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.