Friday, November 22, 2013

The Master Plan Of Discipleship - The Discipline To Keep!

And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7) 

Living Faith 

Pagan religions of the ancient world usually separated belief and conduct in a fashion unknown to first-century Christianity. The priests and priestesses of the ancient idols did not insist on a change of behavior; rather devotees of the pagan religions could live much as they pleased.

In contrast, coming to Christ in the early church constituted an engagement of one's total personality and lifestyle. Those who believed were persons "obedient to the faith" (6:7). God gave His spiritual powers "to them that obey him" (5:32; cf. 5:36-37). Clearly faith involved far more than an intellectual assent to the historical validity of Christ's work; as Jesus has said, it was a commitment to follow Him---to walk in His steps (10:43; 13:12, 39, 48; 15:11; 17:12; 28:24). Appropriately, then, Christianity came to be described as "the Way" (9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22; cf. 16:17; 18:25). 

Followers of this Way were called disciples. They were recognized by their devotion to the Master, evidenced by obedience to His precept and example. That is why they were ever growing in grace and knowledge. Disciples  are teachable because they want to learn. It is no accident that believers in the Book of Acts, as well as the Gospels, are often identified by this term. Of course, they also came to be called Christians (11:26), which was not strange, since persons inevitably take on the character of the One they follow. 

Facilitating the learning process was discipline, a quality inherent in discipleship. In fact, both words are derived from the same root. Sincere disciples of Christ accept His rules of conduct, as in a school, bringing every thought into obedience to their Master. Apart from this subjection of mind and body, there would be little development in Christian character. 

Application Today 

We dare not obscure the altar of sacrifice, where consecration to God is complete. If we try to circumvent the cross, we assure our own ultimate defeat, for we cut the nerve of obedience and kill the lifestyle of the Great Commission. No one will take seriously the command to make disciples who has not taken up the cross.

Strangely, today we hear little about self-denial and suffering in all the talk about church growth. Is this because most of what has been said to date has come out of the Western world, where affluence abounds and church affiliation is a mark of social acceptance, if not good politics? Unwittingly, I am afraid, Christian discipleship has often been squeezed into this world's mold, so that prosperity and success are more cherished than radical obedience. But it will not stand the test of time. When the standards of church membership are set by popular demand, eventually the church becomes so much like the world that there is no reason for the world to change. The very effort of the church to appease fleshly expectations makes her unattractive. 

Already this may be happening. The church as a whole in North America is barely keeping pace with the increase in population. In Western Europe there is a steady decline. To see significant growth, more likely than not we will need to go beyond the easygoing, self-indulgent religious life of the West. It is the church living under oppression and poverty, usually in underdeveloped countries of the world, where the most thrilling growth is happening today. I am not suggesting that all of these non-Western lands have vibrant churches, any more than that all congregations in the West lack vitality, but a general pattern can be observed. It is interesting, too, that for the most part, the people in these growing segments of the Third World Christian community have had little, if any, opportunity to receive extensive formal training or even attend a church-growth seminar. Obviously, sophisticated theological education, with all its assumed expertise in churchmanship, does not produce the lifestyle of Jesus.

Have the opulence and freedoms of the Western world, though wrought with great potential for good, lulled a complacent church into mediocrity? If that is the case, any circumstance that removes these artificial supports from us should be seen as an act of mercy. Our Lord is more interested in developing  our character than in preserving our comfort. Whatever it takes, we must get back to basic Christianity, align our wills with the way God has set for us, and move out to disciple the nations. In many instances, church membership standards must be raised, reflecting higher expectations of commitment and disciplined living. The congregation may be slow to understand, but those in positions of authority can lead the way for others to follow and show by their example what it means to be true witnesses of Christ. 

Yet obedience alone can become brittle and weary in well-doing. There must be an inner dynamic motivating and empowering life with love, an actual partaking of the divine nature. To bring this truth into focus, one final principle must be stressed, apart from which everything else written thus far would be sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.