4. Come Follow Mw

“Come Follow Me” is the next essay in this series on discipleship. This week, we move from a more abstract look at discipleship and our culture to the practicalities of how Jesus discipled people, and therefore, how we should disciple people.

The Biblical records that, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus began by calling the disciples into a personal relationship with him. Matthew describes it like this:

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him (Matthew 4:18-22).

Jesus found Peter, Andrew, James and John as they went about their ordinary day-to-day lives. He did not say, “Stop what you are doing for a few moments and accept me as your Lord and Savior before going on with your life.” He did not ask for an intellectual commitment, “Recognize I am the Son of God, and then go back living the way you did before.” He said, “Come, follow me.” In other words, he asked for a commitment involving mind, heart, body, and soul. He asked for a radical break with the past. He might as well have said, “Stop what you are doing. Leave your old accustomed way of life. Leave the books you are reading right where they are. Stop going to your therapist. Make your hobbies, families, and work secondary. Then, follow me.” He even offered them a new occupation: “From now on you will not fish for fish; you will fish for people.”

It is precisely at this point that true discipleship begins. At the beginning, the disciples had no idea of exactly who Jesus was and what he had come to do. They hoped he would be a politico-military Messiah that Jewish tradition anticipated. Nevertheless, they left their nets, and followed him. In the Protestant tradition, we often overlook the fact that there was an act of obedience right at the beginning of the life of discipleship. Bonhoeffer puts it this way, “In the gospels, the very first step a man must take is an act which radically affects his entire existence.” [1] The beginning of discipleship is following Jesus.

Too often, modern people think of our commitment to follow Christ is purely intellectual terms, as if simply recognizing who Jesus was and is makes a person a Christian. In evangelism and discipleship, we often ask people to merely make a verbal statement of faith and perhaps say a prayer. We ask them to confess with their lips, remembering that they must also believe in their heart—the center of their very being (Romans 10:9). [2] If one believes something, it makes a practical difference in life.

Christians believe in and trust Jesus for all of life. They follow him wherever he leads. This is where the artificial division between faith and works is overcome. Those who believe also trust and obey. [3] In John’s Gospel, Jesus puts it this way: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:23-24). To be transformed by the love of God is to become an obedient child of the Father. To be a disciple is to be a follower of Christ.

Following God in Christ

Jesus wanted the disciples to know who he was, even though they seemed not to understand until after his death and resurrection. The key to the disciples attaining that knowledge was for them to enter a personal relationship. He wanted them to make a deep commitment to God through him. He knew it would take personal commitment on his part and theirs. He knew they would have to learn trust him in all of life. He knew it would mean his sacrificial death on a cross. He even knew it would require that they learn to carry a cross as well. He knew that this would take time, a lot of time. Jesus wanted them to spend time with him, follow him around, hear his teachings, observe his responses to situations, and experience his leadership so that they could become more like him. Therefore, his first act was to call them into a life changing personal relationship.

Deciding to Follow Jesus

Sometimes, we think it must have been easier for the first disciples than for us to follow Jesus. We think that if we physically saw Jesus, if he came and personally asked us to follow him, we would find it easier to follow than after hearing a pastor, evangelist, or friend share what God has done in their lives and ask us if we are ready to follow Jesus. This is a mistake. People today have to make the same decision the first disciples made. [4] They must decide to follow Jesus.

The first disciples had it just as hard as we do. They had families. They had friendships. They had hobbies. They had occupations. They already had a religion. They went to the Temple periodically and made sacrifices and attended festivals. They went to the synagogue in Capernaum. They had homes and responsibilities. They did not have the gospels or the records of Jesus’ life death and resurrection. They had much less information than we have. One day, when they were out fishing or getting ready to fish, a man came up to them and asked them to follow him and become fishers of human beings. They had to decide whether they would respond or not.

The gospels tell us that the disciples heard the invitation, left what they were doing, and followed Jesus (Matthew 4:20; Mark 1: 18, 20; Luke 5:11). Somehow, amidst the hustle and bustle of earning a living, caring for spouses, parents, and children, and being engaged in family and civic affairs, the disciples saw something important in Jesus and decided it was worth the risk of following. They did not have it easier than we do. In fact, they had it harder. We can look back at the generations of lives changed, of people healed, of ministries and missions of compassion and care. They had to decide without any of this history. They were the first followers.

We have the examples of people like St. Francis of Assisi, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and hosts of others. We have reason to know what God can do with one ordinary life. When Jesus called the disciples the cross, resurrection, and spreading of the gospel, the birth of the church, the example of the martyrs, the evangelization of the world, had not occurred. It was all to come. They had to look into the eyes of a traveling rabbi and answer the question, “Will I follow him or not?”

We are called to answer the same question the disciples answered: “Am I going to follow Jesus?” As we ponder that question, we ask ourselves the same questions the disciples must have asked: “Am I willing to follow Jesus and to trust him in all my daily life?” “Am I willing to give up everything to follow Jesus?”

When we ask another person if they are ready to become a Christian, we need to be careful not to make it sound too easy. We probably should not say to people, “Are you ready to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” We should say, “Are you willing to trust and follow Jesus in all of life?” Eternal life, the forgiveness of sins, membership in the family of God, citizenship in the kingdom of God depend upon our being willing to follow Jesus, not tell people we believe in Jesus.

The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard constantly reminds us that Jesus does not want admirers—he wants imitators.” [5] In the ancient world, a disciple was more than just a learner. A disciple followed his master and imitated his master. While learning is a part of the life of a disciple, it is not the end or goal of the life of discipleship. Jesus asks us to follow him because he intends to have us become little Christs, living as he lived and doing the same kind of things he did. A follower of Jesus will have certain characteristics, the most important of which is that followers of Jesus try to become like Jesus, and in becoming like Jesus we believe we become more like God. Our goal, as the Eastern orthodox put it is “theosis,” being changed into people filled with the life of God. We are Christ’s disciples so that we might become more like God.

Christian faith is not simply objectively knowing who Jesus is, memorizing a few Bible verses, and learning three or four theological ideas. Christianity is a way of life based on faith and powered by grace. Furthermore, it is a specific kind of way of life: it is a way of life patterned after Jesus Christ. It is a life of loving others, of being a servant, of sharing life together with others, of discovering and using our spiritual gifts, of healing our broken world, and speaking truth into the darkness of a world too often governed by lies.  Being a Christian is learning to bear a cross now and again. This is why Jesus says, if anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Matt.10:23, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:32) We cannot be a disciple or learn to be a disciple any other way but by following Jesus, watching and listening to Jesus, and acting and living like Jesus. This is what it means to be a disciple.

Counting the Cost

A dangerous failure of churches today is a failure to understand that the gospel is not primarily a system of doctrine, a theology of grace, or a verbal formula and mental acceptance to propositions about God expressed in a creed, confession, or theological position. The word we translate “Faith” is also translated “Trust”. [6] Faith is seen in trusting and following Christ and responding faithfully to the pressures of daily life. Real, active faith is seen in disciples who follow Jesus regardless of the cost, personally, professionally, or otherwise. Real faith is seen in a life-transforming relationship with the living God.

At the time of the Reformation, it was unquestionably important to guard against the idea that by obeying a theological authority or doing certain liturgical actions one could be saved, as if by magic. The Reformation was a corrective to the excesses of the Middle Ages. Today, among evangelical churches, indeed among all churches, there is a need to correct the notion that faith is accepting a proposition about Jesus, getting your admission ticket to heaven punched, and then living as you always lived in reliance on the cheap grace of God. If cheap grace was a problem in Bonhoeffer’s day, it is a worse problem today.

The call to be a disciple is a call to follow Jesus in the concrete, daily business of life. It is a call to commit one’s self to God in such a way that we follow Jesus, learn from Jesus, imitate Jesus, and grow to become more like Jesus. It means giving our lives, families, careers, hobbies, and social circle to God. This includes cross-bearing.

Learning to Bear a Cross Now and Again

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). We cannot be disciples without becoming like Jesus and being willing to experience what Jesus experienced, for good or for bad. We cannot become like God unless we are willing to give our lives for others in self-giving love. Crosses are not difficulties. Crosses are not the consequences of our own behavior and choices. Crosses are the decisions we make to suffer for others although we are not required to by law, divine compulsion, or some inner brokenness. Jesus went to the cross because God loves us, and Jesus was sent by God to bear our sins and brokenness on the cross on the basis of that love. Being a disciple means bearing the sins and brokenness of others, loving them unconditionally, and accepting whatever that commitment requires. [7]

Years ago, I was a lay leader in a large congregation. A problem arose. As time went by, I came to think that my closest friends, those with whom I was theologically most in sympathy, and those with whom I wanted to side, were not adopting the best or most godly strategy, and therefore behaving inappropriately. On the other hand, members of my own family were on another side of the dispute, whose proponents were not acting appropriately either. It was the first time as a Christian I ever had to go against the very people who were most important in my life and Christian walk. It was a time of deep personal suffering. During this time, God taught me an important lesson: Being a disciple does not exempt us from being misunderstood, misquoted, slandered, and otherwise deeply hurt. In point of fact, sometimes when we are doing our most important work for Christ, this is exactly what will happen.

To be a disciple is, from time to time, to bear a cross. I’ve now been a pastor and for over twenty-five years and a Christian for well over thirty-five years. Every pastor and every serious Christian leader know that following Jesus does not exempt person from suffering and carrying a cross in the name of Jesus. In fact, as I sometimes say, “Every time God desires to do something really important in this world, someone carries a cross.”

The Role of Faith

From the beginning, Jesus warned his disciples what belief in him meant. Mark begins his gospel with Jesus proclaiming the good news and telling his hearers to “repent and believe” (Mark 1:14). The faith of which Jesus speaks is more than knowing Jesus is right. Faith involves turning away from the past, moving out into the future, and trusting in the wisdom and love of God. Faith requires that we give up our self-trust, our sin, our selfish ambition, and follow Jesus. If we believe in Jesus, we will turn away from the life we lived in the past, and live on the basis of the new life we have in Christ. If we have faith, we will trust Jesus, move out in faith, and live like Jesus, trusting that a life of loving service to others is the best way of life there is.

