism. Through baptism you display to the other disciples witnessing that you are one with Christ in his death and resurrection, which means that you are one with them.
Christ set the pattern for discipleship by calling and teaching people. Now the church, the community of disciples, as his body on the earth, is God’s means of discipleship, his instrument of redemption, of renovation, of shaping his people more and more to look like Jesus.
This has some important implications on how we think of the local church which is a visible manifestation of a greater spiritual reality which joins all believers from all time. Because being a member of a church is for people that have visibly identified through baptism as disciples of Jesus, church is for disciples. And you can’t be a disciple without being a part of a church. Yes, I do not believe, on the basis of scripture, that you can live the life of a disciple apart from identity with a real group of fellow disciples. (Of course there may be cases of sickness or imprisonment which keep a Christian from a community of Christians, but such disfellowship should never be voluntary.)
The natural outflow of conversion and baptism in the book of Acts was gathering for fellowship, prayer, teaching, and communion. And the number of those gathered increased as more were added, through what? Baptism.
The assumption of the Bible, especially in our case the New Testament, is that the life of a disciple is a life lived in intentional community with other disciples helping each other move onward and upward toward conformity to their master. This is what Paul teaches in his letter to the Ephesians. We have been saved, and lumped together as a people being built up by the Holy Spirit into a display of the glory and presence of God on the earth, showing forth his character. The means of displaying God’s glory and wisdom is the church, those with a common Lord, hope, baptism, a common Father, filled with the same Spirit, gathering together to be equipped to minister to each other. To what end? Maturity in Christ! Looking like our master, the one who bought us. We will deal with this more later, but it is sufficient for now to say at the foundation of a disciple is his identity with the church, the body Christ, the dwelling place of the Spirit. The normal Christian life begins by being placed in a community of loving accountability that carries us through to the end.
Over the next few posts we are going to see what that looks like, what motivates us, and what the goal is in the life of a disciple. But please know this now, if we don not understand the foundation of a disciple, we will not understand what motivates a disciple. The life of a Christian is an active one, we were created in Christ Jesus for good works. We are in our actions to look more and more like Jesus, in light of that it is important that we never lose sight of the truth that this life we have as disciples is all of grace, that it is in fact a blessed privilege that we do not deserve. Any cost should pale in comparison to the joy that being a disciple yields. And a large part of that joy is acknowledging the grace behind our call. Remembering, in the failure and perhaps especially in the victory, that you are a disciple because you were loved by God before time began. And he didn’t love you because he saw what a good disciple you would make, no, he loved you according to his own sovereign grace. As a husband in a love-marriage chooses his bride, so he chose you. This what Jesus reminded his disciples of in John 15, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” That truth is the ground of our humility and our hope. The cost of discipleship is high, but we must realize that the cost was not first and foremost yours, but Christ’s. This foundation must be understood. If you simply try to follow Jesus, you will be in more despair than ever. To follow Christ, to be identified with him, is not earned, but given. It is a privilege bought by his blood. If you don’t understand the good news, the grace that is behind the call, you will not be able to endure the cost of discipleship.
Listen to the way Paul speaks to believers in Thessalonica, writing to them he says “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” They had a right foundation and it was visible in their glad reception of the gospel, in their repentance, in their imitation of the Lord even in affliction, and in their proclamation of the Gospel. We see in this passage the root and fruit of discipleship. From God’s sovereign, loving choice, to the external call, the internal call, conversion, and all of this in the context of community.
(This post is adapted from a sermon from August 2016)