N ot so many years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1959) explained, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”
In Luke 9:23-25, Jesus teaches us that faith means to follow. This is a person’s first true test of faith.
Luke 9:23-25 (NLT): 23 Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. 24 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. 25 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?
Being a disciple means following Christ by our faith and by our obedience. The sad truth is we have misused the great doctrine of justification by faith and God’s grace to teach people that they do not really need to follow Christ to be Christians.
According to Bonhoeffer (1959), “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.” There is no obedience without faith nor is there faith without obedience. In believing there is an act of obedience, such as Peter’s leaving his nets or Matthew’s walking away from his receipts. This act of obedience is never more than a “dead work of the law,” but it must be done because Jesus commands it. Inability to believe is probably due to unwillingness to take the first step.
Bonhoeffer’s pastoral concern shows in the hypothetical instance of a man who says he wants to believe and cannot. The usual pastor is baffled about the next step in his presentation. The secret weapon is to continue the dialogue by saying, “Only those who obey; believe. . . . You are disobedient; you are trying to keep some part of your life under your own control.” If you give up your sins, your uncommitted world, and obey, you will believe.
Characteristics of a Faith that Embrace Discipleship
In his book, “The Complete Book of Discipleship,” author Bill Hull (2006) explains that the qualities of the disciple-based faith taught in God’s Word is both basic and essential to understand how to both be and make disciples. These key points are:
- A faith that embraces discipleship is only real when we actively obey it.
- A faith that embraces discipleship is defined historically by people who took action.
- A faith that embraces discipleship distinguishes itself from mere agreement or intellectual assent with demonstrated proof.
- Jesus distinguished a faith that embraces discipleship as thoughtful obedience instead of religious words.
Matthew 10:39 (NLT): If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.
If you want to save your life – put your own self and schedule first and control conditions and results – then you will lose your life. In this context, gaining and losing refers to the basic choice of salvation. Jesus did not restrict salvation into a neat and tidy schema. He defined it in terms of action rather than doctrine, because faith is action based on belief. So faith defined by Jesus contains the aspects such as, self-denial, taking up your cross daily, and obeying Him. This does not violate the precepts of grace; it defines the very nature of faith itself.
In Luke 9:24 Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it.” By our old nature, we attempt to set goals, make plans, and chase after them. Ultimately, this self-inspired process backfires miserably because when we insist on directing our own lives, we can never enter into the joy and fulfillment of God’s perfect plan for us. God does indeed have a perfect plan for us that make our self-willed plans seem tiny and useless: “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” (Ephesians 2:10).
Faith is Only Real in Obedience
Jesus’ brother James, the writer of the New Testament, said it very well: “Faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). In other words, faith without action is not really faith at all. James was not talking about works as a way to be made righteous; rather he was talking about the nature of faith.
Jesus was obedient to His death. He saw His mission through the cross. Jesus submitted to death because that was His calling.
God calls every disciple to be obedient unto death as well. What must die in us as we follow in His footsteps? For me, it’s my ideas, plans, and schedule. Disciples must die a daily death that takes place hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until the very moment we take our last earthly breath.
Faith is only real in obedience. Jesus provided the greatest illustration in His agony from within the garden of Gethsemane. He saw God’s plan through because of His humility and submission, which was undeniably confirmed in obedient sacrifice.
Who is weak in faith and who is strong? We are all weak in some areas and strong in others. Our faith is strong in an area where we consistently avoid giving into temptation. Our faith is weak if we must avoid certain activities or places in order to protect our spiritual life. We must all take a self-inventory to find
our weaknesses and strengths. No matter what our weaknesses may be, we can always count on God. Where we are weak, He is strong.
2 Corinthians 12:10 (NLT): That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Bonhoeffer, D. (1959). The Cost of Discipleship. Translated by R. H. Fuller, (rev. ed.). New Nork, NY: Touchstone.
Hull, R. W. (2006). The complete book of discipleship. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.