In Galatians, Paul speaks of the Gospel that can only be accepted by faith. He teaches the principle that people cannot earn their salvation. He is correct: We cannot be justified by our moral behavior or by following the moral law (Galatians 2:16). However, Paul also goes on to say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Responding to the cross means dying to self and selfish desire (“I have been crucified with Christ”) and then living by the power of Christ (“it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”). Faith means responding by giving our whole selves to God, turning away from our selfish, self-centered ways, and living out of the power of the Holy Spirit.

Faith inevitably involves works—in doing something, living in a particular way, taking a particular risk, living differently from others around you. We all have something to do because we follow Jesus. This is why in Ephesians, Paul says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Our works do not save us, but when we believe in Jesus, we are going to do things we never would otherwise have done. We are going to be wiser, more loving, more caring, and truthful, than we were before. God does not save us because of our works; he saves us so that we can become capable of living like Jesus and doing the works Jesus does.

Trust/Faith as a Personal Journey

There is confusion in our society and in churches about the nature of faith. Just as we are too easily believers in cheap grace, we are also often believers in cheap faith.  Is faith merely recognizing who Jesus is and calling upon him so that you can go to heaven when you die? Does faith simply believe Jesus is who Jesus said he was? Does faith mean accepting Jesus and trying to be a bit better than one was before? The answer is, “No.” Faith involves transformation.

The Bible is the story of faith lived out by faithful people. The Biblical story begins with Abraham, who is told by God that he will be the father of many nations and have an heir if he goes to the land of the promise God will show him (Genesis 12:1-3). The Bible tells us that Abraham believed and went. In other words, Abraham trusted God not just with his mind (“OK, God I know you can to this”) but also with his heart, soul, mind, body and strength (“OK God, I will go). Abraham went and followed God in the wilderness for years because of his faith. As James reminds those who think faith can be divorced from works, Abraham’s faith was revealed and completed by his works (James 2:14-26). A faith that does not change the way we think, live, act, and feel is not a faith at all.

When Jesus says, “Come and follow me,” Jesus means exactly what he says. He wants us to follow him because we believe that he holds the secret to our becoming the people we were created to be. Our faith is shown in our discipleship. The person who believes one thing and does another can never be psychologically or personally whole. To have integrity, to be whole, our hearts, minds, souls and spirits have to be one. Only then can we be a whole person.

This faith does not change us all at once as if by magic. The life of faith is a life of constant slow transformation. Over time in the life of faith we are slowly but surely being made whole as we gradually become the people we profess to be. As what we believe in our minds becomes imbedded in our hearts, our emotions and how we behave automatically change. This is the work of grace we call “sanctification.” Sanctification is the process by which what we believe and how we live become one thing in one life.

This is the journey of faith. Just as Abram went on a journey with God and was changed into a new person, and the disciples went on a journey with Jesus and were changed, when we become Christians we begin a journey of faith that will change us. It is journey of following Jesus through a process of discipleship and spiritual growth. It means following Jesus where Jesus goes, with companions (other disciples) who are also following Jesus and listening to the words of Jesus spoken in the Bible. It means asking Jesus into our hearts daily through prayer. It means doing what Jesus did and is doing in the world. It means making a few mistakes along the way, just as the disciples made mistakes, correcting those mistakes and growing along the way. As with any journey, there are and will be twists and turns, blind alleys, and mistaken paths.

A few years ago, a close friend and I walked five days of a pilgrimage, the El Camino de Santiago. The path of the pilgrimage is marked with the sign of sea shells. Occasionally the path may not be precisely marked or one may miss a marker or a marker may be obscured. When that happens, it is easy to take the wrong path and then have to retrace your steps. This happened to us late on the next to last day when we were tired and ready for the journey to be over. We had to walk back a mile or so to where we left the path and begin again. This happens over and over again on the journey of following Jesus.

We cannot always clearly see Jesus or where he is leading us. Sometimes, the way is obscured. The “thorns and thistles” of our culture make the way hard to see and find. Sometimes, we misread the signs God has given us in Scripture or in the advice of others. When that happens, we retrace our steps (ask for forgiveness and make amends), find the place we went off the path, and begin again. God in his mercy knows we need instruction, examples, and mercy on the journey. At the same time, because of his steadfast love, God will bring us safely through the journey. This is why Paul could say with confidence to those he was discipling, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1”6).

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of “Costly Grace,” he is speaking of a grace that transforms us and molds us into new beings. Divine grace never leaves us where we were before we received it. Real grace fits us to come and die to self with the crucified Christ, so that we may be raised to a new and different life by his resurrection power. Grace requires more of us than mere recognition of who Jesus is. It requires that we unreservedly commit our lives and futures to God through him and in light of his revelations to us of God’s nature as love.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Cost of Discipleship, at 70. This is a major focus of Bonhoeffer’s work. Bonhoeffer clearly saw that there was a problem in contemporary Christianity which had become so focused on faith and grace it had forgotten the element of obedience and trustful, loving action from a center of faith in Christ.

[2] This two-fold act of believing, confessing with lips and believing in the heart, is important to understanding the Christian life. In the Jewish way of thinking, the heart was and is the center of thought and life. While our minds conceive of a thing, it is our hearts that commit us to a course of action. Thus, in proverbs, God as the father figure instructs the believer to put his commandments in his or her heart (See for example, Proverbs 2:2; 3:3; 7:3)

[3] Cost of Discipleship, at 70. Bonhoeffer leaves no doubt at this point, saying: “Only the obedient believe.”

[4] See, Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity Howard V. & Edna H. Fong ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 9-10. It was Kierkegaard’s insight that contemporary believers must accept Christ with just the same kind of faith and degree of trust that the first disciples did.

[5] See, Practice in Christianity, 233 ff. The quote is a summary of what Kierkegaard is after in his entire Practice in Christianity. Nevertheless, he definitely distinguishes between imitators who follow, and admirers. For one example, “if we have dozed off into this infatuation, wake us up, recue us from this error of wanting to admire or adoringly admire you instead of wanting to follow you and be like you.” Id. Throughout the text, Kierkegaard is reminding readers that to believe is to follow and imitate, not to simply hold a conviction as to who Christ was.

[6] The Greek word for faith, “pistos” means to have the kind of faith that results in trust. It has the connotation of obedience. This is why when I translate the term from the Greek, I almost always use the term, “Trust/Faith.” Modern, post-Reformation Christians too easily fail to grasp that faith trusts and trust means acts in accordance with what is believed. See, Kittel, G & Friedrich, G, eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Abridged ed. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1985), 849ff.

[7] Bonhoeffer is emphatic at this point. “If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow him,” Cost of Discipleship, at 101.

3. The Challenge of Discipleship in our Culture: The Unblessed Life

This week is the most complex of the chapters until we reach the very end. Next week, we begin to ask and answer the question, “How would Jesus respond and have us respond in this context?”

Christians proclaim Jesus is, “The Way, The Truth, and the Life.” For those who believe, the declaration seems obvious. Nevertheless, for many non-Christians in our society, the words are meaningless. There is no one way of life. Everyone simply chooses a lifestyle that pleases them. There is no universal truth. There is only the perspectives of various people, groups, and disciplines. There is no inherent goodness or beauty. There is only one kind of life, what the ancients called, “Bios.” There is no moral or spiritual life not reducible to biology. Jesus is not “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” because no one can be anything more than their own, way, truth and life.

The decline of Christian faith parallels the decline of the modern world and the emergence of a post-modern, post-Christian age. [1] Christians have been slow to apprehend the dramatic shifts in the culture—a culture Christian faith helped to create and sustain, and which Christians generally assume will continue to be receptive to their religious vision. This is untrue. As a retired professor observed, “We were slow to discern that the culture is not our friend.” [2] In particular, the church has been slow to recognize a new dominant world view that is replacing a Christian world view as the primary way in which people structure reality.

This new world view might be summarized in the following way:

We are alone in the physical universe, which constitutes the only reality. In this universe, there is no embedded notion of truth, beauty or goodness. These concepts are matters of personal choice. We humans must, therefore, create our own meaning and lives by acts of personal choice. All attempts to force such ideas upon others are a form of coercion by which one group forces its will upon others. Personal pleasure attained by the acquisition of personal experiences and things that can provide desired experiences are the means by which humans create their lives. [3]

Sociologists remind us that all people live in cultures characterized by “plausibility structures” that define what is reasonable and sensible and what is not. The world view of modern society has created a “crisis of credibility” within which Christian beliefs, values, and morals no longer make sense to many people, and especially the youngest, best educated, and most successful members of the cultural elite. [4] the new plausibility structure assumes that any kind of universal, transcendent truth is impossible.

Basic Features of Our New Cultural Reality

There are basic features of this new cultural reality that impact discipleship and disciple-making in important ways, and which make our culture increasingly hostile to the message of the gospel. Here are a few of the most important:

My Truth is Only True for Me

Nothing is more common than to hear people voice the opinion that “all truth is relative.” [5]  In our culture, when applied to faith and morals “true” means “true for me,” as opposed to “true” in the sense of accurately rendering external reality independent of my ideas about it. In this kind of society, it is difficult to make persuasive unpopular or counter-cultural truth claims, and especially religious claims, such as the claim that “Jesus is Lord.” Such claims are dismissed as silly. A popular way of expressing this aspect of postmodernity is, “You have your truth; I have mine.”

In our culture, truth claims are often seen as nothing more than an attempt by the person making the claim for power or control over another person or group. While it is positive to understand that all expressions of truth inevitably involve the social condition and bias of the claimant, this positive aspect is often overwhelmed by a negative inference that there is no objective moral or other reality outside of isolated individuals, who ought to be able to live, think, and act as they see fit.

The Christian story has a powerful response to the nihilistic vision of radical postmodernism. The foundation of the postmodern critique of religion lies in its view that all truth claims involve a bid for power. The claim that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and should be followed by all people is seen as nothing but a claim for power over the lives of people.  Christian faith and the Biblical narrative are, however, exempt from this critique. The fundamental insight of Christian faith is that God is a person characterized by self-giving, self-sacrificing love (1 John 4:8). God in Christ forsakes all power and privilege for the sake of the human race and gives God’s self in an act of sacrificial love. (Philippians 2:5-11). Far from being a bid for power, Christian faith at its best is a bid for love. While Christians often not do not live up to this ideal, the Biblical story speaks of forsaking power in love for the sake of the world.

