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

For the believer, the sources of discouragement are gone

INTRODUCTION. Another post (see #528 on May 11, 2022) on the subject of discouragement and how the believer can and should fight to be free of this condition.

EXPECT TO BE DISCOURAGED

A few days ago I posted an article on “discouragement” (see #528 on May 11). In that article, I made the statement that discouragement is the expected state for many people in this world just based on their discouraging state of mind. For example, if you fear the future, and are discontent in the present, and regret the past, you should be discouraged. If you believe your existence is an accident of impersonal random chance in a vast, indifferent universe, you should expect to be discouraged. If you are afraid of death, then expect to be discouraged. If you have no meaningful purpose for your life, you will be discouraged. Sooner or later, even the most optimistic person will be crushed by these ideas and will become discouraged, then depressed, and then probably will feel hopeless. Bottom line is, if this is you, you should expect to be discouraged.

Now, I want to think some more about this phenomenon of a discouraging state of mind. There are two things to observe about the discouraging thoughts that I listed above. First, these thoughts can occur to anyone, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, physical health, monetary status, marital status, national origin, or any other natural distinction. Because these are thoughts and concepts in the mind, they can occur to anyone. That’s first.

BUT NOT THE BELIEVER!

But second and more profound, these thoughts should not be present to any great measure to the follower of Jesus. Here’s why I say that.

  • Fear of the future. In this life, “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28), so there is no need to fear the future in this life. When I die, I will go to heaven (Phil. 1:23) and at the resurrection, I will receive a glorified body and will forever be with the Lord (1 Thess. 4:17), so there is no need to fear the future after death. The believer should not fear the future.
  • Discontent in the present. The believer is to give thanks in everything (1 Thess. 5:18) and is to be content in whatever circumstances they are (Phil. 4:11-12; Job 1:21; 1 Timothy 6:6-8), so there is no reason to grumble or be discontent.
  • Regret the past. “Forgetting what lies behind, and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize” (Phil. 3:13-14). The Bible says that the believer can forget what lies behind, so no regret. The “body of sin” from my past is gone (Romans 6:6). “I have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20), so there is no past sin remaining to be regretted. I am a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), and as a new creation, I have no past to regret.
  • My existence is an accident of impersonal random chance. One of the great benefits of being an atheist or an evolutionist is that you believe that, in your very essence, you are an accident of impersonal random chance. This points to the fact that your existence (or non-existence, for that matter) cannot be of any significance, because it is impossible for the results of impersonal random events to have any inherent meaning. For the follower of Jesus, however, who knows that he has been formed in His mother’s womb by the living God (Psalm 139:13-14) and has been chosen before the foundation of the world for salvation (Ephesians 1:4) by the maker of heaven and earth (Genesis 1:1), his life has immense significance. He will pour out his life to God as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1).
  • Afraid of death. The natural man, regardless of his futile attempts to deny it and disguise it, is afraid of death. Death is God’s judgment on sin, and as such, causes fear in the depths of man’s soul. It is fear of death that has motivated man to create his demonic religions, but these will do him no good on the day of judgment. The natural man has no answer for death, and yet death relentlessly approaches with each passing day. But for the follower of Jesus, death has no sting (1 Cor. 15:54). For the Christian, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). It is after death that the believer receives the crown of life (Rev. 2:10). Because Jesus is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25-26), the one who believes in Him will never die.
  • No meaningful purpose in life. The vast majority of people spend their lives without a mission or a purpose. Even people whom the world evaluates as “successful” are simply better at doing what the world values than other people but ask them to describe to you their mission and they are at a loss. The best most people have is a worldly idea to gather together more stuff. But the follower of Jesus has been given a mission by the Lord Jesus Himself. Part of the birthright of the born-again is the Great Commission. “Go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19-20). Also, I am to be Christ’s witness (Acts 1:8). I am to glorify God and enjoy Him forever (Westminster Confession). Whatever I do in life can be measured against these great mission statements. The Christian should not be discouraged because there are always more opportunities to be a witness for Christ. My purpose and my mission have been given to me by the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Jesus Himself has given me personally my mission and my purpose. And so, the believer should not be discouraged because their life is full of purpose. The mission is clear, and it is exciting.

So, brothers and sisters in the Lord, let’s shed the grave clothes of discouragement and let’s put on the robe of Christ’s righteousness (Isaiah 61:10) and rejoice!

My next post on this subject will describe why it is so difficult for the discouraged believer to be obedient to the Scriptures.

SDG                 rmb                 5/13/2022                   #530

Baptism in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) – Part 2

This article, “Baptism in the Great Commission,” will be a part of my next book to be published in late summer, A Look at Biblical Baptism.

INTRODUCTION. In the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus gives to His church not only their mission for the entire time between His ascension and His return, but He also gives them the strategy for accomplishing that mission. In my last post on the Great Commission (#504 on March 18, 2022), I looked at the beauty and simplicity of Christ’s commission to His church. Now I will look at the individual pieces of His church growth plan.

MAKE DISCIPLES – THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH

Jesus’ mission for His church is to make disciples. Since that is His command, His church needs to understand what He means by “disciple.”

It is often said that Jesus did not command us to make converts, but to make disciples. The intent behind this statement is to make sure that the goal of our ministry is to produce mature followers of Jesus who are obedient to the teaching of the Bible and who are faithful witnesses to Jesus. That is, the goal is not just to coax people to give a nod to Jesus but is to see people give their entire lives to Jesus and to manifest that by the visible means of worship and witness and obedience. Therefore, this distinction between “convert” and “disciple” is a worthwhile distinction, especially since Christians have been known to count conversions as the number of people who prayed a certain prayer. In this sense, there should be a distinction between “convert” and “disciple.”

In Matthew 28:19, however, a “disciple” is, in simplest terms, a convert. The meaning of “disciple” in the context of “make disciples” means “make people who have confessed Jesus as Lord” (Romans 10:9).  Make people who have passed from death to life (John 5:24). Make people who have been born again (John 3:3). Make people who have believed in the Lord Jesus (Acts 16:31). Make people who have been “made alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). Make people who have been justified by faith (Romans 5:1). Make people “who were lost and have been found” (Luke 15:24). Make people who have repented and believed in the gospel (Mark 1:15). The point is that the church is to proclaim the gospel to the whole world (Matthew 24:14; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47) to the end that many will believe (John 20:31). In the context of Matthew 28:19, a “disciple” is simply one who has believed the gospel of the Lord Jesus.

The mission for the church, then, from Jesus’ ascension to the end of the age, is to make disciples. But if the church is to make those who have believed in Jesus, the question becomes, “How are we to go about making these disciples?” In His commission, Jesus gives a three-fold strategy for this.

GO! (GOING TO THE PEOPLE / TO THE LOST)

According to Jesus, the church’s first activity is to go out to “all the nations” (Greek πάντα τὰ ἔθνη) and proclaim to them the gospel. This is the activity of evangelism, of telling unbelievers the good news of salvation so that those who are currently outside of Christ “will call upon the name of the Lord” (Romans 10:13, then 10:14-15) and be saved. Therefore, the church must go and proclaim. The existing disciples are to go anywhere and everywhere proclaiming the gospel to those who are not disciples so that they will make disciples. The goal is that, by going and proclaiming the gospel, some will believe and thus become disciples. The church is to continue going and proclaiming and making disciples until Jesus comes back at the end of the age.

The fruit of going and proclaiming is that some will believe and thus become disciples. According to Jesus’ strategy for accomplishing the Great Commission, what happens then?

BAPTIZING THE DISCIPLES

It is unmistakably clear that, according to Jesus, the next step is to baptize the new disciples. Jesus commands the church to make disciples, then He says, “Baptizing them.” “Them” is the disciples who have just been made. Once it is verified that a person has believed and thus has been made a disciple, according to Jesus, that person is to be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Why does Jesus’ strategy include baptism here?

First, because baptism serves as the sign that tells the world that this person is now a disciple of Jesus. The one baptized now identifies with Jesus, and they have decisively separated themselves from the world and joined themselves with the disciples of Jesus. Baptism also tells the church that this person is now one of them. Finally, baptism declares to the one baptized that they have forever left the world of the unbaptized. They have “come out of the closet,” so to speak. They have gone public. They have openly confessed Jesus Christ as Lord of their life and have then been plunged beneath the waters of baptism. They have been “buried unto death in Christ, rise again to walk in newness of life.” The old is gone, the new is come (2 Cor. 5:17), and there is no turning back to the old again.

But second, Jesus commands that disciples be baptized at this point in their spiritual journey because baptism is the sign that marks the successful end of evangelism and the beginning of discipleship. The church has been proclaiming the gospel to this person in the hopes of seeing this one come to faith and repentance, and the person’s baptism declares that evangelism has obtained its intended end and the person has come to faith. This person has been sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13; 2 Cor. 1:22) and is, therefore, ready to begin the process of discipleship. Now the disciple becomes part of the church and begins to learn what it means “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1).

Finally, according to Jesus, what is the next step in His church growth strategy?

TEACHING THE DISCIPLES HOW TO BE DISCIPLES

Jesus declares to His church (Matthew 28:20) that, after the disciple has publicly professed their faith through baptism, there is the responsibility of “teaching them (disciples) to observe (or “obey”) all that I commanded you.” But where and how will this “teaching to observe all” take place? What is the strategy for this?

The strategy for teaching disciples how to obey the Lord Jesus is called the local church. Now, “having been justified by faith” (Romans 5:1), the new disciple is as justified as they ever will be. They have also testified to their justification (salvation, conversion) through the waters of baptism (Romans 6:4), but they are brand new in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Therefore, as a physical newborn relies on its parents to teach it everything the newborn needs to know to survive, so the spiritual newborn relies upon the church to teach him everything he needs to know to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4b), to obey the Lord Jesus, and to behave as a witness for Christ. Therefore, the Lord Jesus has given His children the organism of the local church, the ἐκκλησία, where existing disciples teach and encourage newer disciples so that the entire church “causes the growth of the Body for the building up of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16). The local church, then, is the place where disciples of the Lord Jesus mutually encourage one another and teach one another to observe (obey) all that Jesus has commanded us. But the existing disciples of the local church are also those who go anywhere and everywhere proclaiming the gospel to those who are not disciples so that the existing disciples will make new disciples. In this way, the process of church growth perpetuates itself, as Jesus Christ said, “I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 ESV).

A CHURCH-GROWTH PLAN WITH BAPTISM IN THE CENTER

What we have seen is that, in the Great Commission, given to His church by the resurrected Jesus Christ, the Lord has given us much more than a command for evangelism. He has given His people a church-growth plan for the entire age, and there is no piece of the Master’s plan that is not vital to the accomplishment of the church’s God-given task. The Great Commission is about making disciples by going out and proclaiming the gospel (evangelism), baptizing those who profess Christ, and then teaching these disciples what it means to live as disciples of Jesus (discipleship).

We have seen that baptizing disciples is commanded by the Lord so that the church and the world can identify those who are disciples of Jesus and so that the church can know whom to teach the doctrines, beliefs, and behaviors of the disciple of Jesus.

SDG                 rmb                 3/21/2022                   #506

Baptism in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) – Part 1

This article will be a part of my next book to be published in late summer, A Look at Biblical Baptism.

INTRODUCTION. In the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus gives to His church not only their mission for the entire time between His ascension and His return, but He also gives them the strategy for accomplishing that mission. The purpose of this post is to see how Jesus’ strategy is contained in the Great Commission and why baptism is a vital part of the church’s mission.

THE PASSAGE ITSELF

Here is the passage in Greek and in English.

(Greek)

19 πορευθέντες οὖν μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος, 20 διδάσκοντες αὐτοὺς τηρεῖν πάντα ὅσα ἐνετειλάμην ὑμῖν: 

καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ μεθ’ ὑμῶν εἰμι πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας ἕως τῆς συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος.

(English)

19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Notice that, in Jesus’ final and supreme charge to His church, our Lord gives them their mission and the God-ordained strategy for accomplishing the mission.

EXEGESIS

Before we begin considering the meaning and application of Jesus’ words, we need to spend a brief time making sure we understand what the words themselves mean.

There is one imperative verb in Jesus’ commission. Many readers will know that the only command is, “Make disciples!” The other verbs in English are actually participles and are not commands but serve as instructions for how to accomplish the command. Thus, a rough paraphrase could read, “Make disciples by going (to anyplace the people are), baptizing them (the disciples that you have made), and then teaching them (the disciples) to obey My commands.” Jesus finishes His commission by assuring His disciples that He is “with them always, even to the end (completion, culmination, consummation) of the age.”

I will use this interpretation as the working meaning of the Great Commission. Now that we have the meaning in hand, we will move on to a deeper understanding of its outworking in the growth of the church.

MISSION AND STRATEGY TILL THE END OF THE AGE

Before we look at the individual steps in the Great Commission, it is important to realize that, in this magnificent charge to His church in Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus gives not only the mission of the church for the entire time between His ascension and His return, but He also gives the church His strategy for accomplishing that mission. The Lord’s plan for building His church is clear and simple. His plan operates in any context: urban, rural, or suburban; subsistence farming, industrial age manufacturing, or Cloud-based technologies; rich or poor; in any language, in any culture, on any continent, under any form of government, in any ethnicity. Make disciples (mission) by (three-fold strategy) going out and proclaiming the gospel, then baptizing the disciples (those who believe), then teaching the disciples how to obey the Lord and to walk worthy of the gospel.

This post looked at the beauty and simplicity of Christ’s commission to His church. In the next post, we will now look at the individual pieces of His church growth plan.

SDG                 rmb                 3/18/2022                   #504

Thoughts on baptism from Matthew 28:19-20 – Part 1

“Buried unto death in Christ, rise again to walk in newness of life.” – my pastor when I was baptized thirty-one years ago at the age of thirty-one.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” – Jesus Christ giving the Great Commission to His church in Matthew 28:19-20.

Yesterday morning, our church celebrated the baptism of three new disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. One was a lady in her early thirties who had lived an immoral life before Christ. In her testimony, she herself compared herself to the “woman at the well” in John 4. But then she met Jesus, and had professed faith in Him, and had now found a good church where she could grow in her relationship with Jesus and could be taught what it means to be an obedient disciple of Jesus. As a testimony to her faith in Christ, she was baptized into Christ, and also baptized into His body, the church, where she will be nurtured and grow.

The next person baptized was ethnically Vietnamese. He was a young man 17 years old who had been raised in a Bible-believing home where Christ was honored as Lord. His parents were strong believers and had taught their son that he must personally place his faith in Jesus. And so, there came a day when this young man repented of his sins and placed his faith in Jesus. Now, as a testimony of his faith in Jesus, he was baptized into Christ, and also baptized into His body, the church, where he will be nurtured and grow.

The third person baptized was a Chinese man in his thirties. He had been born in northern China and, five years ago, had come to the United States to earn his PhD. When he came to this country, he was under tremendous stress. He and his wife had a newborn and there were issues with his visa and his job was stressful. As a result, he had almost experienced an emotional breakdown. At that time, he had met some Christians from our church and had begun to hear about Jesus. He committed to read the Bible from cover to cover to find out about Christianity. Then there came the day when he told his friend, “I believe in Jesus.” And so, in obedience to the command of Jesus, he was baptized into Christ, and also baptized into His body, the church, where he will be nurtured and grow.

These three stories are very different and are about three very different people. Externally they are about as different as people can be. Their journeys varied widely, as the Lord drew them to Himself (John 6:44). But the destination was the same. They were journeying toward Jesus and toward the salvation that Jesus offers to anyone who will repent of their sin and believe in Him.

THE BEAUTY OF THE GREAT COMMISSION

This is the beauty that is contained in the Great Commission which Jesus has given to His church. A person is far from God, living their life separated from Him by their sins (Isaiah 59:2; Ephesians 4:17-19). They may be living in open rebellion against God, or they may be outwardly “good” people who simply do not believe in Jesus, or they may be people who have never heard of Jesus and so remain ignorant of their sin and ignorant of His salvation. But regardless of why they are lost, and regardless of where they are in their wanderings, the path to salvation is clear and is the same.

First, a follower of Jesus proclaims to the sinner the gospel of salvation and tells the sinner of the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then, at some point, the sinner’s ears are opened so that he hears the gospel and trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation. Now the sinner has passed from death to life (John 5:24) and has been born again (John 3:3, 5), and has been saved (Acts 16:31). Thus, the sinner has become a disciple of the Lord Jesus.

Now that this person is a disciple of Jesus, what happens next? He is to be publicly baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit as a testimony of his new faith in Jesus. This is explicitly stated in Matthew 28:19, and there is absolutely no ambiguity. And the disciple is to join themselves with a local church where she can be taught “all things that the Lord commanded us.” The proper place for every disciple of the Lord Jesus is the local church. The church is where the new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) grows into a mature and obedient and reproducing believer.

The beauty of this transformed life was pictured for us Sunday in our church when these three disciples testified to their faith in Jesus and told of their journey to Him. From different directions they had entered through the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13-14) of faith in the Lord Jesus, and they had been publicly baptized into Christ, and now they were in the place of nurturing and teaching where they would grow into “oaks of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:3). This is such a beautiful picture of what Jesus came to do, “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10) by bringing them to faith and then placing them in healthy local churches.

TWO DIFFERENT VIEWS AND PRACTICES

Having talked about the biblical picture of what happens when a person comes to faith in Christ, I wanted to talk about two different views and practices that occur in many churches which do not correspond to the teaching of the Great Commission, and which thus result in great confusion in even identifying disciples and determining if they are obeying what Jesus commanded. The first practice that I will discuss is Paedobaptism, which is the practice of many Protestant churches of sprinkling infants with a little bit of water and calling that baptism. The second practice that we will explore is what I will call “revivalism.” Revivalism is a particular practice of evangelism which assumes that, when an “evangelist” proclaims a standard message, there will be instantaneous conversions, which will be punctuated by “praying the sinner’s prayer” and thus guaranteeing the sinner an eternity in heaven.

I will expand on these ideas in two future articles.

SDG                 rmb                 12/20/2021                 #471