"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
All of life is discipleship, for God's Spirit continually leads and teaches us if we are willing to learn and listen. I have found one of the most effective ways to learn and grow as a follower of Jesus is to do so under the guidance of one who has gone before. As a pastor, I have various people who speak into my life, encourage me, lead me, and challenge me. I also have the privilege of walking beside seekers, new Christians and veteran Christians in helping them develop their relationship with God. At City Grace, we do this through community groups, "huddles," small groups and one-on-one mentoring. My basic theory or understanding of discipleship is that it is an ongoing process of helping a person uncover and respond to the truths of the Gospel as they apply to the person both personally (as a believer they are a child of God, loved and accepted because of Christ) and socially (they've been welcomed into Jesus' Kingdom and equipped to spread his reign in every area of life). I enjoy thinking and talking about discipleship, both in theory and in practice.
The Protestant theory of discipleship is based entirely on grace - understanding it, appreciating it, and responding to it. In this theory, a person grows as a disciple as they realize their sinfulness, the great mercy and grace of God in redeeming sinners, and then learns to respond to this Gospel by obedience to Christ. This obedience is based not on guilt, self-righteousness or an attempt to earn God's favor, but is based on thankfulness for what has already been accomplished through the cross. As a sinner saved by grace, we recognize that we have already been made righteous in God's eyes through Jesus' death on the cross which pays for our sins. We follow the law not because we must, but because doing so is the appropriate way to respond in love to the God who loves us. The task of discipleship is helping a person come to terms with and understand the implications of grace. The best metaphor to understand this transformation is adoption or sonship. As sinners saved by grace, we become adopted children of God. All the rights and privileges of family royalty are imputed to us. This includes the right to come to the Father with bold and frequent requests. It includes the inheritance of eternal life and heavenly "treasure" for earthly sacrifices. It includes the unconditional love of the doting father and the security of the family name. All these are ours in Christ. Rarely do we fully appreciate all that is already true of us who are in Christ. Discipleship is the Spirit-driven task of fully appreciating all this and then responding to it in faith, hope and love - the trifecta of Christian life. Faith is total trust and dependence on that which is believed to be ultimate. Hope is the affective aspect - the feelings and deep convictions that spring from this trust. It includes peace and contentment. Love is the final manifestation of faith and hope - the actions springing from trust and dependence on God and empowered by the absolute security that is experienced in God's chesed, his unfailing covenantal love and blessing.
The Role of the Spirit
Often overlooked in Reformed circles is the role of the Holy Spirit in discipleship. Protestant discipleship is highly intellectual. Great preachers are known to say things like, "think on this until it changes you," the idea being that if you focus enough, or really wrap your mind around the concept of grace, you will be changed. The great contribution of the Pentecostal movement has been the dependence upon the Holy Spirit to take what is intellectually true and make it experientially real. It is not at all certain to me that thinking about the Gospel really drives it home. Being physically healed of an illness, speaking in tongues, or experiencing some supernatural work of the Holy Spirit can be powerfully effective at making real what is being learned. It takes a movement of God's Spirit in a person's life to open them up to the reality of divine things. Often times, it is real life experience, hardships and trials, that are the occasions for the Spirit to help the truths of the Gospel to sink home in deeper ways. The Spirit is the one who kindles faith in us, who unites us to Christ spiritually, and who mediates the real presence of Christ to each believer. The Spirit teaches and reminds the believer of all he or she needs. Because of the importance of the Spirit, prayer is essential to discipleship, for it is in prayer that a person opens themselves up to the Spirit's work.
Discipleship as program
The problem with talking about spiritual growth and spiritual transformation is that so often it gets reduced to a program. Are there steps in spiritual growth? Is it really possible to chart out a path to grow closer to Jesus or to become more like Jesus? The danger with such an approach, one based on principles or steps, is that God can be reduced to a formula, and spiritual growth to