I Alone Make All My Choices

Contemporary society is hostile to any form of tradition, authority, and historic communal norms that might burden an individual’s “free choice.” [6] The bias of the modern age against authority and tradition is reflected in the radical individualism that permeates Western culture. The good life involves the ability to do “whatever I want to do so long as I do not hurt anyone else.” In such a culture, the idea that individual desires and goals may need to be sacrificed for the good of parents, children, city, state, or nation seems quaint and out of date. In recent years, this radical individualism has moved from being the province of a narrow elite to being an underlying assumption of the vast majority of people. For most people today, traditional sources of authority, such as parents, pastors, business and political leaders, as well as the authority of such intellectual works like the Bible, are either lost or greatly undermined.

Nowhere is the narcissistic individualism of contemporary society more evident than in the decline of marriage and family. When the primary goal of human life becomes self-fulfillment, the kind of self-sacrifice required to maintain strong marriages and families is inevitably absent. In the early 1960s, a convenient fiction was born, holding that even where a marriage had already produced children, divorce was preferable to lovelessness and constant strife. The alternative of learning to love the other out of duty and creating a home of peacefulness was not deemed a rational alternative. The result has been what is sometimes called an “epidemic” of divorce, weak families, a decline in standards of living, and children with deep, unhealed spiritual wounds. [7]

If it Feels Good, I Should Do It

Without question, the dominant moral philosophy of the early twenty-first century America is a kind of hedonism. [8] The idea that the good life is synonymous with a life of personal pleasure is part of the everyday environment within which most people live. This hedonism surrounds and permeates our culture. The idea that pleasure, and especially physical pleasure, sits at the center of the good life bombards people on television, in movies, and in the music to which they listen.

A subtle form of hedonism is often found among Christians. Many people who would never affirm their commitment to a life lived for personal pleasure engage in activities that are indistinguishable from the activities of non-Christians. Often, Christians have affairs, drink heavily, use recreational drugs, collect pleasurable experiences, are financially greedy, and engage in other hedonistic activities no less frequently than non-Christians. Despite what Christians, including church leaders, may say about the meaning of religious faith, a silent internal, secular worldview impacts everything from the family budget, to the cars they drive, to the time spent on hobbies, to personal fitness and grooming, to their actual commitment to other people. [9]

 What is Right is What I Feel  is Right for Me

The radical individualism and moral hedonism of our culture combines with the modern awareness of cultural differences in fundamental belief systems to create a form of radical moral and spiritual relativism that characterizes the moral and religious beliefs and behavior of many people. [10]  Often, people do not so much personally reject traditional moral standards as they disregard their application to themselves or other persons who do not see them as personally “right for them.” This way of thinking puts Christian leaders, whose teaching and preaching inevitably involves moral issues, in a dilemma. Christians must either speak in ways that are unpopular and live with the resulting rejection or conform the teachings of the Scriptures and Church to contemporary moral norms. Many choose the latter course.

During one of my advanced degree programs, I saw the fundamental irrationality of this modern way of thinking dramatically demonstrated in a conversation among theological students. During a class, the notion of radical moral relativism was advanced by the leader. After class, a group continued the discussion. Finally, I asked the major proponent of the moral relativistic position, “Do you mean that there is no moral difference between a tribe of pigmies that engage in human sacrifice and Christian morals?” Before the person thought, he immediately answered, “Yes.” The entire class went quiet as a large group of people confronted the implications of what they had been taught in their undergraduate and graduate programs.

I am Responsible for My Life Story

Scholars tell us that human beings are by nature narrative thinkers.[11] We instinctively place our lives within the context of a story, in which we are a main character. In most previous societies, there was a kind of over-arching story that allowed people to construct a narrative in which their life made sense and had meaning and purpose. Old Testament stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, and the patriarchs, Moses, Deborah, Joshua, and the exilic generation, Gideon and the Judges, Saul, David, Abigail, Bathsheba, and Solomon, and the decline of David’s kingdom, and its fall provided for ancient Israel a meaningful story around which human life could be structured and meaning found. [12]  Christians have traditionally believed that the story of God’s relationship with humanity as rendered in the Jewish and Christian Bibles (the Old and New Testaments), and especially the life, death and resurrect on of Jesus, and the writings of the New Testament authors provide an overarching story that gives a context and guidance to human life. This is precisely meta-narrative postmodern thinking rejects. [13]

A basic challenge for contemporary Christians in sharing the Christian story is that we live in a “world that has lost its story.” [14] Our culture is characterized by rejection of any “meta-narrative” (or overarching story) that seeks to give meaning and direction to human life. Not only do contemporary people not believe the Christian story, they often do not believe there is any meaningful story around which to order their lives. The result is an inability of people to form their lives and make decisions in light of the biblical or any other story, except that which they create for themselves. The Christian narrative has been replaced by the secular narrative discussed above.

Modern society has been unable to sustain and renew its intellectual, moral and spiritual foundations in light of the challenges it has faced both intellectually and practically, with the result that it has largely collapsed into radical individualism and moral and spiritual relativism. [15] The result is cultural decline and disintegration. In basic ways, the cultural ruins we see around us is evidence that the Christian story is truer than the secular story that has increasingly replaced it.

The False Gospel of “Entertainmentism”

Into the emptiness created by the loss of a meaningful story has entered the entertainment industry, which provides endless narratives to replace the Biblical story. This industry is central to the lives of modern people. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry is shallow, simplistic, adolescently romantic, obsessed with sex, and often violent. As a result, it is normally unrealistic in the stories it tells in television, movies, music, and other forms. Often, its communication techniques make consciously irrational appeals to emotions. Sex and violence are the vehicles of choice in this emotional appeal. The end result is a culture saturated with the values of the entertainment media is one with a deep and abiding lack of interest in truth and a romantic avoidance of reality. One author describes it in the following manner:

For all practical purposes, the U.S. today is a 24-hour, TV entertainment society. Everything in contemporary America is an entertainment, from sporting event to big business, politics, certainly religion, and even academia. If it isn’t fun, cute, or packaged in ten-second sound bite, then forget it. If it can’t be presented with a smiling, cheerful, sexy face, then it ain’t worth attending to. We’re all spectators in a grand entertainment society. [16]

Recently, my wife and I have been watching a television show that exemplifies the problems with the contemporary entertainment industry. The story line we have been following concerns of a group of young people who are able to travel backwards in time. [17] Two different groups are attempting to manipulate and control the direction of human history. Roughly speaking, one group is portrayed as “the bad guys” and the other as “the good guys.” The good guys kill just as many people and act as irrationally as the bad guys, except that they are trying to protect human freedom. The bad guys are trying to control the future for their own political and economic interest. The bad guys are mere caricatures of the people the media industry dislikes.

The show is saturated by human self-assertion and ethical chaos. The characters struggle with the idea that there might be a higher power who controls the future, but of course there isn’t one active in their plot line, and so they must struggle to create a meaningful future all on their own. They have to make choices. Deep in the problems with show is what Walter Wink calls, “the myth of redemptive violence,” – the notion that violence can be redemptive if only the “good guys” defeat the “bad guys.” (It’s not redemptive for the bad guys kill the good guys.) [18] The result is a constant replay of a shallow, relativistic, philosophy the writers where probably taught in High School and College. In addition, because the show takes the watcher back into history, occasionally the watcher is treated to a shallow, cartoon version of history, sometimes distorted.

A society dominated by entertainment reduces complex problems to sound bites and catchy lyrics. It reduces basic moral and spiritual dilemmas of the human race to a simplistic one-hour drama. It allows people to view sex and violence without consequences. The news depictions of our politics have become similarly shallow. If complex problems are often oversimplified by politicians, the media has largely lost interest in educating the public in the facts, which are often complex and difficult to understand, finding it easier to give opinion pieces and distorted coverage of current events. Complex problems, like the national debt cannot receive proper attention. They are too complex and solutions would require self-denial in a culture addicted to self and selfish consumption.

This culture of oversimplification impacts discipleship, because of the pressure to communicate the Scripture and the content of the confessional standards in simple, even simplistic, ways. Furthermore, the way in which worship services and other church programs are conceived and presented must increasingly take notice of the way in which the entertainment industry structures reality and the acquisition of new information and ideas. None of this is necessarily helpful to those who wish to communicate historic Christian faith.

 The One Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins

When persons from less developed nations visit Europe and North America, they immediately notice the vast array of goods and services available to those who live in these cultures. (Often, they bring with them a list of items it is difficult or expensive to acquire back home to purchase for friends and loved ones.) America and Europe have become shopping paradises.

With the passing of the World War II generation, most Americans cannot remember a time not characterized by relative prosperity. Recessions aside, the standard of living enjoyed by most Americans today far surpasses that of their grandparents. The impact of consumerism upon the culture is important, deep, and pervasive. A culture without meaning and purpose is likely to find endless consumerism attractive and distracting. People too easily come to believe (consciously or unconsciously) that “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.”

The economies of Europe and North America have evolved from struggling to meet basic human needs to providing a growing supply of goods and services to an affluent consumer market. Marketing has moved from a means by which people with basic needs find products to meet those needs to the creation of needs in ever increasing, narrow product niches. The definition of the “good life” is increasingly dominated by the feeling that “good” and “abundant” are identical concepts.

The consumer culture is a challenge to the gospel, the Church, and leaders. Many members of local congregations have difficulty resisting consumerism; however, church leaders and their families are not exempt from the disease I call “consumeritis.”[19]  Consumerism assumes human happiness can be purchased, that the acquisition of things will bring happiness, and that the experience of ownership and possession is redemptive. Few people explicitly articulate this faith, but many people practice it. The bumper sticker that reads, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” is truer for more people than they want to admit, including many who would never admit that things constitute the primary focus of their lives.

Advertising and the media constantly communicate the idea that new cars, new hair sprays, and new soft drinks can bring happiness and fulfillment to the one who acquires them. A kind of disconnect often exists between the gospel that is preached and the life that is lived, making authentic spirituality hard to achieve and maintain in a local congregation. Alternatively, some congregations have adopted a consumer-oriented approach to ministry that is not fully faithful to the Gospel. This situation is especially true in those denominations that sit at the center of American culture.

