Video 6 Grace and Discipleship
In his excellent book Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Jonathan Dodson rightly stresses the relationship between grace and discipleship: 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. 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.
Discipleship is not about impressing God or others, and it’s not about performing well. Discipleship is primarily about Jesus and his continual work in us through the Holy Spirit. Rather than asking, “How well are you doing spiritually?” let’s put it differently: How is God making you more like Christ?
I’m on an imperfect journey of becoming like Christ. When I was a sinner, the Father set his affection on me and sent his Son to die for me. Even though I wasn’t delightful, God delighted in me; even though I was running from God, God was running to me—and he’s faster than I am.
God looks upon me as a beautiful work of art, even though I have so much ugliness in my life. I often feel valueless, but God paid the highest price to purchase me. I am prized and honored in the eyes of my Creator.
I am redeemed, forgiven, adopted, and beloved. I am known, pursued, and the object of God’s infinite affection. When I’m apathetic toward God, he’s never apathetic toward me. Though I’m prone to wander, he’s prone to pursue. I am the crown, the jewel, the apex of God’s majestic creation.
And I am never alone. My Savior is with me even to the end of the age. He’s with me because he wants to be with me. When I sin, God forgives. When I fail, Christ succeeds. Though I have no strength to obey, God strengthens me through his Holy Spirit who lives in me.
My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. God is working in me, giving me the desire and the power to do what pleases him. Father. Son. Holy Spirit. Our spiritual lives are cradled and enabled by his powerful presence.
Most Christians don’t think of their spiritual lives like this. Again, 68 percent of born-again Christians think that the expression “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the mouth of God. And it shows. According to another Barna study, three out of five churchgoing Christians “equate Christianity with a list of moral rules to be followed.” That is roughly the same percentage as unchurched people.
Another recent study looked at whether churchgoing Christians more resemble the attitudes and actions of Christ or the Pharisees. Christians were asked questions such as the following:
- Do you regularly choose to have meals with people with very different faith or morals from yourself?
- Do you see God-given value in every person, regardless of their past or present condition?
- Do you feel compassion for people who are not following God and are doing immoral things? You know, the things Jesus thought and did on a regular basis.
The survey also asked questions that reflect the attitudes and actions of the Pharisees:
- Do you tell others that the most important thing in my life is following God’s rules?
- Do you think that people who follow God’s rules are better than those who do not?
- Do you believe that it’s not your responsibility to help people who won’t help themselves?
The results were quite disappointing. Fifty-one percent of self-identified Christians are primarily pharisaical in attitude and action. Only 14 percent tended to be Christlike in attitude and action.
To be sure, surveys and statistics aren’t inerrant. They can’t give us a perfect window into the heart of every person. But I do believe they can give us a decent ballpark view of how people actually think and act.
As I reflect on the different Christians I’ve interacted with over the years, the results of this survey aren’t too shocking. Christians often talk about grace and say they’ve been saved by grace alone. But when you dig into how they live, they appear to rely much more on their own performance than on Christ’s finished work on the cross. And they project this performance-driven version of the gospel onto others, then back onto themselves. And down we tumble down the rabbit hole of legalism. At the bottom lie piles of Christians who are trying to become moral without clinging to and celebrating the finished work of Christ.
One of the reasons our discipleship is failing is that we’ve left the gospel out of it. Intuitively, many Christians think that the gospel saves us but has little ongoing relevance for our discipleship. But discipleship, or becoming more like Christ, is all about diving deeper and deeper into his unconditional favor for us. You cannot become more like Christ and not become more and more addicted to his grace.
I love how Jonathan Dodson puts it: It is continual trust in his death and life for my sin and righteousness that matures me, drawing me deeper and deeper into an ever-present hope of acceptance before God. This hope is Jesus Christ as my Lord and Redeemer, not a better moral track record. When we absorb the radical gospel focus of the Gospel Commission, it compels the mission of making disciples who, in turn, preach and teach the gospel of grace to others.
Or more succinctly: “The gospel that makes disciples is the very same gospel that matures disciples.”
We live in a country that’s obsessed with performance. From the time we are kids, we try to outperform our classmates in school or our fellow athletes on the field. If we’re going to make the all-star team, we must perform better than the rest. If we want to get a girlfriend or boyfriend, we have to look better than the competition. And we never outgrow our performance-driven culture. We advance in life by performing well in college. We’ll get a raise at our jobs if we perform well. We’ll have a better chance at getting married if we can make ourselves look better than we are. Your Facebook “you” is much prettier, much happier, and has many more friends than the real “you.” Our entire lives are shaped by performance and by making a good impression.
Enter Jesus: “Come to me, all of you who are weary from performance, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, author’s rendering). Our performance comes to a screeching halt when we meet Jesus. He’s not impressed with our moral track record, and he yawns at our laundry list of sins. He meets us where we are and walks with us through thick and thin.
Just think of how Jesus rolled with his first disciples. Peter is a prime example of a disciple whose spiritual walk was upheld by grace. Quick to speak and slow to think, Peter’s fragile character makes my sad prayer life look a little less embarrassing. On one occasion, he tells Jesus that he won’t let him get crucified. Jesus rebukes him: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23). Wow! Have you been accused of speaking the very words of Satan? Peter has. He was accused by Jesus himself.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, he washed his disciples’ feet. Peter tried to stop him, but then Jesus told him that if he didn’t let Jesus wash his feet, Peter would “have no share with” Jesus (John 13:8). Peter’s response is a bit uncomfortable: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (John 13:9). Give me a sponge bath, Jesus! Talk about awkward. And what about that time when Peter denied Jesus three times (Matthew 26:69-75)? This is truly unbelievable and encouraging all at the same time. Peter has been hanging out with Jesus for three years. When asked whether he is a follower of Jesus, Peter says that he doesn’t even know the guy.
“Hey, weren’t you hanging out with this man from Nazareth?”
“No sir, I wasn’t. I don’t even know the man.”
Imagine if your pastor got up next Sunday and told the entire congregation: “I don’t even know who Jesus is.” He’d be fired on the spot and rushed out of church. But Jesus is far less threatened. He’s less threatened by our doubts than we are. He knows how fragile our faith actually is—even if we try to spackle over our weakness with good Christian performance. Just before Peter denied Jesus, Jesus told him that he would never let him go: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat. But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail” (Luke 22:31-32).
Peter’s faith was created and upheld by Jesus himself. Were it not for Christ, Peter would have continued to deny that he knew Jesus. Like that old hymn “Come Thou Fount”: Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee. Prone to wander—Lord, I feel it—prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.
Peter is a perfect example of what discipleship looks like. We are zealous yet apathetic, full of faith and doubt, obedient one day and disobedient the next. We are on an imperfect journey toward a perfect Savior who upholds us by his grace and promises to never let us go. We all, like Peter, are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love. But God’s goodness binds our wandering hearts to him. Discipleship will never get off the ground until we cling to this basic point.