Thursday, October 26, 2006

Reflections on Discipleship 4 - Truth vs. Grace?

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

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.


Heather Z said...

Hey Phil- Great thoughts. I think you are absolutely right that it is very possible to serve without serving out of a proper theological mindset and biblical worldview, and I appreciate the distinction between "doing things for God" and being a disciple."

We have a framework for discipleship at NCC that encourages our congregation to grow in 4 dimensions of discipleship-- Seeker (spiritual disciplines, spiritual gifts, etc), Learner (Bible study, Bible reading, and doctrine), Influencer (evangelism, discipleship, and service) and Investor (stewardship of finances, resources, time, and talents).

We absolutely believe that true and pure service flows out of a heart for God and relationship with him.

The posts you refer to all revolve around the current focus we have this semester on being an Influencer. If you look further, you will see that we focus on all 4 of these dimensions, and I pray that those 4 dimensions lay a solid foundation and offer a balanced diet. We do not want to trade truth for grace; I think it's both/and.

Wineskins for Discipleship

Phil Steiger said...


Thanks for your comment, and I do agree that your holistic approach is a very healthy one!


Rusty Lopez said...


I just listened to a sermon by R.C. Sproul that hits home to your series. This is a rough excerpt from his talk on Whatever Works (American Pragmatism):

I remember talking to a Christian businessman one day... trying to have a conversation with him about some heavy matters of theology, and he really wasn't all that interested. He said, "R.C., that's fine to talk about all this doctrine and everything, but give me some news I can use." What was he saying to me? He was saying, "R.C., I don't feel the need to know anything about the holiness of God. What I need to know is how to solve the problems within my marriage, or with my kids, or whatever."

But I say, don't you see, that how you understand the character of God, is the single most important thing you can learn that will change, for the long-haul, your relationship with your wife, and your relationship to your children?

You can listen to it via his website, go to the Audio section and find the title Whatever Works - 10/06/2006.

Phil Steiger said...


I could not agree more. In fact, your comment encouraged me to finish up another post I was working on about "life application" preaching vs. more biblically grounded preaching. My theory is that the more the pastor tries to do the applying for people, the fewer and fewer people there are who can relate to what is being said.

Daria said...

Hi Phil-friend! = ) I'm supposed to be washing my dishes, but this is way more fun. ; ) lol

I can't agree with Jackson about the "grace vs. truth" thing. If someone is doing service without being grounded in Christian ontology/theology and a living communion with Jesus, then they are not showing true Grace; they are reflecting only partial aspects of both grace and truth. What I mean is, they are still, in living out what actually "belongs," if you will, to God's Truth and Grace, technically reflecting something of the glory of God. However, I believe that, as you say, if they are not drawing from the Source and being empowered by the Holy Spirit, a) there will be limits on their love, grace, compassion, etc.; and b) they will certainly not be able to articulate clearly to others the reality of either Truth or Grace.

Throughout my life, I have continually reflected on my grounding for loving others and loving nature: *why* and *what* is this about? Contemplating the Redemption--what actually transpired between God and humans, between God and the whole of creation, in that act--and energetically, seriously processing *what the Redemption means* as far as how we should be living, is certainly the appropriate grounding for engagement with issues around social and environmental justice. Knowing "Grace" does not happen without a deep, disturbing (and personal) understanding of sin. This is what has been mostly lost within evangelicalism and liberal mainline Protestantism here in the U.S. : ( In the end, I believe it is just as disconnected from a deep understanding of Redemption to focus solely on preaching to and teaching people as it is to only feed and clothe people without ever purposefully pointing them to the Divine. James said it all millenia ago: the two (faith, the proper understanding of God, and works, the fleshing out of that understanding) are entirely intertwined. And I think Truth entails Grace, and Grace entails Truth.