Deep Discipleship

A book summary of: “Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus”

Discipleship is an area I have emphasized throughout my ministry and when I saw this book in a fall 2020 issue of Christianity Today, I ordered a copy and read it over the holidays.  Some of the main points in each chapter of the book are listed below:

  • Discipleship is not just a program but a total reorientation to reality. There are two main challenges to deep discipleship: self-centered discipleship and spiritual apathy. (A God-Centered Vision, Ch. 1)
  • The church is called to make disciples, and it is time for us to stop delegating our responsibility. Other organizations can come along side the church, but they can never replace the church. (The Church, Ch. 2)
  • Community is indispensable to discipleship, but community is not discipleship. We cannot be disciples of Christ outside the context of community. However, we can be in community that is not teaching us to be disciples of Christ. (Space, Ch. 3)
  • Instead of asking the question, “What do disciples want?”, we need to ask the better question, “What do disciples need?” (Scope, Ch. 4)
  • If the local church is not calling people to press forward, to grow, to strain ahead, we will lose them. One of the paradigm shifts we need in ministry is the shift from asking the question, “How do we keep disciples in the church?” to the better question, “How do disciples grow in the church?” (Sequence, Ch. 5)
  • Churches that are pursing a culture of deep discipleship are intentionally commissioning their disciples into the church, the home, their neighborhoods, the workplace, and the nations. (Send, Ch. 6)
  • We will never make deep disciples if we apologize when we ask people to make commitments. (Strategy, Ch. 7)

Initially, I was somewhat skeptical of the first two words of the title, “Deep Discipleship,” because of people wanting to “go deep into discipleship,” and neglecting other areas of the Christian life such as evangelism, worship, service, ministry, etc. However, after reading the book I felt English clearly made the point that discipleship encompasses all the spiritual disciplines and that obedience to God’s Word is the true test of maturity.

The author also emphasized the importance Sunday School/Bible study classes for everyone, Bible studies for men only and women only, and in particular contextualizing  a discipleship program for the church with specific goals and initiatives (Space, Scope, Sequence, Send, and Strategy).

Faith, Righteousness, and Relationship

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Romans 3:21-22

In the book of Romans, Paul weaves some of the most deep, impactful, beautiful writings on the themes of sin, faith, and righteousness. But what does it mean for God’s righteousness to be manifested and why “apart from the Law?” If we look just before the passage quoted above, it will answer one of our questions. Paul writes that no one will be made righteous by works of the Law, since the Law brings knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20). The Law will never be able to accomplish what God’s righteousness can. This is why it is necessary for righteousness to be apart from the Law. However, this seems to contradict a statement he makes later on in Philippians.

When listing his credentials prior to his faith in Christ, Paul claims that he was blameless in regard to righteousness based on the Law (Philippians 3:6). In his zeal for the Law, he had committed himself to moral purity and “lived without fault.” However, this righteousness from the Law is insufficient. Rather, true righteousness comes from knowing Christ and sharing in his suffering and resurrection. (Philippians 3:7-11).

Two Types of Righteousness

We are now faced with two types of righteousness: righteousness that comes from works of the Law and righteousness that comes from God. How could one be superior to the other? And why is righteousness based on the Law ultimately worthless? The reason is this: the righteousness of God encompasses more than just moral purity. Just as a husband may be morally pure but completely fail in his relationship with his wife, so too may a man live an upright and faultless life and yet fail in being righteous. This is because God’s righteousness is relational.

It is based in His actions and faithfulness toward His covenant people (Judges 5:11). It is His trustworthiness and ability to fulfill all His promises (Isaiah 51:8). God’s righteousness is paired with His kindness (Psalm 145:17) and exercised in His deep, intimate, covenantal love and faithfulness (Jeremiah 9:24). Righteousness from the Law builds self-conceited moral superiority while God’s righteousness builds relationship. The Law creates religious zealots (Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:4-6). God’s righteousness transforms us into His children. (Galatians 3:26; Romans 8:14; 1 John 3:1).

We see this clearly in Romans 1:16-17. In that famous statement, Paul says that he is unashamed of the Gospel, since it is the power of God to save all who believe. God’s righteousness is revealed beginning and ending in faith. In saying that “the righteousness of God is revealed,” Paul asserts that God is shown to be trustworthy and dependable to fulfill His promise. He acts in complete and total faithfulness to His covenant. To further illustrate this point, Paul ends his assertion with a promise: “The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17; Habakkuk 2:4). Much more can be said about this single verse. It is rich in truth, encouragement, and hope. One could write more than 50 pages on this single sentence (trust me). However, I’ll end on this:

We know that God’s righteousness is relational as it is only accessible by means of another relational quality: Faith. Biblical faith is not a blind or reasonless faith. The word itself is derived from the word for “rock” or “stone,” and is therefore a belief in something solid, firm, and unmovable. Faith is also reciprocal, as those who have it will themselves be strengthened and made firm. (Isaiah 7:9). For us, faith is an unwavering trust in the unalterable promise of our unfailing God. This brings us back to our second question: what does it mean for God’s righteousness to be manifested? The word itself means to become clear, known, and plainly seen. There is no greater picture of God’s faithfulness to His promise than what is plainly seen in Christ, his death, and resurrection. He has shown us how rich His love and deep His commitment are. Let us therefore press on in the righteousness of knowing God.

Did Jesus Really Have to Die?

With the arrival of Easter season comes a renewed public interest in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. While many pastors are faithful in preaching the crucifixion of Christ each week, most will put sermon series on hold to craft a sermon dedicated entirely to his death and resurrection. However, one thing pastors would do well to remember in their sermon prep is not just that he died, but why he died.

A Question in Need of an Answer

In our culture, there is a prevailing ignorance of sin, its power, and justice. One question I hear frequently goes something like this: “If God is so merciful and forgiving, why did Jesus have to die? Couldn’t He just forgive our sins without the need for His Son to die?” The question is not as far-fetched as it may seem to our modern Christian sensibilities. If asked honestly, it deserves a thoughtful and thorough response – more thorough than a single blog post can offer.

There exist examples in the Gospels of sins being forgiven without someone dying. At one point early in his ministry, Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic before healing him (Mt 9:1-8; Mk 2:1-12; Lk 5:17-26). In Luke 7, Jesus forgives a sinful woman then offers a parable of two debtors who have been forgiven their debt (Lk 7:36-50). Jesus also commands his disciples to forgive the sins of their brothers (Mk 11:25; Luke 17:4). In each of these settings, which are but a few examples, we get the sense that sins were forgiven at that moment, not at some future date.

Before we run to the Old Testament sacrificial system, we should note that not every sacrifice required the death of an animal. Even an offering of grain could be given as a sin offering if one was too poor to own any animal (Lv 5:11). On the Day of Atonement, one of the two great festivals the death of Jesus is often associated with (the other being Passover) one goat is sacrificed on the altar while another carries the sins of the nation into the wilderness and not put to death (Lv 16). How do we reconcile this with Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians? “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3).

One early influential Christian* argued that since sin brings us under the power of death (Gn 2:17; Rm 7:9; Jm 1:15) repentance and forgiveness is not enough to reverse the process of death at work in our bodies and undo the curse. Something more must be accomplished. A final death by one who lived outside the curse – and only by the one who is the author of life Himself – would be enough to sum up the deaths of all people and break the power of the curse. (Gal 3:13) In doing so, He would restore mankind to its rightful position as image bearers who fellowship with and worship God.

We who believe in Christ share in His death and resurrection. Paul says in Romans 6:

Or do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Made Alive for a Purpose

The cross of Christ is about more than just being pardoned for our everyday foibles and follies then sent on our merry way. Rather, it is the startling image of God joining Himself with humanity in our plight. We are not merely onlookers to the crucifixion, but partakers in it. And “if we died with Him, we will also live with Him” (2 Tm 2:11). By joining with Jesus in faith, we share in his life, death, and resurrection. We have forsaken the glory and calling of God, submitted ourselves to other powers, and brought the curse of death upon ourselves. (Gn 2:17; Rm 1:21-22) But on the cross, the penalty of death was paid, and the powers we were once beholden to were put to open shame (Col 2:13-15).

With his victory on the cross, Christ began the work of reconciling the world to himself again (Col 1:20), a process which will not be completed until he returns again. Revelation 22 perfectly mirrors Genesis 1. Creation is made new again, the Garden of Eden is restored, and all who are joined with Christ are to have dominion over the earth, just as we were created to do. (Gn 1:28; Rev 22:5).

The death of Christ gives us the restoration of purpose – bearers of God’s image who fill the world with the knowledge and worship of God.

*Athanasius was a 4th Century leader and church father. His life long battle in defense of the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, and Scripture resulted in several exiles from Roman emperors. Today, he is regarded as one of the most important figures in early church history. If you want to learn more, his work, On the Incarnation, is a short, easy to read book on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. 

The Ultimate Fixer Upper Reveal

I just finished reading Joanna and Chip Gaines, The Magnolia Story. By the way, it’s a great read, even for guys like me that end up as accidental HGTV viewers. In the book, the Gaines share amazing stories of how their lives intersected and through courage, faith and perseverance God began to build things in their lives that they never dreamed would happen.

For me there is a biblical moment in every one of their shows, It’s the big reveal. They bring the home owners by their newly redesigned house with a huge photo of the pre-renovated house masking its fresh paint, new porch, replaced shutters and new landscaping. Of course, it’s the dramatic climax of every show as they roll the huge photo away, a moment complete with tears, hugs and ‘wow’s.

The biblical moment for me is the connection we find in Ezekiel 40 when God reveals to Ezekiel the New City and the New Temple.

He brought me there (to the new city). In visions of God, He took me to the land of Israel and set me down on a very high mountain. On its southern slope was a structure resembling a city. Ezekiel 40:1-3 (CSB)

This was God’s big reveal as he walked Ezekiel through the New City and Temple which represent a time when we all will see the glory of God’s perfect work. Complete with eye-popping design, renovation and beauty.

I’m reminded that this world is  a fixer upper. The societal landscape is full of weeds, leaky pipes, stained carpet, faulty tile, and messy closets. They present themselves as lies, injustice, starvation, human trafficking, hypocrisy, hate and dirty politics. But even now, God is at work.

We have the same responsibility that Ezekiel received in verse 4:

He spoke to me: “Son of man, look with your eyes, listen with your ears, and pay attention to everything I am going to show you, for you have been brought here so that I might show it to you. Report everything you see.”

We get to share the big reveal of our soon-to-be home, that Jesus is preparing. It’s what we do as believers.

Remember His promise?

 In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not, I would have told you. I am going away to prepare a place for you.  If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you to Myself, so that where I am you may be also.  You know the way to where I am going.

I don’t know about you, but after a rough year of lies, violence, injustice, terror, and protests, I’m ready for our new digs. In the meantime, let’s do the two things He’s asked us to do. Do “big reveals” of the Kingdom to come and  pick up a hammer and renovate the fixer upper we have in front of our eyes today.

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