There are now signs that significant groups among professing Christians are ready to take up discipleship to Jesus as the core of their religious life. A realization has been setting in that the redemption Christ offers is for all aspects of life, from the deepest parts of the human being outward to the last details of our actions. Many who previously had only a superficial connection with Christ are coming to understand that whole-life discipleship to him is the easy way to live: the “easy yoke” and the “light burden” that Jesus promised to those who step into the yoke with him to learn of him.
We will see great progress for Jesus’ work on earth, and great blessing upon the lives of groups and individuals, if this new seriousness about discipleship stays focused on three things.
First, there must be no mistaking the fact that discipleship to Jesus means primarily learning from him how to do—easily and routinely do—the very things he said for us to do. Obedience is the only sound objective of a Christian spirituality. Of course, we do not obey to earn anything—earning is out of the question—but we obey because doing the things that Jesus said is what is best for us and for everyone around us.
Second, we do not become able to obey by trying to obey, but by becoming the kind of person who naturally does obey. That means our intention is to acquire, by intelligent effort and grace, the inward character of Jesus Christ himself. We think and feel like him; our will has his habits of choosing; our very body is poised toward righteous deeds; and our way of relating to others is governed by his kind of love.
Third, the activities of our fellowship groups and their leaders are explicitly designed to make disciples—not some lesser version of “Christian,” but genuine apprentices to Jesus in kingdom living—and to teach everyone in the group to do the things Jesus said. Leaders do this by bringing their fellowship groups through effective processes of inward transformation of the dynamics of human life.
In this way we will do what Jesus told us to do: “Make disciples as you go, submerge them in the Trinitarian reality, and train them to do everything that I commanded you” (paraphrase of Matt. 28:19–20). That is what it means to choose the life. The ills of the church and of the individual derive almost totally from the simple failure to do what Jesus told us to do in the Great Commission. There is no excuse whatsoever for not doing it, and every rationalization is simply a wound to our own souls, an injury to our groups, and an insult to the Christ who told us what to do.
Bill Hull has learned a lot from his years in the church as a pastor and leader. Most importantly, as this book shows, he has learned about himself. He has a vivid sense that what matters is what you are on the inside; that is the place where discipleship takes hold and where the only possible foundation for uncomplicated obedience is laid. He is delightfully candid and fresh, and conveys profound substance with stark clarity. You will wince as he relates painful experiences incurred while trying to lead his church to “great things” with thoughts and feelings remaining un-Christlike. But you will see with joy how character—not just bright ideas and slick techniques—has genuine power in human relationships under God.
He has found that “an environment of grace is a community in which disciples accept each person where they are, celebrate how God has made them, and encourage each other to train to be godly.” We can only hope and pray that the desire to build such communities will now become widely contagious, as has been gloriously so in past times among Jesus’ people.
Dallas Willard, “Foreword,” in Choose the Life: Exploring a Faith That Embraces Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 6–8.
God is a rewarder
Hebrews 11:6 is my favorite verse:
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.—Hebrews 11:6 (NIV)
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.—Hebrews 11:6 (NIV)
God is a rewarder. It is impossible for me to draw near to God except that I believe that God is a rewarder. If God is a rewarder, I will be rewarded for seeking Him. It is always in my best interest to live the Christian life. It is always good for me to follow God.
This is important because we are all irrevocably hardwired to do what we believe to be in our best interest. The key word is believe. This is why faith is so important to Christian living. What we believe determines what we do. If we believe that God is good; if we believe that He is smart; if we believe that He has our best interest at heart; then trusting Him is relatively easy.
But if in my heart of hearts I believe that God is not good, that He can’t be trusted, that He is not after my well-being, it is impossible—impossible for me to draw near to Him. Not because this belief that God is a rewarder is some kind of magic key that opens the door; it is simply the nature of things. I am irrevocably hardwired to do what I believe to be is in my best interest. I will only seek God if I really believe He is a rewarder.
I must come to love the Christian life or I will never come to live the Christian life.
The people you teach must come to love the Christian life or they will never come to live the Christian life.
Prayer must become for them a sweet hour of prayer, or I will bet they didn’t pray this morning.
Service is either a joy or a struggle.
Self-control will only get us so far. We will only make it so far forcing ourselves to do what we fundamentally don’t believe is in our best interest. Sooner or later we will do what we believe is best for us. We either come to believe that God is good, that God is a rewarder, that it is good for us to follow God, or we will not follow God very far.
There is a place in Christian living for self-control. There are times when we must force ourselves to do what we don’t feel like doing in the moment. There are times we must force ourselves to give even when it hurts. But, we either become joyful givers or we end up becoming stingy, selfish, people.
We must come to love the Christian life, or we will never come to live the Christian life. This is the key to application.
Josh Hunt, The Effective Bible Teacher (Josh Hunt, 2013).
Have you ever noticed how children ask? Boy, do they ask—freely and often! One story tells of a little boy who was misbehaving one night when his father was trying to get him into bed. The boy’s mother had gone to a meeting and his father was taking care of things at home. Long after the little boy had been tucked in for the night, he was doing the classic drink of water routine: “Dad? I need a drink of water.” His father came upstairs and gave him a drink of water, and of course a short time later the boy had to go to the bathroom. This happened several times. Finally the exasperated dad reached the limit of his patience and said, “No more. Young man, you get into bed and you stay there.”
A few minutes later, however, this father heard the pitter-patter of little feet upstairs. He bolted to the foot of the stairs, this time angry that his reading had been interrupted. He yelled up to his misbehaving son, “Look, I’m telling you for the last time! You get in bed and you stay in bed! If you get out of bed one more time, you’re in trouble. I’ll be coming up there and you’ll get a whipping!”
For a moment it was very quiet. Then a little voice drifted down: “Daddy, when you come up here to give me a whipping, could you bring me a glass of water?”
That’s how children are. They never quit. It doesn’t matter how many times you say no, they keep coming back. They keep asking. They ask and ask and ask.
I think that’s what Jesus is talking about here. He wants us to come to Him and…ask.
David Jeremiah, Prayer: The Great Adventure (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 1997), 22–23.
If anyone asks, “How can I be a happy Christian?” our Lord’s answer is very simple. About the vine and the branches, He says, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.” In effect, He is saying, “You cannot have My joy without My life. Abide in Me, and let Me abide in you, and My joy will be in you.” All healthy life is a thing of joy and beauty. Live the branch life undividedly, and you will have His joy in full measure.
To many Christians, the thought of a life wholly abiding in Christ is one of strain and painful effort. They cannot see that the strain and effort exist only because we do not yield ourselves unreservedly to the life of Christ in us. They have not yet experienced the very first words of the parable: “‘I am the true vine.’ I undertake all and provide for all. I ask nothing of the branch but that it yields wholly to Me, and allows Me to do all. I engage to make and keep the branch all that it ought to be.” Would it not be an infinite and unceasing joy to have the Vine thus work all? How glorious to know that it is no one less than the blessed Son of God in His love who is each moment bearing us and maintaining our life!
“That my joy might remain in you.” We are to have Christ’s own joy in us. And what is Christ’s own joy? There is no joy like love. There is no joy but love. Christ had just spoken of the Father’s love, of His own abiding in it, and of His having loved us with that same love. His joy is nothing but the joy of love, of being loved, and of loving. His joy was in receiving His Father’s love, abiding in it, passing it on, and then pouring it out on sinners.
He wants to share this joy with us: the joy of being loved of the Father and of Him; the joy of, in our turn, loving and living for those around us. This is the joy of being truly branches—abiding in His love, and then giving up ourselves in love to bear fruit for others. Let us accept His life, as He gives it in us as the Vine. His joy will be ours: the joy of abiding in His love, the joy of loving like Him, of loving with His love.
“And that your joy might be full.” May it be complete, and may you be filled with it. How sad that we need to be reminded that as God alone is the fountain of all joy, “God our exceeding joy,” the only way to be perfectly happy is to have as much of God—as much of His will and fellowship—as possible! Christianity is meant to be a thing of unspeakable joy.
And why do so many complain that it is not so? Because they do not believe that there is no joy like the joy of abiding in Christ and in His love. They do not know the joy of being branches through whom He can pour out His love on a dying world.
Oh, that Christ’s voice might reach the heart of every young Christian, and persuade him to believe that His joy is the only true joy. His joy can become ours and truly fill us. And the sure and simple way of living in it is—only this—to abide as branches in Him our heavenly Vine. Let the truth enter deep into us—as long as our joy is not full, it is a sign that we do not yet know our heavenly Vine completely. Every desire for a fuller joy must only urge us to abide more simply and more fully in His love.
My joy—your joy. In this, too, it is: as the Vine, so the branch; all the Vine in the branch. Your joy is our joy—Your joy in us, and our joy fulfilled. Blessed Lord, fill me with Your joy—the joy of being loved and blessed with a divine love. Give me the joy of loving and blessing others.
Andrew Murray, The True Vine (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2002).
The Apostle John said, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin” (1 John 2:1). The whole purpose of John’s letter, he says, is that we not sin. One day as I was studying this chapter I realized that my personal life’s objective regarding holiness was less than that of John’s. He was saying, in effect, “Make it your aim not to sin.” As I thought about this, I realized that deep within my heart my real aim was not to sin very much. I found it difficult to say, “Yes, Lord, from here on I will make it my aim not to sin.” I realized God was calling me that day to a deeper level of commitment to holiness than I had previously been willing to make.
Can you imagine a soldier going into battle with the aim of “not getting hit very much”? The very suggestion is ridiculous. His aim is not to get hit at all! Yet if we have not made a commitment to holiness without exception, we are like a soldier going into battle with the aim of not getting hit very much. We can be sure if that is our aim, we will be hit—not with bullets, but with temptation over and over again.
Jonathan Edwards, one of the great preachers of early American history, used to make resolutions. One of his was, “Resolved, never to do anything which I would be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.”5 Dare we modern-day Christians make such a resolution? Are we willing to commit ourselves to the practice of holiness without exceptions? There is no point in praying for victory over temptation if we are not willing to make a commitment to say no to it.
Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1978), 92–93.
Carey was raised in the obscure, rural village of Paulerpury, in the middle of England. He apprenticed in a local cobbler’s shop, where the nominal Anglican was converted. He enthusiastically took up the faith, and though little educated, the young convert borrowed a Greek grammar and proceeded to teach himself New Testament Greek.
When his master died, he took up shoemaking in nearby Hackleton, where he met and married Dorothy Plackett, who soon gave birth to a daughter. But the apprentice cobbler’s life was hard—the child died at age 2—and his pay was insufficient. Carey’s family sunk into poverty and stayed there even after he took over the business.
“I can plod,” he wrote later, “I can persevere to any definite pursuit.” All the while, he continued his language studies, adding Hebrew and Latin, and became a preacher with the Particular Baptists. He also continued pursuing his lifelong interest in international affairs, especially the religious life of other cultures.
Carey was impressed with early Moravian missionaries and was increasingly dismayed at his fellow Protestants’ lack of missions interest. In response, he penned An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. He argued that Jesus’ Great Commission applied to all Christians of all times, and he castigated fellow believers of his day for ignoring it: “Multitudes sit at ease and give themselves no concern about the far greater part of their fellow sinners, who to this day, are lost in ignorance and idolatry.”
Carey didn’t stop there: in 1792 he organized a missionary society, and at its inaugural meeting preached a sermon with the call, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God!” Within a year, Carey, John Thomas (a former surgeon), and Carey’s family (which now included three boys, and another child on the way) were on a ship headed for India.
Thomas and Carey had grossly underestimated what it would cost to live in India, and Carey’s early years there were miserable. When Thomas deserted the enterprise, Carey was forced to move his family repeatedly as he sought employment that could sustain them. Illness racked the family, and loneliness and regret set it: “I am in a strange land,” he wrote, “no Christian friend, a large family, and nothing to supply their wants.” But he also retained hope: “Well, I have God, and his word is sure.”
He learned Bengali with the help of a pundit, and in a few weeks began translating the Bible into Bengali and preaching to small gatherings.
When Carey himself contracted malaria, and then his 5-year-old Peter died of dysentery, it became too much for his wife, Dorothy, whose mental health deteriorated rapidly. She suffered delusions, accusing Carey of adultery and threatening him with a knife. She eventually had to be confined to a room and physically restrained.
“This is indeed the valley of the shadow of death to me,” Carey wrote, though characteristically added, “But I rejoice that I am here notwithstanding; and God is here.”
In October 1799, things finally turned. He was invited to locate in a Danish settlement in Serampore, near Calcutta. He was now under the protection of the Danes, who permitted him to preach legally (in the British-controlled areas of India, all of Carey’s missionary work had been illegal).
Carey was joined by William Ward, a printer, and Joshua and Hanna Marshman, teachers. Mission finances increased considerably as Ward began securing government printing contracts, the Marshmans opened schools for children, and Carey began teaching at Fort William College in Calcutta.
In December 1800, after seven years of missionary labor, Carey baptized his first convert, Krishna Pal, and two months later, he published his first Bengali New Testament. With this and subsequent editions, Carey and his colleagues laid the foundation for the study of modern Bengali, which up to this time had been an “unsettled dialect.”
Carey continued to expect great things; over the next 28 years, he and his pundits translated the entire Bible into India’s major languages: Bengali, Oriya, Marathi, Hindi, Assamese, and Sanskrit and parts of 209 other languages and dialects.
He also sought social reform in India, including the abolition of infanticide, widow burning (sati), and assisted suicide. He and the Marshmans founded Serampore College in 1818, a divinity school for Indians, which today offers theological and liberal arts education for some 2,500 students.
By the time Carey died, he had spent 41 years in India without a furlough. His mission could count only some 700 converts in a nation of millions, but he had laid an impressive foundation of Bible translations, education, and social reform.
His greatest legacy was in the worldwide missionary movement of the nineteenth century that he inspired. Missionaries like Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and David Livingstone, among thousands of others, were impressed not only by Carey’s example, but by his words “Expect great things; attempt great things.” The history of nineteenth-century Protestant missions is in many ways an extended commentary on the phrase.
Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, “Introduction,” (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 244–246.
Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, “Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western Culture for almost twenty centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull up out of the history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?
We live in a world where Jesus’ impact is immense even if his name goes unmentioned. In some ways, our biggest challenge in gauging his influence is that we take for granted the ways in which our world has been shaped by him. G. K. Chesterton said that if you want to gauge the impact of his life, “The next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it.”
Children would be thought of differently because of Jesus. Historian O. M. Bakke wrote a study called When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, in which he noted that in the ancient world, children usually didn’t get named until the eighth day or so. Up until then there was a chance that the infant would be killed or left to die of exposure—particularly if it was deformed or of the unpreferred gender. This custom changed because of a group of people who remembered that they were followers of a man who said, “Let the little children come to me.”
Jesus never married. But his treatment of women led to the formation of a community that was so congenial to women that they would join it in record numbers. In fact, the church was disparaged by its opponents for precisely that reason. Jesus’ teachings about sexuality would lead to the dissolution of a sexual double standard that was actually encoded in Roman law.
Jesus never wrote a book. Yet his call to love God with all one’s mind would lead to a community with such a reverence for learning that when the classical world was destroyed in what are sometimes called the Dark Ages, that little community would preserve what was left of its learning. In time, the movement he started would give rise to libraries and then guilds of learning. Eventually Oxford and Cambridge and Harvard and Yale and virtually the entire Western system of education and scholarship would arise because of his followers. The insistence on universal literacy would grow out of an understanding that this Jesus, who was himself a teacher who highly praised truth, told his followers to enable every person in the world to learn.
He never held an office or led an army. He said that his kingdom was “not from this world.” He was on the wrong side of the law at the beginning of his life and at its end. And yet the movement he started would eventually mean the end of emperor worship, be cited in documents like the Magna Carta, begin a tradition of common law and limited government, and undermine the power of the state rather than reinforce it as other religions in the empire had done. It is because of his movement that language such as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” entered history.
The Roman Empire into which Jesus was born could be splendid but also cruel, especially for the malformed and diseased and enslaved. This one teacher had said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these …, you did for me.” An idea slowly emerged that the suffering of every single individual human being matters and that those who are able to help ought to do so. Hospitals and relief efforts of all kinds emerged from this movement; even today they often carry names that remind us of him and his teachings. — John Ortberg, Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012).
WHEN THE APOSTLE MATTHEW began to follow Christ, he was so enthusiastic he threw a big party, invited all his friends, and celebrated. Jesus and all the apostles attended and apparently had a great time (see Matthew 9:10). He was criticized for attending, eating, drinking—and with sinners! How scandalous! This was a great celebration that Matthew threw in honor of his newfound faith in the Messiah Jesus.
