Whatever Happened to Discipleship?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A Point of Concern

Several years ago, I remember reading The Cost of Discipleship by the German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In this book, Bonhoeffer laid out what he believed it was to follow Christ. This book was published during the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany. It was during this period that Bonhoeffer’s view of costly discipleship was put together. And it was his view of costly discipleship that ultimately led to his death.

Over the years I have talked to plenty of people about the Gospel. While I run across plenty of people who have never heard the message before, I also I come across plenty of people who profess to be Christians but are not going forward in their faith. If I meet an individual who says they are a professed believer, I always ask them where they are in the discipleship process. Many times when I ask, “Are you becoming a disciple?” I usually get the response, “What’s a disciple?”

Many are oblivious to the importance of discipleship. Therefore, I find myself exhorting hundreds of people to get rooted in congregational/community life—get back to the basics (e.g., read the Bible, prayer). I always give these individuals contact information of local churches that they can attend. It saddens me to see what is happening in the transition from the point when someone makes a professed/salvation decision for Jesus and the overall discipleship/commitment aspect to our faith.

What is a Disciple?

The Hebrew word for disciple is “talmid.” A talmid is a student of one of the sages of Israel. A disciple is a learner, or pupil. When we decide to repent and turn to our Lord for the forgiveness of sins, we have to realize we are now on a new journey. The Gospel is a message for the here and now- not just the future. We have to learn how to live out our faith in the world around us. A disciple (in the New Testament sense) is someone who is striving (by God’s grace) to be consistent follower of Jesus. The goal of the Christian is to imitate our Master. By the way, you can’t be an apologist if you aren’t a disciple. Apologetics can end up becoming a mental exercise. So unless we constantly focus on being a disciple (and integrate our apolgoetics into this process), we won’t attain the balance we need.

Discipleship takes a commitment between the discipler and the one being discipled. For those that say they don’t need discipleship, you are setting yourself up for failure. Sorry to be so blunt. But there is no such thing as a Long Ranger Christian.

Why is Discipleship a Hard Sell?

Discipleship is not getting any easier in the world we live in. In an overly sensate culture, people need to be constantly stimulated and have a hard time focusing on something such as discipleship. In a world that wants instant results, self- sacrifice is tough sell. Part of the problem is that churches preach a Gospel that promises that Jesus will fix all our problems. And when things get tough, many people bail out. A long-term commitment to our Lord which involves self denial (Luke 9:23) is hard to swallow for those that have been told The American Dream is the way of happiness.

So given that Jesus is the ultimate Sage- our Master and Lord, here are some of my tips on striving to be a lifelong disciple of Jesus. By the way, I have not mastered these tips. I have to work on implementing them as well. And this is not an exhaustive list. And please understand that I am not saying that if you follow some perfect list you will live be a full blown disciple of Jesus. Anyway let’s look at a few of these:

1. Spiritual Disciplines: It is imperative to stick with spiritual disciplines on a consistent basis. Prayer, Bible reading, study, sharing your faith, serving in the gifts God has given you, etc, should be exercised on a consistent basis. If you don’t pray or stay out of the Bible for day or two, don’t beat yourself up. Get back on track.

By the way, I have noticed a pattern. When I see those who walk away from the Lord, I can almost guarantee that at some point they dropped their spiritual disciplines. They stopped praying, stopped reading the Bible, etc. My advice is to stick with the basics of these disciplines. Don’t go for the quick fix or the one big spiritual high. They never last.

2. Share Your Faith: Since Jesus commands His people to “make disciples of the nations” (Matt.28:19), the Christian who is not ashamed of the gospel (Rom. 1:16), will desire to share it with his neighbor.  Furthermore, can someone enter into the process of discipleship without hearing a verbal proclamation of the gospel? One of the largest obstacles in motivating people to obey the Great Commission is a fear of rejection, misunderstanding, or ridicule.

Remember, the primary role of the Holy Spirit is to magnify the person of Jesus (John 16:12-15). John Piper once asked his father why Christians don’t have more joy in their lives. His father said there is a cure for this issue- Christians need to share their faith.