Materialism: There is Nothing Beyond the Physical World.

Sitting beneath the superficiality of a consumer culture is the reality of a materialistic culture, a culture that assumes that the material world is primary, and physical goods and services are redemptive. Deep in the modern and postmodern psyche is the notion that the physical universe is the only and ultimate reality. In this way of thinking, all that exists are material things and the forces that act upon them. [20]

God is considered not to exist or to be a part of the only and ultimate reality, the physical universe. Pantheism (the belief that everything is God) is one religious response to a materialistic worldview. A more common practical reaction is a movement of religion to the human psyche, where it is viewed either negatively as a neurosis or positively as a principle of self-transcendence and wholeness. New age and other similar forms of popular religion often emerge from this kind of thinking. In any case, such a religious foundation is powerless against the overwhelming materialism of the culture.

Among churches, an overt attempt to find a place within a fundamentally materialistic worldview is common. In liberal circles, this accommodation is evident in its theological accommodation to a materialistic and anti-supernatural worldview. In evangelical circles, the accommodation often emerges in a different form, such as an uncritical adoption of psychotherapeutic techniques and notions. In conservative churches there is often a wholesale philosophical rejection of modernity, coupled with an uncritical acceptance of this means, methods, and goals. [21] In both cases, discipleship has been hampered by the false world view accepted by groups.

Our “Postmodern” Context

Our social context is often referred to as “Postmodern.” The term “Postmodern” is both deceiving and not always helpful. [22] All the name connotes is that we live “after” the Modern Era. In fact, many characteristics of what is commonly called “postmodern” seem to indicate only the end-phase of the Modern Era. [23] Nevertheless, emerging and challenging realities captured under the rubric of “postmodernity” profoundly impact Christians and discipleship.

In ways, the culture we inhabit often involves a partial return to paganism. Unlike the ancient world, our cultural paganism is a “religionless paganism.” [24] In such a culture, discipleship must be lived out by disciples in the West without the social supports common in preceding generations. American society, in particular, has shifted from one in which Protestantism, especially mainline Protestantism, represents a societal religious and moral consensus to one in which many cultural elites are often openly hostile to Christian faith and morals. [25]

A culture characterized by consumerism, radical individualism, hedonism, and “entertainmentism” is a challenging culture in which to proclaim the gospel and form and sustain Christian community. I have experienced many conversations, particularly with older pastors, where the following statement was made. “It is no longer fun to be a pastor.” In noting the reactions of Third World observers to American cultural religion, Eugene Peterson makes and observation that, at least partially explains this sentiment:

What they notice mostly is the greed, the silliness, the narcissism. They appreciate the size and prosperity of our churches, the energy and the technology, but they wonder at the conspicuous absence of the cross, the phobic avoidance of suffering, the puzzling indifference to community and relationships of intimacy. [26]

Early twenty-first century America, characterized by consumerism, materialism, hedonism, and “entertainmentism” is deeply at odds with the gospel and a form of life based on the Christian narrative. The resulting cultural patterns constitute a form of life deeply at odds with values that stand at the core of Christian faith and with the kind of life the gospel narrative encourage Christians to lead. As hostility toward the Christian meta-narrative has grown more intense in recent years, a tendency for the biblical story to be ignored or even suppressed developed in schools, colleges, universities, and the like. A corollary of this development is a decrease in the number of people outside and inside the Church who have a basic familiarity with the Biblical narrative. This decrease, in turn, makes communication of the gospel more difficult as many people simply do not have the kind of familiarity with the Christian story that permits them to understand and respond to the gospel. Furthermore, many inside the Church have either forgotten the story of the Bible or never knew it. [27] At the same time, secular society has developed a kind of lifestyle that is deeply at odds with many facets of historic Christianity.

Fortunately, Christian faith has a response to the critique of postmodernism. Christianity was not founded by a conqueror in a bid for power. The story of the gospel is the story of a God who forsakes perfection and power, endures suffering on behalf of humanity, dies a terrible death, all to reach into human history with the unimaginable self-giving love of God. At our best, Christians do not believe in a kind of religious imperialism by which every human being is compelled to believe in Christ. Instead, Christians fundamentally believe that, by reaching out in love and service to others and sharing the truth of God, people will without compulsion respond by the power of the Holy Spirit to the call of God to live lives of wisdom and love.

Christians who minister within the European and North American context in this cultural era have a unique challenge. Our ministry is to take people where they are found, caught in damaging cultural patterns, and shepherd them into a new way, the way of Christ. The sum total of the challenges posed by Western culture is the need to minister amid a deep and abiding sense that the way of Christ and the way of this world are radically different. The need is to develop the kind of character than can build and sustain Christian community in the face of the cultural challenges Christians face. Merely repeating past truisms will not do. Faith divorced from a distinctive way of life will not do. Cheap grace dispensed for sins few people either acknowledge as sin or believe are sins will not do. Only the truth embodied in love will do. Until then, we will be trapped in a crisis of discipleship.

Copyright 2019, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A good deal of this chapter is based on research done for my Doctor of Ministry Degree. A more heavily footnoted version of this chapter can be found in G. Christopher Scruggs, Practices and Characteristics for Pastors Renewing Mainline Congregations: Studies from the Presbytery of Memphis (Unpublished Dissertation, Accepted March 25, 2005).

[2] Nelson, C. Ellis. Private conversation (14 March 1994).

[3] Allen, Diogenes. Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1989), 1

[4] Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. (New York, NY: Anchor, 1967), 151; see also. Berger, Peter L. Rumor of Angels (New York, NY: Anchor, 1970).

[5] Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1987), 25. Professor Bloom points out what has been my experience both as a student in the late 20th Century and a teacher. The younger American generations have been indoctrinated into a world view in which “truth” means “true for me.

[6] Trueblood, E. J. The Dawn of the Postmodern Era (New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1954), 19.

[7] This radical individualism is increasingly felt in the Church. The notion of an authoritative text read as part of a tradition is difficult to sustain in a postmodern environment. Church leaders are confronted each and every day with persons for whom the notion of authority, and perhaps especially the notion of pastoral authority, have little or no meaning. The result for church leaders is an intense pressure to succumb to such views or constantly minister in an environment in which church leaders can do little more than support persons. Furthermore, church leaders are not immune from such radical individualism in their own lives.

[8] “Hedonism” is an ancient Greek moral theory that the ethical life can be reduced to seeking pleasure or happiness and the avoidance of pain or unhappiness. It was founded by a pupil of Socrates, and its name comes from the Greek word for pleasure. This idea has been important in religious and moral thinkers since Greek times, and profoundly impacts some forms of both Pragmatism and Utilitarianism.

[9] The pleasure-seeking aspect of modern and emerging postmodern culture is especially evident in the way in which sexuality both dominates secular politics and the Church’s agenda and distorts the Church’s life mission. Recent headlines involving the incidence of child molestation by Roman Catholic priests, the continuing divisions in mainline churches over homosexuality, and highly publicized heterosexual clergy misconduct are but examples of the way in which the hedonism of modern culture invades the Church. Addiction to pornography, a challenge in many cultures, is made much more pervasive by its easy availability on the Internet. In such a culture, the idea that self-denial and suffering are part of the good life is at odds with the form of life that surrounds people.

[10] Allen, Diogenes. Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1989), 9.

[11] See, Hauerwas, Stanley and Jones, L. Gregory, eds. Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989).

[12] In ancient Greece, the story of the Iliad with its exaltation of the heroism of Achilles and Hector formed the consciousness of people. Within the great story of the Iliad, kings, warriors, men, women, servants, and the like all found examples of where they could go right in life and how they could go wrong. See, Alister McIntyre, After Virtue 2nd Ed. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1983), whose analysis I have shortened but largely followed.

[13] This aspect of postmodernity is especially troubling. Human beings seem to naturally seek to understand their lives as a story, and to place themselves in some way within that story as a character. The loss of narrative inevitably means the loss of place. It means the loss of identity, meaning and purpose, as it becomes less possible to find a coherent place in the events of daily life.

[14] Jenson, Robert W. “How the World Lost Its Story.” First Things Oct. 1993: 19-24.

[15] Postmodern thinkers have abandoned any hope that any core symbolic world or meta-narrative can provide a unified vision and narrative structure for human life. [15] Unsurprisingly, the result has been cultural decline and growing social chaos. One pressing need in ministering to post-modern people is to recover the notion of the Bible as providing a non-violent narrative which provides meaning and purpose as well as ultimate justification for a free and open society. Grenz, Stanley J. A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 42-43. Interestingly, the Postmodernists do propose a metanarrative of their own, one that denies the possibility of unified spiritual and moral vision for human life. See also, After Virtue, previously cited.

[16] Mitroff, Ian I., and Warren Bennis. The Unreality Industry: The Deliberate Manufacturing of Falsehood and What It Is Doing to Our Lives (New York, NY: Oxford, 1989), 16.

[17]  Timeless, NBC New York (October 3, 2016-December 20, 2018). Timeless is an action drama in the science fiction genre.

[18] Wink, Walter, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), 13-31. Wink has written extensively on the powers and principalities and the way in which a misunderstanding of them can warp Christian thought ad action. In my view Wink is too captive to his own left-wing ideology, and thereby weakens his case. We are all inclined to be controlled by the powers and principalities, not just one group of people.

[19] “Consumeritus” is a term I coined for the ‘consumer’ orientation of our economy and the way in which it encourages people to find meaning in acquiring things. The “itis” indicates that Consumeritus is actually a disease of the soul.

[20] One of the clearest indications that the modern world cannot continue is that this belief in material objects and forces is completely contrary to our most sophisticated understanding of the universe in which we live. The ultimate nature of material reality seems not to be material. It can be described as disturbances in fields or even as information, but whatever the ultimate reality is, it is not material. Our intellectual leaders, politicians, business people, and religious leaders have hardly begun to accommodate the relativistic, relational, information-centered view of the world favored by contemporary quantum physics and increasingly other disciplines as well.

[21] Nowhere is the impact of materialism more evident than in arguments over human sexuality. Whether the debate is over marital fidelity or alternative forms of sexual expression, the argument used often involves some form of an argument that “people are born this way.” At the root of the widespread acceptance of this argument is a materialistic notion of reality in which religious faith may give subjective support to persons but is unable to change ultimate reality. On the other hand, among conservative Christians, there is often little difference between how they in fact live and the life-style evident in the culture as a whole.

