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What’s Discipleship?

"Excerpted from the book, What Does God Want?, by permission of the author, Michael S. Heiser."

The gospel is intended to be transformative. Anyone who has embraced the gospel “is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). What does that actually look like?

You may recall the answer to this question. Earlier I said that a disciple was a follower—specifically a follower of Jesus. I defined “following” as imitating or imaging Jesus. Being “conformed to the image of Jesus” is our ultimate destiny (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:10).

Our motive for imitating Jesus is not to make God love us so he’ll let us into heaven. God already loved each of us “while we were yet sinners” (Rom 5:8) and were God’s “enemies” (Rom 5:10). We get to heaven—we become part of God’s family—when we believe the gospel. On our own we are lost, in need of a Savior (Luke 19:10), alienated from God (Eph 4:18). When that was our situation, God loved us. He didn’t wait until we cleaned up our act to love us.

Our motive for imitating Jesus is also not to keep God loving us so we’ll be saved in the end. That which cannot be achieved by performance cannot be lost by performance. Salvation has nothing to do with our own worth or merit. It has everything to do with what someone—Jesus—did for us. “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). We can take no credit for salvation. Jesus gets all the credit.

Thinking Clearly About Discipleship

We need to think carefully about how all that applies to discipleship.

Because of the performance trap I talked about earlier, we need to have a clear grasp of the fact that salvation and discipleship are not the same thing. Many believers unconsciously begin to add their own works or performance to the gospel because of guilt for their sin. The result is spiritual bondage, not the abundant life Jesus wants us to have (John 10:10; 2 Cor 1:5; Eph 3:20).

Salvation is a gift given to us by God when we believe the gospel. It is undeserved. Nevertheless, God offers it to us despite our sin and hostility toward him. Discipleship is something we do as a result of believing the gospel. We imitate Jesus to show our love for him and for God. Jesus was the ultimate imager of God, so we want to live the same way.

There are a lot of reasons to live like Jesus—to live a holy life. Earning God’s love isn’t one of them. Salvation doesn’t cost us anything; it’s free for all who believe the gospel. Discipleship, however, does cost us something. Following Jesus is often not easy. Being a disciple requires making choices—to love and honor God, to treat people for what they are—fellow imagers of God that he loves and wants to bring into his family through the gospel.

Think about Jesus’s own life. It wasn’t easy. As the Bible says, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21). Jesus lived a life of sacrifice. He put God first, followed by his “neighbor” (everyone else):

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:36-40)

Jesus lived this way not so God would love him or be happy with him. God loved Jesus already, long before he ever came and “did works” (performed) to fulfill the covenant. He loved Jesus “before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).

Following Jesus can be hard. Since no believer is like Jesus when they first believe—and since it’s just hard to live like Jesus consistently—every disciple needs to have a change of heart (what the Bible calls “repentance”) about his behavior. I know I did. There were things I had to stop doing, and things I had to start doing. But none of that was to make God love me. He already loved me.

Jesus did what he did because he loved God. So must we. Jesus lived a certain way to help others believe in him and God’s plan. So must we. Jesus knew why he was on earth—how he would die a horrible death on our behalf. But he also trusted God’s plan and power. He would rise from the dead and be with his Father once more.

We must have the same eternal perspective. This world isn’t our real home. It’s temporary. The next one is permanent. Because of what Jesus did we will inherit everlasting life in that world, leaving this one behind. The goal of our lives should be to show our loyalty and gratitude to the one who saved us, and help others enter God’s family.

What if we fail? What if we sin? We will do both. God knows that. He knows humans pretty well! He knows who we are. But he already loved us before we had the slightest interest in doing anything to love him back. He loved us when we were his enemies—“while we were yet sinners” (Rom 5:8). God loved us before we were in his family. Why would he love us less, or stop loving us, now that we’re in his family? When we sin and fail, He forgives us. He wants us to believe that and get back to imitating Jesus.

Why Live Like Jesus?

I said a moment ago that there are a lot of reasons to live like Jesus, but earning God’s love isn’t one of them. What are those reasons?

First, sin is self-destructive and harms not only us, but those around us. In my own extended family I’ve seen the effects of alcoholism, drug addiction, and infidelity. It’s obvious that these things destroy lives. It should be equally obvious that the things the world—the unbelieving culture—offers for pleasure and self-gratification are temporary and have no enduring value. The culture tells us to “live life” to gratify our own “happiness” regardless of the misery our decisions create. It offers no eternal perspective. It beckons us to live only for the now. There is no higher calling. The Bible exposes this mindset for what it is:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

Second, and in many respects the opposite of the first, living a godly life blesses others. The truth is that the way we live and think either blesses other people or curses them. Jesus served people and was a blessing to them. Pursuing a lifestyle driven by self-gratification and self-absorption isn’t fulfilling. Every super market tabloid offers examples of that reality. Blessing people not only reflects Jesus, but leads to personal fulfillment. Your life matters when it’s lived in service to others.

Third, a godly life allows us to be a consistent witness for the gospel. If people look at our lives and don’t see any distinction from the unbelieving world, and don’t see a life lived in service of others, they won’t find the gospel believable (or at best they’ll be confused). They will see our lives as a contradiction of the message of Jesus. In other words, people will expect us to live like Jesus, the person we say loves them. That’s not unreasonable. The alternative is hypocrisy, and no one appreciates hypocrisy.

Living a godly life isn’t about earning a place in heaven. It’s not about putting God in our debt because of the “spirituality points” we’ve racked up. Passages like these have an altogether different focus:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:1-2)

But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. (2 Tim 2:19-21)

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:1-8)

These passages give us some idea of how we should live, but we still haven’t gotten to the specifics of discipleship. How does a disciple live? What does a disciple do? Fortunately, Jesus and his original disciples, the first Christians, made that clear. Jesus never told his followers to do something he didn’t do himself—and showed them how to do it. They in turn followed his example and taught others to do the same in the early days of the fledgling church.

Purchase the What Does God Want book.

What do you think?
We have all sinned and deserve God’s judgment. God, the Father, sent His only Son to satisfy that judgment for those who believe in Him. Jesus, the creator and eternal Son of God, who lived a sinless life, loves us so much that He died for our sins, taking the punishment that we deserve, was buried, and rose from the dead according to the Bible. If you truly believe and trust this in your heart, receiving Jesus alone as your Savior, declaring, "Jesus is Lord," you will be saved from judgment and spend eternity with God in heaven.

What is your response?

Yes, I want to follow Jesus

I am a follower of Jesus

I still have questions

How can I know God?

If you died, why should God let you into heaven?

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