Picture a typical worship service, youth group lesson, or revival meeting somewhere in America. There’s been worship in song, prayer, preaching, and now the invitation to “accept Jesus into your heart,” “trust Jesus for salvation,” or something similar.
It’s an appeal to salvation from a typical, transactional-type Christianity. You know how it goes: Just believe and you’ll receive, with no mention of a call to discipleship. Doesn’t seem too odd, does it?
It’s actually pretty odd, if you think about it.
For years, churches and youth groups all over America have been led by well-intentioned pastors who want to see lost people come to Christ. They give impassioned sermons and invitations to the altar. They ask groups of people to bow their heads, pray a prayer, raise a hand, even step in the baptistry. People are saved. Heaven rejoices. Sinners come home. The church is encouraged.
Yet not much mention of what comes next—of the lifestyle of following Jesus that the person was supposed to be signing up for. This makes sense, we might think. However, let’s look at 3 hypotheticals…
1. Married…sort of
Imagine a guy who gets married, but after getting back from his honeymoon, goes back to living in his parents’ basement. He framed and hung the marriage license on his wall. But he doesn’t see the need to actually live with his new wife. His friends come and ask him what’s wrong. But he isn’t worried. He says he will continue to see her on occasion and they can spend time together when they get around to it. He doesn’t want to get all radical about the whole marriage thing.
2. A celebration of staying the same
Imagine a lady who applies for an executive-level promotion at her job and gets it. She is so excited and throws a big celebration, inviting all her friends. Yet the next Monday, she shows up at work and goes right back to her old office doing the same job she had before. Her boss walks in and asks her why she is there instead of her new office. She says she figured she could get the large salary but not have to change much of what she’d been doing. She is comfortable where she was.
3. Set free to stay imprisoned
Imagine a guy who was in prison on a life sentence. The judge who had pronounced him guilty and sentenced him has decided to pay his fines and manages to get the rest of his jail time eliminated. The man’s lawyer goes to the prison with the paperwork and tells him he was a free man. Not only that, the judge who is eliminating his punishment also offers him a job—a job at a company owned by the judge that is right in line with what this man is wired to do, complete with benefits and retirement plan.
Also, the judge offers the man a place at his own table, a place to stay with his own family, and an invitation to friendship. But he stays in his cell. He can’t forgive himself for what he has done. Says he’d rather languish in his cell because that’s what he deserves. And besides, forgiveness and pardon are one thing, but added responsibility, accountability, and family relationship? That is more than he can believe—or want.
Compared to the more familiar church scenario, these three don’t make much sense, do they?
Compared to the more familiar church scenario, these three don’t make much sense, do they? If you were to talk to the guy who returned to his parents’ basement, what advice would you give? When it comes the lady who chose not to step into her new role, what is she missing? What’s wrong with the guy who would rather stay in his cell?
What is missing?
I would propose that their difficulties are the same as many who accept a forgiveness-only, transactional gospel, but aren’t told about or aren’t ready for discipleship.
- The first guy didn’t understand he’d willingly stepped into a covenant relationship with another person. He’d said yes to committing himself to another person for life, but after “sealing the deal” and enjoying the celebration, just went about living his own life on his own terms. He figured he could be with his wife when it was convenient for him.
- The lady in the second story thought she could reap the benefits of the promotion she got without fulfilling any of the requirements that the promotion came with. Getting the fat paycheck with a nice retirement plan sounded nice—but added responsibility didn’t.
- The guy in the last story totally underestimated the mercy given to him by the judge. He didn’t believe the good news that he was actually free, not having faith that what the judge did for him was actually true. He reasoned he wasn’t worthy of what he was offered, so he decided to stay where he was. When the judge offered him a job with benefits, a place to live, and even a seat at his table in his own house, he was floored. There’s no way. Who does that? Too good to be true. The prisoner thought he might take up the judge’s offer on the freedom—but couldn’t bring himself to accept the offer of employment, hospitality, or belonging in the judge’s own family.
“He didn’t believe the good news that he was actually free, not having faith that what the judge did for him was actually true.”
