Disciples Have a Way of Life

Being a disciple of Jesus involves more than recognizing who Jesus is. It involves adopting the way life of life Jesus lived. The Great Commission does more than ask disciples to witness to Christ. It asks Christians to teach new believers “to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). This involves teaching the Christian life by word and example (I Peter 5:3). Just words are not enough. [1]

A Tradition of Wisdom and Love

Much contemporary teaching about evangelism and discipleship implicitly indicates that, to be a good disciple of Christ, you need to be “radical.” In a culture that celebrates extreme individualism, this kind of approach can be attractive, especially to young people. A negative aspect of this approach is that it implicitly implies that ordinary people, who have conventional lives, and spend most of their time with family, at work, and among friends must completely alter their lives and change what they are doing in order to be true, disciple-making, followers of Christ. This is largely untrue.

This does not mean that we Christians do not need to change a few things about how we live, work, and relate to others. As previously indicated, a deeply pragmatic and skeptical culture will be more impressed by how we live and than by what we say.  As disciples, we are called to live wisely, love others unconditionally, and follow Christ. As we follow Jesus, our lives will change, but that may or may not mean that we change our careers, friendships, basic lifestyle, location, and the like. After becoming Christians, many people continue to live where they formerly lived, in the career and occupation they formerly had, now sharing God’s love with their family, neighborhood, community, friends, and fellow-workers in a new way. This has been true throughout history.

The “radical” ideal of Christianity is an import from the inherently radical nature of the Enlightenment mentality with its reflexive notion that what previously existed (tradition) is corrupt and backward. [2] But what is to come (revolutionary change) is better. From the French revolution forward, this has led to disaster after disaster, and currently in the West, to the increasing dissolution of Western civilization. Into this cauldron of often mindless change, Christians are called to defend a kind of wise and loving personal and communal order. Some things do need to change, but a lot of things don’t. What needs to change is anything that prevents us from living wisely and with self-giving love toward God and others.

People of the Way

The earliest name for Christians was “People of the Way” (Acts 9:2). The first Christians, most of whom had lived lives structured by the Law of Moses and Jewish customs, found in Christ a new way to God by faith in Christ. This new way did not involve following a lot of external rules. Nevertheless, this new approach did not mean that the moral aspects of the law of Moses were eliminated (Romans 6). The new way involved a relationship with God in Christ, a relationship in which disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to live wisely in loving relationships with God and others (Romans 8). As people of the Way, our ordinary, day-to-day lives are to shine with the power of God’s Spirit of Wisdom and Love. The earliest Christians saw in Jesus not just a new way to experience forgiveness of sins, but also a new way of living in relationship and in harmony with God and others.

Jesus summarized this way of life as characterized by loving God and others. When asked what was the greatest of the commandments, Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39). Living out the love of God in our day-to-day lives is the primary duty of the Christian. Everything else flows from this first decision—the decision for unselfish, self-giving love.

Salt and Light

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has these words for 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 5:13-16).

These words remind us that it is not just what we say that matters; what we do matters even more. We are not to just talk about salt and light. We are to be salt and light. We are to shine with the light of Christ. It is not only what we say that will cause people to praise God. It is what they see and experience in and through us that matters.  [3]

Salt is a physical mineral. Light illuminates the world and allows us to see where we are going. Salt gives flavor and is a healing agent. Light is also an antiseptic and healing agent, as well as a source of illumination. Jesus described himself as “The Light of the World, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). To be a disciple is both to walk in the light that is Christ and to reflect that light into the world (Matthew 5:14).

To be a disciple of Jesus is to both experience the love of God in Christ and reflect that love into the world. Jesus wants us to live in such a way that we are a preservative and healer of the foolishness and brokenness of the world. He wants us to have a kind of wisdom in the way we love others that that we become a kind of light that shines into the darkness (Philippians 2:15). It is that light, the light of God shining in our lives that can and should attract people. This is not so much radical as it is entirely unexpected, but fundamentally the wisest and best way to live.

A Matter of Grace

All of this might sound legalistic until we remind ourselves that we are saved by grace, and it is God’s grace that empowers us to live the Christian life (Ephesians 2:8-9). In my experience, and in the experience of many Christians, the first step towards hypocrisy is to forget the role of grace, God’s mercy, and gift of the Spirit in our daily Christian life. When we forget our dependence on God’s grace, sooner or later we lose that intimate fellowship with God that allows us to live in the Way of Christ and share that way with others. God by his mercy calls us into a relationship with Christ, and we cannot live the Christian life without the presence and power of God sustaining our spiritual life.

