In His Name Alone

If we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. (Acts 4:9-10)

When Peter and John were brought before the Jewish Council to explain the healing of the lame man they had encountered in the Temple (Acts 3-4), they made it clear that it was not by their own power or skill that the man had been healed, but rather, it was the power of Jesus — and in His name alone — that the man was made well.

Peter and John had every opportunity to take credit for themselves. These disciples, who had both followed along with Jesus after his arrest, had  been witnesses to the Lord’s suffering and death. These same two were among the first to run to the tomb in response to the witness of Mary, who told them of the empty tomb. Peter and John were among those who experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and had boldly announced the Good News to people of many nations, when earlier, they hid in silence.  Now, through them, the Holy Spirit was actually working miracles of healing similar to those performed by Jesus himself!

It would have been easy, at that point, for Peter and John to talk about the spiritual progress they had made as disciples. In a very short time, they had advanced from doubt and wonder to certainty and conviction, surpassing the other disciples of lesser faith, who had no such miracles about which to boast.

Yet Peter and John did not boast. The made no claim to progress or power. Instead, they denied that they had accomplished anything. They said that Jesus’ name had done it all. Scripture tells us:

When Peter saw it he addressed the people: “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus… To this we are witnesses. And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all. (Acts 3:12-13,16)

In this story, Scripture gives us another example of how Sanctification really happens in our lives as disciples of Christ.  Too often, we like to speak of our discipleship in terms of moral progress and of our efforts to become “better” Christians. The more we accomplish, the more apparent we can be in showing the effects of our ministry, the higher on the “leader’s board” we can get … and by comparison, show how much further ahead of others we are in our discipleship.

Ironically, in the lives of the disciples in Scripture, the opposite is true. It seems the greater the ministry, the further the outreach, and the more miraculous the results – the less credit they took for themselves, and the more they gave to Jesus. They had learned the lesson that discipleship is a not a personal step-ladder to attain spiritual heights, but rather, it is coming to better appreciation for how God alone is the source of our strength and power. Like Peter and John, we are simply the living “means of grace” that God uses to accomplish his purpose to bring glory to His name.

To put this in terms of the Second Commandment, and what it means that we should “not take the name of the Lord our God in vain” – it means that we who bear the name of Christ take no credit for ourselves but give all glory to his name. It means that as people of faith we do not boast of our own power or piety, but bear witness to the name of the One who is at work in us and through us.

As disciples, we confess that “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30). We live our lives in His service, to His glory.  For we know that God’s name is indeed holy in itself and we pray that it may be kept holy among us.

Disciples of One Master

Jesus said:  “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.” (Matthew 10:24-25a)

I remember hearing an observation about life in the military and the difference in status between officers and enlisted personnel. It is said, “There is no one more private than a General, and there is no one more general than a Private.”

Perhaps it is the nature of leadership to reflect a pyramid-like structure, with just a few individual leaders at the top and multitude of followers at the bottom. We see this not only in the military, but in corporations, government, and athletic organizations. We often see it in our local congregations and the Church in general. Over the history of Christianity, believers have wrestled with questions of ecclesiology, and how best to structure the institution of the Church for service in the world. Even in the most equitable of systems, there are leaders and there are followers.

But when we speak of Christian Discipleship, it should be obvious who is the Leader and who are the followers. We as individual believers follow our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, together as his disciples. We are the many; he is the One.  As John wrote of the vision that was revealed to him:

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:11-12)

This attribution of unique greatness to Christ as Lord embodies the very spirit of the First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God… You shall have no others gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). The heavenly doxology expresses our praise to the One who is above all. It is in harmony with what Christ himself called the first and greatest commandment: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Matthew 22:37-38).

There is no one more faithful than Christ, and there is no one who sees the need for Christ more than the faithful. This is the confession of a true disciple.

So when our Lord gave us the commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) and we seek to carry out that commission, we should be clear about what this means. Christ is not calling us to create a cadre of followers for ourselves, making others our students; but rather, he is calling us to enjoin others to be his followers. In the army of the Lord, we are all the very “general” privates who serve the same unique General.

