The Centrality of Christ in Discipleship - Part 1
I. The Cost of Discipleship
How do converts become true disciples of Christ? What has to happen in order for a new believer; a babe in Christ to become a disciple? We know that a true disciple denies himself; he takes up his cross daily; he follows the Lamb; he loves the brethren; he puts sin to death; he walks by means of the Spirit; he is zealous for good works; he serves God.
True disciples grow into disciples as the result of systematic encouragement and teaching by mature brethren. It says in Acts 14:21-22, “Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.”
Disciple-making is the aim/goal of the Great Commission. The Body of Christ is to commit itself to the task of making disciples. But we have many shallow Christians today; folks who follow Christ in a tentative, stuttering and sputtering manner—who are not equipped to reproduce their faith.
How we need to return to the Word and uncover again the secret behind Paul’s optimism and effectiveness as a disciple-maker. When you pour over his epistles and you will find that the Apostle Paul’s heart throbbing and beating with a disciple-making passion. For Paul, pastor and missionary, disciple-making is his controlling mandate, his sacred trust and deputation—the central work that commands his full attention and energies.
Colossians 1:28-29 encapsulates the lengthy process of disciple-making in just two verses. You see the context there—it is Christ in you (a reference to the Christian’s union with Christ – 1:27). Because the believer is in Christ; and Christ is in him—discipleship and Christian maturity are real and possible.
It is union with Christ that guarantees ultimate conformity to Christ. But that conformity is to begin now; and not just wait until glory. In Christ and His promises we have everything we need in relation to life and godliness—our Savior is a fountain of life. Because to be united to Christ is to have as one’s possession—all the benefits of His Glorious Person at work in one’s walk—His life; His death; His resurrection; His heavenly advocacy; His endless Priesthood.
This was Paul’s confidence as a disciple-maker. Those eternally united with Christ experience real changes in their being—changes that produce repentance and transformation of character. For union with Christ (or Christ in you) is our hope of glory.
Christ’s substitutionary work; His vicarious death in our place makes us new creatures (2 Cor 5:17). So radical and monumental was that great exchange—Christ’s life for ours—His righteousness for our sin—that the moment of a sinner is saved; it marks the beginning of conformity to Christ. Christ in you means you are being fitted for eternity.
The transforming power of Christ in you was Paul’s hope; it drove his optimism in both evangelism and discipleship. But Paul knew that all his efforts at disciple-making did not ultimately rest upon the forcefulness of his exhortations to self-denial; to devotion; and to repentance. Paul built solely on the foundation of Christ.
Self-denial is a response to who Christ is—to discovering Him as Lord of All—and what He has done—it is life in Him—the experience of His fullness.
A true disciple of Jesus Christ is a person who does not live by his natural desires—but instead lives by the loving rule of Christ, his Head. A true disciple is conformed to the will and likeness of his Head.
When Christ set forth the cost of discipleship—He usually did so when talking about His own impending death. It says in John 12:23-26, “And Jesus answered them saying, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there shall my servant also be; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.”
Christ joins His own ordeal (the cross of Calvary) to the ordeal the true disciple will undergo in a life of self-renunciation. The Father gave Christ a ‘Bride’—the elect of every age—a people without number from every tribe, tongue, and nation. But Christ must die for His Bride in order to resurrect His Bride who lies in the cold tomb of her spiritual deadness and depravity.
This is such a thrilling truth. The context of true discipleship is Christ’s own death for us. It was Christ’s cross-work on our behalf that brought forth the infinite fruit of reconciliation; both spiritual reconciliation (salvation), and cosmic reconciliation (the renewal of creation—Col 1:19-20).
We have a “death” to undergo as well. Self-denial is the cost of true discipleship and it is also the cost of fruitfulness. Jesus gives an illustration from nature in John 12:23-26. A shiny wheat kernel has a tough resilient seed coat. It repels dust and scuffing and moisture.
But in order for that wheat grain to reproduce; it must go down into the darkness of the soil—be permeated with water until the seed coat bursts. If you pulled a seed from the ground in that state it would look dead—even rotten (Jn 12:24).
But this death-like state is the prerequisite to germination. The kernel swells and the beginnings of leaves sprout and push their way above the soil line into the sun. When the plant comes to maturity; what was once a single seed is now a series of wheat heads filled with ripe grain.
