The need for a demanding definition of discipleship

POST OVERVIEW. This post points out the problems with a broad and shallow definition of discipleship and simultaneously argues for a demanding definition in which conscious, intentional effort produces growth in Christlikeness.

If the disciple is to progress in holiness, usefulness, and obedience in his walk with Christ, then his course of discipleship must be rigorous enough to produce these desired results. And the beginning of any course of discipleship is a clear understanding that discipleship is the means to bring about a desired end.

In Philippians 2:12, the apostle Paul commands believers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” This is an excellent theme verse for your discipleship. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” When? All the time. Where? Wherever you are. For how long? Till Christ returns or calls you home. To what end? To the end that you will be conformed to the holiness and usefulness and obedience of Christ. What falls under this idea of working out my salvation? As a disciple of Jesus, everything in your life is part of your discipleship. “Disciple” is your identity and discipleship is your activity. The disciple is consciously and intentionally and purposefully engaged in discipleship to the greatest of all ends, to be pleasing to Master, to be useful to the Master, to be holy like the Master, and to be obedient like the Master. I contend that a demanding definition of discipleship is necessary if we, as fallen and weak human beings, are going to use our limited days and our feeble energies to make serious progress in our journey toward Christlikeness.

THE PROBLEM IDENTIFIED

I have gone to some length already to set the bar high in terms of defining discipleship because my observation is that a vigorous definition of discipleship is hard to come by in American churches. My sense is that most American churches do not even have a concept of discipleship. The idea that all professing believers are expected to grow in Scriptural knowledge, in obedience to Scripture, in holiness, in usefulness to the church, and in their witness for Christ in the world is a foreign concept in most American churches. This is lamentable, but it is not about these churches that I am concerned right now.

There are other churches which do have a concept of discipleship, and which do desire to be engaged in it, but their definition of what constitutes “discipleship” is so weak that it will fail to produce any meaningful results in sanctification. An anemic definition will produce anemic results. One example I heard of recently had a course in the church that was named “Discipleship” but which was, in reality, simply a year-long Bible survey. While this might qualify as a basic component of a vigorous course in discipleship, to equate this Bible overview with discipleship falls well short of the mark. This situation is not good, and it is difficult to see how this attitude toward “discipleship” is going to produce any meaningful or lasting fruit. But I am not targeting this group of churches now, either.

Finally, there is a third group of churches that not only has a concept of discipleship, but their church leadership also intentionally seeks to lead the church into a culture of discipleship. But there is a common flaw even among these well-meaning, intentional churches, and it again comes down to the definition of discipleship. In a church that I have attended recently, the definition of discipleship was “doing spiritual good to another believer.” While this is not technically wrong, such a broad and benign definition brings with it the very real possibility that the disciples in your flock think they are engaged in discipleship when, in fact, they may be doing nothing more than fellowship. If the aim of discipleship is not clearly stated as persistently growing in Christlikeness in all aspects of the disciple’s life, then broad and shallow tactics and strategies will suffice, but you will find that the lives of the disciples in your flock will be little different from the world.

The following are some further comments on this theme:

  • Discipleship involves the EFFORT of the disciple himself. That is, each disciple’s spiritual growth in Christlikeness is his own responsibility. In Phil. 2:12, the apostle Paul commands every disciple to work out HIS OWN SALVATION with fear and trembling. So, discipleship is not a committee activity. Rather, I am personally responsible for working out my own salvation. Other disciples can certainly help me, but it is my responsibility before the Lord to grow in holiness, obedience, and usefulness. I can and should solicit the help of other disciples to help me with skills and knowledge, but the working out is up to me. In college, you could get assistance from professors or tutors or other classmates, but your grade in the class was your responsibility. It is the same principle with discipleship.
  • Discipleship is purposeful, meaning that the disciple pursues a particular course of action for the purpose of growing in a particular area of our walk with Christ. Examples might be attending an Equipping Class at your church on Evangelism to be a more effective witness for Jesus or memorizing a chapter of the Bible to hide the Word in your heart and to have that Scripture available for meditation at any time.
  • Discipleship implies there is a target or a reason for an action. Usually growing disciples will plan their discipleship activities and then be sure to execute those plans so that progress is sustained. Planning your goal-centered activities puts the theoretical on your calendar, but only execution of those plans allows you to reap the benefits of your planning. So, growth in Christlikeness occurs only where there is intentional effort in specific activities aimed at the desired end of spiritual growth.

