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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *