Written By Chuck Collins
“Discipleship” is a buzzword with heavy-duty baggage. It’s heavy lifting! It has come to mean those things that we do (disciplines) to exercise our way towards holiness. It’s the 21st century equivalent of the Medieval monastic routines that leads to a ladder-climbing view of Christianity — with the top always, ALWAYS two more steps away! When Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14), we leap to the “obey” part – – I know I haven’t obeyed well — this must mean that I don’t love him — so I need to ramp up my obedience! So we jump on Amazon Prime to buy more celebration-of-disciplines books, choose a church and a preacher who harps on obedience, and just try harder to obey. And for all the effort to grow in obedience and holiness, it seems farther away than ever, along with any assurance of salvation.
But, isn’t this awfully bad news all the way around?
The 16th century reformers taught that what the heart loves, the will obeys — in that order! “It doesn’t start with us — not by reminding us of our obligation before God, not by trying to stir up the intensity of our desire to be better, not even by seeking to spur our will-power to make good choices,” writes Ashley Null (Tuesday in Easter Week). Biblical discipleship doesn’t focus first on what I do for God, but what God has done for me in his Son. We don’t obey for transformation; we obey in response to God’s prior one-way-love, and then by God’s grace “Christ is formed in us” (Gal 4). We love because he first loved us (1 Jn 4). Jesus is saying: If you love me, this means you will automatically and inevitably want to obey the One who loves you with such extravagant and perfect love. That’s the force and power of God’s grace! Obedience is the fruit of experiencing God’s unconditional and unwavering love or it’s nothing at all. Obedience isn’t the goal of being a disciple of Jesus: love is.
The first and popular view of discipleship is selfishness disguised to look like Christianity. It focuses on a Christian’s performance. The second view is based completely on Christ’s accomplishments that leads to life and rest (“Come to me. . .and I will give you rest”). The popular view of discipleship is driven by law: the other, by gospel.
So why do we gravitate towards the duty/obedience/performance view of discipleship over guilt/grace/gratitude? I am pretty sure it is because we don’t trust the power of God’s grace to motivate us to right behaviour. And if we don’t trust it for ourselves, we certainly don’t trust it for others! We secretly can’t stand the thought that someone somewhere is getting away with something — that someone is using their freedom in Christ as a licence to immoral behaviour. In theological terms: the third use of the law has become the only use, really. We don’t understand that by imputing our sin to God and God’s righteousness imputed to us, not only results in a new standing with God, but also a new right-willing (transformed human affections) that exposes the ugliness of sin, that is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit to indwell us to lead more and more into joyful obedience.
The Revd Canon Chuck Collins is the Executive Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism.