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Discipleship Is Messy
Real discipleship is messy, imperfect, and honest.
I wanted clean, “perfect,” and limited honesty. I preferred to disclose only my successes, to pass on my accumulated wisdom and knowledge while hiding my foolishness and ignorance. It’s not that I wasn’t making disciples—people gobbled up my platitudes and piety. The problem was the kind of disciples I was making: disciples who could share their faith but not their failures.
From Grace to Works
Why did I embrace this kind of discipleship? Who was to blame, the church or the parachurch? Neither. It was my fault. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, my motivation for obeying Jesus had shifted from grace to works. It progressed from attempting to earn God’s favor, to gaining the favor of my disciples. “Discipleship” had become a way to leverage my identity and worth in relationship with others. I was comfortable on the pedestal dispensing wisdom and truth. The more disciples I made, the better I felt about myself. My motivation for discipleship was a mixture of genuine love for God and lust for praise. I sincerely loved God and wanted others to fall more deeply in love with him, but my motives weren’t always pure. I quickly became a disciple who lacked authenticity and community.
The gospel is big enough to handle my failures.
Don’t get me wrong, there were good intentions and good fruit from these relationships, but in a sense, I was still following Jesus alone. The professional/novice relationship created a comfortable distance from admitting my failures in genuine community. I stood at the top of the stairs of discipleship, peering down at those who sat at my feet instead of sitting in the living room with my fellow disciples, where I belonged. I put the best foot forward and hid the ugly one. As a result, disciple became more of a verb than a noun, less of an identity and more of an activity. The center of discipleship subtly shifted from relationships centered on Christ to an activity centered on what I knew.
The Gospel Is Not Just for “Sinners”
Fortunately, the gospel is big enough to handle my failures, and Jesus is forgiving enough for my distortions of what it means to follow him. In fact, the gospel of grace is so big and strong that it has reshaped my understanding of discipleship. As I continued to “disciple” and read the Bible, I was struck by the fact that the disciples of Jesus were always attached to other disciples. They lived in authentic community. They confessed their sins and struggles alongside their successes—questioning their Savior and casting out demons. They continually came back to Jesus as their Master and eventually as their Redeemer.
He is my salvation, not just when I was six, but every second of every day.
As the disciples grew in maturity, they did not grow beyond the need for their Redeemer. They returned to him for forgiveness. As they began to multiply, the communities that they formed did not graduate from the gospel that forgave and saved them. Instead, churches formed around their common need for Jesus. The gospel of Jesus became the unifying center of the church. As a result, the communities that formed preached Jesus, not only to those outside the church but also to one another within the church. I began to realize that Jesus is not merely the start and standard for salvation, but that he is the beginning, middle, and end of my salvation. He is my salvation, not just when I was six, but every second of every day. In the gospel, Jesus gives me himself, his redemptive benefits, and the church to share those benefits with. As it turns out, the gospel is for disciples, not just for “sinners” —it saves and transforms people in relationship, not merely individuals who go it alone.
We Are Free from Trying to Impress
It slowly became apparent to me that the gospel of Christ was where I was meant to find my identity, not in impressing God or others with my discipling skill. Refusing to share my life with others, especially my failures, was a refusal to allow the gospel of Christ to accomplish its full breadth of redemption in me. Very simply, God was leading me into a kind of discipleship with the gospel at the center—a constant, gracious repetition of repentance and faith in Jesus, who is sufficient for my failures and strong for my successes. The wonderful news of the gospel is that Jesus frees us from trying to impress God or others because he has impressed God on our behalf. We can tell people our sins because our identity doesn’t hang on what they think of us. We can be imperfect Christians because we cling to a perfect Christ. In this kind of discipleship, Jesus is at the center, with the church huddled around him. We give and receive the gospel of Jesus to one another for our forgiveness and formation. In sum, discipleship is both gospel-centered and community-shaped.
We need to remind one another that Jesus has not called us to performance or indifference but to faith in him.
This Is a Fight of Faith
Gospel-centered discipleship is not about how we perform but who we are—imperfect people, clinging to a perfect Christ, being perfected by the Spirit. As a result, I no longer stand at the top of the stairs but sit in the living room, where I can share my faith and my unfaith, my obedience and disobedience, my success and failure. As we give and receive the gospel, we don’t linger in imperfection, unbelief, disobedience, and failure.
The Bible repeatedly tells us to fight. We have to fight to believe this gospel. Otherwise, we will slide back into individualistic, indifferent, or professionalized discipleship. This fight is a fight of faith. It is a struggle to believe what the gospel truly promises over what sin deceitfully promises. We need to remind one another that Jesus has not called us to performance or indifference but to faith in him. We need relationships that are so shaped by the gospel that we will exhort and encourage one another to trust Jesus every single day. We need gospel-centered discipleship.
This post is excerpted from Jonathan Dodson's new Re:lit book, Gospel-Centered Discipleship. For the rest of the conversation about the definition of discipleship, what it is and it applies to the gospel, pick up your copy today.
For more on sharing your faith by sharing your failures, check out the interview below with Pastor Jonathan: