In this post I want to discuss the outcomes of discipleship. If we are trying to disciple people (or ourselves), then surely we can come to some kind of conclusion regarding what looks like success.
I was recently perusing a blog dedicated to discipleship and noticed that many of the posts and large chunks of the discussion were dedicated to service—both to the community and to the rest of the world. In fact, a recent edition of Christianity Today contained an article describing a growing trend among college-aged evangelicals in which they are more than willing to give up a consumerist lifestyle in order to serve the needy across the world. More and more young people are willing to embrace relative poverty to engage with social justice.
There is a catch, however, with this crowd of young people, and it is the catch with all action/service oriented discipleship. The article notes:
Unfortunately, many students today exhibit theological confusion. "Too many college students are not convinced about the exclusive claims of Christ and the eternal lostness of humanity," says Terry Erickson, InterVarsity's director of evangelism. "Students today are more grace-oriented than truth-oriented." Erickson notes that young people on missions trips today may not be articulating the gospel's promise of eternal salvation through Christ's death on the Cross as clearly as they are demonstrating their concern for social justice and compassion for the poor.
In other words, these missionaries are trading truth for grace. In such a scenario, we find ourselves meeting the earthly needs of people who will die and be lost for eternity because we were soft on spiritual truth. It is a wonderful and necessary thing to meet physical and economic needs; it is a necessary thing to meet spiritual needs.
The fundamental problem with seeing service or action as discipleship is that it is entirely possible to be engaged in service without following Christ. And if we are engaged in service and not following the Way, the Truth, and the Life, we are not engaged in Christian discipleship. I take it to be fundamentally true that someone cannot be an advancing disciple of Christ and reject/neglect His and Scripture’s truth claims about the nature of the human soul and spiritual realities.
Don’t get me wrong. Service and action are necessary results of discipleship. Paul says we are saved to do the works God planned for us: “He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” (Eph. 2:10)
So if we can “do things for God” without actually being a disciple of Christ, what would constitute something in our lives that would guarantee or certify discipleship? The first things that come to mind are the fruit of the Spirit. In fact, isn’t that exactly how they are delivered to us? The flesh does certain things, but the Spirit of God does other things. Therefore, we know the Spirit of God is at work within us when those things are in our lives. In addition, I would add the virtue lists of the New Testament. Again, these lists have everything to do with character that is formed more by Christ than by this world.
On one level it might seem simplistic to say that a disciple of Christ is someone who is longsuffering; they are patient people. But, if you have ever had your patience tried, and failed at being patient, you know that when the rubber hits the road, there is nothing simplistic about it at all. In fact, you might reflect and say that the only way you could have been patient in certain circumstances is with a kind of divine aid. Add to this forgiveness, humility, joy, repentance, or peace, and you have a list that sounds only like Christ and sounds almost nothing like me.