Chapter 6 – Discipleship

6: Discipleship

Emergent churches argue that Christians must embrace the mystery of Jesus, not constrict Him to facts and details. However, as many who consider themselves missional but not emergent counter, how can you know someone about whom you do not know any facts?[1] Many sports ministries have avoided this question entirely by constricting Jesus to someone who constantly spoke in sports metaphors or by focusing on Paul’s words, a goldmine for sports language. Where traditional modern Christians have gone too far to put Jesus into a knowable box, too many postmoderns have gone too far to describe Christianity as a journey with Jesus with no destination, and too many sports ministries have described the Christian life as a race to win. At the same time, even modern evangelists and pastors have catered to the modern crowd that wants things simple and clear.

Many student athletes have fallen victim to this problem as well, believing a gospel that is far from complete. The gospel has been reduced to a simple prayer, a checkbox, or a card. A gospel that does not go far past a simple prayer will never lead to true life change that Jesus says will mark His followers.[2] This is not to say that accepting Christ does not result from simple faith, which scripture clearly teaches that it does, but to make the point that Jesus knows nothing of praying a simple prayer and continuing to live life exactly the same. Much of the emerging movement is an effort to break out of the reductionist gospel because postmodern people recognize that spirituality cannot be neat and tidy and believe life and religion to be too messy to fit into a box. Real Christianity understands that God is not simple but also that God is not a complete mystery or only a journey. To understand how to save Christian athletes from mediocre, relativistic, cold, and constricting faith, we must understand the journey and the facts, the unknowable and the knowable, the race, the prize, the battle, and the silence. Christians must not settle for an easy faith or one that answers every question perfectly or one that relates everything to a sports metaphor like it is the correct lens through which to view all things spiritual. Though many questions can be answered, nobody should feel that they can answer every question that may arise regarding faith, salvation, sin, or God. To do so would be express to the world that the Christian has God completely understood, which is both impossible and prideful. The postmodern world will have none of this.

Though this shift in thinking may bring the modern thinker no small amount of discomfort, perhaps this shift will bring the Church closer to biblical Christianity. There is no biblical distinction between a follower of Jesus, a disciple of Jesus, and a Christian. Christians were called such because they followed Christ, which is no simple checklist-type activity. One Jesus’ final commands recorded in scripture is that the apostles “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…” indicating that everyone who chose to follow the Way of Jesus would be a disciple of Jesus.[3] If every Christian is supposed to be a disciple, perhaps the modern twist on Christianity has made the whole thing too simple.

The Christian life is meant to be transformative, a journey and a destination that begins with a call from God. It is an experience where newness occurs at salvation and transformation happens daily. Too often the American church tended to one of two directions. One direction is teaching Christians that all that is necessary is mental assent to the fact of Jesus for salvation. We will see that this is not the picture Jesus paints with His disciples. This direction often encourages Americans to become Christians to get something. Jesus is portrayed as a cosmic vending machine and people can come to Him to get health, wealth, a better marriage, better children, less debt, happiness, healing of the mind, and many other positive things. The problem is that this is never the picture in the Bible of why someone should come to Christ. Humanity is called to Christ to gain Christ for the glory of God. Yes, the Christian’s life is blessed as a result of gaining Christ, but this coming to Christ for the gift rather than the giver is a tragic mistake. Is it possible to miss Christ entirely because someone has reached for the gift rather than the Giver? I would argue that it is entirely possible.

Jesus went to the cross to display the glory of God. Jesus explains this while He is explaining what discipleship will look like:

He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. Anyone who serves me, he must follow me, and where I am, there my servant will be also; if anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. Now my soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name. (John 12:23-28a)

Coming to Christ for any reason except to gain Christ is no longer Christianity because God is no longer the center. Biblical discipleship must come to God to get God, not to get the gifts that He gives. Without it, the “Christian” is simply following the ways of the world, desiring things above God, not responding to Jesus’ call to them.

The second direction the American church falls into error is to separate truth and action. Once someone is called to Christ, both orthodoxy and orthopraxy must follow. This means one must have right beliefs as well as right practices. Beliefs without practice are dead and practices without beliefs would be salvation through works.[4] Just as faith produces works, right beliefs produce right actions. This makes sense because how can someone focus on actions without knowing the thought behind it? People act out of what they believe, a truth that while complex is also simple. Why someone believes what they do is complex but the fact that they act from that position is simple and clearly seen in many areas of life. On the field of competition, athletes’ actions reflect what they have been taught and practiced. Their bodies produce the actions that have been ingrained, in a sense reflecting what the body believes. Because of this, orthodoxy must be a primary concern in order to achieve orthopraxy. What does a Christian athlete believe about God and following Jesus? In order to be a Christian, he or she must believe in the true gospel as revealed in the scriptures and follow Christ in the same way that the disciples followed Him. The gospel must be his or her lifeblood rather than Kool-aid, a cheap substitute for the real thing. Paul understood this, teaching the Galatians, “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”[5] The gospel according to man is powerless and worthless. This chapter will focus on these three aspects of discipleship: the call, the truth, and the action. Without all three, biblical discipleship is impossible.

The Call

The first element is the need for a call from or an experience with Jesus Christ. It is great folly to look to other leaders like Gandhi, Muhammad, Martin Luther King, or a Hindu guru to gain information on what a follower of Christ should look like and how they should progress towards discipleship. Jesus called twelve disciples as the closest group of men around Him and it is from that group that Christians can glean the most information about how discipleship under Christ was designed to function. Each disciple had to hear Jesus speak to him directly in order to venture into the new world of discipleship with Him. Before Jesus called Andrew and Peter to be disciples, Andrew met Jesus after hearing John the Baptist’s proclamation about His deity. Andrew and another disciple of John, thought to be the Apostle John, asked Jesus where He was staying, to which Jesus replied, “Come and see.” They stayed with Jesus for the rest of the day and then Andrew went to find his brother, Simon Peter, exclaiming, “We have found the Messiah” and he brought him to Jesus. Andrew was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah after he experienced Him, and though we do not have a record of what Jesus said that day, clearly the experience was significant for Andrew. When Peter meets Jesus, He tells him, “‘You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).”[6] John does not tell his readers how Peter responded to Jesus’ knowledge of him and his name change but there is no doubt that Peter experienced Jesus at that moment.

After John the Baptist is put in prison, Jesus returns to Galilee to find Andrew and Peter at work as fishermen. He asks Peter to put his boat out a ways so He can use it to teach from. After He is finished speaking, He instructs Peter to launch his boat into the deep water and put down his nets. Though the men have labored all night to no avail, they do as Jesus had directed, immediately catching more fish than their nets could hold. Luke documents, “But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”[7] As this point Jesus calls them directly by commanding, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”[8] They immediately respond to Jesus’ call and follow Him. Jesus then calls James and John, fishing partners with Peter and Andrew, and the brothers immediately begin to follow Jesus as well. All four of these men experienced Jesus but none of them could begin a discipleship with Jesus until He had called them to it. Discipleship must begin and end with the Christ, not with the disciple

Of course, every disciple was different, with a different personality, background, experiences, needs, and expectations. It is comforting that Jesus did not use the same approach for each of His disciples. John records that the day after Andrew encountered Jesus, “He [Jesus] found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’” Jesus spoke to Matthew (also called Levi) in much the same way as Philip. As Jesus walked by the tax office, He saw Matthew sitting down and He said, “Follow me.” Matthew stood up and followed Him.[9]

After he was called, Philip then went to find Nathanael (also called Bartholomew), telling him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael seems skeptical when he replies, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” but he follows Philip to Jesus. John details:

Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to Him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:47-49, NKJV)

In his initial experience with Jesus, Nathanael experienced Jesus in a way that was outside the realm of his normal reality. He immediately knew that Jesus was not like everyone else and began following Jesus. Without this experience there is no evidence that Nathanael would have followed Jesus.

Of the twelve disciples, only half have a record in scripture of their call or initial experience with Jesus. Does this mean that the other half did not receive a call from Jesus? Most definitely they received a call from Jesus because the twelve were hand-selected, named as apostles, a calling beyond mere discipleship.[10] But what about the other groups of disciples defined in the scriptures, particularly the group of seventy? Did they also have a calling from and experience with Jesus prior to becoming disciples? The group of seventy clearly had a calling from Jesus, seen in Luke’s explanation that “… the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them in pairs ahead of Him to every city and place where He Himself was going to come.”[11] It appears that Jesus picked these men out specifically to be His disciples and go before Him to help prepare the way for Him. Of course, all of these individuals were called to a specific task, but Jesus tells the crowds, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.”[12] No person can follow Jesus unless God has drawn that person to Him, called their name and bid them come. John describes this process in spiritual terms, “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”[13]

Discipleship with Jesus must begin by being born of God and with an experience with God. Certainly God uses others to speak to people, as evidenced throughout Acts when multitudes of people come to faith in Jesus through the apostles preaching. An example of this occurs with a woman from Thyatira named Lydia. Luke records that she “was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.”[14] God draws an individual to faith in and discipleship with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. It is this experience, calling, and drawing that begins a relationship with Christ from which the discipleship process begins. This cannot be manufactured, contrived, coerced, or otherwise formed by any human being. The new life birthed through an experience with God is literally raised the dead to life, something the dead cannot possibly do for themselves.

Practically speaking, this concept has many implications for youth who consider themselves to be Christians. The first implication is that it is not sufficient to be born in church, attend church, or have family who are Christians. Proximity to Christ is not the same thing as experience with Christ. No one can be a second-hand follower of Jesus and in fact, Discipleship must begin with experiencing the Jesus of the Bible as a result of encountering the true gospel. The psalmist cries, “O taste and see that the Lord is good,” proclaiming God’s greatness and also imploring the listeners to experience Him.[15] Jesus is called Immanuel to tell all of humanity that God came down to be with people, desiring the world to come taste and see. The discipleship of every student athlete must begin with them tasting and seeing that God is good before anything else can occur. Without this connection with God, all further attempts at orthodoxy and orthopraxy will be useless, dead works of a person trying to reach God with his or her abilities.

Too few student athletes have met the living God. Many do not know what it means for God to speak to them or how to hear God’s voice. If someone has never heard God’s voice, how can he or she have been born again in Christ? If God must draw and open one’s eyes and make the call to discipleship, it is impossible to be a Christian without having heard God’s voice. This does not necessarily mean hearing an audible voice from God, but certainly means the individual has experienced God in some capacity for them to be brought to a place of saving faith in Jesus. Without the call, discipleship is impossible.

The Truth

Though the call is essential to discipleship, it often comes through the second element: the proclamation of the truth. The twelve apostles were somewhat of anomalies in this respect because Jesus revealed truth to them through His teaching. The disciples were able to learn by walking with Jesus and experience the story as it unfolded rather than having the truth revealed to them after it was complete. Once Jesus lived, died, and returned to heaven, His full story was complete and ready to be proclaimed in its entirety. The entire book of Acts shows the disciples proclaiming the truth about Jesus and telling the world the story of the gospel. As Lydia’s story explains, not only did God open her heart, but she “was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.”[16] It is through hearing the words of God spoken that God reveals His call. Scripture is clear that God must draw an individual but also that the individual must act. There is much debate over how much God does and what the person does, but the important part of this mystery is that God does the work and the individual at the very least feels that they have chosen Him in response. A debate about whether the individual spiritually has a choice or not does not matter in this discussion because from the human perspective, individuals are exhorted to confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised Him from the dead.[17]

Paul explains the necessity for preaching about God and declares, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”[18] In order to believe on Christ, the truth of God must be revealed to them. This truth is generally known as the good news about Jesus, or the gospel. In His sovereign wisdom, God has chosen to use the proclamation of the gospel message as the conduit to draw and call an individual. This means that the call and the truth work together in tandem for God to move mightily in the individual’s life.

In order to be the true gospel, the gospel preached by Jesus, it must line up with the totality of scripture. God’s story of His glory and the redemption of mankind for His glory is consistent throughout scripture and it must be that story that is told. Sadly, the gospel has become common. The mystery and power of the gospel is gone because many Americans have become accustomed to it. This lack of understanding is not unprecedented. The Old Testament writers tell many stories where the Israelites fell into this very same trap. Although they had seen God part the Red Sea, slay armies, and lead them with a pillar of fire, they constantly rejected God and turned to other gods. In the face of mighty miracles, they still became comfortable with God rather than seeking new revelations from Him. The Israelites constantly added aspects of other nations’ faiths to their faith in Yahweh, a pattern reflected in the relativism of today. Through complacency and a misunderstanding of God, mankind has a strong inclination to add other beliefs that are incompatible with the Jewish faith before Christ and the Christian faith after.

Confusion about the Christian faith compounds this problem. Many Americans are accustomed to what they perceive as the gospel, though what is often preached is a simplified and diluted version of the story God tells through all 66 books of the Bible. Rather than beginning with the fact that God loves everyone and has a wonderful plan for their life, it must begin with an understanding of who God is in the first place. Although people read the Bible as if it were a drama with men and women as the star performers, in fact it was written with God playing the main part. As quoted in the epigraph, “This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (emphasis added).[19] The gospel, called such because it is good news, is that salvation and restoration has come to sinful humanity to show the glory and righteousness of God. The gospel is about God and humanity receives the blessings of it, not vice versa.

Since we are not the center of the gospel, a clear understanding of Christian belief must begin with God, the true center, author, and purpose of the gospel. God constantly tells the world who He is throughout the Old and New Testaments but particular instance occurs when He is speaking to Moses. He passes before Moses proclaiming His name:

The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations. (Ex 34:6-7)

We cannot foolishly diminish the great God of the universe to merely love or grace or compassion because God himself declares that He is compassionate and gracious and just. The emerging movement is correct in desiring to break God out of a box of simplicity because the Bible reveals that God’s character has many different facets. Biblical Christianity must believe in God as just and loving, as faithful and jealous, as compassionate and fair. Jesus shows us that God desires humanity to return to right relationship with Him, to lay down our rebellion against Him and follow Him as creator, a picture that is show in His parable of the prodigal son.[20]

But a God of mercy alone is unfaithful to the scriptures and to the gospel that Jesus preached. While Jesus came to show mercy to the world, He was not silent about the justice of God.[21] Jesus did not indicate that all would enter the kingdom of Heaven on the basis that God is loving and compassionate but rather, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.’” In our understanding of the gospel, we must hold all of God’s attributes in tension including His mercy and justice. We must experience the tension shown in Proverbs, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord,” along with the parable of the prodigal son and realize that we have come to an impasse.[22] How can a just God be gracious?

Let us not gloss over this fact as if humanity deserves salvation, has earned forgiveness, or is not really that terrible to begin with. Paul condemns the whole world when he quotes the prophets of old:

There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grace, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:10-18).

If humanity is really as bad as Paul’s condemnation suggests, how can God justify the wicked? In many ways the gospel message has been softened to become more palatable to the modern thinker, more seeker-sensitive to those who may not be ready for the whole message, and more simple to allow anyone to come to Jesus without reservations. In this soft gospel, the tension of God’s justice and mercy is rarely highlighted and seldom pondered. Both modern and emergent preachers are guilty of this, though in different ways. This is natural considering the human condition because we desire a much easier way than the one provided by God. We desire a way that is simple and loving rather than complicated and hard. However, the message of the Bible is not only simple and loving. Paul did not shy away from telling the truth about God and humanity because neither did Jesus. He teaches, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destructions, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”[23] While it is uncomplicated to receive salvation since is comes through faith alone, the gospel is far from effortless or easy and neither is living as a follower of Jesus.

With the understanding that salvation cannot be effortless, we return to the question: if humanity is really as bad as Paul outlines just a few verses earlier, how can God justify the wicked? To bridge this boundless chasm, God became a man, lived a life without the sin and rebellion that has marked the human race since Adam and Eve, and died as a sacrifice for all of humanity. John begins his gospel account by explaining it this way, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”[24] In dying, He drank every drop of God’s wrath against the wickedness of all people and then declared it finished.

In His wisdom, God illustrated the coming salvation in many ways throughout the Old Testament. This allows Christians to have a much greater understanding of God’s plan and how He has been working throughout history. We see reflections of Jesus’ coming redemption in the stories of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, the Jew’s rescue in Esther, Joseph and his brothers, the Jew’s return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, Hosea’s marriage to Gomer, as well as countless others. In particular, the story of the exodus out of Egypt, celebrated by Jews to this day by the Passover, is especially reflective. The Passover Seder includes drinking from four cups of wine, a tradition remembering God’s statement in Exodus that He would bring the Israelites out of Egypt, rescue them, redeem them, and take them as His people.[25] Before Jesus drinks from the third Passover cup in Luke’s account of the Last Supper, He connects His coming sacrifice to that of the redemptive cup. He tells the disciples, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.”[26] It is in this redemption that Jesus satisfies the wrath of God against sin.

It is this gospel that is seen throughout the Old Testament as a foreshadowing of the coming Messiah, this gospel that Jesus came to announce to humanity, this gospel that the apostles preach through the epistles and letters, and this gospel that Christians for the last 2000 years have strove to preach. There is no room for relativity inside this gospel. Its power does not come by adding other beliefs, more diversity, or more inclusiveness to it but in clinging to the cross of Christ alone. The power of a holy, righteous, just, and merciful God, the utter depravity of sinful humanity, and the glory of God seen through Christ’s death which removed God’s wrath and the stain of sin is where the power of the gospel resides. Although at times the Church has deviated from this gospel, it has always been there. Whenever pieces of the truth have been cast aside because of culture or politics, a reformer inevitably brings it to the Church’s attention.

Phyllis Tickle and those ascribing to the emergent view would say these reforms took place because the story of our community and our shared illusion no longer match our current culture, which creates a period where we reassess our beliefs. They would say that at that point it is necessary to change our beliefs to match the culture. I respectfully disagree with this view, arguing instead that every five hundred years or so, the Church realizes two things. First, culture has changed significantly and the Church has not continued to be in the world without being of it. This creates a situation where the way the Church does things should be reconsidered in light of the different population she is trying to reach with the gospel. Second, the Church realizes that it has exchanged portions of the gospel message for weaker messages and thus is preaching something much less than the true gospel. The key is not to make the gospel more palatable, softer, relevant, or open, but rather to return to what Jesus preached, taught, and modeled in His life on earth in a way that reflects that the Church knows the population she is striving to reach.

Once the gospel has been preached and someone has received the call from God to follow Christ, what happens? Too often in traditional Christianity, absolutely nothing. There is no life change, no works, no action. Anyone who complains of the lack of action is accused of promoting works-based salvation. Works-based salvation cannot be compatible with the call of God and the truth of the gospel because it is God who calls, God who must be experienced, God who commands the spiritually dead to be alive. No one can work themselves to be alive if they are dead. Though there have been many who were rightly accused of this, a real call and a true gospel demand a response of action. An individual who has responded to the gospel is a new creation and that person is “born again,” to use Jesus’ words to Nicodemus.[27] This rebirth is the beginning of a new person, one who is born with a new nature, new desires, and new passions. The result: action.

The Reality

Instead of simply offering concrete, indisputable evidence that He was God, Jesus chose to speak to the multitudes primarily in parables. Matthew’s gospel records, “All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.’” Though Christ did reveal Himself as God, He never stood in the center of the city and proclaimed it to the rooftops. Surely He was able and often did perform signs that made His claim to Messiah indisputable, but somehow, many did not accept Him as the Christ. John tells his readers that many believed in Jesus but still did not believe he was the coming Christ.[28] If Jesus was God, is there any reason why He could not have called down fire from heaven, commanded a thousand angels to reveal themselves, or floated everywhere instead of walking? As God, surely He could have done these things but He chose to reveal Himself privately, making public statements about His divinity less often than He told parables. He did pronounce sins forgiven and say He was the “I Am,” both statements of blasphemy for those who did not recognize Him as divine. But He clearly was not convincing enough for the multitudes to recognize Him as God rather than a blasphemer or a great prophet.

Mark’s gospel provides insight about the actions Jesus intended for His apostles by explaining, “Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons… (emphasis added).”[29] Jesus’ plan for the apostles was to appoint them, teach them, and send them out. Some may argue that the apostles were a special group with a special calling and though this is true in respect to their calling, all followers of Christ are called in a similar way. Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, what many call the perfect sermon, Jesus warns His listeners about false prophets. He cautions them to look at the fruit of the prophets’ lives in order to know if they are a good or bad.[30] He makes the connection for the crowds between men who come from God and the good fruit their lives will produce as a result. At the very end of the sermon, He also admonishes His listeners that whoever obeys the things that He has taught is like a man who built his house on the rock, solid against the storms that came against it. But all who hear His words and do not put them into action are like a foolish man who built his house on the sand, fragile and demolished when the storms came.[31] This metaphor indicates that hearing the words of Jesus are not sufficient. It is not enough to hear the call and the truth if they are not embraced and put into practice. The call and the truth must because a physical reality in the life of a follower of Jesus, seen in their actions.

In His sovereign wisdom, God chose to use His followers to bring the word about Christ to the world. Jesus demonstrates this throughout the gospel by speaking in parables to the multitudes but teaching the apostles directly. The crowds could not have understood His meaning most of the time because the apostles, His best friends on earth, did not understand.  After Jesus tells the parable of the sower, the apostles come to Him and ask for an explanation. Jesus replies, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.”[32] God chose to reveal the mystery of the kingdom of God to a group of ordinary men. Those men recorded Jesus’ life and completed the scriptures through letters to other believers and discipled other men and women. Those individuals who were discipled then discipled others, on and on until current times. This is God’s divine plan, to use His followers to share His message through the ages. If the Church, the body of believers in Jesus Christ, is God’s plan for reaching the world, then action is absolutely necessary. The Christian cannot be content to know truth and be called by God and do nothing because this is completely contrary to God’s design for the gospel and the Church. God’s design is that the life changing call and the truth of the gospel because a reality in a Christians life, prompting them to produce works in keeping with their repentance.

After an individual has experienced the call of God by hearing the truth, faith is produced. Some would argue that God creates faith and others would argue that God allows human beings to produce faith for themselves. Either way, faith is produced in the life of the believer. Because the Book of James is included in the scriptures, there can be no doubt that faith is not the final destination for the believer. James asks:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘God in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself…. You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder…. Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the alter? You see that faith was working in his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected…. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:14-24)

At first this seems like a direct contradiction to Paul’s statements about salvation through faith alone. But the scale of faith and works must balance perfectly and not be too heavy on either side. Paul elucidates this point by showing that faith and works are two sides of them same coin when he writes to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”[33] He explains that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ and can come no other way. Not just any faith will do because it must be the faith that God gives, which is specifically faith in Jesus. Though Paul does not specify that faith in Jesus is required in this verse, in context it is clear. A few verses later he continues by telling the Ephesians that they used to be separated from God “but now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”[34] Belief in the Jesus detailed in the Bible is necessary for salvation and life with God. But belief does not end with faith because Christians are “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” The outworking of faith is works that reflect a changed life. James’ point is that a faith that does not work is no faith at all and therefore could not be saving faith in the first place.

If an individual has not experienced God or has not believed on the true gospel as explain in the scriptures, no one should expect new actions to follow. But when these have happened, actions in keeping with the new birth must ensue. What type of action is expected? Since the Church is God’s plan for spreading the good news about Him, the depravity of the human condition, and His Son’s sacrifice for His glory, a disciple of Christ must have a part in sharing this good news. This could take many forms including: proclamation of the gospel, service to the Church, and service to the poor and needy. Jesus commands all three of these types of actions.

After His resurrection, He commissions the apostles to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”[35] Therefore all disciples of Christ are instructed to preach the good news about Jesus. Even though the apostles received a special calling to do this, Paul echoes Jesus when he tells the church in Rome that all who believe in Jesus will be saved and asks, “How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent?”[36] If the Church is God’s mechanism for the reconciliation of the world to Him through Jesus for His glory, followers of Christ must preach this good news.

Jesus enjoins the disciple’s service to the Church when He gives the apostles a new commandment to “love one another, even as I have loved you…. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[37] At other times Jesus also teaches the crowds to love their enemies as well as their friends.[38] Why would He tell His apostles to specifically love one another when He has already taught them to love everyone? The commandment to love the other disciples is not “new” meaning “new in time” but is “new” meaning “new in experience, fresh.”[39] His coming death and resurrection would provide a new experience for the disciples to love each other in a new way, a way that was before impossible for them. In the same way, Christians are commanded to love other Christians and to serve them as Christ served the apostles. Paul implores the Ephesian church to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”[40] A love for the Church and for the people of God should be a marking sign for a disciple of Jesus.

The third way the disciple is called to serve is to the poor, needy, orphans, and widows. Jesus cares about the downtrodden, the needy, and the sick so anyone desiring to follow after Him must care about the things Jesus cared about. He teaches the crowds, “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites…. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…” (emphasis added). Jesus teaches that “when” His followers gave, not “if” they gave. As Jesus displayed God’s heart on earth, He continually shows compassion for those who were in need. God’s heart for the poor is seen throughout the Old Testament as well. He spoke through the prophet Isaiah declaring:

Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? …and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday. (Isaiah 58:5-10)

God continually rebukes Israel for forgetting its poor and failing to show compassion. Jesus reflects this during His time on earth by showing compassion, recognizing the poor, and teaching His followers to show mercy. The early Church demonstrated this in many ways. The Church took care of the widows, entrusting their care to a group of men appointed as the Church’s first deacons.[41] When the Christians in Jerusalem were struggling in their poverty, Paul collected aid to bring to them.[42] Paul also relates the results of the Jerusalem Council to the Galatians, adding that “they [the apostles] only asked us to remember the poor – the very thing I also was eager to do.”[43] James teaches that “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress….”[44] The early Church cared very much about the poor, both within their ranks and outside of the faith.

