Embarking on the path of discipleship (Matthew 28:19)

POST OVERVIEW. Thoughts about when I embarked on the path of sanctification and then on the path of discipleship and how I progressed as a disciple after that day. Distinguishing discipleship from sanctification. In practical terms, when does the sinner become a disciple?

Once I had passed from death to life (John 5:24), I became a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:19) and, whether I understood it or not, I had embarked onto the path of sanctification. On that day I was as unlike the Lord Jesus as I would ever be and I was as far from God as I would ever be. My years of running away from God, of willful disobedience, and of giving myself over to my own selfish, fleshly desires were abruptly ended. On that day, now alive in Christ (Eph. 2:4), my life’s direction was reversed. I was born again (John 3:3) and, as a newborn disciple, I began to take my first stumbling steps toward holiness, obedience, and usefulness. By the end of that first day, whether I could recognize that day or not, I was a little bit more like Jesus than I had been and I was a little bit farther from my most ungodly place. I was a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) and had begun my sanctification.

THE BEGINNING OF DISCIPLESHIP

But while my sanctification began on the day of my conversion (Phil. 2:13), I would argue that my discipleship, my “working out my salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), did not. To understand this statement, you must realize that, as declared in Philippians 2:12-13, the sanctification of the disciple has a divine component and a human component. The divine component is the sanctification which is conducted by the Holy Spirit that increases our Christlikeness. Beginning at my conversion and continuing until my physical death, the Holy Spirit is at work within me, working without my cooperation and even without my awareness, to conform me to the image of Christ. But the human component of sanctification, that which is worked out by fear and trembling, the sanctification that is the result of the disciple’s own Spirit-empowered effort, is what I am calling “discipleship.” Since discipleship is conscious, intentional, and purposeful, it is obvious that significant growth in discipleship only begins when the disciple chooses, by an act of their will, to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling.” Discipleship is not automatic, but rather is willful and effortful, and involves decision, commitment, and perseverance.

PRACTICAL CONVERSION

Another comment may be appropriate here in terms of practical application of the disciple’s justification. We know that the moment of conversion is when a person actually becomes a disciple, but rarely does a person recognize that moment when they first believed. Much more common is that the converted person is led by God’s providence to a church where the gospel is proclaimed and explained, and it is then that the person becomes aware of what has happened to them. In addition to that, the New Testament models for us over and over again that the prescribed pattern for the disciple is to believe in the Lord Jesus, then to be baptized, and then to be joined to a church where he can learn obedience. For example, we need look no farther than the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) to see this pattern in seed form. Make disciples (proclaim the gospel), baptize them into the local church, and teach them, in the church, what it means to be an obedient disciple. So, I would argue that the believer’s baptism is most often when he or she consciously and formally becomes a disciple.

SO MANY AREAS OF GROWTH

Because there are so many areas of development in which we, as disciples, need to grow, it may seem to us or to others that our growth is too slow and that there is something “wrong.” For example, I grew rapidly in Word and in knowledge of the Scriptures and in some prominent areas of discipleship (1 Cor. 8:1) but grew more slowly in putting sin to death and in personal holiness. There were areas of my life that were moving toward maturity, but there were other areas that were neglected and were lagging. Was something wrong? No, there was nothing wrong. God is sovereign in all things, including the sanctification of His children, and He was crafting my sanctification according to His perfect plan. Remember, “it is God (the Holy Spirit) who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

ILLUSTRATION OF PHYSICAL BIRTH AND PHYSICAL GROWTH

At the moment of conversion, every disciple, whether he realizes it or not, begins the journey of sanctification, of growing in increasing Christlikeness in all areas of life, and he continues on that journey until the day he dies. This is true for every true disciple of Jesus. As physical growth is the inevitable result of physical birth, so growth in increasing Christlikeness is the inevitable result of the second birth. Sanctification is certain for every genuine believer because this is THE work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity.

As there should be concern when physical growth does not follow physical birth, so there should be concern when tangible growth in Christlikeness does not follow a claim of second birth. While the new disciple’s growth, which is typically quick and obvious, may start slowly and imperceptibly, an absence of spiritual growth over an extended time is most often an indication of a false birth, that the would-be disciple was stillborn.

SDG                 rmb                 10/24/2022                 #583

The ordinary course for the believer (Isaiah 6:1-8)

And then the day came for Isaiah ben Amoz that defined the rest of his life. He saw the Lord, and he would never be the same or see life the same again.

In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said,

“Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts,
The whole earth is full of His glory.”

And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said,

“Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

AN ORDINARY EVENT FROM EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES

The circumstances of Isaiah’s encounter with the Lord were remarkable indeed, but what was accomplished in this encounter between man and God was very ordinary. When we step back from these extraordinary circumstances, what we see is the “ordinary” event of a sinner becoming a sent one. What I mean is that, in Isaiah’s spectacular experience with the Lord, the Lord brings about “ordinary” conversion. Isaiah began this scene as an ordinary, everyday sinner, aware of the Lord’s existence, but unaware of the Lord’s holiness and of his own sinfulness. By the end of the scene, Isaiah has been cleansed of his sins and sent out by the Lord with a mission.

But the truly remarkable fact is that Isaiah’s experience in the temple is a condensed version of what happens to every believer. Every believer experiences the same “ordinary” conversion that Isaiah experienced. Every genuine believer begins their encounter with the Lord as an ordinary, everyday sinner, but concludes their saving encounter with Him having their iniquity taken away and their sin forgiven.

THE STEPS THAT MAKE UP THIS ORDINARY EVENT

Although it is impossible to prove, it is a generally accepted fact that, of the billions of snowflakes, no two are the same. It is also true that, of the billions of people in the world, no two fingerprints are the same. The Lord of the universe has displayed His creativity and power and glory in His creation in small and large ways so that His existence is unmistakable, and men are without excuse (Romans 1:20). And since God is infinitely creative, there are no two “ordinary” conversions that are the same. The details of the paths describing believers’ journeys from sinner to saint vary in practically infinite ways, and the circumstances of their “ordinary” conversions are vastly different, but all these “ordinary” conversions follow the same basic steps. And Isaiah’s “ordinary” conversion will serve as an example.

The first step was for Isaiah the sinner to encounter the holiness of the Lord. In his vision, Isaiah sees the Lord “lofty and exalted.” The Lord is high, and Isaiah is low. The prophet must look up to see the Lord on His throne. The Lord is ruler. He is King. He is sovereign, reigning over all. He fills the temple, as He fills all things. The seraphim cover their faces because they cannot look upon the Lord’s glory, and they cover their feet because the Lord’s presence is holy ground, and they call out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts.” The temple is shaking violently and is filling with smoke. Thus, Isaiah is overwhelmed and shattered by this encounter with the Lord. The Lord’s holiness is too much for Isaiah to bear.

(The second step) The holiness and the power of the Lord not only display the Lord’s glory, but also fully expose Isaiah’s abject wretchedness. In the presence of the Holy One of Israel, every hideous sin is glaringly laid bare and there is no place to hide. Isaiah is thus made fully aware of his sin and his condemnation before God.

With no place to run and no place to hide, all Isaiah can do is acknowledge his sin. Isaiah confessed he was a man of unclean lips, a man marked by sin and iniquity, and a man, therefore, unworthy to even come into the presence of the living God. “Woe is me!” “I am ruined!” “I am a man of unclean lips!” Having been made aware of his sin, the third step is for the sinner to confess his sins to the Lord (1 John 1:9; Luke 18:13), and to repent (Mark 1:15), and to place their faith in the Lord Jesus (Acts 16:31).

The fourth step is the Lord’s response to the sinner’s repentance and profession of faith. Isaiah confesses his sin and cries out for mercy and forgiveness, and the Lord cleanses his sin and saves him. The seraphim brings a burning coal to Isaiah to burn away his sin. “I am a man of unclean lips,” so the seraphim touches the burning coal to Isaiah’s lips. The burning coal is a symbol of the judgment of Isaiah’s sins. Because of the burning away of his iniquity, his sin is declared to be forgiven. Just so, when the sinner confesses his sin and professes faith in Christ, he receives the forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:21).

