8. A Disciple Has a Personal Story to Tell

Many people misunderstand what it means to testify to what God has done in our lives. Jesus came bearing witness to his relationship with God the Father, and Jesus’ disciples bore witness to their experience of Christ the Son. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the disciples testified throughout the known world that they were witnesses to what God had done in Jesus (Acts 3:15). The four Gospels are essentially the memoirs of the disciples and others as they remembered their personal relationship with Jesus. [1] In Mark, for example, we have a clear presentation of Peter’s on-again, off-again status as follower of Christ and leader of the disciples. The Gospel of Mark, which many believe contains Peter’s memoirs recorded and edited by John Mark, paints the disciples, and especially Peter, as clueless and wishy-washy, not understanding who Jesus was or the true nature of his messiahship. After the resurrection, they were completely changed and went onto the Roman world proclaiming Jesus as the Savior of the World.

One reason we read our Bibles, and particularly the gospels, is to remember and be able to tell the stories of Jesus. One reason disciple-makers memorize Bible stories and gospel presentations is so that we can share the stories of Jesus with others and bear witness to him in this way. However, there is more to disciple-making than telling stories from the Bible or sharing Gospel presentations. We must be able to tell our own story of what God has done for us and meant to us.

What is a Testimony

The word “testimony” comes from the same root word as the word “witness”. The Latin word we translate witness can be translated testify. [2] This makes sense. A witness testifies at trial. Just as a legal witness testifies as to facts of which they have personal knowledge, our testimony to Christ reflects our personal experience of God in our lives. Just as an expert witness testifies as to matters about which they have expertise, a Christian witness can be a witness of things we have come to understand about God as a result of study and consideration.

Testimony at trial is evidence one side or the other submits to the court for consideration and to prove its case. In the same way, our testimony is simply evidence for the gospel. A potential Christian will weigh this evidence just as a court weighs evidence submitted at trial. Like almost all evidence, our testimony is not the case. It is just a part of the case. Therefore, we don’t need to ask too much of ourselves as we relate out testimony to another person. We are not responsible to change minds. We are only responsible to testify as truthfully as we know how.

Finally, perhaps it is appropriate that the Greek word is also the root word for the English word “Martyrs.” We all fear potential embarrassment and rejection for speaking up about any controversial matter. As Christians, we need to die to that fear and anxiety as we bear witness to Christ.

The Importance of Testimonies

In our emerging postmodern culture, the capacity to testify to what God has done in our lives is extremely important. A characteristic of postmodernism is that it is deeply pragmatic. People believe there is no ultimate truth. There’s no continuing truth. Truth is what works at a particular point in time. [3] What is true for one person or in one society may not be true in another. In such a culture, stories of the impact God has in a single life can make a tremendous difference to listeners. Therefore, we should be willing and able to testify as to what a difference God has made.

Testimonies of Action

Our testimony is not just what we say. It includes what we do. How we live as much as what we say is a testimony. As friends and acquaintances watch Christians in business, marriages, family life, social relationships, schools, and in other venues, they notice if followers of Christ live differently and visibly wise and loving lives. In how Christians live, they give personal testimony in their lives concerning what faith means. This testimony can be as simple as saying grace during meals at restaurants or not working on Sunday because you’re in church.

When I practiced law as a young associate attorney, people knew that I rarely work on Sunday. I came in almost every Saturday and worked at least part of the day. However, I never came in on Sunday unless specifically requested to by a partner or client. People knew I did this because I was a Christian. They knew I felt it important to be in worship and spend Sundays with my family. They may not have agreed (and they didn’t always agree), but they knew it was my way of life. In at least one case, another person noticed and was impacted by my behavior. When we demonstrate Christian virtues in our day-to-day life, people take notice.

Testimonies of Words

A lived testimony to the importance of faith in Christ is important. This does not mean Christ-followers don’t need to learn to verbally share their faith with others. It is extremely important that Christians be able to tell people what God has done in their lives. Just as words without action are not enough, actions without words are not sufficient either.

The Apostle Paul told his story to other people in order to bring them to Christ and encourage their faith. His testimony is recorded more than once in Acts and again in Galatians (Acts 22:1-21; 26:4-20; Galatians 1:13-2:21). We can deduce that Paul’s testimony was an important part of his mission of sharing the gospel. In Acts, Paul tells his story at length to his fellow Jews. Here is the story as Paul tells it:

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished. About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” I asked. “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.  “What shall I do, Lord?” I asked. “Get up,” the Lord said, “and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.” My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me. A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, “Brother Saul, receive your sight!” And at that very moment I was able to see him. Then he said: “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking to me. “Quick!” he said. “Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.” “Lord,” I replied, “these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.” Then the Lord said to me, “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:1-21).

Paul’s testimony has three features:

  1. He tells what kind of a person he was prior to becoming a Christian.
  2. He tells how he became a Christian.
  3. He tells what happened as a result of his becoming a Christian.

Before Paul became a Christian, he was a persecutor of Christians. He hated Christ and the Christian faith. Then, he met Christ on the road to Damascus, on his way to persecute the Christians in that city. As a result of his conversion, Paul became a missionary to the Gentiles. This is the essence of Paul’s testimony.

All good testimonies have these same three characteristics:

  1. Who I was before I came to Christ
  2. How I came to Christ
  3. What a difference faith makes.

Most mature Christians remember how we lived before that moment or period in which the became a Christian, how we became a Christian, and what changed because we became a Christian. In fact, most Christians have several testimonies of what God has done in their lives and how it changed them for the better. Notice that in Galatians the story of Paul’s Christian experience does not end with his conversion on the Road to Damascus (1:18-2:21). Neither does our conversion.

Dramatic and Nurtured Testimonies

Some Christians are hesitant to share their story with others because they feel it is not good enough, powerful enough, dramatic enough, or whatever. This is a big mistake. I have a pretty dramatic testimony of how God came into my life. My wife, on the other hand, has been a Christian almost all of her life. Her story is much less dramatic. It is important to remember that there are as many different testimonies as there are persons and there is more than one type of testimony. Each of these testimonies is important to someone and someone will respond to that testimony.

People sometimes talk about the difference between dramatic conversions and nurtured conversions. A dramatic conversion usually occurs when someone has been far from God and is brought close to God in a single dramatic event or series of events. A nurtured conversion usually involves a parent, grandparent, or some other significant person who gradually nurtured the believer as a Christian.

In my case, I was far from God, not really looking for God, when I suffered a series of failures and losses. At an important moment, a co-worker reached out and invited me to a Bible study. Over several months the members of this Bible study nurtured me until I came to believe in Christ. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in a Christian family, was nurtured as a Christian by her parents, accepted Christ at an early age, and never strayed very far from Christian faith or behavior. She can, however, remember various times when God worked in mighty ways and led her toward deeper faith and commitment to Him.

One type of conversion story is no better than another. In point of fact, most of the time the reason people have a dramatic conversion story is that they were dramatically out of fellowship with God in a destructive way. I often say that my more dramatic conversion is not a matter of my great spirituality but my great lack of spirituality! Because of my hard-headedness, God had to knock me over the head with a “spiritual 2 x 4” in order to get my attention. If you don’t have a dramatic conversion it doesn’t speak ill of you. It speaks well of you.

Another reason we should not emphasize one kind of a conversion story as superior is that people have all kinds of life experiences. A person who is quiet, meditative, and somewhat in touch with God may not have a dramatic experience at all. The story of a quiet experience of Christ will have a bigger impact on that person than will a dramatic story. On the other hand, a person who is dramatically out of touch with God, may respond to a more dramatic testimony. Every Christian was given their own personal testimony which is meaningful to people who are like them. Whatever our testimony is, we need to be prepared to share it with others.

God’s Continuing Work in a Life

People love to hear the story of how someone came to Christ. [4] These stories are important. However, our conversion story is not our only testimony. Since the time we came to believe in God and came close to Christ, other things have happened. Everyone has faced times of challenge, doubt, social pressure, testing, failure, alienation from God, and the like. One of the most powerful testimonies any Christian can give to another person is to tell a story of a struggle in your life that is similar to a struggle they are having in their life. Once again, people like to hear stories of what God has been doing in the life of people they know are Christians. People especially enjoy knowing that their Christian friends have struggled and do struggle with exactly the same things with which they struggle. Once again, these stories do not have to be dramatic. In fact, sometimes they are more powerful if they are not dramatic.