As one who encourages people live out their faith in relationships of “life-to-life” discipleship, it is important for me to remember and emphasize that “where two or three are gathered” there is only one Master – and that master is not me!  Occasionally, I have heard experienced pastors casually say things like, “I have been discipling (so-and-so) for several years…” — and, of course, I know what they mean. They have been serving as a mentor to help this person in their journey of faith.

Like Philip who was sent by the Spirit to come alongside the eunuch on the Gaza road (Acts 8), it is essential to recognize that Jesus calls us to walk with one another and to help each other understand and live out his promise in our daily lives. But at the same time, it is important for us to keep in mind that – wherever we may find ourselves on that journey — we are all disciples of the same Lord. On that day in Gaza, Philip did not make a disciple for himself, but Christ made his own new disciple of the eunuch through Philip. Philip was merely the earthly means of grace through which God carried out his purpose.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master,” Jesus said. For us, as Christians, Jesus himself is that Teacher and Master.

So as we walk together in faith as Christ’s disciples, we must remind ourselves that we all look to the same Lord. God has brought us together to help each other and lift each other up along the way. We  share lives of mutual discipleship, so that, “whatever [we] do, in word or deed, [we] do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

– Pastor Steven E. King

For Us and In Us

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses …” (Acts 1:8)

When I teach confirmation students about the Holy Spirit, I always talk about what it means to believe that God himself is at work in our lives –- not only about what God does for us but also about what God does in us.  Both of these are key to what Christian discipleship is about.

Disciples of Jesus are not simply updated versions of the disciples of Moses or the disciples of the Pharisees, who live according to the Law. The disciples of the Law were empowered by their own human spirit –- i.e. by their own righteousness and obedience to the standards set by God and subject to their own human traditions. What empowered their actions was a desire to achieve a higher moral status. They wanted to be able to show that they were better than all others who followed the law.

The way the Law works is a “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” proposition. It is a transactional bargain based on the premise that if you follow God’s commandments, God, in turn, will reward you for your obedience. The Law assumes a back-and-forth reciprocity in our relationship with God, where we do our part for God, then God does his part for us.  Just like in John’s baptism of repentance, where each party fulfills their obligations in a divine-human contract, in such a law-based scenario, the Holy Spirit is not present or required.

When it comes to following Jesus, some Christians use the same back-and-forth logic of the Law. Recognizing that God is the one who takes the initiative in grace, they define “discipleship” by simply change the order of the transaction, saying: “Because God has done all this for us, we must now do this for God.” In such a view, works of discipleship and lives of obedience are not required pre-conditions for God’s grace, but they are disguised as necessary “post-conditions” — in a sort of retroactive transaction — as if that is somehow better.  Discipleship is understood to be a “no money down, no payments until January” sort of bargain. But all parties are aware that, eventually, the bill must be paid. The Law is still the Law.

The Gospel, however, is not simply a pay-after-the-fact deal. The good works produced by faith are not our human settlement of delayed payment plan. Rather, the good that is produced by faith is fruit of God’s own Holy Spirit at work in us.  The logic is of the Gospel is not like the transactional logic of the Law that says: “If you do this for God, God will do this for you.” Nor is the Gospel merely the same Law in reverse, that says: “If God does this for you, you must do this for God.”

The Gospel, from start to finish, is the work of God’s Holy Spirit — both for us and in us. Our lives of discipleship are not our payback for God’s prior grace, but are lives in which the very Spirit of God is at work through us. Discipleship is not an act of our own human will in payment of debt; it is the active expression of God’s own will being done by God, in and among us.  We are simply the earthen vessels; the transcendent power belongs to God (2 Corinthians 4:7).

The hammer does not pay back the carpenter by doing its own work, apart from the carpenter’s hand; the hammer is used by the carpenter to do his work. In the same way, we are simply a tool in the Carpenter’s hand. Just as God uses the physical sacraments as his means of grace, God uses our lives as his disciples in a sacramental way to convey his grace and love to others.

When Luther made his famous statement in the Small Catechism, “I cannot by my own understanding or effort, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has …” — he was not merely speaking of Justification, or simply the grace by which we are saved. Nor was he speaking of some prevenient deposit of grace, for which we must later pay in full. He was speaking of Sanctification, and the power of the Holy Spirit – past, present, and future — by which we are made holy before God. All this is the fruit of God’s own Spirit.

When Jesus promised his disciples on the day he ascended to heaven, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses …” (Acts 1:8), he was not speaking of our work in response to God, he was speaking of the work that God himself will do in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is what I believe. This is the truth I act upon. Regardless of what others may say about their faith, let the Spirit bear witness in me:

“I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort live as a disciple of Jesus or follow him, but the Holy Spirit is living and active in me, so that it is not my will that is done, but the will of him who is at work in me.”

– Pastor Steven E. King

Gain or Loss?

“He has freed me from sin, death, and the power of the devil, not with silver and gold, but with his holy and precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.”  (Luther’s Small Catechism)

Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). In doing so, he showed us that being his follower has a sacrificial quality, not unlike Jesus’ own sacrifice for our sake on the cross. Jesus taught that Christian discipleship is not about gain for the self but more about the loss of the self.

It is popular these days among preachers of the “prosperty gospel” to tell listeners that faith is the means to gain personal success. Such preachers are not above promising earthly “silver and gold” as the reward for faithful discipleship. Of course, if one does not become magically wealthy and successful, they explain it as a sign that the loser’s faith must not be strong or sincere enough.

But as Luther says in the catechism, Jesus’ sacrifice for us had nothing to do with silver and gold, but with his holy and precious blood. Jesus gave his life for us that we might new life. This new life of faith means that the old life in us ends. Through Jesus’ death we die to ourselves, and through his resurrection, we are raised to a different kind of life.  As Paul says in his letter to the Romans,

“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin … So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:6, 11)

But what does it mean die to sin, and “be brought to nothing”? It means that as disciples of Christ, we don’t look to ourselves and our own desires as the goal of our personal lives. It means that we don’t measure our lives by selfish success, whether it be in earthly wealth or in spiritual superiority over others. Dying to self is living a life of sacrificial humility, where “we do not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but think with sober judgment,” remembering that “though many, we are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:3, 5).

Ironically, this is where we find our true value and purpose in Christ. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Humility does not mean we think less of ourselves, but that we think of ourselves less.”

As disciples of Jesus, we do not measure ourselves as better than others, but regard all we have as the tools and resources to serve others. Though we may be simple earthen vessels, jars of clay, we are also the living means of grace by which God’s transcendent power is revealed as he works daily to bring salvation to the world.

Pastor Steven E. King

New Discipleship Series

Disciples of the Cross – Released!

This two-part study approaches discipleship from an intentionally Lutheran theological perspective, emphasizing a sacramental theology of the cross, the distinction of law and gospel, and an understanding of the Christian believer as one who is both saint and sinner.

In Part 1 of this study, “Who We Are,” we look at the question of what it means to be a person of faith. How does what we believe connect to what we do and how we live? How does our relationship with Jesus as our Savior, Lord, and Master, shape the way we think about daily living? How does God’s Word give us direction in our mission and calling as Jesus’ followers sent out into the world?

1: Apprentices of the Master
–   Following Jesus in His Life of the Cross

2: What Are You In This For?
–  Disciples of the Cross vs. Disciples of Glory

3: God is the Potter; We Are the Clay
–  Recognizing How God Does His Work in Us

4: Being Poured Out Before God
–  Daily Dying to Self and Being Raised in Christ

5: What Would a Hammer Pray For?
–  Being Used by God as His Means of Grace 

6: One Race With Many Laps
–  Returning to the Lord as a Pattern for Daily Life

In Part 2 of the study, “What We Do,” we look at the question of what it means to live our lives as people of faith. Structured on the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer, this study looks at the key aspects of our life of faith. Not only will the study examine the basic disciplines we practice as disciples of Christ, it will also show how God uses us to bring his Gospel of grace and forgiveness into the lives of others.

