In his last book, “The Radical Disciple”, John Stott highlighted two letters he received from Christian leaders in South Asia and Africal respectively.
A leader from South Asia wrote, “There is a huge problem with lack of godliness and integrity”. An African leader wrote, “…the growth is largely numerical…the church is without strong biblical and theological foundation of her own”.
Charles Colson, in Christian prison ministry, wrote in one of his books that he had been involved in many Christian crusades in following-up the converts who responded in the crusades; his concern was that many of these converts subsequently turned away from their conversions, and ended up worse than before in terms of the outworking of their lives, even though follow-up was instituted in many cases.
There may be many reasons for this sad development, but one major factor is probably a misunderstanding of the Great Commission, namely that the Commission is centred on either the mission of soul winning or the mission of Christian maturing – the Great Commission is not evangelism or discipleship centred; it is gospel centred. Evangelism is more than belief to obtain a ‘ticket’ for heaven; discipleship is not just beefing up an ‘anaemic’ gospel with spiritual disciplines or social justice.
A disciple of Jesus is one who learns the gospel, relates to the gospel, and his life is gospel-shaped. The gospel makes and matures disciples; non-Christians and Christians both need the forgiving, reconciling and restoring power of the gospel to know and enjoy God, not just once, but for a lifetime. But conversion comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit who initiates regeneration, and endows faith to non-believers to repent and to believe – hence being ‘born again’ is the essence of being a Christian and a disciple. Without the work of the Spirit, just explaining superficially the rudiments of the gospel and asking for a prayer of acceptance (sinner’s prayer) does not institute conversion.
We have seen in earlier sharings that it is the Triune God who initiated the task to recreate a new humanity from the fallen humanity in Adam. God the Father chose from before the creation of the world to do so; the Son, in love for the Father and in obedience to Him, willingly took on our human nature and enter into the history of mankind to be our substitute to die for our sin, and the Holy Spirit is the executor of the salvation plan of the Triune God in effecting it among men. Disciples are made (at conversion) and matured through repentance and faith in the good news (the gospel). It means that the gospel has to be communicated clearly, in dependence on God, such that the hearer understands the fall of mankind from sin, and the rebellion against God, and that God has undertaken to reverse the fall through His Son (who is the one and only sacrifice). There should be clarity about judgement coming to all those who reject the offer of God and that without the conviction of sin (which leads to repentance) and faith in receiving “God’s reconciling the world through His Son Christ”, there is no way back to God.
The Holy Spirit, working through the Christian and his communication, is ultimately the One who secures genuine conversion and reconciliation with God.
The gospelcentric approach to evangelism and disciple making is increasingly missing today and replaced by the tendency to focus on evangelistic techniques and discipleship methods, which actually ‘sabotage the intention to convert and to disciple people for God. The Great Commission calls us to make disciples who orbit around Jesus and His blood-bought benefits – it is not focusing on performance and self-made efforts. Disciples are those who introduce and reintroduce themselves and others to the person and power of Jesus over and over again; in other words, the gospel continues to ‘apply’ in the lives of converts as well as in the lives of disciples.
In the outworking of Christian life however, we tend to lean toward the motivation of religious performance or spiritual license. Religious performance motivates the religious person, while spiritual licence motivates the rebellious. Repenting from such motivations can lead to tremendous freedom and joy.
Legalism is the tendency to measure our worth by how well we perform; it likes to keep rules and is driven by performance. It assumes that God will accept us if we perform well as ‘Christians’. Whenever we replace Jesus with another Lord or idol, we displace the gospel from the centre of our Christian life and discipleship. We need to realise that we serve not to receive HIs love and approval but because we have already received His love and are accepted in the beloved.
Spiritual licence however seeks to find meaning in freedom from rules; those who indulge in it perceive themselves as liberated and free from the bondage of conservative Christians. They think they possess a licence to break the rules, and even to disobey God’s Word; they do not think of themselves as being disobedient but instead they consider themselves as liberated believers. Thinking that they are already forgiven, they are free to disobey.
The gospel points us to Jesus as Christ and as Lord. We are bound not to rules but to Christ; we have been crucified with Christ and He now lives in us (Gal. 2:20). In Christ we are liberated from sin and delivered into the arms of our Saviour. Grace gives us a new identity in Christ, not a set of rules. Nonetheless, we still love God’s law and look to the law as our guide in life; the law expresses God’s desires for His people. By God’s Spirit, we are enabled to fulfil the law and to please our God.
We also need to recognise that discipleship is worked out in God’s community – the church. God loves the Church and the new humanity He seeks to recreate centres on His communities. The Church is the body of Christ (who is the head); the Church is the temple of God; the Church would be the bride of Christ. Seeing this clearly will help us to note that holiness must characterise the body and temple of God; the bride of the Son must be unblemished and ready for the bridegroom. Discipleship is best carried out in the context of God’s community; unity in the midst of diversity; love, care, and concern with every member of the body fitting in, leading to the growth and maturity of God’s people in His Church, nurtured and transformed by God’s Spirit – this is the beautiful picture of what God is doing among and within His people.
Discipleship is not a communication of knowledge or information. It is a communication of life; discipleship is more than getting to know what the teacher and master know – it is getting to be what He is – ultimately giving Him the glory that He fully deserves and worshiping HIm for all His goodness, love, mercy, and grace.