Of course, this does not mean that there is no benefit or spiritual growth to be had in routine activities. It is certainly true that much is learned, and much growth can be obtained from small steps over a long period of time. The point I am emphasizing here is that true discipleship does not occur randomly or accidentally. A disciple does not accidentally memorize the book of Ephesians or randomly come to understand the doctrine of election.

  • Imagine that you desire to run a marathon and so you begin your training. If you are planning to run 26.2 miles, then you need a training plan strict enough and demanding enough to allow you to accomplish your desired goal. In that training plan, you do not consider walking from the parking lot into the grocery store to be a training activity. Why not? Well, there are several reasons why not, but one of the reasons would be that walking the short distance into the grocery store is not an activity done in order to run a marathon. It is not done with the marathon in mind and for the conscious purpose of completing the 26.2-mile marathon. A legitimate training activity is done with the goal of the training in mind. And so it is with discipleship. A disciple engages in discipleship activities because these, if executed diligently, will help me grow in Christlikeness. These activities will bring about spiritual growth in me and will enable me to accomplish my goal of being holy and useful and obedient.
  • A person who says they want to be a concert pianist, but whose only musical activity is thirty minutes a day on the guitar will not achieve their aim, no matter how convinced they are that their musical regimen is creating a pianist. And why not? It is because their regimen is too weak. Just so, if you desire to be useful to the Master, an effective ambassador for Christ, an example to other disciples, a person who passes on spiritual strength and encouragement to the succeeding generations, and holy as the Lord is holy, then you need a discipleship regimen that is capable of those desired results.
  • Discipleship requires the disciple to expend conscious effort. Paul commands each disciple to “WORK OUT your salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). “Working out” anything requires effort. If you would “work out” your physical fitness with fear and trembling, you will be required to sweat and groan and endure some level of pain over a relatively long period of time. Your amount of progress is directly related to the degree of EFFORT. Just so discipleship requires conscious effort over a long period of time.

So, again, the main point I am trying to make here is that, if discipleship is going to be the grand adventure it is intended to be, the disciple must envision a grand end and must strive to reach that grand end via intentional, conscious, purposeful efforts. To be meaningful, your discipleship must be capable of bringing you to your desired destination.

SDG                 rmb                 11/20/2022                 #589

A definition of discipleship

OVERVIEW. Over the past several months, I have been gathering ideas and writing about the broad topic of discipleship for the purpose of organizing these thoughts and ideas into a book on the subject. This post is my attempt at a comprehensive definition of discipleship to be used in that book. In this post, the definition is stated and then explained word by word. In all this work on discipleship, the key verse is Philippians 2:12, where Paul commands us, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. – Philippians 2:12

The purpose of this article is to state and explain the definition of discipleship I will be using in all my writing and my work on the subject of discipleship. My definition is based on Paul’s words in Philippians 2:12, where the apostle commands every disciple of Jesus to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” This “working out” is the task of discipleship, but what does this mean to the 21st century disciple? Answering that question begins with defining what we mean when we use the word “discipleship.”

Another comment is probably in order here. The definition that I am proposing for discipleship is demanding, but I think this is the challenging task to which we are called as followers of the Lord Jesus. It is the most glorious calling imaginable for any mortal, to be called to live in fellowship with the living God and to display His glory through this jar of clay. Therefore, the lifelong task of “working out my salvation” such that my life conforms more and more to the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to me through faith should be likewise demanding.

DEFINITION OF DISCIPLESHIP

Discipleship is the lifelong process of conscious, intentional, purposeful actions taken by the disciple aimed at progressively conforming the disciple into the likeness of Jesus Christ in thought, word, and deed in all areas of the disciple’s life.

Lifelong – The process of discipleship is begun as soon after justification (conversion) as possible and then continues until the disciple’s last breath. This process lasts the rest of life because there is always more to learn and more “conforming” that needs to take place to move the fallen and redeemed man into the image of Christ. Thus, in discipleship there is no retirement, because the phase that follows discipleship is to be without sin, either in heaven with Christ as disembodied souls awaiting the resurrection or in eternity as glorified saints.

