Counting the Cost of Non-Discipleship

                Discipleship is a term that many of us never hear outside of our Christian experience, so it might be helpful to understand it from a biblical perspective. The word for “disciple” is a learner who follows a master teacher.[1] In contrast to our current Western era, learning in Jesus’ time was very relational and holistic. “Discipleship meant much more than just the transfer of information . . . it referred to imitating the teacher’s life, inculcating his values, and reproducing his teachings.”[2] Therefore, discipleship connotes a relationship with a master teacher, following them, and adhering to their way of life because their teaching shapes your own worldview.

                Jesus’ expectation for his followers was clear:  to become more and more like Himself (Luke 6:40). “In the heart of a disciple there is a desire, and there is a decision or settled intent. The disciple of Christ desires above all else to be like him . . .”[3] He then told them how this would happen:  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23, ESV). The painful reality of crucifixion was being applied to how one should treat the false self, the flesh, or the former manner of life, which was powered by self-reliance. These extreme terms of the master/disciple relationship must have sent chills up their spine. There is no middle ground. Wilkins says: “In order to claim the salvation He offered, each person was faced with the choice to exchange the god of his or her life with Jesus as the true God of life.”[4] Becoming a disciple of Jesus required a calculated choice to follow Him in the midst of hard teachings (John 6:60-66). Thus we understand the costly nature of discipleship and the need to calculate whether we are willing to invest fully in this all-encompassing endeavor (Luke 14:28).

Unfortunately, in our day we wrongly separate the idea of discipleship from becoming a believer in Christ. The New Testament, in contrast to our current practice, equates being a Christian with being a disciple. In fact, the term “disciple” is used 269 times as opposed to the term “Christian” which is used only 3 times.[5] “Disciple is the primary term used in the Gospels to refer to Jesus’ followers and is a common referent for those known in the early church as believers, Christians, brothers/sisters, those of the Way, or saints . . .”[6] In the time when Christianity became a force that turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6), the terms “disciple” and “Christian” were used interchangeably.

While Jesus told us to count the cost of following Him, there’s also a cost to not following Him. It can be a helpful exercise to count the cost of non-discipleship.

In the short term, the cost of a non-discipleship mentality short-changes us from the fullness of Christ and the meaning that He gives for this life. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”[7] Jesus is the source of life that is truly life—all other versions are counterfeit, sub-par, and not worthy of our original intent as being created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). While sin has marred our original purpose, Jesus’ invitation to become His follower is His restorative project for our humanity. The only sacrifices He asks us to make are for our ultimate good—to be whole and holy, to be freed from the destructive nature of sin in our lives and to walk in step with the Spirit who gives life and freedom (2 Cor. 3:17). Failing to embrace this discipleship program to the Master leaves us exposed to the deceptive power of the enemy, who is the accuser (Rev. 12:10) and our adversary, prowling “like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, ESV).

If we do not have God’s Larger Redemptive Story out of which to live, we will tend to be deceived by a smaller, twisted version of the Story of Life. The frustrations and regrets that await us in this smaller story are vast and varied. If we think that this world is our home and that this life is all there is, we often become demanding, desperate, and despairing when we do not get what we think brings fulfillment.[8] For example, we see the writer to the Hebrews spelling out the dangers of non-discipleship. These weak Christians were “dull of hearing,” “unskilled in the word of righteousness,” unable to digest solid spiritual food, and they lacked discernment (Hebrews 5:11-14). Having a lack of discernment by not being able to distinguish between good and evil has caused many griefs in the soul and interpersonally. Regret, shame, and guilt over wrongs done to us or by us are heavy burdens to bear. Following Jesus as his disciple invites us to shed these weights and run a new course that He has set out for us (Hebrews 12:1-2). This course is the narrow road, but in the end it leads to life (Matt. 7:14).

The cost of non-discipleship short-circuits God’s plan to bring joy to a believer by being able to teach others the way of Christ. Because of their immaturity, the recipients to the letter of Hebrews were missing out on the joy of teaching others (Heb. 5:12). Even though they should have been able to instruct others and support the journey of faith in new believers, they were unable to participate in God’s redemptive story in meaningful ways. While not all are called to be formal teachers (James 3:1), the Great Commission enlists all of us to be involved in the discipling process of believers, teaching them to become more like Christ (Matthew 28:18-20). Setting this as our priority helps us to not fall into the trap of a thousand other versions of the smaller story, which take our energy and focus away from the main purposes of being left on this earth after conversion, namely being ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:20), encouraging the disheartened, and helping the weak (1 Thess. 5:14).

Taking our own personal relationship with Jesus seriously allows us to be able to walk alongside others who also earnestly desire to follow Christ. As we learn to walk in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:25) and provide spiritual support for others, we get a front-row seat to the work of God as He produces His fruit in the lives of others (Galatians 5:22-23). Our faith is bolstered when we fight for others in prayer, celebrate breakthroughs that provide freedom from besetting sins, and watch God work in the lives of those we are discipling. Our joy in the Lord is multiplied when we allow others to be nourished by our soul hospitality and we ourselves gain strength from being used for God’s redemptive purposes. The cost of non-discipleship is to miss out on all of these precious gifts that reinforce our new identity as citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20).

Immaturity has its own costs, as is attested to us in Scripture. Consider these costs:

  • Living with oppressive fear. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:18-19, NIV). Orphans who have been newly adopted sometimes live with a scarcity mindset. Even though their needs have now been met, they can suffer from fear of abandonment and may have difficulty trusting in someone who will provide for them. “But perfect love drives out fear . . . the one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18, NIV). Fear does not feel good.
  • Being enslaved to unhealthy mindsets. “Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything” (Galatians 4:1). “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods.But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” (Galatians 4:8-9). The problem with an enslaved mindset is that while one has been given immense resources for a new way of life, these resources are of no value because they are not appropriated in practical ways. Slavery does not feel good.
  • Instability in life. All throughout the New Testament, we hear that maturity is the goal for every believer (Col. 1:28). Infancy is fine if you are truly new in the faith, but an extended spiritual childhood does not produce the abundant life that Jesus came to bring. Growth allows one to become more stable (James 1:2-8) and to be able to discern good from evil (Hebrews 5:14). These qualities are part of a mature disciples’ life which allows us to “no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14). Instability does not feel good.

                I close with this quote from Dallas Willard:

          "To depart from righteousness is to choose a life of crushing burdens, failures, and disappointments, a life caught in the toils of endless problems that are never resolved. Here is the source of that unending soap opera, that sometimes horror show known as normal human life. The 'cost of discipleship,' though it may take all we have, is small when compared to the lot of those who don’t accept Christ’s invitation to be a part of his company in The Way of life."[9]

 

[1] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1991).

[2] Greg Herrick, Go and Make Disciples of all nations (2009). Accessed April 20, 2020 https://bible.org/series/go-and-make-disciples-all-nations

[3] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1991), 271.

[4] Michael Wilkins, In His Image (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1997), 69.

[5] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1991).

[6] Michael Wilkins, Following the Master: A biblical theology of discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 40.

[7] John 10:10b NKJV

[8] Brent Curtis and John Eldredge, The Sacred Romance (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997).

[9] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1991), 2.

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