As Christians we can sometimes swing too far into works, or too far into grace, depending on what our religious persuasion is. Some churches permit – and even encourage – carrying around a load of guilt as a perverse way of showing our gratitude for being given the gift of holiness and eternal life. Conversely, other churches are so focused on the power of grace, it seems to preclude the necessity for any sort of repentance, because repentance might hint at works – and we are most definitely not saved by works. We are saved by grace (or faith) alone.
I am exaggerating, of course. And rarely would such a thing actively be taught in the pulpit; but I know the flavours exist, both from what I’ve observed, and also from what people have told me of their own experiences.
Jesus is very clear that salvation comes from him, and that we cannot earn it (which is grace), but he also states very clearly how we are supposed to live as his follower – and that is expressed in what we do. Although I often hear an emphasis on the words “we are saved by our faith alone,” the only Scripture where the words “faith” and “alone” appear in the Bible together is in James 2:24
The study of discipleship is one of the basic, equipping studies we do in our church, and this post is based on that study.
First of all, did you know that the word Christian appears in the Bible only 3 times? Christians were more likely to be called “disciples,” “saints,” or “followers of the Way” than they were Christians. In fact, if you look in Acts 11:25-27 –
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
you see that disciples were only called Christians after the persecution scattered them to cities all over the Middle East and Europe. I remember hearing that it happened about a decade after the resurrection, but I can’t find anything to support that fact. Still, there were a number of years when Christians existed, but the word Christian wasn’t even invented to describe them yet.
Today, we use the word Christian loosely. It can mean “not Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist.” It can be because we were born in a “Christian” nation. It can be because we were baptised as a baby. We attend church on the major holidays. We attend church every Sunday. The definition to describe a Christian is wide.
However, after Jesus’ resurrection, being a Christian often carried a death sentence; and it was not a label easily worn.
So let’s remove the idea that “Christian” carries with it all the privileges of God’s holy nation in the same way an American passport carries with it the privileges (or curse, as some might see it, if I’m being unbiased) of living in America; and let’s look at what Jesus had to say about being his disciple, since we now see that – in order to be a Christian – you need to be a disciple of Jesus.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:23-26)
Jesus expects something of us if we want to follow him. First of all, we do have a choice because he says “whoever wants to be my disciple” and that shows he knows that not everybody will. But those of us who do want to follow him have to, first of all, deny ourselves. That means we can’t allow ourselves to lie, gossip, cheat, swear, eat or drink in excess, involve in sexual impurity – the list goes on. If Jesus wouldn’t do it, we’re not supposed to do it.
Of course we all have our particular weaknesses that are hard to deny. Mine is excessive eating and I’m constantly striving to overcome that area of my life. But we can’t accept the excuses “well I’m not Jesus” or “I’m only human” as a carte blanche to avoid striving daily towards repentance.
Second of all, he says we have to pick up our cross daily. In those days, carrying your cross had a very undesirable implication. It meant you were going to suffer a painful, humiliating death. Jesus equated that with being his follower – a painful (sometimes embarrassing) death to self. And we’re supposed to do this . . . daily. Being a Christian is a daily thing, not a Sunday thing.
In Luke 14:25-33 (although we’re only going to look at 25-27) Jesus repeats the message of carrying our cross.
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Are you shocked that Jesus would tell you to hate? There is nothing in this world we can love more than him if we want to be his disciple, and that includes our own children. That means that if our family is pulling us away from following him, we have to choose Jesus over our family, even if it seems like we hate our family as a result.
Jesus, himself, went through this. In his early ministry days, his mother and brothers went to take charge of him because they thought he had gone crazy (Mark 3). And he basically left them outdoors and told his followers that his true family were those who did the will of God. This rejection must have felt like hate to his family because their concerns were treated as unimportant.
And yet we know that two of his brothers became disciples (those who wrote the books of James and Jude), and we see that Jesus took care of his mother’s needs even when he was dying on the cross. When his family wasn’t trying to prevent him from following God, they must have felt his intense love in such a way that inspired all of them to become his disciples. We have to hate our family by making their concerns less than that of Jesus. We need to love our family and care for them the way Jesus cared for his.
Here are more of Jesus’ words in Luke 9:57-62 concerning discipleship.
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
He said to another man, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”
Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
Imagine how untidy and crooked your row would be if you pushed the plow forward while looking backwards. We’re not going to make very successful disciples if we keep longing to return to the world we just left behind. And there is no way Jesus is Lord if the first words to come out of our mouths are, “but first let me.”
The man who wants to bury his father is not asking for the days it would take to perform the ceremony. According to the custom of the time, he’s asking to go back and wait around while his ageing father finishes his life before burying him and deciding to follow Jesus. Jesus’ unequivocal answer is always – if you want to be my disciple, nothing else can come first. There are no excuses.
There are other Scriptures that fit well with this theme study, but I’m just going to include one more. John 13:34-35
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
As Jesus’ disciple we must love one another. There is no room for hatred in the church – gossip, slander, ostracising, lack of forgiveness, lack of mercy, lack of grace, delighting in someone’s downfall, coldness, harshness, exclusion, rejection. No. As Jesus’ disciples we participate in none of these things. We love as Jesus loved us – by serving us – the way Jesus washed his disciples’ feet – and by dying for us on a cross.
Our salvation always stemmed from the fact that we are loved, and nothing else in heaven or on earth will stand in the way of our redemption. The only thing we can offer Jesus in return is our own love and obedience to him. This is not works; yet without it, Jesus’ grace is impotent because we are not participating in the relationship in a way that honours our Father.
And that’s what discipleship is.
“If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15)
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