The early believers did not call themselves "Christians" but "disciples". In fact, all believers are called to both be and to make disciples. Yet, discipleship remains an elusive ideal for most of us in the modern church world. Something we know we should "do" but never actually, well, do.
The word “discipleship” itself is often encumbered by notions of pledges, commitments, and strict self-discipline. No? Indeed, many suspect it to be merely a sneaky synonym for legalism.
Add the word “grace” to it, and you have, in many minds, an oxymoron. After all, how can you be a gracious legalist?
I have found that the reason why we so often think of discipleship in terms of “legalism” is because we have attempted to follow Christ in our own strength. Relying on our own resources, we have found the call to discipleship at best tedious, and at worst impossible.
Well, we are not alone. The modern church is certainly not the first to get discipleship backwards.
Have you heard about this group of monks called the “Ascetics” or perhaps some other order of extreme disciples from the past? These were men whose lives were characterized by rigid self-control and self-denial in attempt to grow more like Christ.
One notably lived atop a pole in the wilderness (yes, for real), another ate only potatoes for two years (okay...?), and one fellow castrated himself apparently so that he would not desire marriage (poor guy!). While some people were impressed with their commitment, such harsh self-discipline produces little REAL Christ-likeness.
Fleshly discipleship is definitely not new. Nor is it only a thing of the past, either. Did you ever try to follow the example of Jesus’ life by incessantly asking yourself the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” and then attempting to do the same? (I did. I had the bracelet).
While not as extreme as the monks of yesteryear, make no mistake, THAT is legalism. All self effort in becoming Christ-like is missing the whole point. True discipleship begins not by following the life of Jesus, but by partaking in His death.
Discipleship begins at the cross.
Paul understood our human tendency to seek to grow spiritually through rigid self control when he wrote Colossians 2:20-23:
“Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations - "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," which all concern things which perish with the using - according to the commandments and doctrines of men?
These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.”
He also wrote at length on this subject to the churches of Galatia and in Galatians 3:3 he writes, “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?”
Paul says, “If you died with Christ...” and “Having begun in the Spirit...” as the starting points of discipleship. Why? Because at salvation two things happened to each of us:
1. We died to our own strength, wisdom, and goodness for salvation [“repentance from dead works,” (Hebrews 6:1)], and
2. We were given the power of the Holy Spirit to live out our salvation [“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” (Acts 1:8)]
Having begun in death to the power of self and life to the power of the Spirit, does God now expect you to grow in godliness by the power of self? The answer is of course No.
Notice in Colossians 2 that harsh self-discipline does nothing to help you overcome temptation to sin. Legalism is deceptive. While it gives the appearance, and even feeling, of godliness, it is actually carnality in disguise. What could be more fleshly than attempting to be holy by our own efforts apart from God?
Jesus never intended us to follow Him in our own strength, wisdom, or self-discipline. We can only know and become like Jesus by the power of God’s Spirit at work in our lives.
Grace Discipleship, then, is discipleship done in the power of God’s Spirit. That is true discipleship.
If you've held back from discipleship in the past because it seemed like too much of a commitment or too difficult to do, ask yourself if you are trying to live in your own strength, and open your heart to all the Lord has for you in the power of His Spirit.
“God does not ask you to give the perfect surrender in your strength, or by the power of your will; God is willing to work it in you. Do we not read: ‘It is God that worketh in us, both to will and to do of His good pleasure.’ (Philippians 2:13)?”
(Absolute Surrender, by Andrew Murray, page 9)