Let me explain and justify the title of this book, The Radical Disciple.
First, why ‘disciple’?
It comes as a surprise to many people to discover that the followers of Jesus Christ are called ‘Christian’ only three times in the New Testament.
The most significant occurrence is Luke’s comment that it was in Syrian Antioch that Jesus’ disciples were first called ‘Christians’ (Acts 11:26). Antioch was known to be an international community. Consequently its church was an international community too, and it was appropriate that its members were called ‘Christians’ in order to indicate that their ethnic differences were overcome by their common allegiance to Christ.
The other two occurrences of the word ‘Christian’ supply evidence that it was beginning to come into common currency. So when Paul was on trial before King Agrippa and challenged him directly, Agrippa cried out to Paul, ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?’ (Acts 26:28).
Then the apostle Peter, whose first letter was written against the background of growing persecution, found it necessary to distinguish between those who suffered ‘as a criminal’ and those who suffered ‘as a Christian’ (1 Peter 4:16); that is, because they belonged to Christ. Both words (Christian and disciple) imply a relationship with Jesus, although perhaps ‘disciple’ is the stronger of the two because it inevitably implies the relationship of pupil to teacher. During his three years of public ministry the Twelve were disciples before they were apostles, and as disciples they were under the instruction of their teacher and lord.
One wishes in some ways that the word ‘disciple’ had continued into the following centuries, so that Christians were self-consciously disciples of Jesus, and took seriously their responsibility to be ‘under discipline’.
My concern in this book is that we who claim to be disciples of the Lord Jesus will not provoke him to say again: ‘Why do you call me, “Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I say?’ (Luke 6:46). For genuine discipleship is wholehearted discipleship, and this is where my next word comes in.
So, secondly, why ‘radical’? Since this is the adjective I am using to describe our discipleship, it is important to indicate the sense in which I am using it.
The English word ‘radical’ is derived from the Latin word radix, a root. Originally it seems to have been applied as a political label to people like the nineteenth-century politician William Cobbett and their extreme, liberal and reformist views. But from this it came to be applied generally to those whose opinions went to the roots and who were thoroughgoing in their commitment.
We are now ready to put the noun and the adjective together and to ask our third question, namely why ‘radical disciple’? The answer is obvious. There are different levels of commitment in the Christian community. Jesus himself illustrated this in what happened to the seeds he describes in the Parable of the Sower.1 The difference between the seeds lay in the kind of soil which received them. Of the seed sown on rocky soil Jesus said, ‘It had no root.’
Our common way of avoiding radical discipleship is to be selective; choosing those areas in which commitment suits us and staying away from those areas in which it will be costly. But because Jesus is Lord, we have no right to pick and choose the areas in which we will submit to his authority.
Jesus is worthy to receive
Honour and power divine.
And blessings more than we can give
Be Lord for ever thine.2
So my purpose in this book is to consider eight characteristics of Christian discipleship which are often neglected and yet deserve to be taken seriously.
The first characteristic of the radical disciple which I bring before you I will call ‘non-conformity’. Let me explain why.
The church has a double responsibility in relation to the world around us. On the one hand we are to live, serve and witness in the world. On the other hand we are to avoid becoming contaminated by the world. So we are neither to seek to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world nor to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world.
Escapism and conformism are thus both forbidden to us. This is one of the major themes of the whole Bible, namely that God is calling out a people for himself and is summoning us to be different from everybody else. ‘Be holy,’ he says repeatedly to his people, ‘because I am holy’ (e.g. Leviticus 11:45; 1 Peter 1:15–16).
We are neither to seek to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world nor to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world.
John Stott, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2012).