Process – While justification is an event that occurs at a point in time, discipleship is process of many incremental steps over a long period of time.

Conscious – The actions the disciple takes aimed at his own growth in Christlikeness are taken consciously. The disciple is aware that he is taking these actions and is aware why he is taking these actions. The actions are thus clearly volitional.

Intentional – The actions the disciple takes are selected based on the fact that these actions bring about the desired result. The actions are selected based on wisdom and are executed after planning.

Purposeful – In the ideal, each action is taken to achieve a specific purpose or objective. There is a target in mind, a reason for the action. The goal is not to merely generate activity but is to move one step closer to the perfection of Jesus Christ in some area of discipleship. Paul did not box as a man beating the air (1 Cor. 9:26). Metaphorically, Paul boxed in order to knock out his opponent. Therefore, he “exercised self-control in all things” (9:25).He “bruised his body to make it his slave” (9:27). These are discipleship words which speak of vigorous effort aimed toward a conscious purpose.

Actions (or activities) – The result of a discipleship plan is visible, intentional action. The disciple sees areas in his walk with Christ that need to grow and then moves confidently into those areas to work out that growth. Like the salmon that will jump up the waterfall until it gains the higher stream, so the disciple continues to act until he gains the desired spiritual growth. The disciple manifests his desire for spiritual growth by intentional actions.

Aimed at (see “Purposeful”)

Progressively conforming – The aim of each conscious, intentional action is to produce change in the disciple such that the flesh is weakened and opposed and that holiness and obedience to Christ are strengthened and are more evident in the disciple’s life.

In thought, word, and deed – Our thoughts are open before God (Hebrews 4:13) and will be manifested in our words (“out of the heart, the mouth speaks”) and evidenced in our deeds. “The LORD desires truth in the innermost part” (Psalm 51:6) and His disciple “hungers and thirsts for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6), so the goal of discipleship is for the disciple always to be growing in Christlikeness in all areas of life.

SDG                 rmb                 11/9/2022                   #585

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 disciple’s sanctification (Phil. 2:12-13)

POST OVERVIEW. This post is the second part of a series of articles on Philippians 2:12-13, exploring how the disciple of Jesus can “work out their salvation with fear and trembling.” Having discussed justification in the previous post (#579), we now examine the disciple’s sanctification. We will also explore how sanctification relates to discipleship. This is a foundational article in my own consideration of the broad topic of discipleship.

FROM BIRTH TO ETERNITY

If we were to give a simplified sequence of events in the life of the disciple of Jesus Christ from birth to eternity, there would be four major components: condemnation, justification, sanctification, and glorification. Condemnation is the condition of being an unforgiven sinner and being subject to the judgment and wrath of God for your sins. All people are born as sinners and all people are therefore born into this state of condemnation (Rom. 3:23). Justification describes the event when God declares the sinner to be righteous in His sight because of the sinner’s initial confession of faith in Jesus Christ. In justification, the disciple passes from death to life (John 5:24), becomes a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), and no longer experiences condemnation (Romans 8:1). After the disciple has been justified (declared righteous), he enters the stage of sanctification, which lasts till the end of his earthly life. Sanctification is the process of growing in practical holiness and Christlikeness, which means decreasing sin and increasing obedience. (Note: “Discipleship” occurs in the sanctification stage.) The final state for every disciple of Jesus Christ is glorification, when all the saints are in heaven forever in glorified, resurrection bodies. All disciples will receive their glorified bodies on the last day (John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 1 Cor. 15:51-54; 1 Thess. 4:14-17).

JUSTIFICATION, SANCTIFICATION, AND DISCIPLESHIP

Since this consideration of justification and sanctification is in the context of discipleship, we need to see how these two ideas of justification and sanctification relate to the disciple of Jesus. In simple terms, the event of justification creates a disciple. We know that, prior to justification, the sinner is outside Christ, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). At justification, when the sinner believes in Jesus and is thus declared righteous, the sinner is converted into a disciple of Jesus. But if justification creates a disciple, sanctification grows a disciple into increasing Christlikeness. This is the process whereby the disciple learns “to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel” (Ephesians 4:1). It is apparent that sanctification is only possible if justification has already occurred, but we also know that, if justification has truly occurred, then it will certainly result in sanctification.

COMPARING JUSTIFICATION AND SANCTIFICATION

In further considering justification and sanctification, we can say that justification is necessarily “monergistic.” “Monergistic” means that justification, the event whereby God declares the sinner to be fully and forever righteous based on the sinner’s faith in Jesus, is exclusively the work of God. In the act of justification, God is the only actor. When God justifies the believing sinner, He imputes Christ’s perfect righteousness to the sinner’s account as if Christ’s righteousness were the sinner’s own, while the sinner passively receives Christ’s imputed righteousness based solely on his profession of faith. The point is that in justification, God is active and the sinner-disciple is passive.

By contrast, sanctification – the progressive decreasing of sin and the progressive increasing of practical righteousness – is a joint effort between the disciple of Jesus and God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the clearest statement of this biblical truth is in Philippians 2:12-13:

12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

THE WORK OF THE DISCIPLE

In these verses, Paul is certainly speaking about the disciple’s sanctification. As we consider the bolded part of the passage, the cooperative, joint effort between the disciple and the Lord is apparent. First, Paul commands the disciple to “work out his salvation.” The apostle does not have in mind some ongoing work by which the disciple earns or merits his salvation, for the Bible rejects the idea of human works meriting salvation in many places. Rather, he is instructing the disciple who has already been justified by his faith to labor with all his might so that his changed life will be vividly displayed in the outward fruit of repentance. In other words, “work out your salvation” means “be diligent and vigorous in your sanctification efforts so that, as time goes on, there is a closer and closer agreement between the righteousness your life displays and the full righteousness that has been imputed to you.” The point is that progress in sanctification depends on the disciple’s active efforts to grow in holiness.  

THE WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

But while it is clear that sanctification depends on the disciple’s efforts, we also see that sanctification is dependent on the ongoing work of God the Holy Spirit. “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” When a disciple comes to faith in Jesus, then not only is the person declared righteous, but that person is also “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13). Thus, from the moment of salvation, the disciple is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and He, the Holy Spirit, immediately begins to accomplish the ongoing, unconscious transformation of the disciple. For example, the disciple receives the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). The disciple also receives a spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12), which allows him to serve and edify the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit reveals sin to the disciple and guides him into all truth (John 16:9ff). The Holy Spirit allows the disciple to put sin to death (Rom. 8:13), leads the disciple (8:14), testifies to the disciple that he is a child of God (8:16), and intercedes for the disciple in prayer “with groanings too deep for words” (8:26). This is the work of the Holy Spirit in all believers and the result of this unconscious work of the Spirit is that the disciple grows in sanctification.

We have seen, then, that the disciple grows in sanctification both by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, who is unconsciously and invisibly transforming the disciple, and by the disciple’s own efforts. While acknowledging the Holy Spirit’s necessary role in sanctification, we want to now turn our attention to the sanctification that is brought about by the disciple’s own efforts, for this is the sanctification that we can directly influence.

DEFINITION OF DISCIPLESHIP

Now we want to address the question, “What is the relationship between ‘discipleship’ and ‘sanctification’?” We remember that we defined sanctification as “the progressive decreasing of sin and the progressive increasing of practical righteousness in the life of the disciple of Jesus.” From this, we can say that a functional definition of discipleship is “the sanctification that is brought about in the disciple’s life as a result of the disciple’s  own conscious efforts.” This discipleship is what Paul has in mind in Philippians 2:12 when he commands us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Thus, in discipleship, the disciple of Jesus takes conscious actions to intentionally attack their sin and purposefully grow in their practice of righteous, Bible-approved acts until they finish the race.

Discipleship, then, is a logical outgrowth of justification, when the sinner passes from death to life (John 5:24) and is made a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Being made new in Christ generates in every disciple a desire for holiness and an ambition to be pleasing to the Lord Jesus (2 Cor. 5:9). This desire for holiness is part of the seed of justification and is a required product of the new birth such that, if the desire for holiness and the growth in Christlikeness are absent, the real occurrence of justification is brought into question.