So, after the fourth step, Isaiah has been cleansed from his iniquity and has been forgiven of his sins and he is as saved as he will ever be. And it is the same for the New Testament believer. The one who has repented of their sins and has trusted in Christ as Lord and Savior has passed from death to life (John 5:24), has been saved (Romans 10:9), has the forgiveness of his trespasses (Ephesians 1:7), and has been justified by faith (Romans 5:1). He is in Christ, and for him all the promises of God are now yes. So, that is where the “ordinary” encounter ends, right?

THERE IS A FIFTH STEP IN THE JOURNEY

But as we go back to the Scripture, we see that, for Isaiah, there is another step in the encounter. For Isaiah to come to a place of faith and forgiveness is well and good, but it is not the reason for which Isaiah was saved. And so, as soon as Isaiah has his sin forgiven, he hears the Lord’s voice calling out for laborers. It is possible that the Lord had been calling before and Isaiah was deaf to His voice, but regardless, now the prophet hears his Lord’s call. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?”

The fifth step, then, is the disciple’s service to the kingdom of his King. The disciple’s “ordinary” conversion experience is not complete until he has been put into service for his Savior. For this is the Lord’s purpose in salvation, not that we would come to faith in Jesus and receive all the promises of God and the forgiveness of sins and good works prepared beforehand (Ephesians 2:10), and then just sit down in a church pew to enjoy our salvation, but rather that, having come to faith and having been set free from our slavery to sin and having been given a mission to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20) and to be Christ’s witnesses (Acts 1:8), we would joyfully give ourselves away in selfless service to the kingdom of God.

And so, Isaiah hears the Lord’s voice and says, “Here am I. Send me.”

The fifth step is the one that lasts the longest. It begins at the moment of salvation and continues until physical death. The fifth step involves the reason you were redeemed. The Lord redeemed you “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that you should walk in them.” All your fruit is obtained in the fifth step (John 15). Your light only shines before men in the fifth step (Matthew 5:16).

But I sense that most disciples are not good stewards of their fifth step in “ordinary” conversion. So, the next article will explore how we can be better stewards of the fifth step.

SDG                 rmb                 7/13/2021                   #422

Why all the warnings? (Hebrews 3:12-14)

False assurance is a dangerous thing. The person possessing false assurance is confident that they are prepared to face a certain challenge or threat when, in fact, their defenses are inadequate, and their preparation is incomplete. This is like the fair-skinned sunbather on the Florida beach with SPF 5 sunscreen that they are confident is SPF 50. Or this is like the rock climber with the 100-foot rope rappelling down the 130-foot cliff which the climber is confident is only 80 feet tall. Or this is like someone who has been attending a local church for a little while and has joined in the singing and has listened to the sermons and has done whatever they saw the other people in the church doing; this is like that person having the false assurance that, because they behave like a true believer and go through the same motions, they possess the same salvation and are safe from God’s judgment. In these instances of false assurance, the person must be warned about their error before bad consequences result. So, we can see that false assurance is a dangerous thing.

The author of “Hebrews” is acutely aware of the disastrous consequences of a false confidence of salvation. He warns those who may possess a false profession, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (10:31),” and “our God is a consuming fire (12:29).” In fact, one of the dominant themes in this New Testament epistle is the author’s warning to those who are religious and unconverted. “Pay close attention lest you drift away.” “Do not neglect this great salvation.” “Do not fall away from the living God.” “Hold fast!” “Have faith, not unbelief.” “Strive to enter God’s rest.” “If you fall away, it is impossible to restore you.” “Do not be a person who shrinks back.” The author repeatedly urges the pretenders and all the falsely assured to fully embrace Jesus Christ and loudly proclaim Him as Lord to rightly be assured of true salvation.

WARNINGS IN HEBREWS 3:12-14

Consider one of the author’s warnings in Hebrews 3:12-14:

Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.

But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.

