For as long as I’ve been in ministry, church leaders have been complaining that, as hard as it may be to make new Christians, it proves to be even harder to make Christians into disciples. The evangelism task is always challenging, but once a person understands the danger of sin and the opportunity of new life, salvation becomes a welcomed experience. There’s an urgency that accompanies the need to be saved. “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 2:6) But once a person becomes a Christian, the urgency vanishes. The crisis is over, the opportunity grasped. All too often—all too often—there is no accompanying sense of urgency to the task of becoming a disciple. The church may feel a sense of urgency because in the Great Commission Jesus told us to go and make disciples, not mere converts, but truth be told, there are more churches in which there is an urgency about evangelism than there are churches that approach discipleship with any kind of urgency. I mean, nobody is going to hell for not pursuing discipleship. Once saved, no worries. Consequently, church leaders have long noted that there are a lot of Christians, but few disciples; lots of people getting saved, few actually following Jesus.
To try to address this, pastors and other church leaders keep demanding new discipleship programs to replace the ones that aren’t working, and denominational leaders and Christian publishers keep accommodating them, churning out the next-great-thing in discipleship to replace the last next-great-thing, which will be replaced by another next-great-thing. It seems that no matter what methodology is used, the results are the same. I agree that our methodology is flawed, but the change that needs to occur goes deeper than mere methodology.
It’s time that Christians got a new view of the relationship between salvation and discipleship.
A person with an addiction is living a self-destructive lifestyle. Whether that addiction is to drugs, alcohol, pornography, or video games, the addiction rules the person’s life. It not only unleashes its own brand of destruction on the individual, whether that be physical, mental, or emotional destruction, but it also allows little to no room for real living. The person at best ignores and at worst destroys relationships with family and friends. The addiction often gets in the way of their work, and careers they trained for and may actually have been successful in go down the drain. Simple pleasures like watching a sunset or laughing with friends on the deck are replaced by the insatiable hunger of the addiction for more time, attention, and money. At rock bottom, all the good in life has been replaced by the darkness of the addiction.
The decision to admit the addiction and get well is a momentous decision, and usually isn’t made without some sense of urgency; rock bottom is usually pretty low, and in some cases death is close by. Getting sober is not easy; withdrawal is often painful, sometimes even dangerous, initial treatment usually long, difficult, and easily subverted. Once achieved, however, staying sober can be just as difficult, just in different ways. Achieving sobriety is getting rid of the acute symptoms of addiction, riding oneself of a lifestyle of destruction. But staying sober means that a new lifestyle must be learned. All an addict knows is the old lifestyle; a new lifestyle must be taught, learned, and practiced until it becomes natural, and all the while the person must be on guard against the ever-present pull of the old lifestyle. Any addict will tell you that they must be ever vigilant in maintaining their sobriety. The moment they think they have it licked and can relax is when they are most vulnerable to a relapse, so they maintain a sense of urgency about it.
Sobriety is hard work, and it’s work that must be done every day. But it’s worth it, because they are now free not only from the destruction their addictions caused, but they are also free to live the lives they want to live. They are free to enjoy sunsets, walk hand-in-hand on the beach with a loved-one, and laugh with friends on the deck. And they do not think of their sobriety as an event. It is a lifestyle. The moment they decided to get help was an event, but sobriety is something they do every day, because the first day they don’t do it is the first day of their relapse into hell.
The problem that Jesus came to address is that we, the whole human race, are addicted to a self-destructive lifestyle. In seeking to take control of our lives and our worlds—wanting to have the right to decide what is right and what is wrong for us and for others—we lost control of our lives. We became addicted to control, addicted to power, addicted to violence when we don’t get our way. And it’s killing us. It’s not only killing us, but it’s killing all creation. We are hell-bent on destroying any last vestiges of Eden that still exist in our world. This is the message of Genesis chapters 1-11; this is the original sin, the one that afflicts all of us.
Jesus came to deliver us from our addiction to ourselves, from the destructive forces that our addiction imposes on us. This is what Paul means when he says that Jesus came to deliver us from Death. He doesn’t mean that Jesus came to deliver us from the fact that our lives don’t last forever, he means that we are living in a way that doesn’t let us live while we are alive, and Jesus came to deliver us from that life and to a way of life that does let us live while we are alive. A life dominated by this addiction isn’t worth living for one minute; a life characterized by the love, grace, and selflessness of Jesus is worth living for eternity.
The problem is, we don’t know how to live this life. We are skilled in living a life of addiction but clueless in living a life of sobriety. What good does it do if Jesus simply delivers us from the acute effects of our addiction if he doesn’t also offer us a way to live that also deals with the chronic effects of our addiction?
Forgiveness of sins is just the first step, the necessary prerequisite for learning to live a life fit for the Kingdom of God. The problem isn’t just that our sins will keep us from entering the Kingdom of God; the problem is just as much that we are so unprepared to live in the Kingdom of God that we don’t want it when we get there. Salvation involves the forgiveness of sins, but salvation also involves teaching us a new way to live that resists the ever-present pull of our addiction to Death. Just as a daily walk of sobriety is salvation to the alcoholic, so also is a daily walk in the life-giving lifestyle of Jesus salvation to the person addicted to Death.
. Without the daily devotion to the lifestyle of Jesus, we don’t know how to live in the Kingdom of God, and so we will live in the only lifestyle we really know well, the one that comes most naturally, and that is the lifestyle of the Kingdom of Death.
In the end, discipleship isn’t what comes after salvation; discipleship is our salvation.