1: Discipline and Disposition
–  Law and Gospel in Our Lives as Followers of Jesus

2: Relationships in Prayer
–  Praying to God and Praying for Our Neighbors

3: Dwelling in the Word
–  Listening to God’s Word and Speaking to Our Neighbors

4: Sharing Each Day Our Daily Bread
–  Depending upon God and Providing for Our Neighbors

5: Our “Come to Jesus” Moments
–  Asking Forgiveness from God & Forgiving Our Neighbors

6: The Struggle Between Death and Life
–  Bearing the Cross and One Another’s Burdens 

What God Has Done

The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.” (Psalm 126:3)

In the course of this series of articles emphasizing a “sacramental” view of our lives as disciples, we have drawn upon the basic Law-Gospel distinction that is familiar to many Lutheran Christians. As Lutherans, we know that when we listen to the Word of God, we hear the Law in terms of the expectations and demands that God makes upon us as his creatures. The Law tells us what we must do for God. On the other hand, in the Word of God we also hear the Gospel. This is when we experience what God has done for us — particularly in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the promise of how God uses us as instruments of his Holy Spirit to accomplish his will in us. The Gospel tells us what God has done, and is doing, among us.

Many approaches to Christian discipleship tend to employ a law-based understanding of our lives as disciples, focusing on the works and actions that God expects of us as his followers. For example, various authors on the subject use a list of what they call the “marks of discipleship” or the “disciplines of faith” to describe the things that set us apart as disciples of Christ. Unfortunately, such lists are often presented (or perhaps, falsely perceived) as a list of good works or daily practices that must be mastered to achieve “disciple status.”

If Christian discipleship was simply a list of things we do for God, it would be nearly the same in just about any world religion. But if what makes the Gospel unique is the message of what God has done for us in Christ, then we should expect that what makes Christian discipleship unique also has to do with what God does for us in Christ.  Since we are justified by faith alone in Christ, the marks of discipleship cannot simply be a list of works. There is but one “mark” of a disciple, and that is faith alone.

Of course, there are many ways our faith in Christ expresses itself in our everyday lives and there are many things we “do” because of this faith. But these are the ways God’s own Holy Spirit bears fruit among us; we are simply the earthen vessels through which God does his work.

For example, when Jesus taught his disciples the “Lord’s Prayer” (Lk. 11:1-4, Mt. 6:7-15), he did not give them a list of commandments, but rather, a list of petitions — i.e. things to ask God for. The very fact that we need to ask, shows that these things are not our own accomplishments

In this list of requests he gave us to ask of God, Jesus was not only teaching us about prayer, he was showing us ways in which our faith daily depends upon our Heavenly Father. In the phrases of the Lord’s Prayer, he was showing us what it means to live a life of faithful trust and discipleship through the very things he told us to ask our Lord to accomplish in us.

As faithful disciples of Christ …

We look to him in trust, praying that his name may be hallowed in our lives.

We ask him to rule our lives, making us a part of his kingdom by steadfast faith in his revealed Word.

We pray that God would not only guide us by his will, and put to death all that seeks to serve our own will instead of his.

We trust in God to provide for our daily bread, knowing that he alone can give us what we need, confident that he will provide enough that we may share his gifts with others.

We come to him in confession, asking for God’s forgiveness, knowing that we daily fall short of his expectations. In turn, we forgive one another in his name and by his power, knowing that it is through us that God’s speaks his Word of grace to others.

We trust in God to be with us in times of temptation, struggle and weakness. Knowing that we are weak but he is strong, we rest all our faith and hope in his deliverance from the power of sin, death, and the devil.

These are all ways in which we experience what it means to be a disciple of Christ, and are things that he alone can accomplish in us.

Indeed, the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are things that involve our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength; they are the things that comprise all we do in thought, word, and deed. But these petitions are more than a list of human works to perform. They are first and foremost the things for which we look to God. They are the fruit of God’s own Spirit in us as he leads us and shapes us in lives of discipleship, “that they may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.” (Isaiah 41:20)

Sanctification by Faith

“You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”  (1 Corinthians 6:11)

There are two related terms in the verse above that refer to the change in standing that is brought about by the Holy Spirit in faith. One is “justification” and the other is “sanctification.” Scripture describes both of these as the work that the Holy Spirit brings about within us through faith in Jesus Christ.

Strictly speaking, the word justified means to be “made right” before God. To say we are justified by faith means that we do not trust in our own righteousness or merit to save us, but rather, we trust in the righteousness of Christ to clothe us. As Scripture says, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28), “for by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

For us as Christians (and as Lutherans in particular), the doctrine of justification by faith is at the center of what we believe; it is drilled into our hearts and minds. However, when the subject turns to sanctification, we often don’t seem to be quite as confident in God. While we are willing to give credit to God for justification, people often seem to think that sanctification is something we make happen. I have even heard it claimed in just that way by those who say, “While justification is the result of the work of God in us, sanctification is the result of the work we do for God.” But this simply doesn’t match with the Word of Scripture.

