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Changed By Glory

"And we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." II Cor. 3:18

Month

August 2017

Cruciform Marriage

When an argument is made for God’s design for marriage as the best pattern for married life, perhaps in the vein of Ephesians 5, people are quick to point out that many people who do not follow the Bible enjoy long unions where both people are fulfilled. We need to admit this is true, and even be thankful for it. God has designed marriage to be something that last “until death do us part” and when this happens in a broken world, we should give thanks! But at the same time we need to acknowledge that as Christians we are not pragmatists, not even in marriage. So in other words, just because a marriage works doesn’t mean it is healthy, just because it is happy does not mean it is holy,  just because a marriage last doesn’t mean that it is a reflection of what marriage is supposed to be.

The world most commonly says that a marriage works through compromise. Successful relationships, many will say, is about living with an understanding of “give and take”. This philosophy when held to can indeed make marriages last a long time. And when we hear it, it seems right and fair, like a good formula for a successful marriage. But this is where I think we need to slow down and remember that just because something works doesn’t mean it is how it should be done. We need, rather, to be asking what God has designed for marriage and furthermore, we need to consider how marriage should look in light of the good news of free salvation through Jesus Christ.

So back to the most common pragmatic approach to making marriage work. Compromise. Give and take. When held up in light of Scripture, is this really a biblical philosophy for marriage? I am arguing that it is not. Because think about it. The strategy of “compromise” for an enduring marriage is built on maintaining the union by feeding the individual selfishness of the two parties involved. “Okay, fine. You can go bowling on Thursdays, but that means I get a day at the spa”. Or “Okay, fine. You can buy that dress but I get to buy those new tires I have been wanting”. It is not always that obvious, or even put into words, but you get the picture. Marriages work, or I should say, they happily maintain in this way. But those involved ultimately remained unchanged. And for Christians, this is unacceptable. It is unacceptable for any meaningful relationship – be it the church or marriage or friendship – to be maintained by placating the inner pride and selfishness of the other person involved.

Christian marriage isn’t about maintaining for the sake of keeping the marriage going. Christian marriage is about transformation. If the man and woman were originally created to complement one another in their calling, Christian marriage follows this same design. And what is the calling of the Christian? Ultimately, it is to be conformed into the image of the Son of God. Yes, into the image of Jesus who in love offered up himself as a substitute sacrifice for sinners! So Christian marriage serves the purpose of our calling as Christians – to be conformed into the image of Christ, to reject the status quo, to throw off the tyranny of sin and this through the same means that Christ did. Through death.

Marriage means death. That is how Christian marriage works. Through glad death for the joy set before us. Through the realization that unless a grain falls into the ground and dies it cannot bring forth life. When a marriage is marked, not by the mutual compromise of two individuals, but through the death of two that have become one – God is glorified as the marriage speaks to what God is like.

Or to put it in biblical terms from Ephesians 5, the husband dies, the wife submits. In the end it looks like the Gospel – it is cruciform. It requires not that they meet in the middle, not that each becomes weak, but that each dies. Both the leadership of Jesus and the submission of Jesus, both driven by love, led to his being offered up to death. But what is the result? Glory.

And I want to argue that glory is the result in a marriage when a marriage takes the shape of the cross.

Think of it this way.

As the husband goes the way of the cross in his role as head in the marriage and the wife goes the way of the cross in submission to her husband both are honored. When the husband lays down his life for the spiritual flourishing of his bride, she is uplifted, she shines. When the wife dies to herself by submitting to her husband, he is uplifted, he shines. And with each passing moment and year, taking the shape of a cross, their relationship builds through death into in a Gospel-gleaming monument that stands in defiance to a fallen creation that maintains itself ultimately through self-preservation.

In the original creation, marriage that reflected the Maker would have been marked by a self-giving generosity, joy out of seeking the good of the spouse, reflecting the generosity and self-giving that God showed man and woman, which would ultimate redound to the glory of God and the lead to the good of creation. And now marriage in the history of redemption is a reflection of that same divine generosity, that same grace, now taking the shape of a cross.

Seeing this and pursuing this in marriage may actually make your marriage more difficult in some respects than the compromise-based marriages in the world. As you, husband or wife, pursue cruciform marriage, such an approach may not be reciprocated and as you die to self with no acknowledgment from your spouse, you will be tempted in that moment to climb down from the cross and return to a “better”, “easier”, “more realistic” strategy for maintaining your marriage. But I pray, as a married person for other married people, that we will learn to stay there and endure, trusting in the joy that awaits on the other side of the pain. A cruciform marriage will be difficult, it is in the shape of a cross after all! But in the end it will be a marriage that is what marriage was made to be, it will be a marriage that makes sense in light of the gospel, it will be a marriage that glorifies God and is glorified.

 

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As Long As It’s Green: a ministry lesson from my sad lawn

Where I live green grass is a prized possession. In fact, green grass, green trees, and the accompanying freshness to the air are rare things. The general lack of color and staleness can drive you to the point to where anything green is welcome.

This was my attitude toward my small lawn last year as summer was in the midst of its fury. Water is expensive, care takes time, but I tried. I went out every day and judicially watered. But as I did this, I noticed that grass wasn’t the only green thing growing. Other greens things were growing, weeds, some even with thorns. And I remember joking to my wife, “As long as it’s green, I’ll take it!”

Fast forward about six months. Portions of my lawn are green. From a distance you get that refreshing glimpse of life on the parched earth. But getting close you realize that I have a problem. There is very little grass. And one day as I was praying and watering my weeds, I was struck with the danger of having this same attitude in ministry, to look at my church or the pioneer field I have been called to and think, “As long as it’s green!”

How did my lawn get to the place of being green but unhealthy? Filled with weeds and thorns?

I) I was looking for the wrong results

I was more concerned with my lawn appearing green, than I was with the health of my grass. Perhaps if I done the patient work of nurturing the health of the grass there would have eventually been little place for the weeds. In my desire to see green I failed to see that the long-term goal was not greenness but the health of the grass.

So also in ministry we fall into the mistake of seeking the green rather than seeking the grass. We are content as long as there are results. The problem is that what we judge as results may not be what they appear from a distance. The seats may be full on Sunday, but is discipleship happening? Churches may be multiplying rapidly, but is conversion unclear? People may be excited, but is their excitement based on any kind of doctrinal depth? People may be caring, but is there a disturbing lack of holiness?

I have seen many pastors and missionaries so desperate for any results that they have essentially redefined what the goal of ministry is. They have veered from a biblical understanding of the gospel, of conversion, of discipleship, of the church – all because they just want some results, some green. Much like I redefined what a healthy lawn looks like, because I just wanted a green patch in a desert place.

The other thing, which relates to ministry, that led to the demise of my lawn was…

II) I wasn’t doing the difficult work of weeding

Out of fear of the bare spots that would show, the brown, parched earth that would be exposed, I left those weeds and continued to nourish them in their growth as weeds. As a result the good work of watering was actually being wasted. I was spending time and money to maintain something that would eventually rob my lawn of its health.

So also in ministry, we can end up encouraging the growth of weeds by failing to slow down and do the painful, patient work of persevering in faithful preaching and discipleship. Sometimes ministry is as much about weed clearing as it is grass growing. As the word of God is faithfully preached, the gospel is clearly heralded, and the hard work of discipleship is maintained, this may lead to many green sprigs proving to be nothing more than weeds. This can be one of the hardest and most heartbreaking aspects of ministry, but it is there and it is real. And we must not allow the pain and the desire for “green” to lead us to jettison what it is that we have been called to do.

The bottom line is that because of my desire for a quick and easy green lawn, I didn’t do the patient, dirty work of weeding and ultimately is was because I was looking for the wrong results. And the end result was something that was green, but unhealthy. The grass was nearly no more.

So what are some ways to avoid this sad result:

  1. Don’t assume that results indicate good practices

One of the biggest lies propagated by missionaries and church planters is that results (whatever that may be defined as) indicate good practices. Just because something is green does not mean it is healthy. So you may have planted 10 churches that have planted 30, which have planted 90. What are you calling a church? What are you calling a member of that church? And how did it come about? One of the greatest tragedies in missions is that the wisdom of God has been jettisoned and the Scriptures have been abused in order to justify the unbiblical means which bring about these “results”. Stick to what God has told you to do without twisting the Scriptures in order to justify your pragmatism.

 

  1. Do the nurturing work of meaningful discipleship

There is no short-cut to a healthy ministry. I have seen ministries that will point out how this generation wants everything now, without even realizing how much that has permeated their approach to ministry. New programs and better music may not be bad things, but they can’t replace the slow and steady work of discipleship. Don’t mistake leadership ability or willingness to lead a Bible study as an indication that someone is ready for either of those things. Know those that you minister to, know whether they are “grass or just green” by spending time with them in the word, calling them to respond to it in loving response to the love of God. 

  1. The hard part: Don’t let what will damage the community remain

1 Corinthians 5 contains in it instructions for the difficult work of what to do when what is green turns out to be a weed. You remove it in the hope that it will return renewed, exhibiting the evidence of spiritual life. Many churches are active and full, but if you put it under the lens of Scripture you will see that there is little evidence of spiritual life. Paul warns that a little yeast effects the entire lump of dough, this is a call to carefully examine our ministries and the supposed fruit they are producing. And it is for love of souls and jealousy for God’s glory that we must not allow people to be deceived into thinking they are something they are not. That means inspecting who is brought into church membership and being willing to remove someone from that membership when their life lacks the evidence of being converted.

  1. Know what fruit (or grass in this case) is supposed to look like

This helps understand and define the last point that was made. We need to understand that a true disciple of Jesus exhibits their genuineness by their confession and life of  “repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ”. I think it is helpful to consider the words used in Romans 10. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord (acknowledge rebellion and repent) and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (put all your hope in the cross-work of Christ) you will be saved.” There must be clear sorrow for sin, a desire to be free from it, and evidence in love and gratitude that the person is trusting in the Son of God alone for salvation.

  1. Understand what the objective is and be willing to engage in the long-term, consistent, prayerful labor that it will take to reach that objective

II Corinthians 2:15-17 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. 

II Corinthians 4:5 – “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” 

These are two very helpful texts for understanding our objective. Is the aim to make disciples, as we see in Matthew 28? Yes. To baptize and instruct? Yes. But the foundation of that is this understanding that Paul gives us. We speak Christ. We don’t manipulate, we don’t deviate, we don’t practice cunning. We simply, albeit foolishly, speak Christ. The objective is to make Christ known – beyond that is all in God’s hands. That is going to be one of the biggest things that keeps you from seeking the green above the grass, understanding the bounds of your ability and responsibility.

I should have understood that the objective was not a green lawn, but the sowing and maintaining of the grass. So also in ministry we must understand that our objective is not what only God can do, but what God has given us to do. Understanding that will help us focus, despite the results, on what God has given us to do rather than wasting time and doing damage trying to replicate what only God can do. 

Just because something looks alive doesn’t mean that it is. You have to look at its fruit and its leaves. When someone says their ministry is bearing a lot of fruit maybe they need to ask “what kind? What are we calling fruit? Is it grass or just anything that is green?

But, before I close this post, I must say on the flip side that it could be that your yard is just brown (metaphorically speaking), because there is no care, no urgency – just plain ministerial laziness. Laziness is just as or more dangerous than is pragmatism.

This is an exhortation to faithful attendance to what God has given us to do. It could be that you “lawn” will be brown all your life due to many factors outside of your control. I have this one section of that same sad lawn that just stays dry and brown no matter how much I seed it and water it. And it is in that situation in ministry that understanding your responsibility as a worker in God’s vineyard is so important! You pour out your life like sprigs on the dry ground, you water, you pull up weeds, you water some more, but you can’t control what the soil is like. You can’t give the miracle of life. You can just supply the material and that is all you are called to do. Understanding this is crucial, lest you find yourself longing for anything that is green, smiling and rejoicing in a patch of thriving weeds and thorns.

The Foundation of A Disciple

Introduction

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.

Calling

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.

Conversion

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.

 Community

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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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