A few years ago I led a young man to Christ. At least I thought I did.
We met up again to work through basic discipleship. Lesson 2 was Jesus’ command to Be Baptised. We did a discovery bible study on Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. Then came the surprise.
I asked Gary how he would obey what he’d learnt in the story. Here’s how the conversation went:
Steve there’s no way I can get baptised.
If I got baptised I’d have to be a real Christian.
What does that mean?
I’d have to stop sleeping around. I’m not willing to do that.
I assured Gary we could work on this together. That God would give him the strength to do what was right. Even when he stumbled, God would forgive and restore him. But he had to be willing to let Jesus rule in every area of his life.
Gary said no.
Gary had prayed the sinner’s prayer, but he wasn’t willing to let Jesus rule in his life. That’s not saving faith.
When I’m training people to do Discovery Bible Study, I often tell the story of the woman who wept at Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50). What amazes me is that nobody notices that Jesus announced to a room of Pharisees that this woman’s sins were “many”.
Most people think the woman was rescued from religious bigotry by Jesus’ unconditional acceptance. Yet Jesus says her faith in him brought forgiveness and freedom from sin.
Throughout the New Testament we don’t find any examples of someone being asked to pray the sinners prayer. In the NT conversion is one experience with five key elements: repentance, faith, forgiveness, baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are five ways of looking at the one conversion experience. You can’t separate them. (Robert Stein has done the homework on this.)
At Pentecost Peter challenged the crowd to:
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Peter doesn’t mention faith, but it’s assumed. Sometimes other elements aren’t mentioned, but they’re assumed.
Back to my friend Gary. What could I have done differently?
I like Chuck Wood’s approach. When someone says they what to turn and put their faith Christ, he takes them Matthew 28:18-20.
He has them read it out loud. Then he explains:
- All authority in heaven and on earth is given to Jesus. Are you willing to make him the ruler of your life?
- Jesus commands us to follow his example and be baptised. Are you willing to be baptised?
- Jesus wants us to learn how to obey everything he has commanded. Are you willing to meet with other disciples and learn how to obey what Jesus taught?
- Jesus commands us to go and make disciples. Are you willing to share the good news with others?
- Jesus promises that as we do these things he will always be with us.
Then he asks, Are you ready to turn and believe?
If the answer is Yes, you lead them to Christ, baptise them, and begin meeting for discipleship (7Commands).
If the answer is No. Offer to keep meeting for Discover Bible Study (7Stories of Hope).
The Great Commission has nothing to say about praying a prayer, it’s all about making disciples of the nations by going, baptising, and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded.
A young man turned and believed on the street and prayed to receive Christ. When he was asked, "when can we catch up again?”, he made it clear he wanted no more contact.
Do we count that as a “conversion”?
Recently I’ve heard reports 1,200 people praying to receive Christ on the streets of Reading, UK. Christians are heading out to pray for people and read out a gospel presentation.
Even if some have fallen away, there must be hundreds who we can identify as new disciples. How many have moved from conversion into baptism and discipleship?
Over the last two years around 4,500 people have come to faith through Healing on the Streets in Northern Ireland. Causeway Vineyard estimates less than one in seven are now in a local church. Good on them for keeping track!
The great thing about the folks in Manchester, Reading and Northern Ireland is they are out there connecting, praying, sharing. As DL Moody said, I prefer my imperfect method of sharing the gospel to your method of not sharing the gospel.
But what can we do to bridge the conversion-discipleship gap?
I think we’ve been measuring the wrong things. Praying a prayer to receive Christ is only one element of conversion. NT conversion is one experience that has five elements: repentance, faith, confession, the gift of the Holy Spirit and immersion.
That’s why I’m beginning to think that instead of counting prayers of commitment we should be counting baptised disciples meeting in groups.
Meanwhile in Manchester the follow-up of contacts continues. It’s hard work. Some have fallen away. Others have stuck and are learning to follow Jesus and take the gospel into their world.
Isn’t that what Jesus trained his disciples to do?
Francis Chan on the lighter side of an unnecessary debate.
You cannot not drive a wedge between repentance and faith, obedience and love.
Paul taught new disciples to follow and obey the Lord Jesus. This is what it looked like:
In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, written soon after the church was started, Paul reminded them of the truth of the gospel and urged them to respond to God’s grace with obedience. Paul likened his ministry among the Thessalonians to that of both a father and a nursing mother. Paul and his companions lived blamelessly among these new believers and challenged them to follow their example. After Paul was “torn away” from them, he sent Timothy back from Athens to strengthen and encourage them as they faced persecution.
Paul could challenged the Thessalonians to imitate Christ because they were learning and passing on the stories of Jesus’ life and the content of his teaching. Paul also reminded them that the God who called them to imitate Christ had also given them the Holy Spirit (1 Thess 4:8). He commended their progress and challenged them to live holy lives by avoiding the sexual immorality typical of pagan society. Paul encouraged them to grow in love for one another, work hard with their hands so that they would not be dependent on anyone, and live a life that would win the respect of unbelievers.
For Paul, discipleship was about grasping the full implications of what God has done in Christ and then living them out in every aspect of life. It was the obedience that springs from faith in Christ and is made possible by the Holy Spirit. Paul was confident that even though he had left these new disciples prematurely, the Holy Spirit was present and would enable them to come through their suffering with joy.
This is why movements teach new disciples how to obey everything Jesus commanded (Matt 28).
