Discipleship a lifelong process of learning

Published October 1, 1998

IN THE GOSPELS the first followers of Jesus are called disciples. At the close of his earthly ministry, Jesus instructed these disciples (and through them the church) to “go and make disciples of all nations,” (Matthew 28: 19). In a culture such as ours, in which the word Christian has become somewhat ambiguous, disciple is still a good word to describe those who give their primary allegiance to Jesus and who make it the goal of their life to live to the glory of God.

The process whereby disciples learn to live this new life is called discipleship. It is this lifelong process of learning to follow Jesus ever more faithfully, with deeper insight, clearer understanding, and a broader range of application that constitutes the real adventure of the Christian life.

Churches that want to be strong and healthy must make it their priority to help their people become strong and healthy disciples. Without this, nothing of lasting significance can be accomplished. In seeking to grow as disciples, and in helping others to grow, there are four key areas on which we should focus.

The first area has to do with information. Growing disciples work constantly to understand the faith more clearly. The basic data of the Christian faith is the story of God and the world which unfolds in the Scriptures. This story reaches its climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the subsequent interpretation of that event in the rest of the New Testament. We need to know only the sketchiest details of this story in order to enter into a saving faith in Jesus Christ.

But to become mature disciples we will need to engage this story more deeply, and get to know the God who is behind it. In doing so we will learn a new way of seeing the world, a new way of thinking. We will gain rich insights into what God is doing and how we can live lives that are pleasing to him. We do not learn this story in one sitting. Disciples are people whose lives are being formed by constant, lifelong engagement with this story.

The second area deals with our personal relationship with the God behind this story whom we have come to know in Jesus Christ. Perhaps our first encounters with Christ were tentative, even fearful. But as disciples we now want to grow deeply into Christ; in the words of St. Paul, “to be clothed in him!” Jesus encounters us as a person, and we want to develop our friendship with him through prayer, Scripture reading and worship. As we come to enjoy his presence in our lives we find that we trust him more and more, and are prepared to undertake joyfully the risks and adventures to which he calls us. At a very deep level, discipleship is quite simply friendship with Jesus. Like all good friendships, this one requires constant nurture in order to grow.

The third area is transformation. As disciples, Jesus calls us to become better than we are. It is true that God accepts us just as we are, but the greater truth is that he has no intention of leaving us as we are. The goal of Christian discipleship is to become like Jesus in thought, character, and action in order that we might live lives that glorify God. There is more to this than simply turning over a new leaf. Christian transformation is the work of God’s Spirit who, over the course of our lifetime, gradually shapes us into the people he wants us to be. Our part in this is to learn the spiritual disciplines that facilitate this process, and to be open to it.

The fourth area is application. Disciples are people who are learning to live to the glory of God. Author Leith Anderson defines living to the glory of God as “living in such a way that we enhance God’s reputation in the world.” Discipleship calls us back into the world, where we live as witnesses to God’s sovereignty and grace, reminding the world of who it is and who is Lord. Corporately and individually our mandate is to work for the reconciliation of the whole world to God through Jesus Christ, and for the acknowledgement of God’s reign.

Information. Relation. Transformation. Application. This is the curriculum of growing disciples. It is not something we ever master; it is a direction and focus for all of one’s life. This is the adventure to which Jesus calls us when we turn to follow him. Enjoy the journey! Canon Harold Percy is director of the Institute of Evangelism at Wycliffe College and rector of Trinity Anglican Church, Streetsville, Ont.


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