Two banner signs (3x6 feet): “It’s Party Time”
Folding tables for serving (depending on how many you will serve)
Coolers (several, depending on how many you will serve)
Burgers and hot dogs to grill
Other food and beverages
Game centers for children (for example, face painting, balloon animals, penny toss)
My church throws big parties in the spirit of what Matthew did. We fire up several barbeque grills and put on hot dogs and burgers. Multiple small groups provide desserts of all kinds. Kids’ games with prizes abound. Local professional athletes make a showing. We’ve even raffled off a donated car (we gave the tickets away the day before and the day of the event; the winner had to be present to collect the prize).
After a couple of hours, more prayer, conversation, laughs, and hugs have happened than anyone can count. The neighborhood feels touched and invested in. Group members are invited into neighborhood homes. We’ve had close to a thousand guests show up to one of these bashes. Not only are the people of the neighborhood encouraged, loved, and prayed for, but also the members of the multiple small groups who sponsor it are built up by seeing their combined energies make a big impression.
Steve Sjogren, 101 Ways to Reach Your Community (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014).
A century ago, a band of brave souls became known as one-way missionaries. They purchased single tickets to the mission field without the return half. And instead of suitcases, they packed their few earthly belongings into coffins. As they sailed out of port, they waved good-bye to everyone they loved, everything they knew. They knew they’d never return home.
A. W. Milne was one of those missionaries. He set sail for the New Hebrides in the South Pacific, knowing full well that the headhunters who lived there had martyred every missionary before him. Milne did not fear for his life, because he had already died to himself. His coffin was packed. For thirty-five years, he lived among that tribe and loved them. When he died, tribe members buried him in the middle of their village and inscribed this epitaph on his tombstone:
When he came there was no light.
When he left there was no darkness.
When did we start believing that God wants to send us to safe places to do easy things? That faithfulness is holding the fort? That playing it safe is safe? That there is any greater privilege than sacrifice? That radical is anything but normal?
Jesus didn’t die to keep us safe. He died to make us dangerous.
Faithfulness is not holding the fort. It’s storming the gates of hell.
The will of God is not an insurance plan. It’s a daring plan.
The complete surrender of your life to the cause of Christ isn’t radical. It’s normal.
It’s time to quit living as if the purpose of life is to arrive safely at death.
It’s time to go all in and all out for the All in All.
Pack your coffin!
Mark Batterson, All in: You Are One Decision Away from a Totally Different Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013).
How can we “demolish” those things that once blew us away? With Christ living out His very life through ours, that’s how. By His power we can give ourselves away again and again and again. And we won’t fear the outcome. We won’t even feel slighted when we don’t get the same treatment in return.
Servants, remember, don’t “keep score.” Dale Galloway tells a story in Dream a New Dream that beautifully illustrates this point.
Little Chad was a shy, quiet young fellow. One day he came home and told his mother, he’d like to make a valentine for everyone in his class. Her heart sank. She thought, “I wish he wouldn’t do that!” because she had watched the children when they walked home from school. Her Chad was always behind them. They laughed and hung on to each other and talked to each other. But Chad was never included. Nevertheless, she decided she would go along with her son. So she purchased the paper and glue and crayons. For three whole weeks, night after night, Chad painstakingly made thirty-five valentines.
Valentine’s Day dawned, and Chad was beside himself with excitement! He carefully stacked them up, put them in a bag, and bolted out the door. His mom decided to bake him his favorite cookies and serve them up warm and nice with a cool glass of milk when he came home from school. She just knew he would be disappointed . . . maybe that would ease the pain a little. It hurt her to think that he wouldn’t get many valentines—maybe none at all.
That afternoon she had the cookies and milk on the table. When she heard the children outside she looked out the window. Sure enough here they came, laughing and having the best time. And, as always, there was Chad in the rear. He walked a little faster than usual. She fully expected him to burst into tears as soon as he got inside. His arms were empty, she noticed, and when the door opened she choked back the tears.
“Mommy has some warm cookies and milk for you.”
But he hardly heard her words. He just marched right on by, his face aglow, and all he could say was:
“Not a one . . . not a one.”
Her heart sank.
And then he added, “I didn’t forget a one, not a single one!”5 So it is when God is in control of the servant’s mind. We realize as never before that life’s greatest joy is to give His love away
Charles R. Swindoll, Improving Your Serve (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004).