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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

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Evangelism

Undermining Discipleship, By Focusing On Discipleship

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.

 

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A Good Thing Gone Bad – Introduction

Introduction

The warfare that we wage, is a spiritual warfare. One that is primarily a matter of truth and falsehood, according to the Scriptures.[i] It can be surprising how much of the material in the New Testament is polemical and how often the exhortation is to stand firm on truth, hold fast to doctrine, to make a good a confession. Since that horrific day in Eden that mankind was plunged into depravity there are forces at work, taking truth and twisting it, taking something that is good and misusing it, drawing people into this cycle of taking what God has created and morphing it into something that is a god itself. God gives us a monument of his glory in the Gospel and we take it as a token of our worth.

The history of the church is littered with extremism and complacency, with antinomianism and legalism, with passiveness and judgmentalism. Every revival has resulted in residual excessiveness and strange doctrine –ranging from the bizarre to the coldly indifferent. Every reformation has resulted in radicalism – both to the side of legalism and antinomianism. The reason for this is the war that we wage. In fact we should expect heresy to grow around the triumph of truth and for foolishness to arise around Spirit-driven fervor. Why? Because since the Fall there has been a war against truth. We have a real enemy who is “the father of lies”[ii]. And he is a liar who knows truth when he sees it and will stop at nothing to undermine it. He is subtle. He is cunning. And he is sinister. He is the enemy of the truth.

The church harms itself when it thinks that spiritual warfare is primarily about what goes bump in the night. The enemy knows he cannot beat God, so he tries to rob glory from him, and what is the greatest display of the glory of God? It is his Gospel, “the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God.”[iii]

In the garden, Satan went after the ones made in God’s image, meant to reflect his glory. Defacing those images was the closest thing that he could do to diminishing the unfaltering, unapproachable glory of God himself. Since that time God has been unfolding his magnificent plan of redemption, by which to restore those fallen image bearers into monuments of his glory, a glory that would shine more brightly than ever could in Eden – the glory of his grace.

When Jesus came on the scene he shone with the radiance of the Father’s glory.[iv] Satan tried to deface that too and when he was unsuccessful he tried to outright destroy the image, but in doing so he unleashed with fury a light beyond compare. The perfection of God’s love and justice in a single, macabre scene on a Roman cross in Palestine. As the temple veil tore and the ground shook the enemy likely knew he was doomed, especially as fallen man looked on and said, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”[v] God’s glory was vindicated and his triumph guaranteed when on the third day following this crucifixion for the first time in history the incarnate Son of God burst the bonds of death with immortality, never to die again. Truth would prevail. God’s purposes were relentless and his glory would not be diminished.

In the coming days under the New Covenant the apostle were keenly aware that they had a foe that until the final battle would not cease his attacks on the glory of the Creator. Paul warns with certainty the Ephesian elder that wolves will come and devour the flock.[vi] The warfare would continue to be a warfare between truth and error. For it is in truth, namely the truth of the Gospel, that the glory of God is displayed in brilliant purity. Paul urged with passion for Timothy to guard the Gospel.[vii] He rebuked the Galatians for accepting another “gospel”.[viii] Until Christ returns the church has been given a deposit to proclaim, to live, and to guard. It is the Gospel. And every assault of Satan, at the end of the day, is an assault against this Gospel. Why? Caught it yet? Because it is there that the glory of God is most fully seen.

In the midst of this battle, the church which is a “pillar and buttress of the truth”[ix] is not without its scars. The study of church history shows two things: that there is a war against truth and that truth ultimately prevails. We see the warfare against truth in that with every true reformation in the church there is extremism on one hand and stagnation on the other, with every revival there is excessiveness on hand and coldness on the other. This is not the fault of the Gospel, in fact, it proves that the Gospel is still going forward because war is being waged. Wherever truth is, there will be the battle.

And that is the topic of this book or blog post series or personal rant, whatever it turns out to be. I believe that the truth is going forward, as it should, but there is a battle being raged. In some places the battle is very obvious, but actually those engagements, while important, are not the things that are the most troubling. In fact, those great battles grow out of the covert operations which go not only unnoticed, but applauded. It is the battle fought by those “clothed as angels of light” preaching another gospel[x], it is those wolves dressed in very convincing sheep’s clothing. It is those who believe they do God a service with what they preach. And most tragic is the damage done by those sheep that are charmed, duped, and downright deceived into swallowing Gospel that has been laced with poison.

We rejoice that the Gospel goes forward, but if we are not alert, we could end up doing more harm than good.

[i] II Corinthians 10:4-6
[ii] John 8:44
[iii] II Corinthians 4:3
[iv] John 1:14
[v] Mark 15:49
[vi] Acts 20:2
[vii] 1 Timothy 6:2
[viii] Galatians 1:6
[ix] 1 Timothy 3:15
[x] Galatians 1:8, II Corinthians 11:14; We will deal later with what makes something another Gospel.

Mutated Seed Produces Mutated Plants

“The sower sows the word.” (Mark 4:14 ESV)

“Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:7 ESV)

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11 ESV)

Harsh climate, bugs, soil deficiencies are all problems that farmers face in their attempt to grow a profitable crop. Factors outside of the control of the farmer can make their task a frustrating one, even devastating. For centuries this was just part of sowing seed. There was no modern equipment or genetic science, the potential for life was entirely in the seed. All the sower of that seed could do was cast the potential upon the ground and pray to God that it would be fruitful. In our time the progress in the field of genetics has made it possible to mutate seed in order to make it more fruitful and in some ways to counteract for a hostile environment. This often yields results, but the problem is that mutated seeds produce mutated plants. The final product is changed because the seed is changed. Just as farmers will use genetically mutated seeds in order to counteract for a hostile environment, so Christians, entrusted with the seed of God’s word, can be tempted to offer a mutated word in an attempt to make a seed that the hostile heart-soil won’t reject on contact. Many well-meaning people do this by changing how they introduce truths or by adapting terminology, dressing up the message. They will borrow from the religion they are engaging in a way which cloaks the seed in a type of “insecticide” or “herbicide”, all with the argument that the seed just needs to be able to take root. We see this especially in evangelism to those of other religions but also in seeker-sensitive preaching, in entertainment driven ministry, and even in the way we share our faith with those around us. We try to rescue the message from its folly and we try to smooth down the stone of stumbling that it is. The frightening thing about mutated seed is that it may look like it is working, but it is producing mutated plants. The seed of the word has been entrusted to us by God. Our job as the church is to sow the word, and when little plants spring up we water it with the word. The growth is God’s department. When we try to put our focus on “fruitful practices” we are trying to reverse engineer something that only the Spirit of God can do. Our job is to be faithful to the revelation we have been given, constantly working to separate out the chaff from our bag of seed by going deeper in the word. This makes spreading the word very simple. Take the message that has been passed down and pass it on. It’s not rocket science. Planting is simply planting. The potential for life is in the plain seed of the word, all of the other things are factors outside of our control. Don’t judge whether a ministry practice is right by how effective it is. Take the seed, the glorious gospel of the kingdom, pray, spread it everywhere, and pray some more. Those that God has prepared to receive it, will receive it.

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