How would you explain “discipleship” to a new believer? How would you help a busy person know how to grow and live as a Christian?
If you are a trained pastor or theologian, you might have a lot to say about discipleship. It might even feel difficult to summarize.
One could say, “Living as a Christian just means loving God and loving your neighbor.” That is an excellent, and necessary, place to begin when talking about what it means to follow Jesus! He said so himself (Matt. 22:37-40).
But if we don’t flesh that out for folks, and help them understand how to love God and their neighbor, it can sound like moralism (“You better work hard to do this, or else!”).
This just highlights how hard it can be to give quick simple answers to the above questions. It also shows how unhelpful it can be to reduce the teachings of Christ, and the rest of the Bible, to short slogans.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t help people grow in Christ by giving them simple and clear language or concepts to dwell on. One can make good use of summary statements and easy-to-remember language. The Creeds and Catechisms are a great example of this.
I think it’s important to help people first have a good and solid understanding of the gospel message itself. Then give them some language for how to mature as a Christian.
What I offer below is one way to go about this.
A Summary of the Gospel
The gospel is the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the world’s true Savior and King.
The gospel is about
- his incarnation (God is with us)
- his life (complete obedience, righteousness, love, mercy, authority and power),
- his teaching (concerning God, life, himself, and the kingdom of God),
- his death on the cross (to atone for Sin and destroy the power of Death, experiencing death for all God’s people),
- his resurrection (conquering Death, Hell, and Satan, overcoming the curse, guaranteeing eternal life, beginning the new creation),
- his ascension (to the Father’s right hand to reign and intercede, to continue his work in this world through the Holy Spirit—applying redemption and his gracious transforming rule to the world),
- and his return (to bring salvation and judgment, make all things new, and establish his kingdom forever).
Or to say it more simply, the gospel is the good news that God loves the world that he created. He rescues it from Sin and Death through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
(See John 5:24, 2 Cor. 5:17-21, Rom. 3:23-24, 5:8, 6:23, 8:1, 10:9-13, and 1 Pet. 3:18 for some great passages that summarize the heart of the gospel message and its implications.)
Christian Life is Always about Living in Light of the Gospel
But what does that mean?
It means living because of, in response to, and in the power of what God has done for us.
Discipleship is not about what we do for God to get His favor and love. It is not about simply coming up with ways to make our behavior better, or good. In fact, the gospel is primarily news before it is instruction.
The “good news” of the gospel is a message about what God has done to save sinners and redeem the cosmos—a message to be heard, believed, trusted, and relied upon. It is not mere principles for living a good life, or secrets for happiness, or strategies for self-improvement. It may include all those things, but can’t be reduced to them.
Those who come to Christ, by trusting the gospel message, come knowing that they are in TOTAL need of redemption—not morally good, not capable of self-salvation, and needing much more than a better self-esteem.
The gospel is, as Pastor Tim Keller says, God’s “total help for our total need”. The gospel tells us that God has taken the sin, grief, and pain of the world upon himself through his son Jesus. Everyone who comes to trust in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as their only hope of salvation, freedom, and life finds in Christ a sufficient Savior.
Understanding and embracing all of this takes a lifetime. It can be a journey. But how do we move forward in daily living as disciples of Jesus?
3 Aspects of Christian Living
I would like to propose 3 basic aspects of Christian living that can provide a faithful and simple way to think about and approach discipleship in light of the gospel.
Christian life is first of all…
Living By Faith.
Faith means believing, trusting, relying upon, or surrendering to something or someone. It is fully relying upon something/someone so much that you are compelled to embrace its truth and goodness, seeking to apply it in every moment of life.
For this reason, faith can also be understood as “loyalty,” because the word implies application to life. In other words, faith is not merely passive or cognitive. It must be applied to our judgments and actions.
As Christians, we live, or come to life, by faith in the gospel promises. That is, we come alive to real and lasting Life (as opposed to death) by faith in Jesus (Rom. 1:17). We are “born again” by the Spirit of God (John 3:3-16).
We also continue to live, day by day, trusting those same promises (Gal. 2:20) contained in God’s Word. This is living in the confidence that God tells the truth. Every blessing that we receive from God is obtained not by our good works, but by our faith in Christ, who has worked good for us.
Faith will, of course, bear fruit in good works (Eph. 2:10). But these works are the result of God’s favor for us, not means by which we get God’s love. Loved by God, we live by faith day after day.
Walking in the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is the one who remakes us. He regenerates, or re-births, us into God’s holy and righteous family (Eph. 4:24).
Walking in the Spirit means walking in the Spirit’s power and bearing the Spirit’s fruit. Paul speaks about this in Galatians chapter 5. Verse 16 says, “walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh”. And verse 25 says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”
What Paul means is that, since the Holy Spirit has made us alive in Christ, and lives within us to change and empower us, we should walk daily in the Spirit’s power, bearing the character traits that the Spirit produces.
We should not walk according to the flesh. The flesh (or, sinful nature) is opposed to the Spirit, and thus, it wouldn’t make sense for a Christian to walk in those things that he or she has been saved from. Christian freedom is freedom from sin and for Christ, not freedom from Christ and for sin.
This section of Galatians comes right after Paul has argued that our justification, and reception of the Spirit, is never based upon our works or our obedience to the Law (see Gal. 2:16). Having established that, Paul then shows us what true freedom in Christ is. It is happily obeying the soul-satisfying, God-glorifying Law of the Spirit that is both written upon and empowered within our newborn hearts, in Christ.
Walking in the Spirit is a surrender to and embrace of Christ’s rightful Lordship over me. It is also trusting that His presence in my life has a powerful affect upon me. As I look to and focus upon Christ, not turning to self-reliance, I find my heart being changed to love what Christ loves. He is passionate for the glory of the Father and the spread of the Kingdom. He loves holiness and delights in steadfast love.
Walking in the Spirit means not resisting these impulses but pursuing them. It is acknowledging our daily need, praying for and trusting in God’s constant and promised help. It is thinking, speaking, and acting with faith that God will prove faithful to His children. This daily rhythm leads us to thank God for being at work within us.
God has loved and welcomed us into his family. Walking in the Spirit is living as a favored child of the King, not living to become a favored child of the King. So, let us walk in the Spirit and live to bear his fruit (Gal. 5:22-23).
Resting in Grace.
Resting in grace means trusting in God’s favor and love at all times. It is trusting in the work that Christ has done for us, and that, by his work, God has declared us righteous in his sight, reconciled us to himself, adopted us into his family, made us new, and forgiven us all our trespasses.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:13 to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the coming of Jesus Christ”.
How much should we hope in the grace of God for our life, salvation, comfort, and everything else? Peter says “fully.”
God’s grace is not merely covering or removing our sins. Grace is everything God gives us outside of condemnation—since condemnation is the only thing we deserve from Him.
Therefore, God’s grace is much more than making up for my shortcomings. It is every breath, every ounce of life and energy, every moment, every ability, and every other good and perfect gift.
Grace is God’s loving generosity to us. We shouldn’t think of God’s grace as some small aspect of God’s economy where he makes up for the leftover space where I can’t measure up. God’s grace is the whole measure, and it is the only reason for our life in Him, the only reason for any blessing we receive from Him, and our only hope of heaven and eternal life in His kingdom.
All of Christian life depends upon grace. Every blessing is grace-given and grace-secured. Our every obedience and work of faith is grace-enabled. Therefore, we are total debtors to grace, though grace has made us rich in Christ forever.
And grace is promised (Heb 4:16). Therefore, we may rest in it. This rest is a trusting rest that exalts Christ and glorifies God. He already knows that he’s our only hope. And he loves to be glorified in the giving of such grace.
Therefore, rest in the grace of God secured and achieved for you by Jesus, and applied to you by his Holy Spirit.
This may sound much like the first point (“live by faith”). Indeed, it is connected.
The difference is that we may be active in living by faith but still struggle with finding assurance or comfort when we fail. At this point, our faith in Christ should lead us to hopeful repentance and a peace that can only come from trusting his promises of grace.
There are, of course, other ways to describe discipleship. However, I hope that this three-part framework is a helpful way to think about following Jesus in light of the gospel.
Christian life, or discipleship, is living by faith in Christ, walking in the Spirit, and resting in God’s grace. So, let us all trust, walk, and rest!
Jonathan Huggins is the Chaplain at Berry College in Rome, GA. He received his academic and ministry training from Wheaton College Graduate School (MA), Reformed Theological Seminary (MAR), and Stellenbosch University (Ph.D. in Theology). He is a Priest in the Anglican Church in North America and a fellow with the Center for Pastor Theologians, author of Living Justification (Wipf & Stock, 2013), and has contributed articles to Didaktikos, Mere Orthodoxy, Anglican Pastor and the Center for Pastor Theologians blog. Follow at @jon_huggins.