I have struggled for a while with most of the models that I see for discipleship. It’s not that there aren’t any really good materials in print…there are hundreds. Many are very text-based and walk believers through what the Bible says about following Jesus. My struggle is with what I am seeing around me as a result. Too often, I see disciples who don’t understand their ontological position before God after conversion, and (subconsciously?) believe that their spiritual growth is gaining some sort of standing with God. The model seems to be thought of as a staircase, with each step a movement towards glory. I don’t think that model is wrong, but I think we can do better.
A Different Starting Point
I was struck recently in reading a biography of R.C. Sproul of just how much the holiness of God impacted him. This coincided with a study in my Sunday School class on the attributes of God, where I was again reminded of just how “other” our God is from us. Most materials dealing with discipleship begin with the gospel or with practical disciplines of the Christian life. There is nothing wrong with this. My purpose in writing here is not to argue that how we have been doing discipleship is wrong, but that maybe there is a better way. What if we started with Isaiah 6 and the holiness of God? Isaiah 6 gives us a picture of a God who is “high and lifted up,” whose “train fills the temple,” and whose very voice causes the foundations to shake. It is a picture of a God who has created beings whose primary role is to repeat the glorious truth of God’s holiness in tripartite fashion, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts…” Why don’t we start our discipleship here? Impart into believers the absolute holiness and glory of the Lord of hosts? When we understand Isaiah’s glorious vision of the throneroom of God, it should change dramatically how we view God, ourselves, and our calling as believers.
A Different Framework
I was taught a model of sanctification that probably bordered a little on the legalistic. It ran along the lines of “okay, you’re a Christian, now start doing this list of things because that is what good Christians do.” To be fair, most of the things on that list were legitimate marks of a true believer (church attendance, loving others, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit), although there were a few oddballs mixed in (not going to movies, not listening to “rock” music, etc). Even within other circles, most discipleship materials seems to confirm the gospel, then jump immediately into spiritual disciplines. This can sometimes leave believers thinking that they have received heaven, but not understand that they have also received the righteousness of Christ in their conversion. Believers need to understand their position before a holy when Christ cleanses them. A great text to work through to reinforce this concept is Romans 6-8. When we accepted Christ, we were declared “dead” to sin. So why would we go back to sin? A visual illustration of this would be a large circle with a small circle inside of it. The large circle represents the perfect holiness that Christ bought for us through His perfect life and atoning death. The smaller circle is the lived experience of believers. Here is why this is important. Too often, believers feel like they are warring against the flesh to become something that they currently are not. In reality, they are growing in holiness to be more and more like what they have already been declared to be. The Christian is not fighting to die to sin- he has already been declared dead to sin (Roman 6:2). I am not suggesting this as some earth-shattering new way of doing discipleship, but as an important nuance that I believe often goes unmentioned within the Christian church.
A Different Emphasis
I don’t believe that we need to fundamentally change how we do discipleship. I believe we need to slightly change our starting point and our framework. I believe this will lead to a different emphasis, and a more hopeful growth in believers. To summarize: let’s give believers a picture of a big God, a holy God, a God who is so great as to be worthy of our complete worship and allegiance. Then teach then who they are in Christ. They have not just received heaven, they have received righteousness. Then dive into the practices that flesh out that righteousness. May this lead to churches full of men and women who passionately desire to glorify the God of the universe by growing into the righteousness that Christ already purchased for them.