Suppose you were let go from a job and it took a long time to find a new one. Suppose you prayed, reached out to other Christians, and went to a Christian ministry that helps people find new jobs. Then, after several months of looking, you found a new job! That testimony would mean a lot to a person who was just laid off. Suppose you have struggled in your marriage, in parenting, or in some other area of your life, and you prayed you sensed God’s presence in solving the problem. That testimony would be powerful to someone who is struggling in a similar way.

We might call these testimonies “Continuing Testimonies.” God continues to work in our lives after we are Christians, forming us into the people God wants us to be. This forming process, both pleasant and unpleasant, is part of our continuing testimony. It is also an important witness to what God can do in the life of ordinary people like us.

In my former church we had a ministry to people who were looking for a job. It began during a recession, and many of the people who attended had been let go by their employer in late middle age and were having a hard time finding a job. Most sessions began with someone sharing their experience and how God worked out the problem or was working in the problem. People who found jobs were encouraged to return and tell the newer participants how God had worked in their struggle to find employment. These stories were always important to newer members of the group. People are always encouraged when they can identify with someone who has struggled as they have struggles and come out on the other side.

Sharing in Testimonies

One important thing to remember about sharing your testimony is maintaining an appropriate level of self-disclosure. For many years, my wife and I were leaders in the ministry in which laypeople were asked to give their testimony to others over a weekend. Occasionally, someone would go into great detail about a series of sexual, alcohol, drug, or other indiscretions.  These were never good testimonies.

There are two problems with being too explicit: First, as I point out in training sessions, whatever you say to a hundred people is likely to be retold to a larger number of people. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to remember to share at an appropriate level of detail, so as not to embarrass your family, spouse, children, co-workers or others. Of course, if you were guilty of some sin, it is completely inappropriate to share the name of someone who may have been involved with you at the time without their express permission.

Second, there is a level of explicit repetition of indiscretions, that borders on the glorification of that indiscretion. For example, I once heard a testimony that included repeated somewhat detailed references to sexual indiscretions. At some point, it almost sounded like bragging.  This testimony was given at a retreat at which many young men were present. In the end, the impression was given that this behavior was something that young people do that is fun and exciting, but limited and in the end disappointing. I felt the testimony almost encouraged the behavior in question. Unfortunately, a number of young ladies were likely to be hurt by young men who engaged in that pattern of behavior. In the end, I felt that this testimony made the wrong point, despite the good intentions of the person who gave it.

A Good Testimony Glorifies God

Last of all, it is important to remember that our testimony should not glorify us or our activities, good or bad. A good testimony glorifies God. The level of detail we need to share is that level of detail which allows a listener to understand what God has done in our lives and how important it is to us that God acted to heal us. The point is that God loved us and rescued us from the situation—and can be trusted to love and rescue others as well. God should be the hero of our testimony, not us.

We Should be Ready and Willing to Share our Faith

Many Christians have difficulty sharing their own story. Even more people are not sure that they could tell another person what it means to be a Christian. This is nothing new. Christians have always struggled to tell others of the love of God we see in Jesus Christ. The best antidote to our fears is to learn to share a short testimony concerning what God has done in our lives.

Preparing to Share

Every Christian should be able to give their testimony when appropriate. A good way to start is to try to tell your conversion or other story in about three minutes. If you wrote it out, that would be about one typed page, double-spaced in length. Your testimony needs to be personal. It needs to be your story. Of course, it needs to be factually correct. There is a reason why it needs to be short: You may not have a long time to tell it.

I often call this testimony my “Elevator testimony: or “Starbucks Testimony.” The setting is this: you’re at a coffee shop or restaurant or some other place with a friend. In the course of the conversation it has become appropriate for you to share with them how you became a Christian. You don’t have your Bible. You don’t have notes. You don’t have your diary. You don’t have a lot of time. You’re sitting at a table looking at another person. What would you say? Obviously, what we say will vary from person to person and situation to situation. What we need to keep in mind is the major point of what we intend to say.

In my particular case it goes something like this:

I grew up in a Christian home. Our family went to church regularly. When I was in college I drifted away from God. I became selfish and self-centered. I made decisions that were unwise. Over the next seven years, while I was objectively successful in the minds of a lot of people, my life was a mess. And a moment of personal suffering and tragedy, a friend brought me to a Bible study, and that Bible study witnessed to Christ by word and deed. I made Christian friends who shared God’s word and God’s love with me. About six months after I was first invited to the Bible study, one afternoon after church, I was pondering the worship service, and suddenly believed that the Bible was true and that Christ was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. After that moment, my values, my objectives, and my goals in life began to change. Over time, some of my worst habits were overcome. God has made a big difference in my life personally, professionally, morally, and spiritually. I’ve become a much different person than I was on that day forty and more years ago that I became a Christian. I have a wonderful wife and family, a satisfying career, and good and healthy friendships.

After forty years as a Christian leader, I’ve given my testimony in many different venues, sometimes for as long as two hours. Obviously in two hours you share a lot more detail. In one minute, you share a lot less detail. The important thing is to outline in your mind the contours of how it is you came to Christ in such a way that you could tell the story to another person. Of course, the truths of the Scripture and faith in Christ are primary in the Christian life. However, people are touched by the stories of people who have been touched by God. We don’t need to worry about having a lot of scripture in our testimony.

Don’t Deprive Others of your Witness

When we don’t share what God has done for us with others we deprive them of the opportunity to understand what a difference God can make in one single human life. A person struggling in their career is touched by the story of a friend who struggled in his or her career. A person struggling in their marriage is touched by the story of a person who has struggled in marriage. A person who is struggling with their children is touched by the story of a person who is struggling with children. Our human stories, and what God has done in our lives, is a source of hope in the lives of others. We need to remember this when we are shy or fearful about sharing with others.

It is important that we are able not just to communicate what the Gospel is, but also what the Gospel does. A personal testimony should allow another person to see not only what God as done in the past (the Gospel) but what God continues to do (our testimony). This is why we need to continuously be aware of what God is doing in our lives and be able to share it. Someone will be touched by that testimony.

Recently, I semi-retired. In the beginning, I was not terribly comfortable with the situation. Then, God opened up a door for me to use my gifts in a new church, far away from any congregation I ever served. It was a wonderful experience. This particular testimony resonates with many retired or semi-retired people who feel a need to continue to use their gifts and abilities for the glory of God. Who knows, perhaps tomorrow God will give me yet another testimony? The continuing story of what God is doing in our lives is part of the bigger story of what God is doing and about to do in every life we touch. Each day we are alive involves a new act of God in our lives that can benefit someone.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] There are various theories concerning the writers and compilers of the Gospels. Tradition held that the apostle Matthew wrote Matthew, John Mark, the traveling companion of Peter and Paul, wrote Mark, Luke, the traveling companion of Paul, wrote Luke, and the apostle John wrote John. Critical scholars believe Mark was the first Gospel, with Matthew and Luke each borrowing from Mark. The exact writers are not as important as the observation that the Gospels are largely edited memories of Jesus.

[2] The Greek word “martereo” means “to bear witness.” It can also mean to testify It is also the root from which we get the term “martyrs,” i.e. those who die bearing witness to Christ. Gerhard Kittel & Gerhard Friedrich, Eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Abridged Ed., Tr. Geoffrey W. Bromily (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), 564.

[3] Despite its usefulness, this pragmatic definition of truth is limited. Christians do believe that people will be better off if they follow Christ. We don’t mean by that that they will always or inevitably be better off. In fact, the benefits of faith can never be fully experienced in this world.

[4] Once again, in my over forty years as a Christian, I have participated in many renewal weekends, meetings, testimony services and the like. I have heard hundreds of testimonies by ordinary lay persons. Much of the time, there were non-Christians in attendance. Almost without exception, everyone in the room was interested in and moved by the testimony being given. This does not mean that everyone responds to testimony. This is not true. What is true is that people are almost never offended or dismissive of a testimony.

7. The Good News We Share

Many (if not most) Christians, even when convicted that they ought to share their faith, do not do so. Some Christians come to evangelism or discipleship classes, but leave if there is a chance they would be asked to share their faith outside the group. There are basically two reasons for this that go to the heart of effective gospel communication: People don’t know what to say and don’t know exactly how to go about communicating the gospel with others. If contemporary Christians are to overcome the decline of Christian faith, disciple-makers must address both the “what” and the “how” of disciple-making. Fortunately, the best way to share faith with another person is also that way that comes most naturally to the person sharing their faith.

Some years ago, a close business associate and friend, not a Christian, asked me out of the clear blue sky if I felt he was going to go to hell. He knew I was a serious Christian and wanted to know the answer. I had never given the question of my friend’s eternal destiny one moment of thought. I was shocked and did not know what to say. I stared at him blankly for a few seconds, and then gave a halting answer affirming our friendship. I have never felt good about my answer, because I do not think I came close to addressing what was really on his mind. What was most deeply wrong with my answer was that I did not communicate my faith or my testimony to God’s love in a way that my dear friend could hear, understand, or accept. I made a mess of the opportunity. I feel my friend is fine, but I do not feel good about my answer to his deep question.

Jesus and the Gospel

When Jesus began his ministry, he shared the gospel with other people. Mark begins his gospel noting that he is recording the “beginning of gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mark 1:1). In Mark, Jesus is immediately portrayed as proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, so people should repent and believe (Mark 1:15).  Sharing the Good News was important to Jesus, and it ought to be important to us as well.

Jesus began his public ministry communicating personally and verbally that the Kingdom of God was present, and therefore, the people of God should repent and believe the Good News (Gospel). In other words, Jesus was a proclaimer of the gospel, and Jesus is the its content.  A longer account in Luke gives us additional information about the gospel Jesus proclaimed. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus begins his career in Nazareth quoting Isaiah as follows:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:16-21).

This passage communicates a good deal about what Jesus means by Good News. First, the gospel is the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel for a Messiah. The Jewish people lived in a condition of subservience for most of their history. During that entire time, they dreamt of release from captivity. As a conquered people, the Jews were poor compared to their Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman captors. They were oppressed and subject to arbitrary imprisonment.

The prophet Isaiah foresaw that God would come to rescue his people (Isaiah 61:1-2). In quoting Isaiah. Jesus is saying that he is the long-expected salvation of Israel. The good news is that Jesus has come to rescue his people. Surprisingly, this salvation is not for the wealthy, the powerful, the religiously active, the best followers of the law, or the saintly in the eyes of the world. Instead, it is for the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, sinners, tax collectors, and a host of others no one expected that God cared about. In other words, the gospel is for everyone.

The First Disciples and the Gospel

The disciples, as they went out into the world to share the gospel, developed a way to explain to people the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Apostle Paul, who was perhaps the most effective of the early missionaries, at different times and in different ways, described the gospel as he delivered it to his hearers. Near the end of his ministry, writing to Timothy, his beloved helper, he said: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst” (I Timothy 1:15). Embedded in this little sentence is a basic form of the gospel:

  • The way to salvation is Jesus Christ, who came to save; and
  • We all need salvation.
  • I found salvation in Christ.

A longer version of Paul’s gospel occurs in First Corinthians where he writes:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (I Corinthians 15:1-8).

In this passage, Paul outlines the gospel in narrative form answering the historical question, “What happened in Christ that we believe to be Good News?”  He begins by stating the importance of the gospel: It is the source of salvation and renewed relationship with God. Having established the importance of the gospel, he tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The good news is embedded in the story of the life death and resurrection of Jesus.

First Corinthians was one of Paul’s earliest letters. Second Timothy was one of the last. In Second Timothy, Paul speaks of the gospel in these words:

So, do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (3 Timothy 1:8-10).

Although the context and wording are different, the Gospel is the same. God’s appointed savior, Jesus the Christ, came to the human race and was manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This Gospel provides a means of salvation for everyone who believe in Christ and accept the gift of the forgiveness of sins and new life God offers them. It is a matter of God’s grace, not human achievement. It is important to recognize the Paul not only shares the content of the Gospel, but its personal application to him and its importance for his life. The gospel is not good news unless and until it is good news to a person.

The various ways that Paul expresses the content of the gospel ought to relieve us from the false idea that there is only one way to describe the Gospel There is not. Good communication involves a communicator, a message, and a recipient of the message. A good communicator is careful to communicate the message of the gospel in different ways to different people in different circumstances depending on the person or persons to which we are communicating.

What is the gospel today? We often hear people say, “If it was good enough for Jesus and Paul, it is good enough for me.” This is true, but it does no good to speak words to other people that they do not, cannot, or will not understand. Therefore, we need to communicate the gospel to people in ways that those we are communicating with can hear and understand.

Good News from God

In the Greek, the word we translate Gospel means “good news.”  Before recent times, there were few or no newspapers or electronic or other forms of mass communication. When an emperor, king, or person in authority wanted to communicate something important, the communicator used heralds who read and proclaimed what was to be communicated.  These proclamations were good news from their leader. Imagine then, how important good news would be if it were good news from God. Paul believes that he and the other apostles have been commissioned to transmit to those with whom they come into contact the most important good news there can be: Good news from God. That is why Jesus, the apostles, and the church ever since has used the term “good news” to describe what God is communicating to the human race in Jesus. The most powerful being in the universe has sent his heralds to proclaim the best news possible! You can have a life changing relationship with me now and forever. In the meantime, you can be released from your self-centered captivity to sin and brokenness.

Good News for Captives

People in our day and time continue to be captives, needing the liberating power of God. In some areas of the world, people are living in physical captivities not much different from the captivities of the ancient Jews. In the West, there is often a different kind of captivity. People are captive to our cultural brokenness and the personal and social brokenness that captivity creates. Because people are inclined to believe that there is nothing beyond this material universe, and the activities, possessions and pleasures of this world are the only hope for meaning and purpose, many people are captive to an eternal search for money, possessions, power, and pleasure. Into this situation, God has sent us to proclaim good news to the entire world.

The false gods worshiped in our day are not set up a temple at the center of our cities. The modern temples are in office buildings, school rooms, and other places. Their prophets are usually not odd figures running around half-naked and half-mad. Instead, the modern prophets, priests and priestesses of false religions speak to us through the media, cell phones, mass entertainment, popular music, and often education. We do not worship the false gods of our day in temples, but in the fabric of day-to-day life. To be raised and educated in the West today is to be raised in a kind of captivity to a false and damaging world-view that breaks and hurts nearly everyone. In order to escape this captivity to the false God’s of our society, people need to see and have a relationship with people who have escaped and found freedom, wholeness and blessing in Christ.

Explaining the Gospel to Post Modern People

Some years ago, I was in my office on a Friday. I got a call from the front desk because a disturbed individual was asking for help. I went up and brought the person to my office. Without going into detail, this person was in a sinful lifestyle, selling her body to men, taking mind-altering drugs, and in a relationship of physical and moral abuse. She was not highly intelligent, and she had been drinking. I knew that whatever I said to her had to be simple. The only thing I knew to do was share the gospel in a short form. I took out a piece of paper, drew a little diagram, and shared the basic elements of the gospel. My guest had been raised in a poor, minority church. She knew the story. As I shared the gospel with her, her eyes were filled with tears, and she cried. She prayed for forgiveness. We spoke of other, more urgent things, and our congregation helped her with a physical need. In the end, this short sharing of the Gospel was exactly what this person needed.

I did not set out that morning to bring someone to Christ. In particular, I didn’t set out to have a relationship with the kind of person who came to my office that day. Yet, I knew enough to help this woman at a moment of distress. I shared a form of the gospel with her. Our gospel help did not end with words: Our church shared with this woman some physical resources she needed. This example is a reminder that the gospel is best shared by words and deeds. As we share God’s love with others, we reveal to them that God is love. As we explained to them how they can experience that love, we give them the opportunity to commit their life to that God of love. That commitment is the beginning of a life of discipleship.

There are many gospel presentations. One of the most famous portrays sin as a great chasm that separates us from God, and the cross of Christ as a bridge allowing us to cross over and be reunited with God as we accept God’s grace and believe in the gospel. This presentation emphasizes our sinfulness and need for the cross. Another famous Gospel presentation contains three pictures, one with me on the throne of my life, one with me on the throne of my life but God involved, and one with God on the throne of my life. This presentation emphasizes our human pride and desire for self-sufficiency.

When Kathy and I were writing a book about sharing the gospel called “Salt & Light,” we prepared another little graphic that can have importance to postmodern people. One characteristic of postmodern people is that they do not have a fully developed sense of sin. Because there is no God and no ultimate truth, there is no place in their thought world to believe that we human beings are in a state of rebellion against God. [1] Interestingly, people do have a sense of brokenness. In fact, our society is characterized by pervasive brokenness and anxiety. Emotional fragility and neurosis are at an all-time high. This situation opens up the door for a new and different way to present the Gospel to people—by focusing on God’s love as a healing agent for the fragmentation, anxiety, and loneliness people feel in our culture. [2]

Here is the graphic:

The graphic begins with the actual situation of people who do not believe in God: People almost always consider themselves far from God’s love if they do not believe in God or that God is love, as Christians do. Most non-Christians can get that far. The second image of the graphic shows what happens when people draw near to God, even occasionally: Such people are now in contact with God’s love. Again, a lot of people who do not believe in God or have not really established a relationship with God often have had some experience of calling out to God and being touched by God in some way. People who do not believe in God or have little or no relationship with God still call out to God on a battlefield, when a loved one is ill, or when they or someone they know are in danger. Finally, the last panel shows the person inside of the love of God with a relationship with God.

The third image shows a person surrounded by God’s love. One of Paul’s favorite images is that of believers being “in Christ.” [3] One of my favorite verses is, “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has gone the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This “in Christness” of believers is both spiritual and physical, as believers accept Christ and live in Christ and enter the body of Christ, which is the church. The graphic above emphasizes the new life and new way of life that people receive as they become “in Christ.”

Paul clearly says that our position in Christ leads us to becoming new creations, with different ideas, plans, hopes, dreams, and the like. Paul also believes that this new life we receive in Christ puts us into a new place regarding the laws of God and the teachings of God: We have been freed from our innate inability to achieve holiness, and now can live the new life in freedom.

A Gospel Summary

If we put together all the biblical evidence, the gospel might be described something like the following:

  • Because God loves the world and everyone in the world, and wants to have an eternal relationship of love with the world and everyone in it, God has always been acting in history to show his love to others.
  • The story of Christ is the story of the good news God was and is providing for the human race. That story continues to this day.
  • God’s transforming love became present with power in Jesus Christ, through which the extent of God’s love was revealed by Christ on the cross, to provide for us a forgiveness for our sins and a release from out guilt, shame, and brokenness.
  • By believing the promise and trusting in Christ, we enter a new, life transforming relationship with God through Christ.
  • This new relationship frees us to become the people God intends us to be and live a life characterized by faith, hope, and love for others through which we experience the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
  • Christ will continue to be with us by the power of the Holy Spirit beyond the moment we accept Christ as he makes us into a new, Spirit-filled and Spirit-empowered person.

Beyond Gospel Presentations

Some Christians misunderstand the place gospel presentations have in the Christian life. Accepting Christ is like being born. It’s just the beginning of a new life. Just as a mother would not desert her newborn baby, we must not think that our job is over when a gospel testimony has been shared. Sharing is not the end. It is the beginning. Every time we share Christ, we move into a discipleship relationship with the person with whom we share. We are now like a midwife helping a woman deliver a child or a mentor helping a young business person find success. We can’t desert our charge, because the need us.

One benefit of this approach is that we do not need to feel compelled to share everything we know about the gospel with another person in a single setting. As we “teach a new disciple to obey all that God has commanded,” we have plenty of time to share aspects of the gospel that we had neither the time nor the ability to share at the moment they invited Christ to be the center of their life. In fact, it is impossible to share all that God means by” good news” in one sitting or at one time. The riches of Christ are too vast for that to be possible.

Putting it All Together

As indicated above, the New Testament is littered with examples of gospel presentations and descriptions. These various presentations give us an idea about what a good explanation of the Gospel needs to say:

  • First, any gospel presentation needs to center on Jesus: on his life, his death, his resurrection, and his continuing work in the people of God who believe he is the true revelation of the mercy of God.
  • Second, a good gospel presentation includes some notion of the human need for God—the fact that we are separated from God. We are finite, mortal, and do things we know to be wrong and misguided. For this we need forgiveness and new life.
  • Third, to be good news, a presentation of the Gospel needs to assure hearers that a wise and loving God has provided us a way to fellowship with him, forgiveness of sins, and a kind of life we can only imagine.

If I were to write out a short gospel presentation, it would go something like this:

Everyone I know, including myself, often feels alienated from God. We have done things that we know are wrongheaded. We do not necessarily sense the love of God in our lives.  The people I know who have tried to overcome their sinful nature by hard work have failed. Some gave up entirely, and some became hypocrites trying to appear better than they were. What I needed and what most people want is inner transformation. God loves us enough to send Jesus to provide us a way to experience that transformation as we become his disciples. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to show us what a truly wholesome life would be like, to teach us God’s ways, and to die for our sins, showing us the extent of God’s amazing grace. God raised this Jesus from the dead, and then he promised to send his Holy Spirit to us when we believe, forgiving us and changing us from the inside out.

This testimony says who Jesus is, who we are, and what God has done for us in Christ. It centers expresses our need to accept Christ by faith.

One thing is certain: We should not allow ourselves to be unprepared for that moment during which we have an opportunity to share the gospel. Every Christian should think about what they will say when the opportunity comes. It will come. If we pray for the opportunity to share with our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and others, God will give us that opportunity.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This is why the “Who is on the throne of your life?” presentation of the gospel is often more meaningful to postmodern people. On the other hand, I used the chasm drawing with the young woman in our church I spoke of above, just as I have used other presentations over the years. This is consistent with the notion that we need to adapt our presentation of the Gospel to the needs of those with whom we are trying to communicate.

[2] This graphic is found in our book, Salt and Light, Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo, 2016).

[3] See, Romans 8:1; 1 Cor. 15:22, 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:9). The spherical use of the phrase indicates that the person who is in Christ is within the sphere of his love and activity. The image is literally one of location: in Christ.

Go Share My Life

 

As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.(John 20:21)

Imagine the scene when Jesus ascended into heaven. Jesus and the disciples had been together for three or so years. During that time, the disciples formed the belief, hope and expectation that Jesus was the Messiah who would restore the Kingdom of Israel. The disciples gave up everything and followed him, expecting they would be rewarded when Jesus came to his throne (Mark 10:35-36). Then came his betrayal, arrest, death, and burial. Their hopes and dreams were shattered. Amazingly, three days after his death and burial, and for weeks thereafter, Jesus appeared to them— proving he was alive! Jesus had conquered betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, death, and the grave.

Now, the disciples knew Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah, the true Son of David. They believed Jesus would restore the kingdom of David, just as God promised. (Acts 1:8). Once again, Jesus surprised them: He was not going to directly bring in the kingdom by his own physical presence and power. Instead, Jesus was going to bring his kingdom spiritually through his disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit. He put this new understanding in the form of a commandment or commission: [1]

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).

In one of my former congregations, there was a retired pastor who grew up on a farm. He was and is a southern farm boy. He has been both a pastor and a missionary. When he translates the Great Commission, he puts it something like this:

As y’all are going wherever you go, be sure and share the Good News with others and make them disciples of mine. As you do this, baptize those who come to believe. But, don’t stop there. Be sure you teach them all about me and to live the way I have taught you to live. Along the way, don’t be scared. I will be with you all the time, everywhere you go. [2]

You actually have to know a little Greek to understand that Robert accurately captured the essence of what Jesus is saying. In Greek, the word “Go” is a participle. It can mean, “Go!” (the imperative form), but it also connotes “As you are going” (the progressive form). Christians are to make disciples (the command) as we go (throughout the progress of our lives).

