I recently got a new pair of glasses for the first time in quite a while. Wisely, I took my wife to get her input on just what kind of glasses to get for myself. Getting her input avoided what might have been inevitable concerns caused by my own poor selection process.
In some respects, the current popular discussion of discipleship might fit into a similar category. As Christians, we are all disciples and therefore seem to have some basis by which to claim some knowledge about what being a disciple is all about. And yet, like my need to have my prescription checked (good news is that it radically changed, but for the better!) we would be advised at times to consult our theology as Lutherans in assessing the popular presentation of discipleship today. The theological lenses with which we view discipleship can have a radical impact on how we come to understand what it means to be a disciple and can, in turn, reshape our practice of our theology.
What is Discipleship?
There seems to be a false assumption that has been imported, at least partially, across theological traditions that has impacted how discipleship is often understood in Lutheran circles. While we tend to get our understanding of justification down correctly, there seems to be a misapplication of sanctification that can radically reshape our approach to discipleship. We know with some clarity that we are justified entirely by Christ. Being truly dead in sin, we recognize that we lack the very capacity to respond, even in the slightest.
However, at times we seem to assume that since God has taken care of our justification, we now are responsible for our sanctification. If this were indeed the case, discipleship would be all about us. Discipleship would be about our striving to respond to God’s working of faith in our lives with the development of holy living of our own. Yet, this is not what is taking place. Mueller points out that in sanctification, “we can speak of a working with the Holy Spirit… Because of the gift of faith, we want to work with the Holy Spirit. Yet, even this cooperation is a product of God’s activities (Philippians 2:13) and not something we can do by our own innate human power.”1
The tendency to make our discipleship out to be a work in which we find a greater degree of personal responsibility is rather natural. The very reality of God’s complete role in our justification pushes back against our human desire to take charge and work out our salvation ourselves. Thus the idea that we would take a back seat to the work of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification can, at times, seem to be just too much. We would much rather have the aid of the Holy Spirit–truly no mainstream theological tradition would dispute that active role of the Spirit in discipleship–rather than have the Holy Spirit work out our sanctification within us.
“(Discipleship) is not primarily about following a set of rules, engaging in ascetical practices or affirming certain doctrines.”2
Note that there is a place for faith practices in discipleship; they simply are not to have the central feature as though they are themselves a means to an end. Here is where I think the real wrestling over discipleship takes place. We desire to take an active role in our discipleship, or at least most discussions about discipleship tend to emphasize some form of activity, yet if the Holy Spirit is the prime mover in our formation as a disciple, what then is our properly understood role? Is there a place for discipleship training or spiritual disciplines?
I would argue that yes there is indeed a place for each, but that they must be understood within a larger framework of our sanctification by the Holy Spirit. As disciples of Christ, we are not entirely passive receptors of the shaping formation of sanctification. Neither are we responsible to reshape ourselves by our own strength. Rather a middle approach is called for. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are enabled to engage in discipleship training. (By discipleship training, I am referring to the more cognitive aspects of discipleship: Bible study, worship and one-on-one work with a discipleship mentor). It is also by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are able to adopt spiritual discipline practices in a manner that is truly beneficial.
Let me offer some examples of how spiritual disciplines can be misapplied.
Fasting, which is a very scriptural practice, can be made into a practice that is seen as a “work” by which we exercise faith ourselves and thus we try to apply our own strength to grow our faith, rather than seeking the sustaining power of Christ through a fast. Further we may be led by some approaches to discipleship to make use of a “verse of the day” approach to reading Scripture, which disconnects particular verses from the flow of the larger passage, and runs the real risk of distortion. Thus two dangers are seen–0ne in which we see discipleship as our work and the other in which practices become slaves to our overly busy lives rather than deep reflections upon the Word.
Rather than operating under the assumption that spiritual disciplines work out our spiritual growth like weight lifting works out our muscles, we instead apply appropriate grace to our practice of spiritual disciplines, allowing the Holy Spirit to take the lead. This is truly freeing. We have all had times in which we have struggled. We have all meant to take up a particular spiritual discipline only to have our best intentions met head on with the old Adam within. Rather than viewing this struggle under the Law, if we continually return to the Gospel, offering forgiveness even to ourselves, we are freed to rely upon the Holy Spirit rather than our own strength in our discipleship.
So what, in the end, is discipleship in Lutheranism?
Discipleship is simply our life as disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Discipleship is not some new application of the Law in the life of the believer. All believers are disciples and thus are all in a state of discipleship. Discipleship is not a special spiritual activity that we are responsible for. Rather, discipleship is the sanctifying work of God Himself in our lives. Discipleship is God calling us deeper and deeper into relationship with Him and with our fellow disciples. Discipleship is both the successes empowered by the Holy Spirit and the failures caused by sinful natures. Discipleship is our life in Christ. Discipleship is the Body of Christ in action.
This brings me to my final point, what does the Body of Christ in action look like relative to this understanding of discipleship?
We are instructed by Christ to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19). How is it then that we “make” these disciples? If the Holy Spirit makes a disciple originally through Baptism, then our role comes in through teaching. When we teach the Christian faith to a new disciple, or an old disciple for that matter, we “disciple” them through the Word of God. Again the prime mover is the Lord as the author of the Word, but we participate by presenting the Word in our teaching.
Thus discipleship is a core element of youth ministry specifically and Christian education generally. When we teach in formal and informal settings, as we present learning in youth group, in small groups and one-on-one mentoring, we participate in the discipleship of our youth. At times we will disciple through catechesis as we teach the central elements of the Christian faith. At times we will disciple through spiritual direction as we discuss the application of Scripture in our lives. At times we will disciple through spiritual disciplines as we read the Bible and pray together. At all times we will disciple the youth in our churches through the power of Christ and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
What a joy it is to journey with our students through life! What a privilege it is to see the Holy Spirit at work in their lives as they grow and mature, while they wrestle and struggle with the impact of their faith on their lives and their lives on their faith. I thank God for each of you who take your part in this noble task.
1 Mueller, S. P. (2005).Called to believe, teach, and confess. (p. 299). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
2 Peace, R. V. (2011). Discipleship. In G. G. Scorgie (Ed.),Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (p. 406). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.