When we allow God to illuminate and empower us by the Holy Spirit, we reflect the light and the healing power of God in our day-to-day lives. Of course, we fail and fall short—not only from time to time, but a lot of the time! Nevertheless, if we remain in Christ, and continue to live on the basis of grace, if we continue to ask God to enter our lives and transform us, we do make progress in the Christian life. When I am teaching about the life of grace, I like to say, “I am not the person I ought to be, but thank God I am also not the person I used to be!” This is what we should all aspire to daily: Thank God we are not the people we were yesterday, or last week, or last month, or last year. We are making progress because of the Spirit of God working in us.

Theologians, have ways of talking about how God allows us to grow in Christ. They talk first about the “Means of Grace.” The Means of Grace is a way of describing how God works in our lives so that we grow in Christ. These means of Grace are important because it is how we remain connected to the source of our new life in Christ. The Way of Life of a Christian is largely a way of Grace Empowered Living.

Christ in Us the Hope of Glory

Of course, the primary means by which we become and grow as a disciple is in a relationship with the Word made Flesh. Jesus called his disciples into a personal relationship with him, and Christians ever since have called people into such a relationship with Jesus. This relationship changes us from the inside out. Paul begins his letter to the Colossians by reminding the Colossians who Jesus was and is. He is the very image of God (1:15). He is the vehicle through whom the universe and everything in it was made (1:16). He is the head of the church, those called out by God to proclaim his glory (1:18). He is the one who reconciles creation and people to one another so that God’s peace can prevail (1:19-20. He is the source of forgiveness of sins and fellowship with God the Father (1:21). In Christ, our old life is put to death and we receive a new life (3:1). He is the Logos, the Word of God, who embodies the wisdom by whom and through whom everything was made (John: 1:3). Christian faith is not irrational or foolish, but rational in the deepest possible way—a way the world sometimes thinks is foolish.

In response to what God has done, believers live a different kind of life—because a different kind of life, the life of God, is growing up inside of us. This putting on of a new life is described both as a dying to an older kind of life, characterized by passions, immorality, evil desires, greed, covetousness, malice, slander of others, and obscenity and the like, and the growth of a new kind of life characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, and the like (Galatians 5:17-21). As we overcome the dark side of our personalities, we begin to experience a new kind of life. Here is how Paul describes this new life:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:12-17).

Notice that it is not primarily behaviors that Paul urges on the Colossians but spiritual qualities people receive as they remain in a relationship with Christ. Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love are spiritual qualities we receive by grace as we allow Christ to work in our hearts. Growing in Christ involves behaviors, however, most importantly it involves developing new spiritual qualities.

Sacraments: Baptism

The Christian life begins with Baptism. God works in our lives through his Word, that is through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. God also works in our lives through what are called, “Sacraments” or “Sacred Acts.” When we come to believe in Christ, we are baptized. In some groups, parents baptize their children when quite small as a sign that God is already working his salvation in their lives. If a new believer has never been baptized, they are baptized a sign of their new faith.

Some denominations baptize only adults on profession of faith. Even if there has been an infant baptism, in many cases a believer will want to renew that baptism in a Renewal of Baptism service that is much like a baptism, except that it is a renewal of a prior baptism and not a baptism. [4] The purpose of this discussion is not to take a theological side, but to indicate that some form of baptism is practiced in all Christian fellowships.

In any sacrament, there is an outward sign. In the case of baptism, the physical sign is water. Some groups immerse, some groups pour the water on a new believer, and some groups sprinkle. However, the water is administered, it signifies our leaving our old life and the new life we have in Christ because of the cleansing power of God.

One of the first things we should do when we become a Christian, and encourage others to do when they accept Christ, is experience the sacred rite and mystery of baptism, as we celebrate new life in Christ and profess our faith to the world. If we were baptized as children or even earlier in our lives as adults, it may be important to “own” the new life we have received by publicly renewing our baptism. [5]

Some years ago, a lady in our congregation married a man who had been in her life some years earlier. She had always remembered and loved him. When he left, he was in a lifestyle that was not Christian by any definition of the word. Years later, God brought them back together and him back into the community of faith. This person became a friend, prayer partner, and fellow worker in our congregation and in a Christian ministry in our area. One of the great privileges of my life was the day we baptized my friend! We used to see each other almost weekly, and once or twice a year, we would take time to remember that “sacred moment” in his life when he publicly declared his faith in Christ and his commitment to be a disciple of Christ.

Word-Centered Worship

When the Word of God is read, taught, and proclaimed, God works profoundly in the human mind and heart. This is why Paul says that faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). This “hearing” is not any hearing, but a hearing of the Gospel, the Good News of God’s love. Reading and hearing the word of God, studying the Bible, memorizing Scripture, and allowing Scripture to form the way we see and react to the world is a very important part of discipleship. We cannot grow in discipleship unless we grow in our understanding of the story of God’s people.

Although hearing the word read in Scripture is of supreme importance, hearing it preached and taught is also important. This aspect of growing in discipleship reminds us that it is not enough to simply read the Word on our own. We also need to hear God’s Word in the company of others who are also growing in faith. Listening to the Word of God in Scripture allows us to hear its meaning for our lives through the voice and in the words of another person, often the pastor or teacher of a Bible study. It allows us to respond with others who have also heard the word together with us. Finally, hearing the Word taught or preached by another person, who may know more about this particular passage, and who probably studied the passage in connection with preparing to speak, reminds us that our private interpretation and response to Scripture, as important as it is, must be disciplined and clarified by the opinions and responses of others.

All of this means that a disciple will be regular in worship and in attending Bible studies from time to time. We cannot enter the communal life of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, without living and learning in community with the people God who have responded to God’s call to show his light and love in the world. Although in Protestant worship services the Word is at the center of worship, it is like a jewel in a precious setting. The calls to worship, the songs and hymns sung, the prayers of the people, the common confession of sin, baptism, the Lord’s Supper—all these things deepen our walk with Christ.

When was younger, I went through a period when I did not attend worship and was not a part of a Christian community. Not surprisingly, I drifted away from the Way of Christ. While Christians believe that it is possible to live the Christian life without living within and worshiping as part of the community of faith, ordinarily this cannot and should not happen. Most of us can take time to worship God regularly. We can hear the Word in community with others. We should thank God we can, for there are those who because of age, infirmity, or other necessity cannot.

Sacraments: The Lord’s Supper

Once you are a part of a Christian church, sooner or later you are certain to participate in a Communion Service. Different groups have different names for such a service. In Catholic Churches it is called the “Eucharist.” In Protestant congregations it is called the “Lord’s Supper” or “Communion.” In one way or another, Christians believe their faith is strengthened by this service of remembrance and spiritual participation in Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. God is present to believers by the power of the Holy Spirit in a special way when we share the Lord’s Supper together.

Just as with baptism, different groups have differing ideas of what is happening when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. For the purpose of growing as a disciple it is not so much important which group is correct concerning how the Lord’s Supper acts as a means of grace, but the sheer fact that it does. Some congregations celebrate communion weekly. Others celebrate communion monthly, quarterly, annually, or on some other schedule. Disciples make every effort to receive communion whenever it is offered in a way consistent with their particular tradition.

Some groups have a similar service called a “Love Feast” that small groups within their fellowship celebrate a meal in which the love of Christ and the unity of the group are celebrated. Love Feasts are not communion services for those groups in which an ordained clergy must be present for the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated. In whatever case, remembering and contemplating the love of God present in Christ strengthens our faith. [6]

Public and Private Prayer

Because the life of discipleship is a life of relationship with God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, the life of a disciple is strengthened and deepened by the habit of prayer. Once again, prayers should and will be said in worship, in small groups, and in other places where Christians gather. Nevertheless, daily private prayer is one of the most important ways in which we grow in discipleship.

In the beginning of our Christian walk, our prayers may be selfish and even a bit simple. That is fine. When a small child begins to talk, his or her conversations are not complicated or deep. However, as a child grows and matures, his or her ability to communicate grows and deepens. This is true also of the life of faith. Once again, this particular part of the Christian life is of such importance that it is discussed in more detail in a later chapter. For now, it is important to encourage the practice of communal and private prayer in the life of every disciple.