Jesus encourages the apostles, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.”[45] And to the rich young ruler who wanted to have eternal life He says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”[46] However, one must wonder if the sale of the apostles’ and young man’s possessions was for the poor as much as it was for the ones who sold their belongings. After the young man had left in his sorrow, unable to do what Jesus had commanded, He tells the apostles, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.”[47] In speaking about wealth and riches, Jesus constantly reminds His hearers that the kingdom of heaven is worth much more than any wealth on earth could buy. Is it worth it to gain the world but lose your soul because with your great material wealth you missed the kingdom of heaven?

This type of discipleship is uncommon in the American Christian experience. Since few adult Christians are following Christ in a biblical way, is it surprising that American student athletes are fairing no better? The loss of biblical discipleship is indeed the loss of biblical Christianity, a fact that is evident across the face of the American church and Christian youth. Few have experienced Christ in a way that transcends mere emotion or intellectual assent. Fewer still have believed in a God-centered gospel rather than a human-centered gospel. Since so few people have both of these aspects of discipleship, it is no wonder that such a small number of Christians are willing to activate their faith in real life and bring it into reality. Without the call and the truth, actions will only be dead legalism, not the spiritual reality become physical. Without the call and the truth, the Christian doesn’t understand that they were not saved for themselves but for the glory of God, a realization that produces works. It is impossible to claim to be a Christian and not be a disciple of Christ. And likewise it is impossible to be a disciple of Christ and not be moving, actually following after Him in daily actions, in truth, and in spirit. A Christian is not a Christian without the call, the truth, and the reality all acting together in his or her life.

[1] Kevin DeYoung speaks about this in Why We’re Not Emergent and lectured about this at the Resurgence Exchange Conference in his lecture “The Truth and the Lie in Contemporary Church” which can be found online at

[2] See John 13:35.

[3] Matt. 28:19.

[4] See Jas. 2:20 & Rom. 4:16.

[5] Gal. 1:11-12.

[6] John 1:39-42.

[7] Luke 5:8.

[8] Matt. 4:19.

[9] Matt. 9:9, Mark 2:13-14, and Luke 5:27-28.

[10] Mark 3:13-19 and Luke 6:12-16.

[11] Luke 10:1.

[12] John 6:44.

[13] John 1: 12-13 (ESV).

[14] Acts 16:14.

[15] Ps. 34:6.

[16] Acts 16:14.

[17] Rom. 10:9.

[18] Rom. 10:14 (ESV).

[19] Rom. 3:25b-26.

[20] Luke 15:11-24.

[21] See Luke 19:16-31, Luke 20:9-16, Luke 18:1-8 for examples of parables about God’s justice.

[22] Prov. 17:15.

[23] Matt. 7:13-14. See also Luke 13:24-30.

[24] John 1:11-13 (ESV).

[25] Ex. 6:6-7 (NKJV).

[26] Luke 22:2.

[27] John 3:3.

[28] See John 7:31 and John 2:23.

[29] Mark 3:14-15 (NKJV).

[30] Matt. 7:15-20.

[31] Matt. 7:24-27.

[32] Mark 4:11-12.

[33] Eph. 2:8-10.

[34] Eph. 2:13.

[35] Mark 16:15.

[36] Rom. 10:14-15a.

[37] John 13:34-35.

[38] See Matt. 5:43-48.

[39] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: New Testament (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor, 1989), PC Study Bible formatted Electronic Database (2006), under “Hypocrisy: Jesus and Judas (John 13:18-35).”

[40] Eph. 4:1-3.

[41] Acts 6:1-6.

[42] See 1 Cor. 16:1-4 and Acts 12:25.

[43] Gal. 2:10.

[44] Jas. 1:27.

[45] Luke 12:33.

[46] Matt. 19:21.

[47] Matt. 19:23.


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