Five Reasons We Don’t Disciple (Part 1)
Seven years ago Christianity Today magazine asked John Stott to assess the growth of the evangelical church. This was his reply:
The answer is “growth without depth.” None of us wants to dispute the extraordinary growth of the church. But it has been largely numerical and statistical growth. And there has not been sufficient growth in discipleship that is comparable to the growth in numbers.
Sadly, seven years on, that assessment still rings true. Although our growth has been wide as the ocean, it’s often about as deep as a puddle. Why is that? What is going wrong? Over the coming months, I’m going to suggest five reasons we don’t disciple—or at least don’t disciple well.
But first, what is the biblical rationale for discipling? There are many, but the key passage is Matthew 28:18-20:
Then Jesus came to [the eleven disciples] and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…”
Now the question is, does this command (“go and make disciples…”) apply only to the eleven disciples Jesus was speaking to? Or does it apply to every Christian disciple?
Sometimes translations give the impression that “go” is the emphasis of the command—which is how the verse came to be the catalyst for the modern missionary movement. But the main verb of the sentence is “make disciples.” One commentator puts it like this: “Jesus’ commission here is not fundamentally about mission out there somewhere else in another country. It’s a commission that makes disciple-making the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple.”
D. A. Carson draws the same conclusion:
The injunction is given at least to the Eleven, but to the Eleven in their own role as disciples. Therefore they are paradigms for all disciples. . . . It is binding on all Jesus’ disciples to make others what they themselves are—disciples of Jesus Christ.
Which brings me to a troubling question. If the Lord Jesus himself has commanded every Christian to “make disciples,” why isn’t everyone doing it? What is keeping our churches from being thriving communities of disciple-makers?
Let me suggest five reasons—one now, and four to follow in future columns.
WHY DON’T WE DISCIPLE? BECAUSE WE PREACH CHEAP GRACE
You’ll remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian. He defined cheap grace like this: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ” (The Cost of Discipleship, 43-44).
When the gospel is preached in your local church, what do your people hear? Do they hear, “Of course you’ve sinned. But now everything is forgiven. Jesus paid the price for your sin. So everything’s taken care of.”
That’s okay as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. The problem is that this gospel contains no demand for discipleship. There’s no requirement for repentance. No holding out for holiness. Isn’t that at odds with Jesus’ insistence in Mark 8:34? “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
As the old truism goes, grace may be free—but it isn’t cheap. It cost Jesus his life. And it will cost us our lives too, if we want to follow him. The invitation may be extended to all, but only those who obey Jesus’ call—deny yourself and take up your cross—have received it.
And the question is, are we teaching this gospel in our local churches? Does our gospel contain the demand for discipleship? Or do we cough loudly over Mark 8:34, and relegate it to the small print, hoping no one will notice until after they’ve signed on the dotted line? Are we lowering the cost of discipleship in the hope that more will buy?
Another, related question: do we speak of God’s love as “unconditional”? If we do, we unwittingly contribute to the problem of cheap grace. Because in one sense, God’s love isn’t unconditional at all. Listen to what David Powlison says here: “While it’s true that God’s love does not depend upon what you do, it very much depends on what Jesus Christ did for you. In that sense, it is highly conditional. It cost Jesus his life” (God’s Love: Better than Unconditional, 11).
If we fail to teach the “conditionality” of God’s love, we’ll serve up cheap grace. Grace that requires no radical obedience, only a sleepy nod. Grace that cannot stir, only sedate.
The gospel is not conditional (“If you obey me, I will love you”). But neither is it unconditional (“I love you regardless of whether you obey me.”). The gospel is contra-conditional (“I love you even though you haven’t obeyed me, because my Son did.”). And the obedience of the Son on our behalf moves us to love and obey. As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commands” (John 14:15).
My fear is that in our evangelistic desire to get “decisions” from people, we may have rendered many of those “decisions” meaningless. It is one thing to “pray the prayer,” another thing entirely to repent and believe. It is much easier to tread the sawdust trail than to walk the Calvary road.
HOW CAN WE MAKE GRACE “MORE EXPENSIVE”?
So what should we do (if I can put it this way) to make grace more expensive?
First, when we preach the gospel, it is tempting to preach only the identity and mission of Christ (“Jesus is the Son of God and he died for sinners like you.”). But we must also preach his call: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34).
Let none of our congregation be in any doubt: a Christian demonstrates that fact by denying self and taking up their cross. That means that in our gospel preaching, we must not forget the way Jesus himself preached the gospel. He called people to repent as well as believe (Mark 1:15). The two are inseparable. We must never drive a wedge between them in our preaching, as if “belief” is necessary to make someone a Christian, and then “repentance” is an optional extra for the really keen Christians. Neither are negotiable.
Second, when people ask us how they know they are truly in Christ, let’s not point to a prayer prayed, or an aisle walked. The biblical grounds for assurance is our continuing walk along the Calvary road, bearing the cross of shame, and also bearing fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8).
Cheap grace may be easier to “buy.” It may help our churches to fill. But we will watch them fill with people who aren’t disciples, don’t particularly want to be, and therefore have no desire to disciple others. We will have created a culture where discipleship is essentially irrelevant.
Next time, I’ll suggest a second reason we don’t disciple.
Click here for part two of this series.