Did you know that it is possible to focus on discipleship in such a way that undermines discipleship? I say that understanding that one of the things that has plagued evangelicalism in the past century, perhaps stemming from revivalism, is that the church has focused so much on decisions for Christ, on “conversions”, that it has failed to “make disciples” as we have been commanded. The reason that has happened is multifaceted and I won’t try and address that right now, but one must suspect the message that was being preached that led to those conversions if discipleship was not a natural overflow of those decisions. And it is that “natural overflow” that I am concerned with when I say that it is possible to focus so much on discipleship that we undermine discipleship.
It is true, the magnitude of the damage done when the aim is not discipleship, I have seen it with my own eyes. A mission team rolls into a village in India, presents the gospel, ask everyone if they want to go to heaven, many say yes, you mark down the decisions. Tada! Mission accomplished. Off course not much, if anything, has been accomplished because a church has not been planted, the biblical context in which discipleship happens. This is a problem. But it seems we could have an overreaction to the conversionism that has marked many evangelistic and missions efforts, an overreaction that would lead to a problem just as bad. We could overreact in a way that results in a kind of discipleship that is not what Jesus had in mind when he commissioned his church (Matthew 28:19)
This requires us to ask the question, what is discipleship? The simple answer we usually give is “following Jesus.” This is not wrong. But it is incomplete. It leads to many more questions. Because if we simply call people to follow Jesus, we could inadvertently end up simply calling them to trade one religious system for a another one that offers a better deal. And trust me, I see people do that all the time! We could look at discipleship as what Dallas Willard has rightly called “long obedience in the same direction”. But this too is incomplete because it doesn’t deal with the root and nurture of discipleship which is essential.
I will argue that biblical speaking, discipleship is:
Love for God expressed in glad obedience to the Lord Jesus
And I want to argue that the distinctives in that definition are immensely important. To acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and his truth is right, over against secularism, or Islam, or Buddhism, is good. But it will not end in the kind of discipleship Jesus calls us to. It is not enough for a person to say Jesus is God and to begin to follow his life and conform themselves to Scripture. All obedience is not good or acceptable, but only obedience that is glad obedience because it is an overflow of love for God.
So the question we have to ask is, “Where does that love come from?”
It comes from the knowledge that God first loved us (1 John 4:19). But why is understanding that God loved us first significant? Because at “first” we were not disciples, we were not even trying. We were enemies of God, sinners against Him, incapable of pleasing obedience. And yet, despite our situation “he loved us and gave His Son as the wrath-bearing sacrifice for our sins”, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”(1 John 4:10; Romans 5:8,10)
It is this knowledge that ignites love for God in our hearts that leads to glad obedience to the Lord Jesus and this is true discipleship.
So true discipleship begins with the understanding that I have sinned against God, not cognitively, but with conviction from the heart. It begins with a glimpse of the glory of God in Christ that makes the heart desperate for relief from sin’s guilt and power. And then with gladness the heart embraces the good news that despite my helpless, hateful state “ God, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins made us alive together with Christ.”(Ephesians 2:4)
When like David in Psalm 51 you come to know the bone-crushing reality of your guilt, and you receive the good news that Jesus was crushed for you, this leads you to gladly embrace him as Savior and bow to him as Lord – and this is discipleship. Discipleship is the journey that begins with the cry “Woe is me! I am ruined!” and “Brothers, what must we do?” or “What must I do to be saved?” It is the life that begins with calling upon to the Lord to be saved at the preaching of the word of Christ. (Isaiah 6:6, Acts 2:37,16:30; Romans 10:13)
So what does this have to do with focusing on discipleship in a way that undermines discipleship? Discipleship begins with conversion. Despite what some methods in missions seem to be promoting these days, someone does not become a disciple by osmosis. I fear that in our desire for results and in our legitimate desire to move away from “conversionism” (I don’t know if that is a word), we have undermined discipleship by erasing the clear and shining line that is crossed when someone goes from darkness to light, when someone is transported from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s Son, when someone comes alive, when the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” shines into the heart to give the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:9; Colossians 1:13; Ephesians 2:4; II Corinthians 4:6)
I am convinced that true discipleship begins with sound, clear, obvious conversion. Why? Because of how the Bible testifies that disciples are made and motivated.
If we lose sight of conversion as how disciples are made and an integral to how they are motivated, it is possible that we end up with people who have traded one religious system for another religious system. You end up with faulty discipleship because it is not motivated by the kind of radical, life-altering love that is infused into the soul by the Holy Spirit when we come to see that Christ suffered and died in our place to bring us to God. (Romans 5)
Examples of this kind of false discipleship can be seen all throughout John’s gospel, but nowhere is it more clear than in John 8. There were new disciples, listening to Jesus’ teaching, following him around. But what was the problem? They didn’t see their real need. So when Jesus confronted their sin head-on, they turned against him. I fear that much that we do in the name of evangelism, and especially in missions, calls people to follow Jesus, expecting they will move to repentance and faith by osmosis of some sort without ever bringing them to the point of seeing their hopelessness, the depth of their sin, their real need. And this means they aren’t brought to a place of crisis where they call on the name of the Lord as one who is desperate for saving grace. Which means they never truly become disciples: those whose lives are marked by love for God expressed in glad obedience to the Lord Jesus.
So perhaps a better definition of discipleship would be: Obeying God because you love God, loving God because he first loved you, and knowing he loved you because he sent his Son to be the wrath-bearing sacrifice for your sins.
There is a reason Paul, and John and Peter, build their calls to obedience upon the truths of the gospel. In Ephesians, before Paul says a word about ethics, about action, he prays his readers will understand the power at work to save them, he prays that they would comprehend the magnitude of the love of Christ and in between those two prayers he unpacks the glories of the gospel and he does this because he knows that getting that from the heart is what makes real disciples. (Ephesians 1:19;3:17-18)
So how do we keep from focusing on discipleship so much that we undermine discipleship? We preach the gospel, we call people to repent and believe in the good news, and then we help direct them to understand what that good news means for their lives, what shape love takes as it overflows out of their hearts toward the One who loved them first.