For those that have been Christians 5,10, 15, or even 20 years or more, and still have no idea how to share their faith, this is unacceptable. In order for the local congregation to operate in a balanced fashion, it should emphasize both inreach through edification and discipleship (Eph.4:10-13), as well as training to the congregants about how to obey the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19).

3. Make a commitment to obey (or yield) to God: Yes, at some point, you need to tell God you are making a commitment to obey Him. And even when it is tough, your desire is to still obey Him. Given the Holy Spirit’s role is to enable us to obey the Father, you are not on your own. I can say without hesitation that many Christians have never made a commitment to obey God. Why? Because they are afraid. How can you trust someone you don’t know very well?

Remember, God’s goal is to conform us to the image of Christ. And given that the Son obeyed the Father, we are called to be like the Messiah in our submission to the Father as well. So if you want to be used by God, you will need to ask God to cultivate a passion to obey Him. He is after your heart. And He will always want you to be challenged in your obedience. And remember, you can’t please everyone and obey God. People that are craving for the acceptance of others have a hard time obeying God. Who are you drawing your identity from?

4. Be faithful: Whatever God has given you to do (and much of this is already revealed in the Bible), be faithful with it. Many of us want God to give us giant assignments. But He may start with little assignments and then see how faithful we are with that. But always remember your identity is in Christ. One of the reasons Christians burn out is because they think the more they can work for God, the more God will be happy with them and accept them. This is nonsense. God already accepts us and loves us unconditionally on the basis of what His Son has done for us. Yes, I know faith without works is dead. But we need to have a more balanced view about this issue.

5. Integrate Your Faith: Remember, you are in a relationship with God wherever you go. You represent God at your job, family, school, etc. We need to get away from the compartmentalization issue. God cares about every aspect of our lives. The Bible teaches no secular/sacred dichotomy. Everything in our lives should be viewed as worship and ministry. If you view worship as only regulated to a two hour block on a Sunday morning, you are compartmentalizing your spiritual life.

The God of the Bible is certainly a God of revelation. However, as already mentioned, the Bible does command us to love God with our minds (Matt. 22:27), as well as love God with the rest of our being. Hence, biblical faith involves a commitment of the whole person.

6. Know Your Position in the Messiah: It is imperative that we continually know our position in Christ. What is your position? The power of the resurrection comes to us everyday in Christ. Therefore, God wants us to experience the resurrection power of Jesus on an ongoing basis. As Paul says in Galatians 2:19-20, “For through the law I died to the law, that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” What we tend to forget that Jesus did not die and rose from the dead only for us to go to heaven. He has given us victory over sin in this life- he broke the power of sin. Yes, we will still sin some times. But, we should not make excuses and say I just can’t overcome any sin. That is a lie. And it not based on a positional understanding of our relationship with God.

7. Know the role of the Holy Spirit: You can forget about following Jesus without knowing the ministry of the Holy Spirit. He is your Helper on a daily basis. Yes, I know there are people who afraid of learning about Him because of so much weirdness in the Church. Remember, there is no “getting more of the Spirit.” Rather, the question is, “How much does the Spirit have of us?” There is more fullness in our lives that comes from the Spirit’s influence in our lives (Eph 5:18). We are commanded to be filled with the Spirit. The more yielded we are, hence, a willingness to follow the Spirit (and doing so) produces this filling. By the way, did you know that Jesus did not perform any of his miracles independently of the Father; instead Jesus did all his miracles in union with the Father (John 5:36; 10:38; 14:10-11) so that His audience would see the unique relationship between the Father and the Son.

8. Build your knowledge: We are called to know, teach, and live by foundational truths. A foundational truth is a basic idea or foundation that other ideas are built on. We need to know what the essentials to our faith are. How can we explain the plan of salvation to someone if we do not understand what a believer must believe? The attributes of God, the deity of Jesus, or the resurrection of Jesus are just some of the foundational truths that we need to know.

That is it for now.