In the Old Testament, as well as in the writings of Paul, knowledge is not a fixed quantum but rather something that develops in the life of people as they are obedient.
Commentary on Ephesians
Disciple making movements teach disciples to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Matt 28: 16-20). That includes some basics of discipleship like: repent and believe, be baptized, pray, make disciples, give generously, love one another and celebrate the Lord's Supper.
Sadly not everyone in the world of missiology is happy with this approach. Obedience-oriented discipleship has drawn fire. Accusations have been thrown around. Is this a form of Christian Sharia law? Is it man-centred rather than God-centred?
I'm not going to spend too much time on this because the Scriptures are clear and life is short.
Here’s what I wrote about the obedience of faith in, What Jesus Started.
For Paul, the “obedience of faith” is the obedience that flowed from faith in Christ (Rom 1:5; 15:18). It was the disciples’ total response to the gospel in every area of life, not just their initial conversion. The Christian life is both created and lived through the gospel.”
Paul wrote to the Galatians, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” (Gal 5:7). The gospel is not just something we believe; it’s something we obey. The obedience of faith begins with conversion but must go on to include an ongoing change of life. Paul told the Galatians that he continued to suffer like a woman in labor “until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). Bringing them to the obedience of faith was an important part of Paul’s mission.
Paul’s letters typically focused on two themes: (1) the truth of the gospel and (2) how believers should live in response to that truth. His priority was to establish believers in the obedience of faith—a way of life that was consistent with the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Paul’s letters followed a similar pattern: starting with the grace of God in Jesus Christ, he would remind believers of who they were in Christ and what God had done for them. This focus on the reality of their salvation and all its benefits dominated Paul’s letters. Once he had laid this foundation, he moved on to show how these truths must transform the lives of God’s people.
Gentile conversion to faith in Christ involved a radical break with their culture. Gentiles had to abandon their belief in the gods and turn to the one true and living God of the Jewish Scriptures. They had to put their faith in a Savior who had been executed as a criminal on a Roman cross and raised physically from the dead.
Imagine the changes in the life of a new believer who lived in Ephesus, for example. He would no longer visit the temple of Artemis or participate in the rituals and festivals in her honor. He would not bow before the statue of the goddess when he visited the public baths, and he would remove the idols from his home. He would no longer worship the Roman emperor as a god. His break with paganism could not have been more obvious to his community.
In addition, this new believer would leave behind all kinds of sexual immorality—adultery, visiting prostitutes and homosexual behavior—as well as forsaking greed and drunkenness. All of these were acceptable in Ephesian society, as long as they were carried out discreetly and within limits.
I led a young man to Christ a few years ago, a week later Andy walked away. We were discussing baptism, the first step of an obedient disciple.
andy: Do you mean I would have to be a real Christian?
steve: Andy what do you mean?
andy: If I got baptized, I’d have to be a real Christian and stop sleeping around.
He understood the meaning of repentance and faith better than many Christians.
The obedience of faith is at the heart of movements that multiply disciples and churches. Some people have confused the obedience of faith with a Christian version of sharia (Islamic law). Identity in Christ is the only true foundation for following Jesus in loving obedience. The question of baptism helped Andy discover that he hadn’t yet truly repented and believed. What's more, he didn’t want to. He was happy to pray a prayer but not forsake the ladies. I’ve spent the last few months in Ephesians with the help of Clinton Arnold’s commentary. Here’s his take on what Ephesians says about our identity in Christ.
- We are dearly loved. Paul stresses that believers are dearly loved by the Father and by the Son (5:1–2). God demonstrated his love by giving his Son (see also Rom 5:8) and Christ has shown us his love by his willing self-sacrifice on our behalf. This fact should be a significant motivation for us to love one another.
- We are forgiven. Paul declares that God has forgiven us in Christ (4:32b; see also 1:7). This truth will motivate us to forgive one another.
- The Holy Spirit lives in us. Because of the presence of the Spirit in our lives, a truth that Paul has emphasized earlier (1:13, 17; 2:18, 22; 3:16; 4:3, 4, 23), we are divinely assisted in the process of renewal. Nevertheless, if we choose not to cooperate with the Spirit, the Spirit does not leave us but is deeply grieved (4:30). The reality of the personhood of the Spirit and his presence with us should motivate us and empower us to develop holy lives.
- We have a future with God. The Spirit is a seal guaranteeing our future redemption in the consummation of the ages (4:30; see also 1:10, 13–14). This fact should not only give us a feeling of profound security, but motivate us to align ourselves with the purposes of God. 5. We are joined to one another in the body of Christ. Paul here reiterates the fact that every believer is an integral part of the community of believers (4:25c). The body of Christ imagery has been prominent in this letter (see 1:23; 2:16; 3:6; 4:4, 12, 16; 5:23, 30). This truth not only should help us to correct wrong attitudes, but should motivate us to exercise the utmost of caution in how we talk to each other. Paul encourages the expression of words that build up and give grace (4:29). He likewise urges believers to work hard so that they can help brothers and sisters who have material needs.
If this is true about who we are, nothing is too good to be true. No sacrifice is too great in response to God’s grace in Christ. That’s why nobody is asked to just “pray a prayer” in the New Testament. We make disciples of all nations by going, by baptizing and by teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded.
Francis Chan at his humorous best.
How can this guy be so funny and so serious at the same time?