What would you think of a person who did those kinds of things? You might think them confused, selfish, entitled, proud, or just foolish. But it might surprise you to know there are more of us out there in these same situations than you might think. Those who accept Jesus into their heart or trust him for salvation without knowledge or intention of actually following him are struggling with…
- a misunderstanding of who Jesus is, or the depth of the relationship we said yes to,
- a high view of what Jesus offered, but forgetting (or not being told) about accepting Jesus not only as Savior but also following Him as Lord and King,
- underestimating the value of the life to which we are called, and having little knowledge or imagination for life in Christ, being made holy, or being an active citizen of the Kingdom of God.
“…underestimating the value of the life to which we are called…”
Dallas Willard wrote about the consequences of a partial understanding or a misunderstanding of the gospel Jesus proclaimed when he described it as “a view of salvation and of grace that has no connection with discipleship and spiritual transformation. It is a view of grace and salvation, that, supposedly, get one ready to die, but leaves them unprepared to live now in the grace and power of resurrection life.”
The rest of the story
The Jesus you were taught and believe in determines the follower you become.
You’ve likely heard a version of the story of the judge offering to pay the prisoner’s fines and let him go free. But what’s the end of that story? The judge pays the fines, the prisoner is thankful to go free, and then what? There has to be more to that story. God loves you and Jesus died to save you from your sins. Well, great! But how many of you have heard of that same judge offering that guilty man a job, purpose, and mission where the now-free man puts himself under the judge’s loving authority, all the while enjoying a place at the judge’s table, a room in his house, and a friendship for life?
I’ve never heard that part of the story. This tells me we’ve focused so tightly on forgiveness (a central and valid part of the story, yes) that we’ve lost sight of God offering us the kingdom: to be his people, with his purpose, given his power, right now.
The gospel we teach in our churches determines the disciples we make. So, what gospel did you believe? What version of Jesus are you following?
“The gospel we teach in our churches determines the disciples we make.”
Let’s go back to the description of typical, transactional Christianity.
Millions of people have been told they’re sinners. They’ve been sorry for the wrong things they’ve done. They’ve prayed prayers, been baptized in water, received salvation, and they’re happy they’ve been forgiven. Many also find their way to attending a church. But the practical outcome of a forgiveness-only culture is that they end up feeling a bit like a homeless child. They are surrounded by adults, but no one is taking care of them, bringing them up in the faith, or teaching them to feed themselves. They often go from enthusiastic, to disillusioned, to disappointed, to distant, and sometimes even disappear.
What was missing? What went wrong?
“Too often, we gave them a partial gospel.”
Too often, we gave them a partial gospel. We missed the part about King Jesus, following him, and taking part in answering the prayer of Jesus for love and unity, and advancing God’s rule against the powers of hell. There was little to nothing about being a disciple of Jesus in the gospel we shared with them. We haven’t done a great job of equipping the saints, or leading them by example, in the intentional practice of making disciples who make disciples.
The gospel we preach will determine the kind of Christian we make.
The Jesus we believe in will determine the kind of follower we are.
An Invitation to Follow Jesus as the Christ
Mark 8:27-29 (ESV) says
Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”
Peter said Jesus was the Christ. That word doesn’t mean much to us in 21st century America. You’re more likely to hear “Christ” being used as a curse word than for what it really means. You might know that Christ is another word for Messiah, but for many people, that doesn’t hold a lot of weight either. But when Peter called Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, he was calling Jesus the long-awaited deliverer of Israel, the Savior of the world, and the King (the ultimate authority) over all creation.
“When Peter called Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, he was calling Jesus the long-awaited deliverer of Israel, the Savior of the world, and the King over all creation.”
The kingdom of God is anywhere Jesus is King.
And we are invited to participate in this kingdom that is both now and yet not yet fully here. As citizens of Jesus’ kingdom, we give belief, trust, and allegiance to him as our King. We seek to be Jesus to the broken, the lonely, the sick, the hurting, and the most grievous sinner. By faith in Christ our King, we have not only been forgiven of sins, but when we give ourselves to him, we are made to look and act like Jesus in ever-increasing glory. We were brought from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. We were once slaves to our own passions and addictions, but now we are slaves/servants of God and subjects of his, called to go into all nations and make disciples, to baptize others in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching others to obey all Jesus has commanded (Matt. 28:18-20).
I don’t know about you, but that sounds way more compelling to me than being told you’re a sinner, praying a prayer, getting dunked, and then trying to attend church once in a while while attempting to be as good a person as possible until you die.
 Dallas Willard, from the Foreword to Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016).