What a picture this is of true discipleship. The individual who follows Christ will have to die to self in order to bear fruit. Jesus warned against abiding alone—He warned against loving one’s life in this world (Jn 12:25).
The Lord Jesus made stringent demands on those who would be His disciples. In today’s culture of consumerism and easy-believism—it is all-too common to think that a person can add Christ to his life. Such is not the case according to our text.
In many Christian circles today; folks are promised that Christianity will save them from hell and guarantee them a place in heaven—certainly this is true, but the life of self-denial necessary in order to follow Christ is frequently left unsaid. The assumption is that once eternal life is secured, the individual has every right to enjoy the best that this life has to offer.
Countless souls are sadly mistaken about the requirements of discipleship; but Christ removes all middle ground. He defines what a commitment to Him actually looks like. Therefore to preach on discipleship passages tends to produce shock among many listeners. For multitudes of professing Christians have the utmost difficulty reconciling the passages on discipleship with their own ideas on what Christianity should be and what Christianity should afford them.
They reason, “How can Christianity be a free gift if following Christ requires me to die to self and lose my life for His sake and the sake of the Gospel?”
The words of Christ are very clear. There is hardly any room for misunderstanding if those words are accepted at face value. Here are the terms of discipleship laid down by the Savior of the world:
A. A supreme love for Jesus Christ.
“If any one comes to Me, and does not hate his father and mother and wife, and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).
This grates on our 21st C. ears. Does Christ really command supreme love to Him without any rivals? Won’t divine grace allow something less than this from the saved?
Actually the most difficult clause in this passage is the expression, “Yes, [hate] even his own life.” Self-love is one of the most stubborn hindrances to discipleship. Not until we are willing to lay down our lives are we in the place where He wants us to be.
When preaching the necessity of a disciple’s love to Christ; it is essential to stress that our love to Him is reflexive. In other words, as the Apostle John says, “We love, because He first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). Our love to Christ is a response to seeing Him as He really is—to seeing who God is towards us in Christ.
Christ is God’s infinite treasure given freely to sinners who believe and repent. But the key mark or evidence of believing and repenting is not only turning from sin to God; but also an apprehension of Christ as one’s greatest treasure.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matt 13:45-46). This is the fulcrum—the entire issue. If the sinner sees Christ as precious beyond measure; then no sacrifice is too great to have Him.
Paul saw this treasure principle as an “either or prospect.” We must release our hold on all the things that are in the world in order to gain Christ. “More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I might gain Christ” (Phil 3:8).
B. A denial of self.
“If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself. . .” (Matt 16:24). Denial of self is not the same as denying oneself certain activities or pleasures such as foods, drink, or possessions. Self denial means complete submission to the lordship of Christ over all of life. It is the affirmation that self has no rights at all.
In self-denial, self abdicates the throne. Paul summarizes this principle in 2 Corinthians 5:9, 14-15. “Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.” “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.”
Thus denial of self is the end of a self-directed life. Self denial results in universal obedience to the lordship of Christ. It is living without ‘compartments’ in one’s life. It is living as Christ’s possession.
C. A deliberate choosing of the cross.
“If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross. . .” (Matt 16:24). No doubt you have heard some suffering saint utter, “My gout is my cross; or my wayward spouse is my cross.” But this in not what Jesus is referring to. The cross taken up by a disciple is not some physical infirmity or mental anguish. The cross we take up is a path that is deliberately chosen.
It is a path of radical identification with Christ which will involve a degree of dishonor and reproach from the world. Jesus told His followers to expect to be misunderstood and even hated for Christ’s sake (Jn 15:18-16:2).
To deliberately choose the cross is to set out on the narrow way spoken of by Christ (Matt 7:13-14). The narrow way is the way of transformation and renewal by the Word and the Spirit (Rom 12:1-2).
Those who do not choose the narrow way simply allow themselves to be conformed to this world and its ways and values. How different is the walk of the true disciple—he is always watching his own steps and making frequent ‘course corrections’ to assure that he daily choosing the narrow way; the way of the cross.
D. A life spent in following Christ.
“If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt 16:24). Christ is our example of obedience. His life was totally conformed to the will of His Father. Christ’s life was lived in the power of the Spirit.
It was a life of unselfish service—of zeal, of expenditure, of self-control, of meekness, of kindness, faithfulness, and devotion (Gal 5:22-23). The life of His disciple must manifest the fruit of Christ-likeness (Jn 15:8).
Those who follow Christ gather with Him (Luke 11:23)—they are fishers of men (Matt 4:19). Those who follow Christ take their “marching orders” from Christ—they have made Christ’s cause their cause. They are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14).
Their boldness for kingdom values is a result of following Christ. “Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John, and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were marveling, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
E. A fervent love for all who belong to Christ.
“By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). This is the love that desires the very highest for a person in light of eternity. It is a love able to esteem others as better than oneself. It is a love which covers a multitude of sins. It is a love that suffers long and is kind (1 Cor 13:4-7).
It is a love that finds great joy in sacrificing for the sake of the kingdom. In fact one pastor put it this way. The world’s definition of happiness is self acquiring what it desires. But the Christian’s definition of joy is as follows: When my life intersects with the lives of my brethren at the points of sacrificial love for the kingdom of God—it is inestimable joy.
John Piper has noted well that the experience of Christ’s love fits us to love the brethren supernaturally. “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart” (1 Pet 1:22).
The reception of God’s love produces an irresistible desire to pass the Father’s love on to others. In fact, loving the brethren is the supreme test of love to God (1 Jn 3:14-24). Says William McDonald, “Without this love, discipleship would be a cold, legalistic asceticism.” But all our instruction, including our training of disciples, is to dove-tail into the action of love. “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (1 Tim 1:5).
F. An unswerving continuance in His Word.
“If you continue in My Word then you are My disciples indeed” (Jn 8:31). Genuine discipleship demonstrates a track record of faithfulness. It is not a flash in the pan moment of blazing glory—it is as one pastor has said long obedience in the same direction.
Jesus is emphasizing continuance. Being a disciple requires endurance, stamina, holding fast, determination. Countless individuals start well only to fall away through neglect (Heb 2:1-3).
In the parable of the soils, the good soil is identified by the fact that the good seed (the Word of God) dominates exceptionally so as to bring a harvest! This is God’s Word controlling the life; revolutionizing everything in one’s life—dictating your values on pleasures, cares, possessions, and life direction.
Disciples persevere by looking unto Jesus as a habit of life (Heb 12:1-2). They stir themselves to action by feeding their faith on the promises of God’s Word. “And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb 6:12-13).
True disciples manifest a devotion to the Word that fits them and furnishes them for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).
G. A forsaking of all to follow Him.
“So therefore, no one of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Luke 14:33). This is perhaps the most unpopular of all of Christ’s terms of discipleship.
Christ is laying out a specific requirement in regards to the world’s goods. In effect, He is issuing a command not to stock pile this world’s goods. Maintain material possessions that are absolutely essential and that could be used for the spread of the Gospel.
A true disciple is controlled by a passion to advance the cause of Christ. The genuine disciple invests everything above his current needs in the work of the Lord—and then leaves the future with God.
In seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, he believes that he will never lack food and clothing. Therefore he cannot hold onto surplus funds and resources when he knows that souls are perishing for want of the Gospel.
In giving up all his own possessions, he offers what he cannot keep anyway, and what he has ceased to love. He plows the cream of his time, talent, affections, and resources into the cause of Christ.
Theses seven terms of discipleship are clear and unequivocal. When we examine our lives in light of these seven requirements—is it not easy to say, “Lord I am an unprofitable servant?” Confessing our past failure, let us courageously face up to the claims of Christ upon us and seek from now on to be true disciples of our Glorious Lord.
How we need to recline upon the mercy and grace of Christ. For our Savior’s grace has brought us into a relationship of sonship, status, favor, and acceptance with God. The grace of Christ holds us up and sustains us—He is our life (Col 3:1-4).
Our steady progress toward maturity cannot be reduced to the mastery of a moral code. Though moral excellence is required of God’s people (2 Pet 1:5), the saint who is being made like his Savior is steadily growing in his heart-knowledge of Christ.
No small part of our conformity to Christ is a result of beholding the glory of Christ. “But we all with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).
Listen to the Apostle Paul as he speaks about the knowledge of Christ which is central to maturity: “. . .that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:2-3)).
Paul’s passion as a disciple was to know Christ—ours must flow from the same motive (Phil 3:10).