The word sanctified means to be “made holy” before God. In the Bible, this too, is described as the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not we who make ourselves holy; we are made holy only by God’s own Spirit at work in our lives through his Word. As Scripture says: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). When it comes to sanctification, God again is the actor.

In the Small Catechism, when Martin Luther speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit in his explanation to the third article of the Creed, he says this very thing:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith. In the same way, he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and preserves it in unity with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”

As much as Luther was a proponent of Justification by Faith, it is interesting to note that he does not use the word “justification” here, but rather “sanctification.”  (In fact, this section of the catechism is titled “Regarding Sanctification.”)

Clearly, for Luther, justification and sanctification were not two different things, or the result of two different actors. Luther understood them to be two sides of the same divine act of the Holy Spirit, who creates faith by the power of his Word.

Why is this important? Too often when we speak of the Christian life and what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ, we make the assumption that discipleship is something we make happen. As if we have moved beyond faith to something more, we treat sanctification as our own endeavor, accomplished through our own individual will. It’s as if we think, “Now that we have that introductory faith-stuff taken care of, we can move on to the real work of making ourselves holy.” As they used to sing the old “gospel” song, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder … every rung goes higher, higher.”

Real discipleship, however, is not moving beyond Christ, but a continual return to Christ. According to Scripture, we are not called to make ourselves more righteous or more holy, but to abide and remain in Christ (John 8:31). As disciples, we are not working toward some higher religious status with more personal accomplishments under our belt. Rather, the only growth we seek in our life of faith is a better recognition of our need for Jesus and a deeper trust in him.

There will never come a time that we will no longer need to be clothed in the holiness of Christ. It is a deceit of the Evil One that says we can raise ourselves higher than God, and is an urge that by discipline and faith, we must resist. As the risen Jesus said: “I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:17-18).

Christ alone is our righteousness as well as our holiness. We are not merely justified by faith but sanctified by faith as well. As disciples of Jesus, we believe and live by his promise: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

– Pastor Steven King

Daily Dying and Rising

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  (Romans 6:3-5)

The season of Easter is the season of Resurrection. The foundation of our faith rests in the promise that Jesus died on the cross and was raised again in victory over the grave. Just as we acknowledge that Jesus died for us, we also bear witness that he was raised for us as well.

In the verses above from Romans 6, Paul expresses the certainty that comes from being united with Christ through baptism. Christ faced death and resurrection not just for himself, but for our sake as well. This is the confidence on which we base our future hope, knowing that even as our mortal bodies will be placed in the ground someday, that will not be the end for us. Christ will return to raise us up and gather us to himself in a new life that is everlasting. All this is most certainly true.

But when Paul wrote these words, he was not just speaking of our eternal life to come, he was speaking of our present life in faith. The new creation we experience in Christ is not just something that is yet to come, but something we get to experience here and now. Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father so that “we too might walk in newness of life” in the here and now.

In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther used these sacramental words to describe what it means to live daily as a disciple of Christ, when he talked about what Baptism means for daily living. He wrote:

“It means that our sinful self should be drowned through daily repentance, so that day after day a new self should arise to life with God in righteousness and purity forever.”

The promise we receive in baptism is more than just a stamp in some heavenly passport, reserved for the future, it is the promise of a daily life of discipleship. It is the promise that God is at work, here and now in our lives, putting the old self in us to death so that his new creation would be given life in us.  In faith, we called to die to ourselves daily, letting go of our sin and failings, letting go of our selfish desires, and embracing each new opportunity we have to let God’s will reign in our hearts.  This “daily dying” means that we do not pray “my will be done” but rather “thy will be done” (Luke 22:42). We pray that Christ would be glorified and not ourselves, just as John the Baptist prayed when he said “He must increase, and I must decrease!” (John 3:30). This is what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

One of my favorite stories in Scripture is the account of Peter’s attempt to walk water on water, from Matthew 14:22-33. Peter wanted so much to be like his master, and to following in his footsteps, that he imagined he could tread upon the waves like Lord himself. But he quickly learned what it meant to die to himself and be raised to new life, as Christ “immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him” (Matthew 14:31).

Ironically, I have often heard this lesson preached as if it were a story of human potential. We point to Peter and say, “Look what human beings can do, if only we muster up enough faith. We need not drown, if only we hold steady in our faith.” We echo to ourselves the words of the Serpent in the Garden who promised, “You will not die … you will become like God!” (Genesis 3:4-5). But that is a lie.

The promise of the Gospel is not about avoiding death and preserving our own lives. It is the promise of being drowned in the baptismal waters, and lifted up by Christ himself.  The good news of Christ is not immunity to suffering and hardship and failure, it is bearing our burdens in faith, knowing that Christ walks alongside us and bears the yoke with us (Matthew 11:28-30). True discipleship is not a means to avoid the cross and bypass our death, but trusting that what happened to Jesus will happen to us. He has united us in his own death and resurrection that we might experience new life on a daily basis! For “though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).

May we see our lives of discipleship as the reflection of Christ own death and resurrection, following in faith the One who has done for us what we could not do for ourselves.

The Great Commission(s)

In developing a larger program on discipleship and living out our calling as Christians, it became evident that people would be helped by studying the biblical basis for this calling, and the mission that Christ has set before us to make disciples.

In the Fall of 2017, we at Sola Publishing developed a six week Bible Study focused specifically “The Great Commissions.” The study looks at the texts from all four Gospels, the Book of Acts, and the writings of Paul, where we are given the explicit call from our Lord to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth by serving as his witnesses and ambassadors.

You can find this Bible Study on the Sola Website HERE.

Conformed to the Cross

The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18).  But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7).

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he addressed the common spiritual assumptions of the world, found among the religious and the irreligious — both the Jews and the Gentiles. Contrary to self-centered and worldly theologies of glory that lift up human accomplishment, Paul spoke rather of what God is accomplishing in us through faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Paul insisted that, through the cross, God was and is actively at work in our lives of faith and all we do as disciples of Christ. This is to say: the source of discipleship is not in what we do for God but in what he does in us!

To describe how this works, Paul often drew upon the biblical image of the potter and us as the clay, used by the prophets of old. Understanding ourselves as earthen vessels in the hands of the Master Craftsman, Paul spoke of our lives of faith being molded and shaped by God himself, according to his purpose. As he wrote:

“Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:29)

Paul knew that in matters of faith, the active power of God is the key to the Gospel. It is also key to how God is at work — in us and through us — as his disciples who are called to take up our cross and follow him. In terms of how we act toward God and our neighbors, the cross becomes the form of our lives.

So we might ask, if indeed God is at work in our lives through his Word, forming and shaping us according to the image of Christ, what does that “cross-shape” look like in terms of our faith relationships? Visualizing the beams of the cross as symbolizing the two chief directions in which our faith is lived out, we see that our lives of faith have both a vertical and a horizontal dimension.

The vertical dimension of faith (up and down) represents our relationship with God. This is the key and starting point. In Jesus Christ, God “comes down” to us through his Word, laying hold of our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. Like the potter leaning over the clay, he works on us with his own hands. Sometimes he pinches and prods, other times he more gently massages and smooths, doing what it takes to shape us inside and out, according to his purpose. It is his work in us that makes us a useful and functional vessel in his service. This is the struggle we can expect in faith.

At the same time, the horizontal dimension of faith (side to side) represents our relationship with our neighbors. In Christ, God does not leave us like an empty cup on the shelf, but fills us and uses us as his vessel to serve those around us. He pours us out for the sake of our neighbor. In this, we recognize that the horizontal beam of faith rests on the vertical, not the other way around. Scripture makes the priority clear: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

As we have seen before, there is a Sacramental quality to our lives of discipleship in both our communion with God and with one another. The two come together in the cross. And so we can pray, in the words of the old gospel hymn:

Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
     Thou art the Potter, I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after Thy will!
     While I am waiting, yielded and still.

Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
     Hold o’er my being absolute sway!
Fill with Thy Spirit till all shall see
     Christ only, always, living in me.