I currently serve on the Board of Discipleship in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. To some of you, that means very little. Others of you are deeply interested in all matters that concern discipleship. It is to you that I would like to speak for a moment.
One of our tasks as a conference board of discipleship is to develop a theology of discipleship that is simultaneously biblical and distinctively Wesleyan. The goal, of course, is to develop a more holistic understanding of the nature of our church’s mission (specifically, to make DISCIPLES of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world).
In recent days, the members of the conference board have been encouraged to spend some time in prayerful discernment over the theological meaning and nature of Christian discipleship. What follows is a written report of my personal reflection in that regard. I realize that it is a bit wordy (which is a perpetual temptation for a preacher, I suppose). But my goal is to give meaningful expression to at least some of the theological convictions that emerge from the church’s understanding of biblical discipleship in the Wesleyan tradition.
I would greatly appreciate any insights and reflections that you might have, since I am treating this as a work in progress. I value your input greatly and would love to share it with the Board of Discipleship.
A Reflection on the Nature of Discipleship to Jesus Christ
What is discipleship to Jesus Christ?
1. A Recognition that Following Jesus Is a Good and Necessary Thing
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Matthew 4:19-20)
Discipleship begins with a recognition that following Jesus is a good and necessary thing. This recognition is inspired in various ways. For some, it is inspired by a personal awareness of sin and an equally personal need for a savior. For others, it is inspired by an intellectual conclusion concerning a theological conviction. For still others, it is inspired by an unnamable hunger to find alignment with matters of eternal significance. And yet, although the recognition comes in different ways for different people, it is always the result of God’s preveniently active gracious initiative, mysteriously and powerfully at work in human lives to draw people into the salvation and discipleship that God desires for all the world’s people.
2. A Willingness to Turn Around
[Jesus said] ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:15)
In the journey of discipleship, the recognition of the goodness and necessity of Jesus is eventually accompanied by a willingness to take human sin seriously. More specifically, a disciple recognizes that sin has produced a spiritual chasm between humankind and God that humankind, on its own, does not have the capacity to bridge. Sin is collective and cosmic. It is also deeply personal—a rebellion in which each human being participates. Therefore, discipleship requires a personal turning around (a repentance) in which one begins to turn away from sin in order to turn toward the Christ who delivers us from sin. Such repentance enables disciples to become receptive to the cleansing and transforming grace of God. It is also the instrument through which one’s fondness for sin begins to decrease in order that one’s devotion to Jesus and his Way might increase.
3. A Relationship with Jesus as Savior
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
In healthy discipleship, Jesus becomes more than a historical figure and moral example to be studied and admired. He becomes a Savior to be believed and embraced. Although the church’s doctrine concerning Jesus and the salvation that he makes possible reflects a noteworthy diversity, at the heart of these doctrines is the biblical conviction that Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, is a Savior sent by God to a world that desperately needs salvation. To embrace Jesus as Savior (and to be embraced by him) is to acknowledge the holy mystery that Jesus is the One who delivers us from sin, thereby enabling a reconciliation between a perfectly holy God and fallen human souls.
When one trusts in Jesus for salvation, one stands justified before God, not because of one’s own righteousness, but because of the righteousness of Jesus that he has graciously imputed to us.
4. A Transformed Life
“Jesus answered…‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew.’” (John 3:3)
The concept of spiritual rebirth has become greatly distorted and divisive over the years of Christian history, so much so that, in many circles, an artificial division is created between “born again Christians” and what might be labeled “normal” or “mainline” Christians. This division is as unfortunate as it is misleading.
Rebirth, according to Scripture, is not a theological dividing point or litmus test. Rather, it is an experience of being so inwardly transformed by the reality of Jesus Christ that one begins to think differently, act differently, prioritize differently, and live differently, all because the Way of Jesus has now become one’s personal Way.
For some, this rebirth is something dramatic and publicly obvious (such as an emotional experience at a church altar). For others, it is a quieter (but no less radical) reorientation of one’s life around the ethics and priorities of Jesus. And yet, no matter the particular experience of the rebirth, it is always the work of the Holy Spirit, bringing people into the new life that only Jesus Christ makes possible.
5. A Relationship with Jesus as Lord
“Then Jesus said to them all: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’” (Luke 9:23)
Although discipleship demands a relationship with Jesus as Savior, it also demands the lifelong journey of allowing him to become the Lord of every segment of one’s life. This is the journey of allowing oneself to be remade daily into the likeness of Jesus, in such a way that every part of one’s life begins to bear witness to the reality of his Lordship.
This experience of sanctification (being made holy) in Christ, while the work of God’s grace, is nurtured through the practice of several important spiritual disciplines:
-The Discipline of Prayer—growing in one’s prayerful intimacy with God, in such a way that prayer becomes a way of life, as natural as breathing and every bit as urgent
-The Discipline of Spending Time with Scripture—growing in one’s love for Scripture and one’s devotion to its revelation, in such a way that studying Scripture and meditating upon its Truth becomes a personal priority
-The Discipline of Worship—growing in the communal and individual practice of offering to God the only response that God deserves: heartfelt worship and praise
-The Discipline of Alignment with the Church’s Ministry and Mission—growing in one’s relationship with the church, not out of a desire to perpetuate an institution, but out of a desire to bring oneself into meaningful alignment with the discipling community that Jesus established through his life, death, and resurrection
-The Discipline of Gathering Regularly at the Lord’s Table—growing in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper and in our hunger for the bread of life and the cup of salvation
-The Discipline of Community—growing in one’s commitment to a covenantal and accountability-practicing community, since, according to Scripture, discipleship is to be personal but never privatistic or individualistic
-The Discipline of Stewardship—growing in the practice of honoring Jesus in the way one manages one’s financial resources, one’s time, and one’s talents
-The Discipline of Generosity—growing in a spirit of extravagant giving in such a way that one’s live begins to reflect the extravagant generosity of Jesus
-The Discipline of Ministry—growing in one’s participation in regular and tangible acts of ministry and mission, thereby putting hands and feet on the love of Jesus
-The Discipline of Working For Peace and Justice—growing both in one’s commitment to standing against all forms of evil and injustice and in one’s commitment to eradicating them in the church and world
-The Discipline of Love—growing in one’s devotion to loving God with heart, mind, and strength, and to loving one’s neighbor as one loves her/himself
While the different segments of discipleship described in this reflection have been enumerated in a numerically linear fashion, the life of discipleship is not always linear in its unfolding. Sometimes one finds oneself devoted to the sanctifying discipline of ministry or prayer long before coming to know Jesus as Savior. Likewise, the Holy Spirit will sometimes inspire a lifelong churchgoer to re-experience rebirth because of some newly discovered need for personal repentance and transformation.
Discipleship, in other words, is not a mathematical equation. It is a relational journey with Jesus Christ at its center. As is the case with any significant journey, discipleship is frequently unpredictable and unsettling. It will occasionally demand backtracking and unforeseen detours. And yet, if Christ remains at the center of the journey, one will have the blessed assurance that one is journeying in a redemptive direction and with the right Companion.
In John’s gospel, Jesus describes himself as the way, the truth, and the life. Ultimately, Christian discipleship is the transformational journey of allowing Jesus to become one’s personal WAY, one’s personal TRUTH, and one’s personal LIFE. Paradoxically, the journey is freely offered, and yet it costs a life. The exceptionally good news is that it is the most abundantly joyful and blessed journey that one can ever make.