The Cost of Discipleship

SpringI don’t shock easily.  I have been around a long time and have known all kinds of people.  None of us, not even Christians, even distantly approaches perfection.  However, I must admit I was recently appalled to read in the “Church Around the World” publication that “data suggests that the overwhelming majority of Christian young adults do not practice celibacy.  For this reason the Southern Baptist-based Lifeway Christian Resources has re-launched its youth abstinence program, “True Love Waits” (TLW).  The article goes on to say that other denominations are joining with TLW in their goals.  That is good news.

I recognize that today’s young people have more pressure on them to conform to easy sexuality than perhaps any previous modern generation.  They find it hard to uphold standards of purity and righteousness against all the cultural pressure to be just the opposite.  From provocative clothing styles to the ridiculous lie that you can’t know if you love someone without sleeping with them ~ it is everywhere.  Yet, all of life is a series of hard choices.  We begin with small choices about where we go and with whom, and how we allow conversations to go.  These choices open up further choices.  We have free will, and are not driven powerlessly into situations.  At some point we have to be accountable for our choices.  Is the decision to go with the culture rather than with scriptural principles due partially, perhaps, to the possibility that we are not receiving the foundational truths in our churches which give us the tools to resist?

While sexual immorality among Christian young people is not necessarily an unforgivable deal breaker in regard to the mercy of God, it does indicate a woeful lack of understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  Of course God can and does forgive sexual immorality as well as all other kinds of sin when one commits to Christ.  He can and does continue to forgive sin on the basis of sincere repentance and confession to Him.  However, it should be a reasonable expectation that after genuine commitment to Christ those who call themselves Christian will attempt to live lives pleasing to God and somewhat closely aligned to the ideas of purity and chastity.  This issue is more than about sexual immorality; it is about the definition of “Christian” and the cost of discipleship.  It is about choosing submission to the will of God as opposed to a life lived in my own will.

It is true that God’s criteria for salvation is not on the basis of perfect behavior or none of us would have any hope.  He forgives us on the basis of the righteousness of Christ which He imputes to us when we recognize our own sinfulness and our need for a Savior.  This, however, does not give us license to live just as we please and bank on God’s forgiveness to get us off the hook.  As followers of Christ we have a responsibility to represent Him ~ to live lives as holy as we are able to make them.  Out of gratitude alone, those who have truly accepted Christ as Savior should want to live lives pleasing to Him.  The fact that so many choose to live worldly lives rather than choose the scriptural ideals of purity and righteousness unfortunately must raise the question of the depth of their understanding and commitment.

For decades there have been voices warning that the Gospel has been watered-down into a superficial formula which tells people that all they have to do to be saved is just to say the words, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ”, and all will be well.  Unfortunately that is not quite what the Bible teaches.  The words must reflect a genuine attitude of heart.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian pastor who lived in Germany before World War II.  He was one of the few who stood up against Hitler, and although he escaped first to England and then to the United States, his conscience drove him to return to Germany and continue to preach the Gospel.  The Nazis arrested him in 1943 and he was ordered to be hanged in April, 1945, just a few weeks before the liberation of his concentration camp by the Allies.  His discipleship cost him his life.  He had written a book called “The Cost of Discipleship” which has survived.  In his book he speaks about what he calls “cheap grace”. This is what he says:

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.  Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

It seems that many who now call themselves Christian are expecting to find salvation on the basis of cheap grace.  However, there is no forgiveness without repentance. ( Luke 13:3-5, Acts 17:30, etc.).  There is no real discipleship without commitment.  A recent article in the Christian Post quotes Dr. Cornelius Plantinga, senior research fellow at Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, who comments that in many modern evangelical churches there is little mention of sin.  Instead, churches try to focus on the upbeat in an attempt to be “seeker friendly” and avoid topics that may turn off non-Christians or shallow believers.  A quick web search found many similar warnings from creditable sources. Yet, the acknowledgment of our status as sinners, heartfelt sorrow for our sins and gratitude for the grace of God in sending His Son to make forgiveness possible is at the very heart of the Gospel.

One of the saddest things I have ever read is in Elisabeth Elliot’s book, “The Path of Loneliness”.  The book is about different kinds of loneliness and how the Lord can take us faithfully through.  It is a charge to be willing to die to self and to find the way to joy through acceptance and complete trust in the will of God.

In it she mentions a conversation she had with a college student who said to her, “You realize you’re talking to a very small audience.” When she asked what he meant, he said, “You’re only talking to people who are really serious about following Christ.  Most of us don’t think we have to go that far.”  Thud!

I confess that I have little understanding of people who believe they can walk with one foot in heaven and one foot firmly stuck in the muck of the world.  We are told that “To be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.  Because the carnal mind is enmity with God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.  So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  But you are not of the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.” (Romans 8:6-9)

Also, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to His cross and crucified them there.   Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.” (Gal. 5: 24-26)

There are many more scriptures telling us the same thing.  Believers are called to make right choices.  Our lives are to be guided by the scriptures and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  The process of salvation must be preceded by genuine repentance and commitment.  Christ Himself told us that we must be born again: that is, undergo a genuine spiritual transformation which lets us begin again on a new footing with God.  This involves more than just repeating a cliché phrase about belief with no real change of heart.

I am concerned that a lot of people may be basing their hope of heaven on very shaky ground.  Satan certainly believes that Jesus is the Christ, but his refusal to submit to God forever keeps him from God’s forgiveness.  We need to affirm the basis of our claim to be Christian.  The indwelling Holy Spirit in those who are truly Christ’s should be serving as conscience and guide to our behavior.  God is not fooled by professions of devotion on Sunday and lives totally driven by self the rest of the week.  We cannot sing “All for Jesus” on one day and live “All for me” every other day.  There is, as Bonhoeffer wrote, a cost to discipleship.

We are called on, as children of God, to live servant-lives of honor and compassion toward others.  While salvation is free to us, discipleship is not.  We have been bought with a heavy price and our lives now belong to Him.  We are told to come out from among those in the world and be separate (II Cor. 6:14-18); that we are not to continue to live as we once lived, but to recognize that our focus is now to be on the things of God and not on ourselves.  We will not always be successful, and when we are truly repentant God will certainly forgive us.  Praise God!

However, He has given us free will, and we can either choose to follow Him closely, or we can be hangers-on and coast through on the surface.  If we choose to follow closely, we may find that He takes us through some hard times, and perhaps some would prefer just to be saved with as little inconvenience and personal cost as possible.  Yet, for those who choose to follow closely, the spiritual compensations are limitless.  Mature discipleship doesn’t really focus on what we believe we are going to get out of it.  It is about developing a love for God and for His Christ which fills our hearts with joy.  It is about the peace through good times and bad that comes with complete trust in Him and in His love for us.  It is in the pleasure of recognizing the beauty of His holiness, and in the hope that there will come the day when we stand in His presence and hear those words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

I am sad for those who believe they can have it both ways.  I can’t help but wonder if they really understand what it cost Christ to redeem us, and what is meant by taking up one’s cross and following Him.  My prayer is for a revival of genuine faith in this country which will strengthen believers and purify the morass of worldly pseudo-religiosity which seems to have overtaken the Church in our times.




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