And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” – Luke 9:23-24
In his vastly popular and widely read work The Cost of Discipleship, German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer writes “Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” These words have resonated with me a great deal recently and I have thought about my own church family and our individual and corporate pursuit of growing in Christ as his disciples as well as being disciple makers. I am always evaluating what we do as God’s people to dive deeper into God’s word for the sake of our own holiness as committed followers of Christ Jesus. Of course, we are never complete and our work is never done as we seek to follow Jesus in order to be more like him each day, nor is our work ever finished in seeking to make disciples of Jesus. Discipleship is a lifestyle, not a task or programmed objective, and the words of Jesus in Luke 9:23-24 give us the clues to why we (Christians) must be continually seeking biblical discipleship, despite what it will cost us.
When Jesus lays out the requirements for discipleship, at first glance they sound a bit vague. Deny yourself? Take up your cross? Follow? What do those commands really mean? For those of us in the 21st century, we don’t quite have the cultural understanding that his 1st century listeners would have had. When Jesus gives his listeners the foundation of discipleship, his words have ultimate, life changing meaning. Essentially, Jesus tells those listening to him, “if you want to follow me, you must die to yourself every day, and seek me.” Those words immediately take on must greater weight don’t they? To deny yourself is to renounce your wants and desires and in their place seek God’s desires for you (Matthew 6:33). To take up your cross daily is to die to your old flesh and live in the new Spirit-filled life of Christ in you (Galatians 5:16-25, 2 Corinthians 5:17). To follow Jesus is to surrender your life to his will and to actively obey his commands and live by his example, every day, for the glory of his name (John 12:26). Discipleship is not easy because it was never intended to be.
But in our modern day culture, which prefers the “path of least resistance”, doing something hard is intentionally avoided as often as possible for matters which are of a more convenient nature; personal preference and comfort seem to rule the day. The idea of willfully surrendering your life to Jesus and dying to ‘self’ is counter-intuitive to all the other ideas we are led to embrace. Yet the command and expectation for Christ’s disciples has always been the same and it remains the same to this very day. You may be wondering, “ok, so why such an emphasis on discipleship?” The answer comes in v.24, where Jesus explains why following him is paramount; “for whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” So, Christ-centered discipleship has a result: following Jesus to eternal life. The alternative to Christ-centered discipleship is to seek our own good and have temporary happiness while here on earth, but lose the life that Jesus died to give us. But if we seek Christ, dying to ourselves daily and seeking to love, serve, and glorify God as Jesus did, we will be given eternal life that Jesus’ promises us and secures for us by his death and resurrection. Discipleship is the daily experience of becoming more like Jesus now, and wanting for ourselves and others what he gave his life to provide for those who trust him.
In light of these enormous, life-changing truths, this kind of discipleship requires action by God’s people, for the good of others. Notice Jesus’ words indicate actions deny. . . take up. . . follow. . . which we are to be doing, and not only discussing. But how do we do this? First of all, being a disciple of Jesus is a personal decision that you make, in your own heart and mind, because you are certain it is the right path. The Holy Spirit has confirmed that truth in you (1 Thess.1:5) and now your life is surrendered to God. But how does discipleship happen practically, in the life of a believer? This is where others come into the picture: disciple involves others because we need each other. Discipleship is not just a theoretical concept, or something for only pastor’s and ordained ministers to do. It is a conscious and joyful effort by Christian people to seek out relationships that are built on spiritual growth and maturity. These relationships are personal investments in other’s lives for the sake of the kingdom of God.
Back in August I shared with our church family at FBC BR the necessity and tremendous blessing to a church when its members take seriously the call to be disciple makers. The answer for biblical, multigenerational discipleship (Titus 2) is not another program. We can’t program discipleship because programs all have an expiration date. Instead of designing a “new ministry program” for Christian growth, we have to live it out, in relationship with other Christians, both old and young. My challenge for those of you seeking to become a disciple and a disciple maker isn’t all that complicated, but it does require a deep commitment, and it has enormous implications for the health of our church:
1) Men, find a young man, and women, find a young woman and couples find young couples and invite them to lunch, dinner, coffee, and get to know them. Ask them about their lives, what they do for a living or what they are studying in school. Ask them about hobbies, interests, and their families.
2) Commit your time and attention to them for the good of their souls. Getting to know someone takes time, today and tomorrow. It is a process of spending time together.
3) Offer to pray for them and the concerns of their hearts in specific ways. Lift up your brothers and sisters in Christ in prayer.
4) Read scripture together and pray the scriptures together. Ask God to do what he promises in his Word, and commit yourselves to doing as he commands.
5) Stay in contact and make your meetings regular, at your convenience. Do not neglect your time together, as it will strengthen both disciple and disciple maker.
6) Always, always, always make your time about growing closer to Christ. At the center of every relationship is the gospel. Remember that discipleship is still focused on being a disciple of Jesus, in which every person is called to deny themselves, take up their crosses daily, and obediently follow Jesus. So any attempt at being a disciple maker is built on teaching, training, and encouraging others to be a disciple as Jesus commands. Keep Christ Jesus and his message front and center.
We hope to be a faithful, healthy, multi-generational church, for God’s glory and for the good of one another. The truth is that discipleship accomplishes this goal. And if we seek to do it well, generations will be blessed and God will be glorified. When this becomes our priority, Christ will be exalted and significant friendships will be rooted in the truth of God’s Word and our congregation will be a healthy, vibrate body of believers.