For Christians, prayer is not a means to an end, but a conversation with the Friend of All Friends—God. As we spend time with God, our friendship deepens and grows. In the beginning, we may ask for things that our friend thinks harmful or destructive. Over time, we will learn that fact about our friend. In the beginning, when prayers are not answered, we may think our friend has deserted us. Only much later will we know that our friend is present even in his silence and immovable intention not to answer a particular prayer. In the end, we will have something more important than simple answered prayers. We will have. A deep relationship with God.

Works of Love

Jesus involved his disciples in his own work of love to the world. [7] The Gospels and Acts reflect the disciples doing acts of healing and of mercy towards others. Although God is interested in our spiritual growth, we are physical creatures and self-giving love, the most important virtue of a Christian, by its nature must be enacted. In fact, experience teaches that those who never put their faith into practice serving God and others, don’t grow.

Therefore, every disciple needs to develop the habits of serving others in some way. These acts of service can be both personal, such as giving to the needs of others, personal actions of mercy, visiting the sick, caring for those in need, and the like, and public, such as being involved in solving social problems, overcoming injustices, and the like. As we change our priorities and move out of a life of selfish self-seeking and into a life of loving service to others, we grow in discipleship.

My duties as a pastor often caused me to be in my study a good bit of the week. I found that, if I did not take time to visit the sick, to be involved in some ministry outside of our congregation and serve others, sooner or later I began to feel dry and my faith became joyless. The best cure for this problem was and is to get up and do something for someone else. I think that this is true of nearly all Christians. In order to grow in our faith, we need to put that faith to work in acts of love. In addition, as has been emphasized already, when we put our faith to work, people, including unbelievers, take notice.

Walking the Walk as Well as Talking the Talk

The bottom line is this: if we are to lead other people, and especially new believers, into a deeper walk with Christ, we must be attentive to our own discipleship and to ways in which we can draw others more deeply into a life of discipleship. Assuming we regularly attend church, one sure way for us to help another person internalize the Word and participate in the Sacraments is to invite them to join us at church or a discipleship group. The same is true of Bible studies, prayer groups, and other Christian ministries in which we participate.

Once again, new and old disciples, like children, “catch” more than they are “taught” what it means to be a disciple. If we regularly visit the sick, give to the needs of the less fortunate, manage our lives with wisdom and prudence, are involved in making our neighborhoods, cities, and nation a better, fairer, and more just place to live, those we know, including those we are discipling are sure to see what we are doing.

Many years ago, as a layperson and an elder in a local congregation, I had the habit of visiting people who were sick in our Sunday school class. I did not always visit, but I did visit a good bit. Over the years, people have mentioned to me how much that meant to them. Years later, when I was in seminary, one of our members had a very serious heart attack. Although I wrote a card, I could not visit. I was heartbroken that I could not visit my friend. Other people in his Sunday school class did visit my friend and his spouse. Others saw what was being done, and I am sure that many years later, people are visiting the sick without being told or asked because they saw it modeled.

My father-in-law was in the food business. After he retired, he developed the habit of going around town to the bakeries in Houston and picking up bread and other items. He then distributed them to certain local ministries. This was his way of actively serving the body of Christ even though he was retired and beyond the time when he could do many things he had always done. We all need to have such ministries of care and compassion.

One of my good friends was a successful business person in a very competitive business. He was a good businessman. As the leader of his company, he also demonstrated the love of Christ in his dealings with others in business. Our secular occupations, if we have one, can be the best witness we make for Christ. Some time ago, I attended a funeral for a High School coach. I watched as men of all ages went to the lectern to testify to the difference this person made in their lives. This person’s work was his mission field.

Hidden for All the World to See

Some people think that faith should be a private thing. There is a sense in which that is true. One step on the road to hypocrisy is the step of making our faith too much a public matter so that we feel we must continually be seen as religious. No one likes a religious show off. On the other hand, no one will ever be moved by us to enter God’s family unless they see it lived out and hear the Gospel in some way. Perhaps the best way to think of how we might present the Gospel in our lives is to make our faith, “hidden for all the world to see.”

In addition to a faith that is hidden for all the world to see, we also need to have a faith that is publicly proclaimed for all the world to hear. There is something about hearing the testimony of some person who is been touched by God that changes both of them and everyone who hears that testimony. Speaking out into the world what God has done for us is an important part of being a disciple.

In Acts 3, there is a wonderful story about a healing involving Peter and John. One day, Peter and John were going to the Temple to pray. As they came to the Temple Gate, there was a lame man. When the man saw Peter and John, he asked for money. Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, look at the man and said, “Silver and gold have I none but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk” (v. 6). Then, he took a man by the hand and lifted him up and the man was healed. The story ends like this:

“He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him” (vv. 8-10).

The result of this man’s willingness to respond to God’s healing by walking, jumping, and praising God was that not only did he receive a blessing, but everyone who knew him received a blessing and a sign that God was present. If we keep our Christian faith a secret, if we keep what God has done for us a secret, then we’ve been blessed what the world has not been blessed. If we are willing to share all that God is done then we are blessed and the world is blessed.

We should never be afraid to share our faith. We should never be afraid to share what God has done for us. We should never be afraid to “walk and leap and praise God” for the salvation he has promised us (Acts 3:6). In Memphis our church was a part of a ministry called the “Great Banquet.” The Great Banquet is a three-day retreat designed to deepen Christian faith and leadership. As a part of the weekend, I have the opportunity to hear many testimonies. The Biblical content of the talks on a weekend were actually outlined for us. We have to say what was supposed to be said in the talk. On the other hand, we were asked to share a portion of our personal testimony as a part of our talk.

Now here’s an interesting fact: I have given a lot of talks, and I’ve heard hundreds of talks. I have prepared about two dozen teams for the weekends, and have heard the talks during the training sessions. Despite all of that I don’t remember the exact Biblical or theological content of many of the talks. I do, however, remember almost every personal testimony. I remember every story of salvation. I remember every marriage that was healed, every addict healed from addiction, every criminal who went straight, every housewife who prayed for a child, every man who ever prayed for a spouse. Those testimonies are more important to me theological content of the talk. When we tell others about our salvation, we are doing a great thing. Testimonies of what God has done in our lives is prove to a skeptical world the Christian faith is more than just words. God is more than just a distant principal or master mathematician who created the heavens and the earth. Instead, God is an active participant in his creation and in the lives of his people. He is always working to bring love and more wisdom into the lives of his people and into the universe he created.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Portions of this chapter are drawn from Salt & Light, previously cited, Lesson 10, 99-103.

[2] Tradition matters. I have been a pastor for a long time. My churches have all had some form of contemporary worship. Interestingly, while I love contemporary worship, I deeply appreciate the liturgical worship of my Catholic and Episcopalian friends. Many weeks, I take time to attend a worship service that connects me to a way of life that is hundreds of years old. Tradition has much to say for itself. This is not only true regarding worship, but regarding a lot of other things as well. The question is, “How should be change to live more like Jesus and the apostles?”

[3] Bonhoeffer has an entire chapter of Cost of Discipleship devoted to an exposition of Matthew 5:13-16. See, Cost of Discipleship, previously cited Chapter 7, 120-134.

[4] Most groups that practice infant baptism do not rebaptize people. Theologically, the reason is that because the person was baptized once, and because God is sovereign and faithful to his promises, there is no need to rebaptize and to do so infers that God was not faithful to the first promise made by the parents. Nevertheless, even in these cases, many congregations perform a renewal of baptism service. In one of my former churches virtually all the young people renewed their baptismal vows at confirmation.

[5] In this book, I am taking no position on the question whether infant or believer baptism is the correct understanding of the sacrament or on how the sacraments work. This differs among different groups, and this group of essays is not intended to defend any particular theological position.

[6] Once again, the role and proper method of receiving the sacrament is the subject of differing theological views and denominational practice. This book is intended to help people find a deeper walk, whatever their denominational (or non-denominational) background. Some Reformed pastors, for example, do not believe in “love feasts” or “renewal of baptism” services. My advice to new Christians is to follow the tradition into which God has called you. My advice to disciple-makers is to follow the guidelines of your particular church related to the sacraments.

[7] In Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer emphasizes that disciples are not called out of the world but into the world. “The disciple must not only think of heaven; they have an earthly task as well” Id, at 130. This earthly task is both our secular occupation and other service to God in the world. There can be no real discipleship until and unless the entire being of the disciple and all that the disciple does is for God and the well-being of others.

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