Because of the centrality of the Great Commission, it is important right to get firmly in mind its central principles that should guide each and every Christian. The specific task Jesus gave the first disciples and gives to us cannot be emphasized too often:

  • Go: Coming to church is not what the Christian life is about. The Christian life is about going into the world. In fact, we all live and go somewhere every day, and where we are where we go are our mission fields.
  • Share the Good News: Christians are not called to simply receive teaching. Christians are called to share Christ and the love of God with everyone we meet, not just with people we like or are attracted to. We should share verbally but also actively by the Christ-like quality of our lives.
  • Make Disciples: Once we have shared our faith and others have accepted Christ, Christians are called to patiently form people into communities of faith in which they are transformed. We are not called to make people church members; we are called to make disciples. [3]
  • Live in the Power of the Spirit: We do not need to fear. God is and will be with us by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ as we go about the business of sharing God’s love and making disciples. [4]

Making Disciples is More than Words

As we go, Jesus does not say that we should, “Just get people to say they believe in me.” He says “make disciples,” and “teach them to obey.” Too often, evangelism programs stop at conversion. This is not what Jesus asked us to do. He asked us to make disciples who obey his words and teachings and seek to emulate his life by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus wants his disciples to be about the business of making more and more Spirit-filled disciples, who live out in their day-to-day lives what they believe in their hearts in such a life transforming way that other disciples are made along the way.

Going While Unqualified

By the time that Jesus gave the disciples the Great Commission, the disciples were very aware that they were unqualified. During their time with Jesus, they had constantly misunderstood him. They had not understood that he was not going to be a political and military messiah. They had not understood that the Good News he proclaimed was going to be for everyone. In the end, they all deserted him, denied him, and betrayed him. As individuals and as a group, they lacked the character and ability to undertake a world-wide mission.  They were not administrators, managers, linguists, theologians, or cross-cultural experts. They had neither the education nor the experience to undertake the mission. They were. not particularly intelligent, gifted, or capable. Nevertheless, Jesus sent them.

Most of us are in the same boat. We don’t feel qualified to take the good news to the ends of the earth. Jesus must have meant to send someone else! However, he did not. He meant to send the disciples, and he means to send us. If we lack the capacity to do what Jesus calls us to do, we are in good company. That has been true since the beginning. If we are afraid, not wholly faithful, wobbly in our trust in God, we are no different than the original disciples. We need to hang on to the understanding that God will be with us by the power of the Holy Spirit if we will only go and share.

Taking Time to Make Disciples

One of my favorite New Testament stories is the story of the sending of the Twelve on their first mission trip (Mark 6:7-13; Matthew 10:1-15; Luke 9:1-6). After the Twelve had been with Jesus for a time, Jesus sent them out to practice doing the things they had seen him do. Mark describes it like this:

And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So, they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. (Mark 7:7-13).

There is a great deal to learn from this short story. First, Jesus was a master disciple-maker and knew that the disciples would not become the sent apostles he needed just by listening to what he said and watching his deeds of power. He did not want them to be just learners, but doers as well. He knew that someday they would be on their own, and they needed to get ready for that day. Therefore, he sent them out on practice missions. He did not send them out alone, because he knew that they would need mutual support along the way.  Therefore, he sent them two-by-two.

Jesus wanted the disciples to learn to rely upon God and not upon human beings, even him. Therefore, he carefully told them not to take along many items that almost anyone would consider necessary. What person leaves on a trip without a suitcase, their wallet, a few credit cards, and the like?  No one. Jesus knew this, but also understood that the disciples needed to learn to rely on the Spirit of God. He also warned them not to waste time going from place to place, but to stay for enough time to actually disciple people. [5] The disciples went as they were told, and later on we learn that followers of Jesus were excited and energized by what happened. [6]

Making disciples is not a quick, easy, or painless process. It takes time, effort, and patience.  We must be willing to teach, mentor and love each new disciple for a period of time as they mature in Christ. There will be ups and downs. Some people adapt easily to the new life in Christ, others take a long time. Some years ago, Kathy and I were privileged to be a part of a young woman coming to Christ. This particular person did not grow up in a particularly good home. Her parents were divorced. Her mother remarried, and her father worked in a profession where he traveled a lot, and he lived in a distant city. When she gave herself to Christ, she was in an unhealthy relationship. Today, that woman is an on-fire of disciple and disciple-maker—but believe me there were ups and downs along the way! On one notable occasion, our friend failed to tell us about a financial failure on her part. She was evicted. When she came to see me, I was as hard on this “daughter in Christ” as I would have been on one of my children!  That particular event was a turning point for this person, and since that time she has been a very careful Christian and mother.

Going as Salt and Light

My wife, Kathy, and I created a discipleship technique out of which a book grew, “Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship.”  [7]  The title comes from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus told his disciples:

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:13-14).

At some point, many of us have been told by doctors to cut down on our salt intake. In fact, salt is necessary for human life. It is also a seasoning and preservative. Animals and humans need salt to live, and as a seasoning it preserves and heightens the enjoyment of food.  When Jesus says we are to be the salt of the earth, he is reminding his disciples (and us) that they (and we) are to share his self-giving, life-transforming love, the most important thing in the universe, with others. His love is what makes life possible, joyful, and meaningful. Without his love, life is nothing but struggle. We see the impact of life as nothing but struggle in our own culture. Living a life of ceaseless struggle is dehumanizing.

John speaks of Jesus as the “true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). James speaks of God as the “Father of Lights” (James 1:17). John says that “God is Light”—a light in whom there is no darkness (1 John 15). Jesus says told his disciples that they were “the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14-16). Christians are to walk in the light of God, living wisely and with deep love for others. Paul says that when we do this, “we shine like stars” (Philippians 2:15).  We are to be like a lamp on a table shining the light of Christ into the room in which it is placed.

The description of God as light, of Jesus as the light, and of Christians as the living as light, reminds us that we are to embody the wisdom and love of God, as well as personally experience the love of God. It is not enough for us to privately know about Jesus.  It is not enough for us to just tell others about Jesus. In fact, if we do this without growing in Christ ourselves, we become hypocrites and dishonor God. To be a disciple is to shine like Jesus, live in the light of God’s presence, be transformed by that light, and share that light with others. In this way, everything we say and do will point others towards Christ and help them experience the wisdom and love of God.

When I was a new Christian, a partner in the firm in which I worked gave me an urgent task. The task required a paralegal to assist. As we went over the assignment, the paralegal looked over the desk and said, “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?” She could tell by our conversation that I was a Christian, even though the conversation was about filing a document at a particular time in a particular place in Texas. After the paralegal spoke to me, we shared our common faith in Christ for a few moments before going on with the task at hand. We became friends and partners in the Gospel for an interlude.

The “going” part of discipleship is not just about going out and sharing Christ in words. It is about living the life of Christ in our day-to-day lives in such a way that others take notice, even if we say nothing at all. This does not mean we say nothing at all. In fact, we will say something. But, the words we speak flow naturally from the people we have become in Christ. When Christians are salt and light to those they meet, people take notice, whatever words are spoken.

Any pastor who is ever sat at the bedside of a dying person knows at the ministry of presence is one of the most important ministries disciple-makers have. Some years ago, the father-in-law of one of my elders was in the hospital. I didn’t know it, but he was close to death. One Saturday morning I went to my normal prayer group. On my way home, I decided to go visit this person. My job at the time did not involve a lot of visitation. Nevertheless, I went. When I got to the room, the elder’s wife was sitting with her father, who was very weak. I sat with her for a time, and then said a prayer. Later that day, he died. My off-the-cuff visit that day meant a lot to the people involved. Before this incident, I was not close to the elder in question. I knew almost nothing about his family. He was not a particularly important supporter of mine. After that event, we were much closer. He’s become one of the most important leaders in one of my former churches.  That morning, I said almost nothing. It was presence that mattered. The presence of Christians in the life of those we disciple is one of the most important qualities a good disciple-maker must have. To be a disciple-maker to be involved in the lives of people in a personal way, just as Jesus was involved with his disciples.

Going in Relationship

For their first missionary experience, Jesus sent the disciples out in groups. Our going should also involve going in relationship with others, those we minister with and those we minister to. God desires a personal relationship with us. God also wants us to develop communal relationship through the church, the people of God, those people God has called to be his special witnessing people to the world. The Christian community is the place where people come to faith, learn, grow, and put their faith into practice. The church (the community of those who have been called out) is where Christians experience and share a bit of the kingdom of God on earth.  It is no surprise, therefore, that God wants us to reach out and share what we have experienced in Jesus Christ in community with other people.

