Last week, we tried to gain a better understanding of what discipleship is by describing the kinds of obstacles that we encounter when we try to do it well. We learned that real discipleship integrates intellectual, spiritual, and emotional elements, and we discussed how failing to take an integrative approach can leave a person or a congregation ill-equipped for the task of following Jesus.
This week, we need to turn our attention to those things that we are trying to accomplish through the discipleship process. What are the practical results that we should see in a person or in a church that has been properly discipled? Once again, our task is not to enumerate every outcome that we hope to achieve. Rather, it is to group outcomes into meaningful categories so that we can better understand our task.
We talked about worship last week as one of the spiritual disciplines that make discipleship possible. Nevertheless, worship is also one of the most important results of effective discipleship. Obviously, learning to follow Jesus means learning to publicly praise both Jesus and the Father whom he came to reveal, but there is another aspect of worship that is a particularly important result of discipleship.
You see, worship isn’t just —or even primarily—about the words we say or the songs we sing. The artistic expressions that we use to honor God and celebrate God’s goodness point to a deeper reality. They signify our unique and unparalleled allegiance to God.
This allegiance may seem like a given for those who have entered God’s Kingdom, but those of us who have followed Jesus for a while know that it is not. Each day, our allegiance to God is tested. The powers of our world and the priorities of our flesh seek to crowd out our allegiance to God and to place something else on the throne of our hearts instead. It takes time, work, and the Spirit’s help to identify these threats to our proclamation that “Jesus is Lord,” to muster the courage to confront them, and to develop the skills to put them in their proper place.
The second category that we need to look at could broadly be referred to as ethics. When people think about ethics, they normally think about practical rules for behavior or mechanisms for making difficult decisions. Behavior is important, and sometimes decisions need to be made about what course of action is best in a given situation. But there is a lot more to ethics than lists of rules or evaluative criteria.
In light of what we discussed last week, it should not surprise anyone that I want to talk about ethics not just in terms of actions but also (and maybe even primarily) in terms of character. In other words, ethics is about who we are, not just what we do. The reason for this approach is simple. What we do—especially when we are under stress—flows largely out of who we are. It isn’t that behavior is unimportant; rather, behavior is the truest measure of what really matters.
Whenever ethics are brought up as a criterion of evaluation for Christian discipleship, people worry whether “works righteousness” is at play. Protestants have rightly warned against any soteriological system that ascribes salvation to human merit. But, in our zeal to avoid the idea that we can earn our way into heaven, we have ignored a very important strain of biblical thought—one that demands righteousness of those who would live in God’s presence. We see the evidence of such a strain of thought throughout the Gospel of Matthew, the Letter of James, and the Book of Revelation. We even see traces of it in Paul’s writings.
Now, again, we need to be clear. It is Christ who provides the righteousness that we need to live as God’s children. But I am not convinced that the righteousness given to us is merely a legal fiction. I think that, when we read the whole Bible, we see that God’s children truly are different. They are transformed by their encounter with the triune God.
So, what does all of this mean? Sure, Jesus calls us to be “perfect” (Matthew 5:48), but Matthew’s own narrative demonstrates that none of us can claim to actually be perfect. So what is the standard? It is a life of growth. It is a life of movement towards maturity. It is a life that demonstrates the Spirit’s presence.
Third, we should talk about the results of discipleship in terms of evangelism. We are not merely saying that those who follow Jesus should share the gospel. We are saying that, of course, and it is something that I personally do not do nearly enough. But we are also saying that people who are real disciples of Jesus should actually have something to say that would be construed as good news.
Doing evangelism is not really about regurgitating a bunch of Bible verses on command, and it isn’t about a well-rehearsed sales pitch or a slick marketing campaign. Rather, we need to be able to tell the “big story” of God’s redemptive work in the world, and we also need to be able to tell the “little story” of God’s redemptive work in our lives. We need to be able to explain why it is that we follow Jesus, and we need to be able to explain what Jesus has accomplished in our lives.
This is where, in my view, a lot of people fall short. They can’t really talk about the good news because they do not really know how it is good news for them. Sure, they know that they are going to heaven when they die (or, at least they think they are), but they cannot make the good news practical to the here and now. Why is that? In my experience, it is because they have not taken the time and the effort to reflect upon their own relationship with God. And, in some cases, it is because they have not made much of an investment in that relationship. In other words, some people have a really good story to tell, but they just don’t know it, while others really don’t have any story to tell.
Fourth, ministry should also be a result of our efforts to make disciples of Jesus. Indeed, ministry is directly related to the equipping work of the church’s leaders in Ephesians 4:7-16. Basically, ministry is the service that we as believers render to one another. It also refers to the service that we render to those in our community who do not yet know, trust, and love Christ.
Why is ministry so important? Why is it a necessary part of discipleship? We should remember that Christ, the chief authority over our individual lives and our corporate bodies, came to sacrificially serve us. He met our needs for physical, social, spiritual, and emotional healing, and he did so at the cost of his own dignity and comfort. If he served us in this way, then we ought to serve one another in the same way (cf. John 13:1-17).
Moreover, ministry draws us into deeper relationship with one another. We cannot learn what our fellow believer (or anyone else in our community) needs unless we get to know her or him. As we listen to one another’s stories, our experiences are woven into a single tapestry of shared wisdom. We begin to include the other within our own sense of self, which, in turn, spurs more efforts at meaningful and practical ministry.
Let’s summarize what we are saying by borrowing a concept from N. T. Wright. Ministry is the way that we become the people of God. It binds us together as a single, psycho-social entity that emulates “the beginner and the completer” (to borrow language from Hebrews 12:1-2) of our existence (Jesus). God has always wanted a people of this sort; after all, to be genuinely relational is endemic to God’s Triune nature, and He made us to live as representatives of His ways and His will on earth.
The Integrative Nature of Discipleship
What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? It means being a person whose allegiance to Christ is reflected in who he or she praises, in how he or she lives, in the message he or she proclaims to the world, and in the service that he or she renders to the church (and to humanity). Likewise, churches do not function as healthy “bodies” (to use Paul’s language) unless they provide people with opportunities to artistically express their devotion to Jesus, unless they celebrate those who model a Christian approach to life, unless they faithfully proclaim the message of God for the world, and unless they facilitate practical service to the people of God (and to the world).
Just like with the obstacles to discipleship, these results of discipleship impact one another. A life lived in accordance with the Scriptures demonstrates the seriousness with which we take our allegiance to Christ, and, in so doing, it imbues our worship with power. In turn, worship has the power to clear our minds and to serve as a conduit for the Spirit’s encouraging and convicting work. Evangelism is rendered ineffective if those proclaiming the message do not live in accordance with its tenets (either because their ethical life is suspect or because they do not engage in meaningful and practical ministry), and ministry loses some of its impact if it is not accompanied by a clear proclamation of the gospel.
There is a lot to being a Christian, so it is understandable that we sometimes focus on one aspect of the Christian life in order to gain a better understanding of what it entails. Nevertheless, we need to remember that every aspect of our life in Christ is part of the discipleship process. Granted, some of us will be stronger in some areas than others. For example, I am not very good at personal evangelism. Nevertheless, we all have an obligation to grow in every area of our lives—if for no other reason than because our weak areas can detract from our effectiveness in those areas where we are strong.