Genuine discipleship seems to be virtually lost in the organized church today. We have many lessons, sermons, classes, conferences, revivals, rallies, concerts, and camps; but genuine humbling and honest discipleship is absent. Most people are not growing more mature in the faith. Relationships with Christ are not deepening. Unity is more and more a rarity. This is true for adults, youth, and children alike. It’s almost like we’ve settled for cliches, self-help, and entertainment when there is a powerful word to be absorbed that truly impacts us to our bones. Over the next 3 months, I am exploring biblical discipleship. In February, discipleship and Christ. In March, discipleship for the Christian. In April, discipleship through the local church.
I remember growing up in church, where I attended youth group. We would play a cool game. Our youth group had a great band leading the music. I don’t think they played music to entertain, but I know that many of my fellow students came because the music was good. Our youth pastor would stand and deliver a lesson, and the lesson would be specifically catered to youth culture. While there is a need for lessons to youth, the slight insinuation was that the Gospel was primarily about people.
In what we have come to term discipleship in the church, we often hear about how people can better themselves, how people can escape the consequences of sin, how people can do all things, how people can overcome, how people can be happy, how people can be entertained, how can people be inspired, how can people be encouraged and how people can live their best lives now or get out of that funk. What if discipleship was meant to accomplish a different purpose than merely make people better? What is the purpose of real and genuine discipleship? Where, or rather with whom, do we begin?
Luke 3:7-16 HCSB
He (John the Baptist) then said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. And don’t start saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones! Even now the ax is ready to strike the root of the trees! Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“What then should we do?” the crowds were asking him.
He replied to them, “The one who has two shirts must share with someone who has none, and the one who has food must do the same.”
Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
He told them, “Don’t collect any more than what you have been authorized.”
Some soldiers also questioned him: “What should we do?”
He said to them, “Don’t take money from anyone by force or false accusation; be satisfied with your wages.”
Now the people were waiting expectantly, and all of them were debating in their minds whether John might be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water, but One is coming who is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to untie the strap of His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
John the Baptist was this character in the text of Scripture who didn’t live like everyone else. He was a kind-of radical who had been set apart by God to prepare the way for the Messiah, Jesus. John did this primarily by teaching and preaching and calling the Jewish people to repentance. In fact, Luke 1:17 reveals that John would do his work in the spirit of Elijah. Elijah is a Hebrew name that literally means “My God is Yahweh.” In 1 Kings 17 and 18, we meet Elijah for the first time. In the midst of great idolatry, as even the Israelites are worshipping the false god Baal, Elijah stands strong with God. There is this scene where Elijah challenges Baal worshippers to a battle of sorts. They would each set out a sacrifice and see which god would send fire to consume the sacrifice. Elijah did not stop there. He drenched his sacrifice with water three times. After the Baal worshippers danced and made noise from morning until evening to try and elicit the favor of Baal without success, Elijah prayed to God:
At the time for offering the evening sacrifice, Elijah the prophet approached the altar and said, “Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today let it be known that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that at Your word I have done all these things. Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that You, Yahweh, are God and that You have turned their hearts back.”
Then Yahweh’s fire fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell facedown and said, “Yahweh, He is God! Yahweh, He is God” (1 Kings 18:36-39).
In the midst of Idol worship, Elijah was proclaiming Yahweh’s name for the sake of repentance and to make it known that God was turning His people to Himself. In discipleship, we begin, for some reason, by thinking that the goal is more knowledge. We want to know more about God, so we have classes and conferences. We want to know how to grow a church, reach a certain generation, have effective small groups, have good marriages, raise our children, save money, evangelize, etc; so we hire personalities and experts to share their experiences and we stream simulcasts to help us save money. God’s goal for discipleship is not that we would gain more knowledge. There are a great many people who would be happy just to be hearers of the word without genuinely responding. There are many supposed Christians who have mistaken knowledge about God for salvation when they don’t actually care at all to repent before God. Perhaps gaining knowledge is a means, but it is certainly not the goal. The goal, as we see in both Elijah’s ministry and the ministry of John the Baptist, is repentance that produces fruit, and God is the one turning His people.
Just so we might drive this point a little harder, we remember that in Genesis 3, Adam rebelled against God for the sake of gaining knowledge. God, in His mercy, taught Adam in order to turn Adam back to Himself. Repentance is always the goal of genuine discipleship. It was so in the Old Testament and it is in the New. If we find that we are calling people to be all they can be or to gain all of the knowledge that they can rather than live a repentant life, we are not doing godly discipleship.
There is a misconception present among God’s people, I think, that only those with an abundance of factual, lingual, and theological knowledge can be good disciple-makers. If knowledge is not the goal, then even those without a factual or even a biblical knowledge base can be disciple makers. I think that there are many people in the church who are afraid to teach because they don’t feel like they know enough. Yet, when we read Matthew 28 we read the command for all believers to go and make disciples; and making disciples requires teaching. If knowledge isn’t the prerequisite, what is? If repentance is the goal of discipleship, then repentance is also the prerequisite for good discipleship. If we are unrepentant, then it doesn’t matter how much knowledge we think we have. A repentant heart drives us, because of our humble state, to share honestly what we know about God and to explore the Scriptures honestly for answers. When we live a repentant lifestyle, we can honestly talk about sin and consider how we might put those sins aside. Only with a repentant spirit can we ever love other sinners and live life with them so that we might spur one another on to good works.
So, the Scriptures and genuine discipleship draw us not to simply one moment of confession, but a lifestyle of repentance. 2 Peter 3:9 states that God is patient and that He waits to judge the world because He does not desire that any should perish but all come to repentance. In Matthew 4:7, we learn that Jesus preached specifically that people should repent. In Romans 2:4, we read that God’s kindness is meant to lead us into repentance. In Revelation 2:5, John the Elder writes to a whole local church urging them to repent. In Acts 5:31, we read that Christ gives repentance and forgiveness. In 2 Timothy 2:25, Paul urged the young administrator to correct his opponents with gentleness because God might grant repentance and reveal truth (one of the reasons we share the Gospel with everyone and cannot stay silent). In Ezekiel 18:21-23, we even see the heart of God for the repentance of the people:
“Now if the wicked person turns from all the sins he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is just and right, he will certainly live; he will not die. None of the transgressions he has committed will be held against him. He will live because of the righteousness he has practiced. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” This is the declaration of the Lord God. “Instead, don’t I take pleasure when he turns from his ways and lives?”
God cares more about our repentance than he does about our knowledge. He is the one who grants repentance and makes it possible for a wicked person to turn. In our discipleship, as we teach in our churches, homes, schools, and everywhere we go, we cannot merely share knowledge or information. The goal is always repentance, and God delights in our repentance. We have this idea that repentance is first apologizing to God and then turning from our sin. This is a good start, but we must recognize that repentance is a lifestyle or humility made possible only by God’s gifting. Without a repentant lifestyle, the person cannot please God. I think even in eternity we will consider our former state and praise God with a repentant spirit because it is He who chose to deliver us from our lowly estate even though not one of us could merit His hand. Sadly, we can easily recognize those who are not repentant, but who claim for some reason to be a Christian. They are the ones who condemn others or constantly complain about others; not recognizing that we are all equal in our depravity. Genuine discipleship encourages a lifestyle of repentance. It is through repentance, which is given by God through teaching about God, that causes us to grow into maturity. This is what John the Baptist was doing: teaching and calling the Jews to repentance.
Repentance is the point of discipleship.