The warnings in this passage are strident and the implied consequences dire because it is urgent that the writer gain their attention and alert them to their peril. He does not mince words when he warns them of an “evil, unbelieving heart” and tells them they “will fall away from the living God.” Without encouragement, they are in danger of being “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” You are truly partakers of Christ only “if you hold fast your assurance (your faith) firm until the end.” Implicit and explicit warnings follow one after the other as the writer speaks to this fellowship.

WHY ALL THE WARNINGS?

Why so many warnings? The warnings evidence a heartfelt pastoral concern. The writer-preacher is concerned that some in his congregation are in danger of falling short of salvation, that they have not really embraced Christ in faith, but rather are just going through their old religious motions in a new way. These people must be warned that following Christ is radically different from the old Jewish traditions and practices, and that those who fall short of or drift away from genuine faith in Jesus will eternally perish. Having heard the message about Jesus Christ, you must embrace that message. To go through the new Christian “rituals” without embracing Christ and without being born again is to engage in useless religious works.

THE TASK OF WARNING THE RELIGIOUS

This task of warning people of the peril of religion is never an easy one because most people are quite comfortable with the religion they have been given. Religion gives its adherents a false sense of assurance. Just so, until recently, this Jewish (Hebrew) community was contentedly practicing their religion of external works, moral lifestyle, and traditional practices. All Jews were accepted as full members of the religious community based on their adherence to the external works. (This is the way all religions work.) The community was close-knit because they all maintained the same age-old practices. The old wine was good enough (Luke 5:39). There was no talk of salvation or of repentance or of faith in the Messiah. All was routine and peaceful. And, unfortunately, all were peacefully perishing without a Savior.

But now, the religious landscape has seismically changed. Now the gospel of salvation has been proclaimed. Now Jesus is preached as the Messiah, the Christ. Now the religious community of the Hebrews is being replaced by the faith community of the followers of the Messiah. The traditions of the elders and the fathers are no longer good enough because the works of the Law cannot justify anyone (Romans 3:20). Now we must repent from dead works (Hebrews 6:1) and place our faith in Jesus. Now unity and fellowship in the Jesus community is based on a common faith in Jesus the Messiah.

WHAT ABOUT A THIRD OPTION?

In addition to the old Jewish religion based on external works and traditions, and the new movement of faith in Jesus the Messiah, what we see happening in the book of “Hebrews” is the emergence of a third option. It is this third option that is the reason for all the writer’s warnings. The preacher’s concern is that some in this congregation have exchanged the external works of Judaism for “the external works” of the faith community without embracing Jesus the Messiah by faith. These people emulate the external “religious works” of genuine believers without the new heart (Ezekiel 36:26) of genuine believers. They mistakenly think that this new Jesus movement is just another religion, and, like Judaism, a person can be an accepted and respected member of this new community merely by doing the appropriate works and going through the expected motions. The writer-preacher directs his most urgent exhortations at these people in the hopes that they will forsake this deceptive and disastrous way of thinking and come all the way to full faith in Christ.

APPLICATION FOR OUR OWN TIME

The beauty of the Scriptures is that they are always contemporary, and they apply to our world and our situations. Just so, we must take seriously the warning about this “third option,” which is the circumstance where members of our church fellowship may be falsely assured of their salvation because they are relying on “religious works” or even “Christian works.” In the case of the Hebrews, the people emulated the external “religious works” of genuine believers without the new heart (Ezekiel 36:26) of genuine believers. This is a real concern today, particularly in American churches where religious traditions can replace genuine faith. In churches where conversions are not celebrated (Is that because they do not occur?) and where forms are prominent, the church can gradually become a homogeneous gathering of people united based on shared traditions and externals, rather than being united based on a shared experience of conversion and a fervent faith in the Lord Jesus. I believe that when the writer-preacher of the book of “Hebrews” wrote his warnings, he had specific people in the congregation in mind. He was, thus, compelled to warn them of the peril of religious motions without saving faith. Just so, the concerned pastor today would be well-served to preach these same warnings with vigor to his congregation in the hopes of stirring up faith in those who are comfortably unconverted.

SDG                 rmb                 3/5/2021