[22] The term postmodernity is used in a variety of ways by various authors. In general, the term postmodern is used to describe both a philosophical movement and an emerging cultural reality. The postmodern intellectual period is generally thought to have begun with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and his powerful indictment of both Christianity and Enlightenment optimism concerning human reason. Culturally, the postmodern period is generally thought to have begun to emerge after the First World War, which engendered a tremendous alienation from Western Culture among European intellectual elites. Both the philosophical and cultural aspects of postmodernism are very complex. This study does not presume to provide a comprehensive analysis of postmodern thought. It sought to give a pastoral analysis sufficient for a study of transformational leadership in the contemporary church. Worth noting, however, is that I believe that postmodernism is “here to stay” as a cultural phenomenon, and pastors must minister within postmodern America and to people who are consciously or unconsciously affected by its theory and cultural artifacts. As a cultural reality and as a philosophical movement, postmodernism has aspects that are both positive and negative for the Church and for Christians who witness to Christ under its conditions.

[23] See note 4 above.

[24] This “religionless paganism” is sometimes referred to as neo paganism. Just as postmodernity refers to something after modernity, neo paganism refers to a new form of paganism. The actual content varies because it is a kind of eclectic collection of beliefs that people choose to adopt. What defines them as pagan is the fundamentally manipulative nature of the beliefs, which is to say that the “divine” is put at the heart of human striving. From a Christian standpoint, neo-paganism is both superstitious and idolizing.

[25] The emergence of “new age” ideas clearly often involve a kind of religion, and even supernatural forces, so the emerging culture is not void of spiritual ideas. When I use the term pagan, I mean a kind of return to the pre-Christian notions of society and morals.

[26] Peterson, Eugene. Under the Unpredictable Plant. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 37

[27] A common experience of pastors and other Christian leaders is the pervasive lack of familiarity with the biblical narrative even among Christians. The emergence of the Internet, which many people thought would be a great help in alleviating this problem has significantly helped the problem. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for a long-term commitment to study the Bible in some detail. Obviously, some passages are more important than others, and some sections clearer than others. Many of the programs that gave churches and Christian organizations a vehicle for deep discipleship in the past the longer seem to work in the postmodern context.

The Blessed Life

We live in a curious age. Never in human history have people in the developed world had so much material wealth. Paradoxically, never before have people suffered from so much anxiety about the future, life, their ability to continue to consume at or above their current level, and the meaning and purpose of their lives. Young people in almost all Western democracies, but notably in the United States, the so-called “leader of free world,” demonstrate a lack of trust in the way of life and institutions that provide the highest standard of living and the most freedom experienced anywhere in human history. Sadly, among Christians, fewer and fewer people live as fully committed disciples. Churches in Europe are nearly empty, and those in the United States and North America are rapidly following the European example.

Numerous social commentators, Christian and non-Christian, liberal and conservative, traditionalist and radical, note that there is something troubling about our society. Commentators do not agree on what is wrong, how serious the problem is, or what to do in response to the problems they see—they just agree there is a problem. No significant period of time goes past without someone publishing an article with a title something like, “Are America’s best days behind her?” [1] These articles focus on indications that something is deeply wrong with our culture. Many of the commentators see at the root of our society’s problems the reality that material wealth, prosperity, pleasure, consumption, leisure, and the like cannot provide meaning, purpose, love, or inner strength, and security. In fact, the relentless search for meaning and purpose by the means advocated by our society result in increasing loss of meaning, purpose, love, inner strength, and security. The result is pervasive loneliness, isolation, neurosis and anxiety.

One reason we have so much trouble resisting the temptations of our culture is that most of us have a deeply ingrained, culturally formed notion of “the Good Life.” The good life involves feelings of personal pleasure and happiness. Most people believe that hard work, healthy habits, exercise, pleasurable experiences, travel, recreation, hobbies and other forms of self-actualization are important to achieving to this good life. Some people believe that government can and should arrange to create this good life on behalf of its citizens. Other people believe it should be created by private industry and personal initiative, but nearly everyone believes in some kind of earthly paradise in which all our human expectations and desires can be and are met. [2]

Jesus and the Blessed Life

Interestingly, Jesus never talked about the desirability of seeking to live to old age, attaining a degree of physical beauty, staying fit and healthy, acquiring wealth, getting ahead financially, consuming increasing amounts of goods and services, traveling, pleasurable experiences, or any of the other preoccupations of our day. Jesus did, however, speak of what he called “the blessed life.”

The Blessed Life Now and For Jesus

Jesus’ teachings concerning the blessed life are completely at odds with what our culture considers blessings. When people in our society use the word “blessed,” in almost any of its forms, it usually involves something concrete we have received. We say, “I am blessed with good health.” “I am blessed with a strong heart.” I am blessed with a wonderful spouse.” “I am blessed with four healthy children.” “I have been blessed financially.” “I am blessed with a new job.” “I am blessed with a promotion.” The list of our blessings could go on and on, but they have this in common: they relate to physical blessings that contribute to our sense of emotional and physical well-being.

On the other hand, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are those who mourn.” “Blessed are the humble.” “Blessed are the merciful.” “Blessed are the pure in heart.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Worst of all, Jesus says, “Blessed are the persecuted.” In Luke, the words are even less palatable to modern ears. [3] In Luke, Jesus is recorded has having said, “Blessed are the poor,” not just the poor in spirit. He says “Blessed are the hungry,” not just those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He says, “Blessed are those who weep,” and repeats, “Blessed are you when men hate you, exclude you, and insult you.” [4] Jesus seems to be saying that everything the modern world believes leads to the blessed life does not.

Jesus challenges our human presuppositions about what it means to be blessed. For Jesus, the blessed life is not something exterior to ourselves we acquire. Instead it is something we experience within ourselves. Moreover, because of the nature of the blessing, the blessed life is not something we naturally seek, but can only receive as a gift from God. The exterior life, upon which modern people place so much emphasis, is secondary. It is our relationship with God and with his plans and purposes that is primary in life. In other words, Jesus thinks our society has things completely backward!

Secular reason does not permit us to see and understand the truly blessed life without the intervention of God. It was true in Jesus’ day, and it is true today. [5] The blessed life is received by faith in God and in his Word. We cannot discover it on our own. Someone, under the inspiration of God, has to tell us about this blessed life in Christ and show us what it looks like.  Someone must help us overcome our cultural addictions to power, pleasure, and possessions. That is why Christ came. In the end, the Spirit of Christ must work in us so that we can receive by faith what God has promised.

The Old Testament and the Blessed Life

The Old Testament reflects an understanding that the blessed life, like all of life, is a gift from God. The Hebrew word “Baruch” implies a kind of all-completeness and wholeness that can only come from God. In the creation story, God creates the human race, and then immediately blesses them (Gen. 1:27-28). The blessing God gives to Adam and Eve implies that the human race was intended to occupy and enjoy God’s good creation as a creature that can joyfully appreciate and participate in the completion of God’s gracious intention for that creation.

The story of the fall reflects the human race falling away from its divine destiny of blessing (Gen. 3:16-19). The curse of the fall described in Genesis is not the abusive action of an angry God. It is the natural result of the human race leaving the path of fellowship with God, creation, and other people for self-centeredness and self-seeking—a path that inevitably leads to alienation, misguided behavior, and suffering. The human race, meant for communion with God, nature, and one another has forfeited its divine destiny and now restlessly roams the earth in search of a restoration of its blessings.

Blessings and Noah

In the story of Noah, God saves a righteous man in the midst of a catastrophe of sin and alienation that engulfs the entire world. When the flood is over, Noah departs from the ark, builds an altar, and praises God. God in return blesses Noah in language that reveals God’s desire to restore the blessing lost in the garden of Eden: “Then God blessed Noah and his children saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” (Gen. 9:1). [6] Even in judgment, God is seen restoring, renewing, and blessing the human race.

Blessings and Abraham

The story reaches a decisive moment when God calls Abram into a new and special relationship of blessing. When the Lord calls Abram to leave his country, his people, and those of his household left behind, he promises:

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth   will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2-3).

The blessing God gives to Abram (Abraham) is not just for his genetic family. It is a blessing for the entire world and every tribe and nation. It is a blessing for all the peoples of the earth. This blessing flows from the trustful relationship Abraham and his family are intended to have with God. Over and over again throughout Genesis, God blesses the family of Abraham. As the story unfolds, the blessing of Abraham is extended from Abraham and his family to the entire world (See, Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 28:14). This blessing through the kind of faith Abraham demonstrates continues to this day.

Blessings and the Wise Life

The book of Psalms begins with a blessing:

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.

Therefore, the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,  but the way of the wicked leads to destruction (Psalm 1, ESV).

By the time Psalms was written, the people of Israel understood that the blessed life is achieved by following the teachings of God. The psalmists realize that God has revealed in nature and his word a way of life that leads to blessing. The blessed person not only receives the blessing of fellowship with God, but also physical blessing that comes with obedience to the God’s instructions. The blessed life is achieved by following the way of blessing God has provided for the human race.

Those who follow the way of wickedness (i.e. act contrary to God’s will) can never be blessed. They have chosen a path that leads away from blessing. Those who follow God’s will and become wise in good living, receive the blessing a fellowship with God. Those who follow the way of holiness and righteousness are recreated into the image of the God who created them in the first place and received the blessing of that re-creation.

Wisdom literature affirms this same idea: the blessed life is lived according to the wisdom God has imbedded in the universe, a wisdom that is revealed for the people of God in God’s instructions and laws (Proverbs 3:13-18). [7]For wisdom writers, the blessed life is the wise life. Those who follow the path of wisdom (adapting their lives to divine and created reality), find a path that leads to peace and plenty. It is a way of life that leads to increased blessings. For the wisdom writers, the blessings of God are received by those who develop a wisdom God imbedded in the universe. The Path of Life is the Path of Wisdom and is the most valuable blessing a person can receive in life, and it is the ground and source of all the other blessings of life. [8]

The blessed life is filled with the kind of wisdom that comes from God and from life in fellowship with God. The blessed person listens to the voice of God’s wisdom, and waits for God’s revelation of the proper course of action in the practical affairs of life (Proverbs 8:34). Ultimately, the wise life is a life of wise, loving, trustful, and faithful conformity to God’s character and will (Proverbs 16:20). It cannot be achieved without the deep reverence and respect for God that that Bible terms, “the fear of the Lord,” which is the beginning of wisdom and of the blessed life (Proverbs 1:6, 9:10; 28:14). [9]

Blessing and the Prophetic Life

If wisdom literature emphasizes that the blessed life is the result of wisdom, the Prophets teach that the blessed life results from following the will of God and walking in his chosen path. The end of the Kingdom of David, the failure of Israel to retain its freedom and independence, their defeat by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and the exile to Babylon were interpreted by the prophets as a judgment on Israel’s lack of faithfulness to the God of Abraham. As a result of their failure, God removed his blessing, and allowed judgment to come upon them. The people of God forfeited the blessed life.

If the recipe of the wisdom writers for a return of blessing was to forsake foolishness and wickedness and return to the “Path of Life,” the recommendation of the prophets was that Israel return to faith in the Living God and live according to God’s instructions and will. [10]Their message was one of religious and national revival. “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). If Israel returned to faithfulness to God, they would be restored to their land and the kingdom of David would be restored. [11]

Old Testament writers were not unaware of the role chance, good fortune, and bad luck play in human life. [12]Nevertheless, they believed that God was the fount and source of the good life and all the blessings of life, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. The restored Kingdom of David was, even in the early stages of its development more than a restored earthly kingdom, but a kingdom of blessing from God. It would be revealed in a kingdom of wisdom, righteousness, and peace.

The New Testament and the Blessed Life

 By Jesus’ time, the religion of Israel had developed in a disturbing way. In terms of religious observance, the blessed life was achieved by participating in religious rituals and making proper sacrifices. In terms of behavior, the blessed life was achieved through understanding the law of Moses and following its details as interpreted by the rabbis. The Pharisees, and teachers of the law (those who took the Old Testament seriously) developed detailed understanding of what it meant to follow the law in every area of life. For the religious few, this form of life gave life meaning and purpose. For the average person, temple religion had become a matter of mere external form, and the religion of the scribes and Pharisees a complicated and unachievable set of rules.

Certain forms of modern Christianity resemble the religious situation of Israel at the end of the Old Testament. People continue to go to church. A few continue to study the Bible and attempt to organize their lives “according to biblical principles.” Sometimes their understanding of these principles is quite detailed. However, for the majority of people the life of discipleship has become a dim memory. Just as with the ancient Israelites, the life of faith seems complicated, unrewarding, and unachievable. [13]

The Change Jesus Made

When Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee and called twelve ordinary people to become his followers, he revealed something new: The blessed life is not achieved by external religious observances, devoted study of the law, or even dedicated obedience to the law. Instead, discipleship and the blessed life is a matter of a living relationshipwith God who is the source of wisdom and love. Jesus called his disciples into a personal relationship, and through that relationship, into a personal relationship with God. As with any relationship, the defining characteristic of Jesus’ new way was a personal commitment to be in relationship, a commitment that we call “faith.” The faith of the original disciples was reflected by their decision to follow Jesus. Our faith is no different.

Just as in a marriage (or any other human relationship) not every day, week, month, or year is characterized by good feelings, the same thing is true of our relationship with God in Christ. There will be ups and downs. Perhaps even more challenging was Jesus’ warning that following him entails sacrifice and even suffering. “If anyone would come after me, they must take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23). Following Jesus involves not just discomfort, but suffering and sacrifice. There will be blessing, but that blessing will not necessarily eliminate the reality of suffering, even undeserved suffering.

The Disciples’ Long Period of Misunderstanding

It took the disciples a long time to understand that the blessed life Jesus promised was not a promise of uninterrupted health, success, pleasure, or victory over opposition. The crucified Messiah revealed a kind of blessing that transcends human experience wisdom or experience (I Cor. 1:16ff). This is why Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). The blessing (Shalom) that Jesus offers is a kind of blessing that cannot be achieved by simple religious obedience or ritual. Is a blessing that may only be found in a personal relationship with the Living God.

The Truly Blessed Life

So then, what is the blessed life? First, the truly blessed life is lived in fellowship with God, nature, and other people. It is lived in solidarity with the external world as human beings recover the stewardship of creation for which the human race was created. It is a life of restored interpersonal relationships, as the alienation caused by pride, selfishness, and self-seeking is overcome. The blessed life is a life of spiritual and emotional wholeness. It is a life of restored communion with God.

The person who lives in communion with God, creation, and other human beings achieves emotional and spiritual wholeness. The blessed life is a life of humility and acceptance of others, because the wise and blessed person recognizes that human beings are fallible, finite, and capable of wickedness. Blessed life is also a life of steadfast love, because those who live in relationship with the God of steadfast love exhibit that steadfast love in their own day-to-day lives.

When I was a young Christian, the missionary, evangelist, and social theologian Francis Schaeffer diagnosed the condition of Western society as dominated by a definition of the good life as achieving personal peace and affluence. [14]Certainly, our society is dominated by the individualistic search for things, for experiences, for recreation, for a sense of happiness and peace. In the midst of this search, we experience a high level of dysfunction.

Why is this so? Is it because the “Blessed Life” cannot be found in having more things, achieving success, experiencing pleasures, and the like? What if the blessed life can only be found in the humble search for wisdom in daily living and in loving service to God and others? What if our society and every other society always have been and are misguided at a deep level concerning what constitutes the blessed life? [15]

Jesus knew we human beings seldom change our behavior until we experience what life might be like if we adopted another behavior pattern. Therefore, he was not content to simply talk about the blessed life. Jesus lived the blessed life for all the world to see. He called disciples to live with and observed him. They did not know it at the time, but they were experiencing the blessed life and being trained to share that blessed life with others.

If people in contemporary society could achieve the blessed life by reading about the blessed life, our society would indeed be a blessed society. There are many, many self-help books. There are books about how to lose weight, gain weight, exercise, take vitamins, diet, think and grow rich, retire early, become more physically able to defend ourselves, find peace with God or the Ultimate (however you visualize it)—there are books about anything and everything we might do to achieve the blessed life on our own terms. It is been my experience, and the experience of most people who’ve tried these books, that they don’t permanently work. Why?

It is because we human beings do not need more than information to achieve the blessed life. We need to experiencethe blessed life. We need to experience what it is to live wisely. We need to experiencewhat it is like have healthy relationships with other people. We need to experiencewhat it is like to love others with what the Bible calls “steadfast love” or “agape love,” the self-giving, long-suffering, faithful love of God. In order for people to experience the blessed life, there must be disciples who follow Jesus and how to live the blessed life know not just from reading books but from experience.

The disciples, like people today, did not immediately understand what Jesus was showing them. Like us, they did not learn all at once but only after a long period of observation and personal interaction. It was not until after his cross and resurrection that they understood. Although Peter was inspired to say that Jesus was the Christ, the son the living God at Caesarea Philippi, his inspiration was temporary. He would still deny Jesus and go back to fishing until his time of discipleship was complete. It was only after he saw the risen Christ and experienced the power of the resurrection that Peter became capable of living the blessed life. [16]

We cannot expect people in our time to be any different. Relational understanding comes slowly. It requires time, practice, mistakes, correction, teaching, patience, and all the other attributes of discipleship. The reason Jesus created and lived in relationship with his disciples during his entire earthly ministry was because relationships are the way, and the only way, people can truly change and be transformed. In our day and time, we are experiencing a crisis of discipleship precisely because we have not done a particularly good job of discipling others into a living relationship with God. The crisis will not abate until we give up the idea that better marketing, worship, or programming can achieve real change. Real change involves a return to Way of Jesus.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A brief survey on the internet demonstrates the truth of his proposition. See for example, Farid Zakaria, “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?” Time Magazine, Thursday, March 3, 2003 http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2056723,00.html(Downloaded, June 22, 2019); Eduardo Porter, “America’s Best Days May Be Behind It” New York Times, January 10, 2016 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/20/business/economy/a-somber-view-of-americas-pace-of-progress.html(Downloaded June 22, 2019). Patrice Lewis, “Why Our Best Days Are Behind Us” WNDhttps://www.wnd.com/2016/01/why-our-best-days-are-behind-us/(Downloaded June 22, 2019); Nigel Barber, “Are America’s Best Days Over?” Huffington PostMarch 18, 2017 https://www.huffpost.com/entry/are-americas-best-days-ov_b_9487770(Downloaded June 22, 2019).

[2] This point is made powerfully in lay language in W. T. Wright’s new book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good(New York, NY: Harper One, 2015), 109ff. In the modern world, we are all subject to a culturally reinforced worldview that considers progress to be an automatic result of human striving. Recent history casts doubt on this view. What is needed is a new kingdom not the result of human striving and schemes.Just as the Jews were mistaken to reduce the promise of the Messiah to an earthly kingdom run by a new and improved “Son of David,” when we reduce the gospel to a personal, economic or political agenda we are always wrong. In our culture, Christians need to be prepared to show people the error of expecting God’s kingdom to be just like our kingdom only wealthier, politically stronger, and more defensible. When Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate, and was accused of opposing Caesar, he replied that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to bring his kingdom into this world; it just means there’s more to God’s kingdom in this world will ever know.

[3] In at least one modern translation of the Beatitudes, the term blessing is translated “Happy.” The Old Testament makes clear that, while happiness may result from the blessed life, the blessed life is not constituted by feelings of mere happiness. The blessed life depends on the grace and mercy of God. God is the source of all true blessings. To be blessed is to receive a state of wholeness and holiness that only God can provide. It is a gift, an act of mercy, not a reward.

[4] See, Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-22. The differences between the Matthean and the Lukan descriptions of the Sermon on the Mount are significant, but not for the purposes of this book. In both cases, what Jesus is saying is at odds with what the vast majority of the people in our society see as blessings.

[5] This insight sits behind Paul’s observation in I Corinthians that the world cannot understand or accept the wisdom of God. It seems like foolishness to the human reason without the intervention of God (I Cor. 118-2:16).

[6] The language of Genesis 1 and 9 are nearly identical, indicating God’s divine intention remains the same for the fallen human race as it was for the human race at its creation.

[7] Thus, in Proverbs 3 we read: “Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed” (Proverbs 3:13-18).

[8] Thus, wisdom writers go on to say:“By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew (Proverbs 3:19-20).

[9]T he term “fear of the LORD can be difficult for modern readers. When I translate the phrase, I use the term “Deep Respect,” which captures the Biblical idea that God is so much greater than human beings that the only proper response before his wisdom and power is a kind of obedient, humble, and absolute respect. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers(Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), at 37

[10] It is important not to draw too great a distinction between the wisdom and prophetic writers. Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example, are deeply influenced by and in substantial continuity with the wisdom writers and many of their writings could easily be classified as wisdom writings.

[11] Isaiah speaks of a coming “King of Righteousness,” who will usher in a time of blessing for Israel (Isaiah 32:1). In the time of the Messiah, the people will learn to live wisely and receive the blessings of justice and righteousness (v. 2-5). They will finally be led by one under whose leadership they can receive the fullness of blessings for which they longed.

[12] I have written about the awareness of the Old Testament writers that the wise and good life does not guarantee happiness: Job, Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms speak of this awareness. Nevertheless, the Old Testament writers believe that God is the source of the blessed life and that it cannot be achieved without following God’s laws in faith. See, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers, 165-193.

[13] In my first church, one member of a local congregation criticized me to one of my members for cutting my lawn on Sunday afternoons and coming to the bank in my running shorts. For this person, the “law of Christ,” just like the law of the ancient Jews prohibited any physical work on Sunday and for a religious person to expose himself in any way to others. In other words, this person was, for all intents and purposes, a modern Pharisee.

[14] Francis Schaeffer, HowShould We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and CultureRev Ed. (Old Tappen, NJ: Fleming H. Revel, 1976), 205.

[15] In Jesus’s day, just as in our day, people desired to experience the blessed life. In Jesus’s day, just as in our day, people had misconceptions about what it is like to live blessedly. The Jews, like modern Americans, were inclined to suppose that those with sufficient material blessings and economic and political security to relax and enjoy life would experience the blessed life. They, just like many modern Americans, were inclined to believe that if only their own particular political opinion and preferred form of government could be achieved, their lives would be blessed. Jesus came to deconstruct that entire way of thinking.

[16] One important characteristic of the Gospel of Mark is the way in which it shows Peter and the other disciples as frequently either not understanding or misunderstanding who Jesus is and what Jesus has come to accomplish. They do not understand his Messianic Kingdom, the means by which the Kingdom of God will be established, or the kind of leadership they will be required to exercise in order to accomplish the tasks the Messiah is giving them. It is only in light of the resurrection that they can understand the mission of Jesus and the mission Jesus is giving them.

The Crisis of Discipleship 1

 

Just before the Second World War, a young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published “The Cost of Discipleship.” [1]The thesis of the book was prophetic for his life and for the course of 20thCentury discipleship. “Cheap Grace,” he said, “is the deadly enemy of our Church.” [2] He went on to compare “Cheap Grace” with “Costly Grace.” Costly Grace is that grace Christ speaks of when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Cheap grace is the offer of forgiveness of sins in a way that costs a believer nothing and requires no faithful response. During the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Bonhoeffer took up his cross and followed Jesus to martyrdom near the end of the Second World War. [3]

After the war, Bonhoeffer’s book became famous. Like many famous books, Cost of Discipleshipis often mentioned, a few quotes find their way into blogs, sermons and religious books (like this one), but Cost of Discipleshipis seldom read outside of college and seminary classes, and even more seldom internalized. Part of the problem is that the book was originally written in German, and German is a difficult language to translate into English, especially for readers who prefer short sentences and simple language.  Part of the problems is that Bonhoeffer was not a popular writer even in his own day. He was an academic, and his writing shows the influence of an academic mind. The book is simply not easy for modern people to read, fully understand, or digest.

The problem of Cheap Grace and its consequences for a church that dispenses it, is the message of The Cost of Discipleshipand of Bonhoeffer’s life. Here is how he describes “Cheap Grace”:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [4]

When a church, denomination, or other Christian group dispenses Cheap Grace, it dispenses God’s promise of forgiveness and new life like soda from a fountain at a child’s birthday party or beer from a keg at a fraternity party. Discipleship characterized by cheap grace makes a mockery of what God was doing in Israel’s history, what Christ did on the cross, and how committed disciples live out the Christian life all over the world, sometimes in danger and persecution. Unfortunately, in one form or another, the gospel of Cheap Grace is too frequently the gospel of Western religious groups. [5]

Real grace is “Costly Grace.” Bonhoeffer characterized costly grace as like the Pearl of Great Price Jesus describes in one of his parables (Matthew 13:44-46):

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. [6]

As the saying goes, “Grace may be free, but it isn’t cheap.” The one who confesses his or her sins to God, who repents (turns away from sin in the heart), who turns to God with everything he or she is and possesses, who takes up his or her cross in obedience to Christ and his teachings, and who lives a holy life in response to what God has done, is a person who has experienced true grace. True grace does not leave us as we are. True grace changes everything. The response of a human encounter with real, true grace, is a transformed life.

If in Bonhoeffer’s day there was a crisis of discipleship, and cheap grace was a problem for Christianity, the problem is exponentially greater today in the increasingly “postmodern,” Western church. Western churches, and especially American churches, are addicted to cheap grace. In church after church, in sermon after sermon, in Bible study after Bible study, God’s love, forgiveness of sins, and redemption in Christ is preached without preaching God’s judgement on sin and the new life into which disciples are called by Christ. Building strong disciples is impossible if difficult passages and problems in Scripture are ignored or explained away. [7]The result is a weak, declining, and impotent Christianity.

I have been a disciple of Christ for over forty years. There is no question but what the condition of American Christianity is worse today than at any time during my lifetime. Tremendous cultural changes have deeply impacted American Christianity for the worse. Even unhealthier is the American propensity to value size and external and economic success, which has accelerated the development of a shallow form of Christian faith. The result is a crisis of discipleship.

The Command to Make Disciples

Jesus’ last act was to commission his disciples, saying: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age”(Matthew 28:19-20). The Great Commission was his last word and directive to his disciples then and now to carry out God’s program of salvation and new life that Jesus began during his earthly pilgrimage Making disciples is the supreme goal Christ set for believers and for the church. It is the reason for the existence of the Church.

Making disciples involves being a good disciple yourself, having a heart for people, going to where people are, helping them enter the life-transforming fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them the things of God, and helping them respond to God’s grace by live a God pleasing life. Discipleship is not something for a few incredibly dedicated believers to do while everyone else watches and applauds. True discipleship is for every Christian.

The Greek word we translate “disciple” refers to one who learns from another person. As Christians, we learn about God and wise living from the Bible, from our personal relationship with God in Christ, from teachers and mentors, and by observing our fellow Christians day-by-day. Christian discipleship is not just about learning information. Jesus Christ is the “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” In other words, the key to abundant living is not an idea, but a person and relationship with that person in which we become transformed into the likeness of the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In order to know the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Christ, we must become imitators and obedient children of Christ. As the New Testament so often puts it, we Christ must dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16).

Because being a disciple involves a relationship with a person, we must believe in that person and spend time in fellowship with that person. Being a disciple is like being a professional athlete or a physicist. A person who admires professional athletes or physicists, but who never enters into a relationship of learning and emulation with one, is not a disciple. At most, such a person is a fan or an interested onlooker. Disciples observe, emulate and become like the one they are learning from and into whose image they are being conformed (Romans 8:29).

Christians do our best, and live wisely, when we emulate the Lord Jesus Christ, allowing his divine life to permeate our entire personality. It is not enough to proclaim that we believe in Christ or to bring people to declare their intellectual belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and died for their sins. To be a disciple is to follow Christ, become more like Christ daily, and help others become more like Christ. Christians today must be willing and able to help other people live with the same integrity and self-giving love that characterized Jesus when he ministered to his disciples and the people of Israel. This means we incorporate into our lives the same divine wisdom and steadfast love that characterized Jesus of Nazareth. It even means that we are willing to suffer for the gospel as Christ suffered for the human race. This is the result of costly grace.

The modern world, from which we are now emerging, was characterized by an abstract understanding of knowledge. The world and God were objects to be studied and mastered not things and persons to be loved and cherished. In such a world, knowledge is measured by tests and one’s ability to answer questions, write essays, and regurgitate information. The object of such knowledge is mastery of a subject and increasing control over reality. To the modern mind-set, any kind of knowledge that was not “scientific” or “objective” was not really knowledge at all.

Wisdom is different. To be wise, one must know some information. More importantly, one must apply and embody that information in everyday life. The earliest name for Christians was “people of the Way” (Acts 19:23, 24:22) To be a way is to be a path, road, highway, or boulevard that must be traveled on. Christian faith is a way of life. Discipleship is a life-style, a way of life, a path of wisdom, a road that leads to life, a highway to a better relationship with God, a boulevard to holiness, an embodied knowledge of God. [8]The test of whether we are good or bad disciples is found in how we live and what kind of people we are in the depths of our being.

The Community of Jesus

Jesus did not just preach, teach, and do signs and wonders. Jesus brought people to himself and spent his earthly ministry in a small group of people he was actively discipling.Other religious figures have written books. Jesus did not. As Lesslie Newbigin puts it, “Jesus did not write a book but formed a community.” [9]Christ chose twelve ordinary people and lived in relationship with them for his entire earthly ministry. He also lived in close fellowship with a larger group of men and women with whom he shared his life and teachings (Luke 8:1-3; 10:1; 14:25). Their memories of him are contained in our Gospels. It was their memories of Jesus, and their time together in a discipling relationship, that propelled them to carry the Good News of his life, death and resurrection on a continuing journey to the ends of the earth as they understood it.

Jesus promised that, “where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them” (Matt. 18:20). If people are to meet Jesus, a group of people (disciples) must introduce potential disciples to him in a community in which Christ is present by the Holy Spirit.  If new Christians are to understand what it is like to be a Christian, they need to be mentored by people who are further along on the path of discipleship. People need to see what it means to be a Christian lived out in the day-to-day lives of other disciples. This involves being part of a fellowship that spends time in fellowship with one another and with God in Christ. It is so important for new believers to become part of a group of people who are seeking to follow Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Those who try to follow Christ alone, without belonging to his fellowship, and without accountability for their life of discipleship, almost inevitably fall short or fail. Those who belong to a fellowship of believers have a better chance of succeeding in the Christian life.

The way the early church grew was by reproducing in community and in individual lives who Jesus was and what Jesus had done while he was with his disciples. The book of Acts is the story of how, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter, Paul, and the other disciples lived as Jesus lived, did the kinds of things Jesus had done, and faced the same opposition and suffering Jesus faced. [10]

This is important. The best and most authentic way for the Kingdom of God to grow in is by ordinary men and women bringing people to Christ, calling people into authentic community, growing in discipleship together, training new believers “to obey all Christ commanded,” and continually reproducing this process through generations of people. The reason for the crisis of discipleship we face is that most believers either never know or have largely forgotten how to do the task of making disciples.

The Commission to Make Disciples

According to Matthew, when Jesus ascended into heaven he left his disciples with a job to do and marching orders to do that job. Matthew ends his gospel with an important commission for his disciples (and for us):

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Jesus did not say, “Go have huge worship services with big organs or praise bands.” Jesus did not say, “Go build large buildings in which many people can come for one hour a week.” Jesus did not say, “Go build impressive institutions to continue your way of thinking about God.” Jesus did not say, “Have wonderful programs for children and youth.” Jesus did not say, “Have a program for every sort of person in your community. Jesus did not say, “Support that party or social agenda that you believe most compatible with Christian faith.” He said, “Go make disciples.”

If there is a crisis in the church today, it is a crisis of discipleship. The church has been too concerned with worship services, programming, numbers, money, institutional maintenance, sustaining the American way of life, creating a moral majority, reforming government, and the like. Christians have not been concerned enough at what sits at the center of what we have been asked to do: Make Disciples. If the Christian community is to exit its current decline, it will not be because of large worship experiences, crossless sanctuaries, focus on technique, programs, consultants, fund-raising, or new and greater institutional capacity. It will be because ordinary Christians have rediscovered what it means to make disciples.

I do not watch much football. However, I have noticed that, when a team gets in trouble, the coach often tells reporters, “We are going to concentrate on the basics.” The church in the West is in trouble. If the church is to survive into the emerging postmodern world, Christians must, like a football team, turn our attention back to the fundamentals. We must concentrate on the ‘blocking and tackling” of the Christian faith, and the blocking and tackling of Christian faith is disciple-making. To recover from the current crisis, we must be about being and making disciples.

The slow process of one-by-one disciple-making will not immediately seem the most successful or swift solution to the problems our churches and society face. However, in the end, it will be shown to have been the best and only solution to the current decline of faith and practice in the West. As with all real change, it will begin slowly and silently, but in the end will be shown to be fruitful, not primarily for the institutions of Christianity, but for the changed lives and vibrant faith of Christians.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of DiscipleshipRev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963). The book was originally published in 1937. Bonhoeffer wrote the book while a pastor in Spain after graduating from graduate school. In German, interestingly for the theme of this book, the title is literally, “The Act of Fallowing.” The theme of this book is that true Christian discipleship is following Jesus Christ, and the Great Commission of the church is to create followers of Jesus.

[2]Id, at 45.

[3]Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945 by order of Adolph Hitler, one of his last acts before his own suicide and death on April 30, 1945. By the time of his death, Bonhoeffer had been imprisoned since April 5, 1943, or just over two years.

[4]Id, at 47.

[5]Western popular Christianity, liberal and conservative, is addicted to just the kind of cheap grace of which Bonhoeffer warned.  Modern evangelicalism, in particular, has fallen victim to a popularization of Christian faith that focus on grace to the detriment of emphasis on the response to grace in faithful living.  Cheap Grace is everywhere the forerunner of a watered-down form of Christianity in which Christians, like the Corinthians of old, cannot tolerate the meat of the gospel, being addicted to the milk of salvation by grace alone (1 Cor. 3:2). One reason for this book is to encourage local fellowships of Christians in America and the West to begin to seriously build small groups of committed discipleships within their fellowships.

[6]Cost of Discipleship, at 47.

[7]A recent comment by a well-known mega-Church pastor is but an example. Since the time of the early heretic Marcion (85-160 A.D.), the church as always recognized the continuity and validity of the Old and New Testaments for Christian faith and practice. The difficulties are not new; they are as old as the Christian faith. It is easier to unhitch ourselves from the old testament than to learn to understand the way in which Christian faith emerged from First Century Judaism, incorporated the Torah into its emerging Scriptures, and to understand the depth of the inheritance Christianity has from the Jewish Scriptures. This is not said to enter into a debate with this or any other pastor, but to give a concrete example of the temptation to avoid the hard work of discipleship. See, Steve Warren, “Christians need to Unhitch the Old Testament from their Faith: Andy Stanley’s Sermon Draws a Backlash” CBS News.Com May 11, 2018, https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2018/may/christians-need-to-unhitch-the-old-testament-from-their-faith-andy-stanleys-sermon-draws-social-media-backlash( Downloaded July 23, 2019)

[8]This embodied knowledge of God is what the Orthodox Church refers to as “theosis,” or becoming like God. If Christ is the image of God (Colossians 1:5), then in the process of discipleship disciples become like God by becoming like Christ.

[9]Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eardmans, 1989), 95, 227.

[10]The Book of Acts consciously or unconsciously shows the apostles recapitulating in their lives the same mighty deeds, messages of power, and persecution and rejection that Jesus experienced in his life.

Beginning a New Series on Discipleship

The Beginning of a New Journey

Several weeks ago, I mentioned that I would begin a new series of weekly posts after Labor Day. It is after Labor Day! For the next eighteen weeks or so, I am going to be posting essays that form chapters of a book I have been writing on discipleship. I solicit comments, suggestions, etc. This is probably as far as the project will go, but I am hoping that people will be energized and enlightened by the work. Good Reading.

In the 1930’s the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a Christian classic, “The Cost of Discipleship” in which he spoke about the dangers of “Cheap Grace.” [1] Today, perhaps because the institutional churches in the West did not take seriously the implications of The Cost of Discipleship, Christians face a “Crisis of Discipleship,” which is the theme of this series of essays. As a friend put it to me recently, “We have already lost an entire generation in the Church, and we are in danger of losing another.” We cannot overcome our crisis of discipleship unless every Christian is motivated to be an authentic disciple of Christ, not simply a “believer.” For this to happen, the leadership of Christian congregations must take the Great Commission and discipleship training seriously.

My mentor, co-pastor, and friend, Dave Schieber, frequently repeats a refrain, “The Church is always only one generation from extinction.” [2] The church in the West is shrinking in numbers and influence. The impact of Christian faith in the lives of individuals and society has been dwindling for some time, longer than most people realize. Today, even so-called “evangelical” groups that grew rapidly during the post-World War II period, are shrinking in numbers and spiritual influence. The growth of larger, so-called “Mega-Churches,” has not prevented the decline, because much of their growth is from other Christian fellowships.  We are now within a generation of a collapse of authentic Christian faith and practice in America and the West.

Denominations, churches, pastors, and others have devised programs and strategies to stem the decline, with mixed results at best. The problem cannot be addressed effectively by worship strategies, programs or advertising savvy. It can only be addressed as individual Christians become committed disciples of Jesus, sharing God’s love with a broken world in obedience to the Great Commission.

My wife and I have a life-long interest in discipleship. Before we were married, she was in young adult discipling programs. We met in a small Bible Study of young people, who were new Christians or seeking God in some way. (I was one of the seekers.)  Over the last forty years, we have sponsored groups in our homes and churches. A few years ago, we published a practical study guide and workbook called, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship. [3] Salt & Light was (and is) an attempt to provide a simple lay-training method for Christians and local congregations to learn to make disciples in an orderly and effective way in contemporary culture.

The Great Commission was not given just to twelve first century people, professional clergy, and exceptionally gifted laypersons. All Christians are intended to share the Good News of Christ and make disciples of those who respond. Crisis of Discipleship: The Way of Love and Light for 21stCentury Disciple-makers(the name for this series of essays) builds on the practical guidance of Salt & Light, clarifies causes of the crisis of disciple-making, and shares a deeper theory to guide contemporary disciple-making, and Salt & Lightin particular. Hopefully, readers will understand the crisis of discipleship in the West and more effectively lead disciple-making groups as a result of these essays.

In successive essays, Crisis of Discipleship will look that the crisis of discipleship in our time, its causes, the culture from which the crisis emerged, and the challenges our culture poses for those sharing their Christian faith. Having set the stage for the current crisis, Crisis of Discipleship shares a Biblical understanding of how Christians can reach out and share their faith with others. All the essays address the implications of the Great Commission, which might be paraphrased, “Go everywhere and make disciples of everyone you are able, bringing them to faith and teaching these new disciples to follow the teachings of the Messiah, who will always be present with those who go about the business of making disciples.”

This series of essays is intended for any reader who wishes to learn more about the Way of Jesus and how to share it with others. The collection is not a theological treatise. It is a compilation of practical discipleship theory and practice. The essays are designed to help those who desire to understand the barriers our culture places in the path of those who desire to share the Way of Christ in the contemporary world. There will be a brief analysis of the emerging postmodern world—a culture that is rapidly becoming world-wide due to the globalization of Western, and particularly American, culture in the late 20thCentury. Once this has been accomplished, the goal is to speak of the way in which small groups of Christians can learn to reach out within their network of relationships and make a difference in the lives of people.

Please join with me in a journey and conversation as we seek to think about ways to communicate God’s love to others in our culture. Perhaps we can have some small amount of the dedication Paul reveals when he told the Corinthians, who were much like contemporary people”

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

May the Lord bless and keep each reader.

Chris Scruggs

Labor Day 2019

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship Rev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963).

[2] Dave embodies the relational mode of evangelism and discipleship that this book is intended to illuminate. He began with six persons and built Advent Presbyterian Church in Cordova, TN into a 1,500-member congregation all through a deep love for people and a willingness to enter into their world in a loving and wise way,

[3]  G. Christopher Scruggs with Kathy T. Scruggs, Salt and Light: Everyday Discipleship(Collierville, TN: Innovo Publishing, 2017). The book can now be advanced ordered.