As we continue in the story, the people ask John, “What do we do?” What is the fruit that is consistent with repentance that comes from God? What sort of lifestyle does a repentant heart lead us to? John begins declaring these great works of charity and honesty. “Share what you have and do not seek more than you are owed.” A repentant lifestyle, then, draws the people of God to generosity and to honesty. If we find that we are stingy or greedy, then we show that God has not produced repentance in our hearts. If we find that we are always trying to guard ourselves, protect the material blessings that God has given, or are concerned with our own gain (whether that be monetary or authoritative), then we prove not to have a repentant heart. If we do not have a repentant heart, genuine discipleship is absent. The response of a repentant heart is generosity and honesty. The author of Hebrews even gives this imperative based on the heart of repentance that is provided by God:
“Therefore, brothers, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way He has opened for us through the curtain (that is, His flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:19-25).
We have boldness, not because of our knowledge or our merit or our position in society, but through the blood of Jesus. He is our high priest who gives us faith and a clean heart. Jesus is our hope and He is faithful. Therefore, we are concerned with about one another in such a way that we come together, not forsaking our worship meetings as so many are in the habit of doing, in order to promote love and good works and to encourage one another. This is discipleship that is only possible with a humble and repentant spirit that is produced within the genuine believer by God. As God gives us a repentant spirit, we are actually driven to pour our lives into others that everyone in the church may be encouraged toward love, good works, and may be encouraged through genuine teaching that leads to greater repentance and that encourages this repentant lifestyle.
What we see, regarding discipleship, is that there are not just an elect few who have the responsibility to disciple others. The pastor alone cannot be the only teacher. We cannot give the responsibility of discipleship to only the Sunday School teacher, the youth pastor, and the children’s director. Every person who truly believes in Christ does discipleship within the context of a genuine local church. We are all disciples making disciples.
Repentance produces and multiplies godly fruit.
Christ is the goal and He is the redeemer of all people. Therefore, all people must be discipled in a perlocutionary manner. Every believer, as the teaching of God’s word impacts his or her life, disciples others because he cannot be silent about those things that have drawn him to repentance and changed him at the core of his being for his own good and God’s glory.
The people began to wonder if John might be the Messiah, and John drew their attention to the one who would come who is more powerful and who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. If the goal is repentance, then people are never glorified in genuine discipleship. Christ is the central focus because He is the one in whom we find peace and victory as we live repentant lives. I want to take a few moments and move forward to Luke 7:20-23:
When the men reached Him, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to ask You, ‘Are You the One who is to come, or should we look for someone else?’”
At that time Jesus healed many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and He granted sight to many blind people. He replied to them, “Go and report to John the things you have seen and heard: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. And anyone who is not offended because of Me is blessed.”
The signs that Jesus is the Messiah were not that people gained power or great knowledge. People were healed and the poor are told the good news. What are the signs that we have recognized Jesus as Lord in our churches? What is the sign that we live repentant lives and Christ is actually producing new spirits within us? It is that people are healed (primarily spiritually) and that the Gospel is preached to those who are poor. As we think on discipleship, then, we know that genuine discipleship, discipleship that is honoring to God, is not done out of compulsion, it does not encourage devotion to material things, and it does not love money. If even the poor, those who cannot give anything in return, are being discipled, that is when we understand what Christ has done for us.
I get so tired when people push those in poverty away from the church because they can’t contribute. It actually makes me kind of sick to my stomach when churchy people, who don’t love Jesus, condemn others because they can’t dress nicely or afford to place much in the offering plate, or come to a meal and eat the food even though they didn’t bring anything. One of the signs that we are actually following Jesus is that the poor are discipled too. Discipleship draws attention to Jesus, not to the financial standing of a church or to all of the churches ministries or to the preacher. We won’t draw attention to the church’s success in bringing in numbers or entertain people into coming by playing games and music and having charismatic preachers or teachers who only transfer information. A repentant heart causes us to point all people toward Jesus, that they might also repent, being turned by God to faith and to eternal life.
Repentance reorients our focus to Jesus.
Repentance is the point of discipleship.
Repentance produces and multiplies godly fruit.
Repentance reorients our focus to Jesus.