In discipleship, then, the key words are “conscious,” “intentional,” and “purposeful.” This is because these conscious, intentional, purposeful actions to increase in holiness are the result of the disciple’s own planning and choices and reflections and efforts. This conscious, intentional activity is motivated by the disciple’s own desire for holiness and by his ambition to be pleasing to the Lord Jesus and is an example of the disciple “working out his salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). And while this activity is certainly empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, its initiation and execution depend on the individual disciple.

THE DISCIPLE’S OWN RESPONSIBILITY

In the sense, then, that progress in discipleship depends on the disciple’s own wisdom and diligence and desire and activity and persistence, discipleship is similar to other human endeavors. In any human activity, those who are more diligent and energetic will make more progress in that activity than those who are less so. It is the same with the degree of sanctification you achieve from your own discipleship efforts. The spiritual resources for your sanctification have all been supplied. You have been set free from your slavery to sin (Romans 6), you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13), you have been given full access to God’s throne to send Him your prayers (Hebrews 4:16), you have been placed in His body the church so that you have brothers and sisters to encourage you, and you have His Word to read and to meditate on. You have every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3). Now, with all these resources available to you, you are commanded to work out your salvation. Both because the disciple has received apostolic command to work out his salvation and because the disciple has been entrusted with divine resources for working out of his salvation, discipleship is each disciple’s own responsibility.

SDG                 rmb                 10/19/2022                 #582

The disciple’s justification (Phil. 2:12-13)

POST OVERVIEW. This post begins a short series of articles on Philippians 2:12-13, exploring how the disciple of Jesus can work out their salvation with fear and trembling. The first post examines the doctrine of justification as background for study of sanctification.

The New Testament introduces us to the incarnate Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and has as its central theme the gospel of salvation. This gospel states that, for anyone who will place their faith in Jesus and confess Jesus Christ as Lord, God will forgive their sins and will save them from His wrath and give them eternal life. After this salvation event, the believer commits to walk with Christ for the rest of their life in obedience to His commands. One of the words the New Testament uses for the event of salvation is justification, and the believer’s subsequent walk of increasing holiness is called sanctification. This short series is mostly on sanctification, but we first need to understand justification in order to fully understand sanctification.

JUSTIFICATION

We have already spoken about the salvation event as justification, but we need to be a little more precise. Justification is the event whereby a sinner is declared fully and forever righteous in the sight of God because of the sinner’s professed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.

Three things should be noted about this definition. First, this justification is an event, not a process. Although the journey to the point of salvation may take years, justification itself occurs at a point in time. It is a one-time, once-for-all event that has eternal results. This is the moment when the sinner passes from death to life (John 5:24). This is the moment of spiritual birth when one is born again (John 3:3, 5). God justifies the sinner when he initially professes his faith in Jesus. So, event, not process.

But second, in justification, the sinner is declared righteous on the basis of their profession of faith in the Lord Jesus. God declares as righteous the one who confesses Jesus as Lord. Thus the believer, having been declared righteous upon their initial faith in Jesus, is forever viewed as righteous. This also means that all true followers of Jesus are equally justified and equally righteous, even though there may be great differences in terms of the disciples’ actual progress in practical holiness. Justification is God’s declaration of righteousness, not a reward for the disciple’s own efforts.

Third, justification is based solely on the repentant sinner’s initial profession of faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. That is, “having heard the message of truth, the gospel of salvation” (Ephesians 1:13) and having understood that Jesus has come from heaven to die on the cross as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), the sinner believes in Jesus and publicly professes Jesus Christ as their own Lord and Savior.

JUSTIFICATION IS ENTIRELY THE WORK OF GOD

Notice that, in justification, God is the only actor. The Bible presents justification as entirely the work of God. God is the One who justifies (Romans 8:33). God is just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26 in the powerful verses of 3:21-26). God is the One who justifies the circumcised (Jewish people) by faith and the uncircumcised (Gentiles) through faith (Romans 3:29-30). All this attests to the fact that our God is the One who does the work of justification. In justification, God is active and the believer is passive. God declares righteous and the believer receives righteousness. God is the actor and the believer is the object. It is God alone who “delivers us from the domain of darkness and transfers us into the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).

Having gotten a good handle on justification, in the next post in this series we will turn our attention to the corresponding subject of sanctification.

SDG                 rmb                 10/5/2022                   #579

Work out your salvation – Part 1 (Philippians 2:12)

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. – Philippians 2:12

SERIES INTRODUCTION: In preparation for a future book project, I have been spending time recently considering the twin ideas of “disciple” and “discipleship.” Over the next few weeks (or months?) I will be posting a series of articles on discipleship – what it is and how we bring the making of disciples into the life of the local church.

WHAT IS A DISCIPLE? WHAT IS DISCIPLESHIP?

What is a “Disciple?” What is “discipleship?” These are surely two of the foundational questions that must be answered before we can have an extensive discussion on discipleship, but these two questions are difficult to answer. Along these lines, some would suggest that discipleship is “an intentional, deliberate effort to do spiritual good in another believer’s life.” While this definition is accurate as far as it goes, in my opinion it is not sufficiently narrow. It does not adequately separate helpful activities of disciples of Jesus from those encounters designed to grow someone in Christlikeness.

What I mean is, with this definition, how do we distinguish ordinary encouragement, fellowship, praying with another believer, Bible studies, and the discussion of sermons or Christian books, from discipleship? Or are all these also discipleship? Are most of us actually deeply involved in discipling others without knowing it? And are the ones we are discipling likewise unaware that they are being discipled? I don’t think so. In my view, if some activity is intentional and deliberate, the participants must be aware of what they are doing. If discipleship is, indeed, a distinct Christian activity, then we need to be able to determine if we are or are not doing that activity.

A TIGHTER DEFINITION OF DISCIPLESHIP

While it is true that there should be spiritual encouragement and even edification and growth from unstructured Christian fellowship, I would suggest that the term “discipleship” necessitates intentionality and structure and energy (or “intensity”). Ordinary Christian fellowship and Christian living are not meant to hold the attention and concentration of believers long enough or intensely enough to affect significant change in believers.

NUCLEAR BOMB ANALOGY

I am not an expert in nuclear devices, but I have been told that, in a nuclear bomb, one slug of enriched uranium must be in very close proximity with another slug of enriched uranium for a definite period of time before the chain reaction of a nuclear explosion can take place. If the uranium slugs are not enriched enough, or if one sufficiently enriched uranium slug is not in close enough proximity with another sufficiently enriched uranium slug, or if the sufficiently enriched uranium slugs are not in close enough proximity for a long enough time, then the conditions are insufficient for a nuclear reaction. In other words, there is a potency requirement, and there is a proximity requirement, and there is a duration requirement, and if any one of these is missing, there is no nuclear explosion.

ENERGY, INTENTIONALITY, AND DURATION

Corresponding to this example, I would suggest that, for meaningful spiritual growth and transformation to take place in the life of a believer, there is an energy requirement, an intentionality requirement, and a duration requirement.

The energy requirement says that, for the disciple to be transformed, the disciple must enthusiastically desire to change and be motivated to change. The disciple must bring his own energy, he must bring his own “heat” to the encounter. Sustained zeal is a needed component of spiritual transformation.

The intentionality requirement means that there is a purpose for the encounter (the encounter is not random or haphazard) that creates movement toward a definite goal. Thus, there is an element of design in each encounter whose goal is to move the disciple toward greater Christlikeness in knowledge, in obedience, in holiness, or in usefulness.

The duration requirement acknowledges that transformation into greater Christlikeness requires spending significant time in that activity. Time must be expended, both in individual encounters (think sixty to ninety minutes rather than fifteen minutes) and in all the collective encounters over a lifetime. In discipleship, we adopt “the long view.” Having committed to the path, we likewise commit to spending the necessary time to follow the path to the end. This means that, while no single encounter is transformational by itself, each individual encounter is a necessary link in the transformational chain that is “producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).

Hopefully that gets us started into this exploration of discipleship. Next time, we will dig a little deeper and find out what activities make up discipleship encounters.

SDG                 rmb                 11/12/2021                 #453