Discipleship as a Triangular Relationship

Discipleship involves a “triangular relationship.” The essence of going in discipleship is a life-changing relationship with God, other people, and one’s self. This relationship grows in a process of maturity in faith and life. We have a vertical relationship with the Triune God, who is the foundation of our Christian life. As we trust God, we enter the community of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 14:16; 1 John 1:3). This vertical relationship with God changes our inner being and makes us new people. (2 Cor. 5:17). Just as God exists in a community, we become a part of the community of God and walk with the Triune God and with other believers. Gradually, we become more like Christ, who is the very image of God (Col. 1:5). Finally, our inner transformation grounded in our vertical relationship with God, and our healed horizontal relationships with others, empowers us to reach out to others just as someone reached out to us (I Cor. 15:10; Phil. 2:4).

The life of a disciple is built around all three points in the triangle: We believe in and trust Christ and become passionately in love with God, willing to follow Christ and obey God’s commands. To do this, we need to be discipled in relationship with other Christ-followers, become part of a local fellowship of Christians, and learn to live as God intended his children to live. Finally, as we grow, we reach out into our families, communities, work places, schools, etc. with the love of God so that others may experience God’s wisdom and love. [8] Each of these three movements of faith are important. Each require that we grow in relationship with God and other people. Each require that we grow into the likeness of Christ with the same kind of love for others Christ demonstrated on the cross.

Discipleship in an Entangled World

The communal, relational aspect of sharing the Gospel is hard for contemporary people to fully understand and appreciate. We are accustomed to the radical individualism of our culture, and so find it difficult, if not impossible, to grasp the necessity of relationships in order to grow in Christ. If there is any important insight of science that should change our way of looking at the world, it is the insight that we live in what John Polkinghorne calls, “An Entangled World”. [9] We live in a world characterized by a deep and fundamental relationality. Our habitual way of looking at the world as individual entities exercising force upon one another masks a deeper reality—that of a world of beautiful and elegant relationality, what I sometimes call “Deep Love” in religious terms. [10] The Doctrine of the Trinity, and the deep, self-giving love characteristic of God, implies that believers should be in deep, self-giving relationships with God and one another if we are to achieve the wholeness we desire. We cannot be Christians alone, because that is not the way God lives or wants us to live. It is not the way we were made. We were meant for community. We need to live “entangled” in the lives of others.

The New Testament reveals the communal aspect of mission. The most famous apostle, and the one about whom we know the most, Paul, rarely traveled alone. He ministered in community. [11] He went on missionary journeys with Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, Timothy, Luke and others. At the end of his life, Peter seems to have been in Rome with John Mark (1 Peter 5:13). Paul and John Mark ministered together at the beginning and end of Paul’s ministry (Acts 12:25; 2 Timothy 4:11).

The “going” of God’s people is a going in community. In the modern world, perhaps because of our emphasis on individualism, we idolize those who go alone, or seem to go alone in mission. We celebrate Billy Graham, but forget George Beverly Shay, Cliff Barrows, and the hundreds of others who ministered with him over the years. We celebrate Mother Teresa, but forget the members of her order. We celebrate famous pastors, and forget the staff members who make their ministries possible. Everyone ministers in community, whether they (or we) know it or not.

The call to go is not a call to go alone. It is a call for the community though its members to go. [12] A few go as individuals, but most will go as a group with support and with the kind of courage that only a group can muster. The same is true of us today. While a few of us may be called to solitary mission, most of us will go as a part of a team.

The Lost Art of Going

When I began to write this book, I reread the Cost of Discipleship after many years.  I took a journey into the bibliography to look for references on the Great Commission. There were none. The only reference in my edition to Matthew 28 related to the presence of the Holy Spirit with believers, and was related to the chapter on baptism. [13] In the late 1930’s, writing as a German, a citizen of the home place of the Reformation and the center of Christian Europe, Bonhoeffer could not fully see the need for the church as a community to recommit itself to evangelism and disciple-making. This is a legacy of the fact that, when the Reformation occurred, Germany, and all of Europe, were already Christianized. The great age of disciple-making, extending for hundreds of years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was over. Europe might not have been a good example of Christianity, but it was nominally Christian. Although by the end of his life, when he was writing to his family and friends from prison, Bonhoeffer could see that Christianity in Germany and Europe was in a crisis, at the time of Cost of Discipleship, he could not. [14]

In a similar way, many Christians in the United States today fail to see that we are not only in a postmodern era, we are in a new apostolic era. The Christian faith cannot live on its prior successes. Instead, Christians must learn again to reach out and share the Good News Christ has entrusted to us. We must recover the lost art of going and sharing the Gospel, or the crisis of discipleship we face will continue and even get worse.

Going and making disciples is not the responsibility of a few, but of all of us. Just as not everyone who traveled with Paul was a great speaker, not all of us are called to be great oral evangelists. Each of is, however, called to share our faith as we can in the ways we are gifted to do so. This does not exempt us from verbally sharing our faith and understanding how to do it. It simply means that each one of us will share as they are called and gifted to do so. We are also called to invest our livers in the lives of others, so that people not only believe but become well-taught and mentored disciples of Christ. The gospel without love is powerless, and love without the gospel is meaningless.

I have been a Christian for the better part of half a century. I’ve been a pastor of evangelical congregations for a quarter of a century. It was only recently that I fully recognized that a good deal of what I have taught, and accomplished as a pastor is distant from what God intends for his church. There is nothing wrong with great worship, visitation programs, Sunday School, children’s programs, youth groups, good Bible teaching, men’s and women’s ministry, community outreach, and the like. In fact, God desires for his church to do all these things. However, if we do these things without making and empowering disciples, we fall short of what God desires for us and for the world—to go make disciples.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Great Commission occurs in some form in each of the Gospel and in Acts. See, Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:14-20; Luke 24:44-49; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:7-8. In each case, there is a sending to witness to Christ and a promise of the presence of the Spirit as the disciples undertake to do what they have been asked to do.

[2] This quote is from Rev. Robert Crumpton who was one of the pastors of Advent Presbyterian Church, a former pastor of the Arlington Presbyterian Church, which Advent helped to revitalize, and a missionary to Ghana with his wife Nancy. During my years at Advent, Bob was the visitation pastor who shared God’s love with every visitor to Advent for over fifteen years after his “retirement.” The translation is not unique, and I have seen it other places.

[3] I have outlined the importance of living out the teachings of Christ and the Bible in much greater detail in Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR, 2014) and in Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Cordova, TN: Booksurge Publishing, 2014).

[4] See, Steve Smith & Ying Kai, T4T: A Discipleship ReRevolution (Monument, CO: Wigtake Resources, 2011). This book is the single most important source for learning about T4T, which is one of the most important and powerful of the disciple-making movements in the world today.

[5] This particular aspect of this story should make us careful about event and media-centered ministries. Jesus did not want the disciples to into a place, preach the gospel, do a few miracles, and leave. Instead, he wanted them to stay in one place for a significant amount of time. Paul traveled a lot, but also spent significant time in specific cities like Ephesus. This indicates that serious disciple-makers should be grounded in a place and a community.

[6] See, Luke 10:17, which applies to yet another sending event. The various gospel narratives indicate that his sending before the ultimate sending was a part of Jesus’ strategy. See, F.W. Beare, “The Mission of the Disciples and the Mission Charge: Matthew 10 and Parallels,” Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 89, No. 1 (March 1970), 1-13.

[7] G. Christopher with Kathy Trammell Scruggs, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo, 2017).

[8] See, Mike Breen & the 3DM Team, Building a Discipleship Culture: How to Release a Missional Movement by Discipling People like Jesus Did(Pawleys Island, SC: 3DM Resources, 2011). Many churches and congregations use this triangle approach.

[9] John Polkinghorne, ed., The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010).

[10] See, Centered Living/ Centered Leading, at 165. In Centered Living, Centered Leading, I use the term Deep Love to describe God’s uncreated, self-giving love.

[11] The passages in which one can see that Paul ministered in community are too numerous to mention. The missionary journeys in Acts reflect Paul traveling with others. Often, the final portion of his letters reflect personal greetings to various individual persons important to his ministry. At the very end of his ministry, he asks Timothy to be with him (II Timothy 4:21). There is nothing in the life and ministry of the great missionary apostle to indicate that he ministered other than in community most of the time.

[12] As is often the case in interpreting the New Testament, it is important to recall that the Great Commission is in the plural. While Jesus is speaking to each disciple individually, he is also speaking to them as a group.

[13] See Cost of Discipleship, at 256.

[14] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: New Greatly Enlarged Edition E. Bethge, ed. Second Printing (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973).

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5. Discipleship as a Personal Relationship

Many people (myself included) have difficulty visualizing what a personal relationship with God might be like. We understand human personal relationships, but we can’t ask God out on a date, go on a hunting trip, see a movie with us, or play a game of pickup basketball. God is not like Jesus in his incarnation. The first disciples could see, touch and physically spend time with Jesus. We cannot physically follow the human Jesus of Nazareth around in order to get to know what God is like. Therefore, it is legitimate to ask the question, “How can we have a personal relationship with someone we cannot see and who is infinitely different from us?”

Jesus believed in life-transforming relationships. Jesus called his disciples into a personal relationship, and through him into a personal relationship with relational, Triune God. In Jesus, God allowed us to see what his “Being in Love” looks like in a concrete human life. He asked his disciples to “follow him,” which meant spending their lives with him for three years so that they could see and experience that love. In our life of discipleship, we too must learn to “follow God around” as we grow in Christ.

Loving a Personal God who Loves Us

The distinctive characteristic of Christian faith is belief in a personal God. Christians believe that the one God exists in three persons bound together in a relationship of self-giving love. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existing in an eternal mutual relationship of love. This insight is interesting and important because it is the foundation of our belief that God is a person and desires to have a personal relationship with the human race.

As the early church worshiped, they prayed to and worshiped God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The earliest church liturgies reflect this personal, Trinitarian pattern of worship. The church worshiped, prayed to, and treated as holy all three persons of the Trinity. As the first Christians heard, wrote, and read about the experience of the disciples (now apostles) with Jesus, they understood that the God of Israel, whom Jesus called, “Father,” had revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth, the Anointed Messiah, who was the “Son of God” and the “Word of God” in human flesh. Finally, the church saw that God the Father and Son were present in the life of believers by the Holy Spirit. The names “Father” and “Son,” and names like “Spirit of Christ,” Spirit of the Father,” etc. indicated that the persons of the Godhead were personal beings, not merely forces. [1]

Early Christians worshiped each person in the Trinity as God. This was a major barrier to Jewish evangelism—and it can be a barrier to people today. To a Jew, only God could be worshiped, and God is One. The earliest statement of faith of Israel was, “Hear O Israel, the Lord, your God is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The question was raised, “If God is one God, how then can we account for Christ and for the Holy Spirit? This caused a long period of spiritual and intellectual reflection, as well theological debate, concerning how the Trinity can be explained. In the end, the church felt that, while there is only one God whom we worship as God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, this God exists in three persons, the “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.”

There are many reasons why this is important. If God is love (I John 4:8), then God in some way has to be person. Inanimate objects, powers, and ideas do not love. Only persons love. In addition, for love to exist, it must be shared. For there to be love, there must be someone (a person) to love and an act of love by someone else (a person). Therefore, it seemed logical to the early church that a God of Love is characterized by both unity (One God) and diversity (Three Persons) bound together in a relationship of divine, self-giving love—the love Christ revealed on the Cross.

If God is not a person, then we cannot expect to relate to God personally. If God is only a force or a principle, then we cannot have a personal relationship with God. We cannot expect God to love us personally as individuals. At best, we can submit to his power. [2] If God is a person, there can be a personal relationship between us and God. God can so love us that he would even give himself for our salvation.

On the other hand, if God is a person, we can “Love the Lord with all of our hearts, and all of our souls, and all of our minds, and all of our strength” (Matt. 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28) and expect that love to be reciprocal. If God is a person constituted by love then the proper way to be in a relationship with that God is to reflect God’s character by responding to God’s love by loving God and God’s creation in an earthy approximation to the love that God is. Because God is a person, Christianity is focused on personal love between persons and God, creation, and other people.

The idea that God must be loved was not new in Jesus’ day. In the Old Testament Israel was to love the Lord with all of its heart, soul and strength (Deut. 6:4-5). This love is not just to be shown to God, but to the world as well (Lev. 19:18). In the Old Testament, God often speaks of his love of Israel. For example, in Hosea God compares his feelings towards Israel as those of a spouse who has been betrayed (Hosea 3:1). The picture of God’s love in Hosea is especially important because it reveals a personal God who suffers, is humiliated, and yet will not abandon his beloved, however far away the beloved may wander. This love is the same love that caused God to provide in Christ a way for all of us to return to a living, holy relationship with the Triune God.

Persons and Personal Relationships

In our individualistic culture, we think we know what makes a person, and we celebrate individual personhood, perhaps to excess. Interestingly, however, the modern world actually has a drastically truncated and inadequate idea of personhood. We think of a person as an individual, a solitary, discrete body with a mind and reasoning powers. This person is bound to other persons solely by physical forces. Even love is often regarded simply a complex bio-psychological phenomenon, a biologically-based force acting between two persons. We think that love, care, friendship, and other relationships are reduceable to individuals and biochemical relationships between them. When we think this way, people become like living billiard balls—discrete objects careening around and occasionally making contact with other similar billiard balls.

Christians, like much of modern science, believe that this way of thinking is profoundly limited and mistaken. Persons are complex, relational beings with minds, bodies, psyche’s and spirits. A person emerges from and is constituted by the various relationships of life, physical, mental, emotional, and social. This last part is especially important: We would not be who we are without the social relationships we experience from the moment we are conceived. This is one reason why the church, a social institution, is so important to growing in Christ.

If modern physics is correct, our bodies are more than material particles bound together by forces. The subatomic “particles” that make up the deepest reality we know are not material. Rather, they are waves of certain basic fields that make up the entire universe. What we call “basic particles” are not material particles in the classic understanding of those terms, but “quantized ripples” in waves in a field that stretches throughout the entire universe. [3] These quantized ripples seem to be related to one another in such a fashion that it can be said that everything in the universe is related to everything else. Such a universe is characterized by both a deep relationality as well as by independent reality. In such a universe, it should not surprise us that people are deeply and importantly relational.

When we are conceived, we are far from being an independent reality unconnected from the rest of the world. Instead, we are composed of the DNA of our parents, unique, but dependent upon their genetic history. During the period of our gestation, we are connected to our mothers in the most intimate possible way, enclosed within her body, dependent upon her for our being, sustenance, and life. When we are born, we are born into a family, not just a biological unit, but a social entity with its own unique characteristics. This family cares for us and provides for us for a long time. We are dependent upon our parents, and who we are and what we become are deeply dependent upon the quality of that relationship. Each and every relationship we have from that time forward, positive or negative, plays a role in who we become and what kind of person we are. As time goes by, we enter into relationships with hosts of other people and social groups, each of whom profoundly contributes to who we become, the person we are. Every pastor has seen the terrible done to a person when parents and others fail to provide the love, care, respect, and other emotional and physical needs that are needed in the early stages of life. Such behavior literally deprives a child of the fullness of human love God intended for that child to experience.

We are also born into a community and a culture, with its unique patterns of life and ways of understanding the world. This culture forms in a deep way who we are as a person. In addition, the cultures we experience and become a part of during our lives, profoundly impact who we are as persons. Anyone who has traveled has experienced the sense that people in other parts of our country and the world live differently and often see things differently than does our culture and the people with whom we are the most familiar. I have had the opportunity to travel a good deal, and sometimes on more than one occasion to the same places. I always recognize that, for example, while I love Scotland and my European heritage, I am an American, not European or Scottish. This is true of everyplace one goes. Travel both broadens us and shows us the uniqueness of our place. Relationships make us bigger people than we would otherwise be.

Throughout all our relationships and experiences, there develops the unique person that comes to a relationship with creation and other people, and with God. As time goes by, each person becomes just that a person—a unique individual. This unique individual has his or her unique physical, emotional, mental and spiritual being, different than anyone else. Nevertheless, we remain connected to and profoundly impacted by those with whom we have relationships. It is this unique individual that is called into a transforming relationship with God. When we enter into this relationship, the relationship changes us, just as every relationship of life changes us, except this one is with the Lord God, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. We can expect that such a relationship will change us more profoundly than any other relationship we have.

Growing a Relationship with God

If God is personal and wants a personal relationship with us, then we have to ask the question, “How can we establish and maintain such a relationship?” Although it may seem like an unanswerable question, the beginning steps are pretty clear.

  • First, we have to believe that there is a God who wants a relationship with us. In other words, there must be faith. I have to believe that such a relationship is possible and desirable.
  • Second, we have to commit myself in trust to developing that relationship. If we have faith, then we have a relationship with God. It may be a new relationship. It may be an immature relationship. But, there is a relationship.

Our relationship with God is like any human relationship. If this new relationship is going to grow and mature, we must spend time working on it, just as we work on relationships with a friends, spouses, children, or co-workers. We have to communicate. This is where prayer comes in. As we trust God and move out in faith, God’s love is increasingly revealed and that love grows, even in hard times, just as a good marriage grows in good times and bad times. If we are to grow in a relationship with God, we must spend time with God in silence, in conversation, in sharing, in meditation, in growing closer to God.

When my wife and I were dating, as busy as I was as a young professional, I made time to be with her because I loved her and wanted to be with her. We literally could not spend too much time together (at least I did not think so). Our relationship grew. Once we were married, our relationship still grew, but the pressure of business, family, church, and activities strained our relationship. It went through difficult times. We did not communicate as often or as well. Our relationship suffered. Today, when we are alone in the car, we are often silent. Nevertheless, our relationship is still changing and growing. Our relationship with God is no different. It takes time, and it has its ups and downs.

Grace and its Emissaries.

Christians believe in grace. Grace is God’s love reaching out to us to form a relationship with us. Christians believe that God is always reaching out in love to relate to human beings. Always. God’s love is in fact reaching out to us, long before we can or think about reaching out to God. God’s love is reaching out to us at times when we do not sense the presence of God and think of God as absent. As Paul reminds us, “In him we move and live and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Of course, if we are to recognize that the invisible God is reaching out to us, most of the time it will take another person who already has a relationship with us to tell us about that God and introduce him to us. [4] I have a friend, now dead, who became a pastor a long time ago, when it was thought that pastors ought to be married. He went to seminary, but never really met the right person. One day, he met a young widow whose husband had died very young. He was introduced to her by a friend. Without that friend, my friend might never have met his wife of over fifty years. Christians are friends who introduce their friends to a person that will meet their deepest needs for love, forever. We need to think of ourselves as like my friend’s buddy who introduced him to the woman who would be his wife. We are not imposing on people when we share God’s love with them. We are introducing them to the best lover they will ever have.

Deepening our Relationship

Most of the time when we form a relationship with another person, we decide to spend time with them. Prayer, Bible study, worship, and the like are the spiritual equivalent to spending time with and getting to know a human person. If we are to know what God is like and how to grow our relationship with God, we have to study our Bibles, Christian literature, and the stories of others who have developed a relationship with God. We pray and spend time with God. God is a person. We learn to relate to the God of as a person by reaching out to others in acts of love and mercy.

Finally, if our relationship with God is to grow and mature, we need to spend time with people who are already in a relationship with God, including time with people who have been in that relationship longer and more deeply than we have. We need to be a part of the Christian community, and have a relationship with another person or persons who are themselves growing in a relationship with God.

A Different Kind of Relationship

Naturally, there will be differences between our relationship with God and our relationships with human beings. We will never see God. Most of the time, he will speak to us in silence. We will never fully comprehend the One who is the all-wise, all knowing, all powerful creator and sustainer of all that is. There will always be mystery and unresolved questions. Sometimes God will seem to be silent or absent, as if he has deserted us. We will never control the terms of our relationship with God. We will never come to the end of our relationship with an infinite being. But, we will grow in our relationship with God.

Mother Teresa once led a retreat for a group of married women, who complained about the difficulties of marriage. Apparently, one participant indicated that it would be hard for Mother Teresa to understand the difficulties of being married because she was a celibate and unmarried. Mother Teresa replied that she was married to Christ, who could be a very difficult husband indeed! Like Mother Teresa, we will not always find our relationship with God easy, simple, or without its sacrifices and sufferings. [5]

This is the situation in which Christians find ourselves. The life of faith is a life of relationship with a being (indeed the source of all being) we cannot hope to understand and who, from time to time, may place what we think are impossible demands upon us! Most of us who have been married any length of time admit to not fully understanding our spouses and believing that he or she sometimes makes impossible demands upon us! Married couples all know that even the best marriages are not always easy.

Our relationship with God will be no different. We will struggle to maintain the relationship, and we may often wonder what God is up to in our lives. Nevertheless, as the years go by, we grow and the relationship grows. Its growth is not immediate, constant, or without ups and downs, defeats and disappointments. After all, on our side it is a human relationship subject to the problems with all human relationships.

The Transforming Moment

The life of the Apostle Paul is a wonderful example of how God can come into a human life in order to transform and heal it. [6] Paul was not, as we know, seeking Christ. In fact, he was a persecutor of Christ and of Christians. Acts tell us that he “held the cloaks” of those who stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58), After that event, Paul violently persecuted the early Christians (Acts 8:1-3).

Having received authority from the Sanhedrin to persecute the church in Damascus, he was met by the risen Christ on the road outside of the city. Christ revealed himself to Paul, brought him into a personal relationship with himself, commissioned Paul as a missionary to the Gentiles, and ordered him to go into the city and await his recovery from blindness (Acts 26:12-17).

Paul went into the city, and was brought into the fellowship of the church in Damascus by Ananias, whose efforts allowed Paul to begin his Christian pilgrimage (Acts 10:7). Paul immediately demonstrated his changed life by his powerful defense of Christian faith, a defense he continued for the remainder of his life (Acts 9:19-20).

As the example of Paul demonstrates, because God is a person and we are persons, there exists for each human being the potential for a life-transforming relationship with God, a transformation based upon hearing the Gospel with our intellect, accepting Christ with our hearts, and receiving from God the transformation of our being.

I will close this essay with one final example. Many years ago, my wife and I met a young woman who was damaged by her first husband. She had become closed to relationships with men, and was deeply wounded, fearful, and unhappy. Eventually, she remarried. Her new husband was not a Christian. When they had children, the husband decided to go to church one Sunday morning. Eventually, he accepted Christ. Later, our friend came to Christ as a result of her husband’s efforts.

In my former occupation, I used to see this woman from time to time in the tunnels beneath the city of Houston. The next time I saw this young lady after her conversion, instead of seeing her unconsciously recoil and move away, she broke out into a great smile and came over to greet me. This woman’s relationship with Christ continues to this day. Even to today, I have never seen a person so transformed and healed because of a new relationship with God in Christ. This is the power of a transforming, personal relationship with God.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Holy Spirit is referred to using many different names in the New Testament, including the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Comforter. In all cases, it is a personal reference.

[2] This is not an essay on apologetics, but it is just at this point that Islam and Christianity diverge. For Islam, God is a monad, a singularity of power to whom believers submit. (“Islam” means submission.) Christianity, on the other hand, sees God as personal, constituted by love, and to be freely accepted not commanded into submission. If God is an idea, we can understand God, but we can’t love God nor can God love us. The fact that God is love means we can be in a loving relationship with God that takes precedence over and is the foundation of all other actions we take towards God and others.

[3] See, David Bohm, Wholeness and Implicate Order (London, ENG: Routledge, 1995), 19: “What is implied by this proposal is that what we call empty space contains and immense background of energy, and that matter as we know it is a small, “quantized” wavelike excitation on top of the background, rather like a ripple on a vast sea.”

[4] Although Christians cannot discount the possibility that there are those who, like the Apostle Paul, receive a direct communication from God in their calling (Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-22; 26:12-18; Galatians 1:11-24), ordinarily there will be no discipleship without a human community of faith. Even Paul had his communities and partners from whom he learned and with whom he grew. Barnabas, who first brought Pak to Antioch is an example of a mentor in the life of the great apostle (Acts 13).

[5] I have looked through my sermons and on the internet for the source of his story, but I cannot find it no matter how hard I look. The idea is, of course, that our relationship with God will involve difficulties. In Mother Teresa’s case, we know that she experienced a long, long period of darkness of the soul when God ceased giving her overt indications of his love for her. Mother Teresa continued in the life of discipleship for a long time without the consolations of God’s obvious presence in her life.

[6] See James Loder, The Transforming Moment 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers and Howard, 1989), 21ff. The Transforming Moment is one of the best books on how faith initially and subsequently transforms the human person. My analysis of Paul’s conversion is dependent upon and closely follows that of Dr. Loder.