Thus far in my series on reevangelizing the church I have addressed the problem of gospel reductionism, a condition that has reduced the gospel to nothing more than the privatized plan of salvation. In response, I have sought to recover the broader historical understanding and implications of the gospel of the kingdom and, in light of this, explain how the church should best express this gospel. I have offered a threefold approach for expressing the gospel of the kingdom that is drawn from Scripture.
I have written that the church must first manifest this good news of the kingdom by demonstrating what life looks like under the reign of God within a distinct community: the church, a community characterized by its radical love for one another (see John 13:34, 35; John 17). Second, this unique community manifests the gospel by serving the world through acts of service, compassion, and mercy, working to reverse and/or mitigate the effects of sin (see Matt. 5:16, 22:39; Eph. 2:10; James 2:14-26).
I now turn to the third and final aspect: proclamation of the gospel. How and what do we tell others about Jesus and this kingdom that has come into the world? The modern approach to this question seems to have gravitated, almost exclusively, toward highly simplistic and formulaic expressions of the gospel story. What I mean is that we have tried to condense the gospel to the most basic "facts" about Jesus, formulate simplistic mediums or tools for the conveyance of these facts, and then send folks out among strangers in an organized and frequently impersonal fashion.
Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying the Lord can't use these means to accomplish his ends. He can and often does. However, the commission that we were given by Jesus (and that which we should take as our guide) was to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19, 20, ESV). Clearly, the process of making disciples involves more than simply sharing some propositions about Jesus. Also notice that Jesus actually places disciple making ahead of conversion, which is then followed by their being joined to the church through baptism. Today we almost always speak of discipleship as something that follows conversion, a program whereby we acquaint new converts with the basics—more facts—of the Christian faith, church doctrines, and so forth, often in four weeks or less!
The New Testament usage of the Greek noun math¯et¯es (commonly translated "disciple") is key to understanding the Great Commission. In the original Greek, math¯et¯es referred to a student who would attach himself to a teacher in order to acquire theoretical and practical knowledge in a certain discipline (e.g., philosophy, medicine, a trade). In other words, the student strived to become a follower of said teacher, to think and act like the teacher.
Following Jesus as a disciple means that we are bound to live according to his teachings as well as to pass on his teachings to others. The link between discipleship and teaching is clear in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. Moreover, in this text, Jesus' fundamental expectation of his disciples is evident—specifically, that his disciples will "observe all [things]…I have commanded you" (verse 20). Thus obedience to Jesus' commandments is essential to living as his disciple.
Taken in light of the fact that the gospel—or good news—is the announcement of God's in-breaking reign (i.e., the kingdom) in which he is making all things new, and recalling that Jesus stressed repentance and obedience as being essential to entry into the kingdom (see Matt. 7:21-23), disciple making involves instruction in the principles of the kingdom and obedience to Christ's commands. In other words, making disciples is a relational activity that involves instruction about new life in the kingdom of God under the lordship of Jesus Christ. The goal is one of action: changed thinking that animates changed behavior that reorients the life of the believer to Jesus' kingdom-oriented goals and activities.
Discipleship is preparation for citizenship in the kingdom, which we actively prioritize (see Mathew 6:33). There is an expectation implicit in discipleship that culminates in the convert's participation in the redemptive mission of Christ. This participation is anything but passive. Jesus calls us to action, to take up the cross, to follow him, to live like him, to present ourselves as a living sacrifice (see Romans 12:1, 2) into the hands of God who empowers us for use in his redemptive purpose in creation. The follower of Christ—or disciple—seeks first to advance the rule and reign of Jesus Christ with all vigor (see Matthew 11:12).
Where discipleship precedes conversion it is evangelism; where it follows conversion it serves sanctification. The man or woman moved by God will receive this instruction, becoming a follower of Christ, whereas the natural man will reject these things. We don't convert people through arguments or persuasion; Christ alone receives credit for the conversion of human souls.
Again, we are called to make disciples—and making disciples, unlike proselytizing, is intensely relational, hard work that requires grace and perseverance. Loving your neighbor, as Christ commanded, is the genesis of disciple making as evangelism. It can be talking with your neighbor about life and the world in which he lives, offering the biblical truth of reality applied to the particulars of his life whenever possible after you have earned the right to speak into his life by first loving him. This could be offering answers relative to his marriage, how he raises his kids, financial problems, and on and on.
As Christians who are biblically informed, we have real and substantive answers to the questions of this life; we posses a wisdom and understanding of reality that the lost do not; we live with the hope of a better future when all things are finally and forever made new. Our engagement in the lives of our unchurched neighbors should compel them to ask why we posses this hope! It is here that we tell them about this Jesus, what he did for us, and what he desires to do for them; we tell them, "Repent and enter his loving kingdom where you will find peace and rest!"
© 2009 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity