What is discipleship?

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If God is everywhere, and the Holy Spirit is present in every interaction, does everything qualify as discipleship? A disciple is the follower of a teacher. Discipleship is intentionally equipping people to follow a teacher. In the case of the Christian faith, discipleship means preparing people to follow Jesus. Thus, even though God is always present (cf. Psalm 139.7-12), not everything trains someone to follow Jesus. Discipleship includes intentionality.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

Psalm 139.7-12

Different Elements of Christian Life

Christian life is multifaceted. It includes both study and doing, or faith and action (James 2.14-17). Recently, I spoke with a man who had drifted away from the church. He described how he no longer felt guilty about not coming to church. He also referenced a divine scorecard and assumed that his lifelong attendance had earned him enough points to get to heaven. In practical terms, his approach to salvation reflected Pelagianism. This heresy subscribes to a works-based salvation. Like my interlocutor, Pelagians believed they could achieve salvation without divine grace.

Though the Council of Carthage condemned Pelagianism as a heresy in 418, the idea of earning a relationship with God remains attractive to some people. Discipleship in contemporary churches can help people understand why God’s grace is so amazing. It runs counter to cultural Christianity and demonstrates the radical nature of following Jesus.

Cheap Grace

I struggle with the lack of discipleship in churches today because it leads to cheap grace. Without a rich, deep discipleship, following Jesus can mean whatever one wants it to mean. When we sit in a circle and only ask one another what we think it means to follow Jesus, we toss two millennia of “faith seeking understanding” (Anselm) down the drain. If only my opinion of what counts as orthodoxy or orthopraxis matters, then what do I care about the gospels or Paul? How can we reflect Jesus if we don’t regularly study his life?

When we don’t occasionally take a deep dive into scripture, we become tempted to start recreating God in our own image. It’s easy to find God agreeing with us rather than God challenging us. If the Bible doesn’t challenge our world view (at least occasionally), we’re not paying attention to what it says.

What does Jesus require?

Following Jesus requires everything we have. Even though God’s grace is a free gift (Romans 6.23), and is available to everyone, when Jesus calls someone, he says, “Deny yourself and take up your cross” (Luke 9.23). In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Discipleship gives life and provides meaning. It is part of the tapestry of the Christian life. Discipleship doesn’t take the place of fellowship or service. Instead, it adds to the richness of each experience. Through discipleship, a Christ-follower can better understand why we do what we do. With edifying discipleship, we baptize fellowship into sacred moments even if we don’t speak of God or open the Bible. Discipleship helps us remember that Jesus is our common denominator.

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