How are we to understand this passage? First, note that Jesus is talking about discipleship, not salvation. Salvation is being saved from sin and evil, it is deliverance from destruction. A disciple is a convinced adherent of Jesus Christ, who accepts and assists in spreading his doctrines (the definitions are from the Merriam-Webster dictionary). The difference is that you might be able to enter heaven (salvation) without becoming a disciple of Christ. More on that later.
Our churches today preach a great deal about salvation. How many times have you been asked if you are saved? If you are born again? If you died today, are you 100% sure that you’d go to heaven? We’re told to pray the Sinner’s Prayer:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name, Amen.
That’s it?! That’s all we have to do, pray a prayer, and then we’re saved? Let’s see what Jesus said, at the end of Matthew:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Oh, we’re supposed to make disciples, see? Nothing about salvation, per se. And what next? “Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
A lot of churches don’t want to hear this message. They tell us that we’re saved by grace, and anything that smacks of obedience to some set of teachings is dismissed as a gospel of works. We’re told that we can’t work our way into heaven (true), but that runs up against what Jesus taught in Matthew 28. We’re to make disciples, and teach them to obey him. Presumably, that starts with obeying him ourselves!
See, a disciple is someone who has turned his entire life over to Jesus Christ. It isn’t some minimalist conversion done to achieve salvation. It’s about seeking to obey God in every action, every word, every minute of every day, even though we’re sinners and can never perfectly achieve this (that’s where the grace comes in). What does this require?
“In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”
Notice what he did not say. He didn’t say that those of you who have sex before you are married cannot be my disciples. He didn’t say that those of you who don’t pray every day cannot be my disciples. He didn’t say that those of you who don’t give 10% to the church cannot be my disciple. He did say that you have to give up everything you have.
Now, I’m not saying that those other things aren’t important. I’m just noting that in this passage, Jesus fingers a single important qualification for discipleship, and that’s to give up everything you have.
Can you have sex before you’re married and be a disciple? Maybe, but you might be missing the point. Marriage isn’t about getting permission from God to have sex. If you haven’t given everything to God, and this includes your sex life, then you’ve probably found someone you want to have sex with, decided that you want to marry him or her, and are now seeking sanctification from God in the form of a marriage ceremony. That’s not how a disciple operates. You’re supposed to be asking him who he wants you to be with before you even meet them.
Can you be a disciple without praying every day? Well, maybe at first, but by the time you’ve seen the results of sloppy discipleship, discipleship where we only turn part of our lives over to Christ, discipleship where we only obey some of his teachings, some of the time, after you’ve experienced that kind of “discipleship” for a while, and seen its consequences… you’ll be praying to him, every day, trust me!
Can you be a disciple without giving 10% of your income to the church? Well, let’s see, that might imply that you can keep the other 90% for yourself, right?
Many Christians don’t want to hear about discipleship because they’d rather have what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”:
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
The Cost of Discipleship
For Bonhoeffer, the cost of discipleship was everything he had. He was executed by the Nazis near the end of World War II.
Another unpopular teaching is Luke 12:
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
Sell your possessions, and give to the poor! See how we edit the Gospel? We don’t want to hear that! Sounds like a religion of works, right? And we’re told so often that we don’t have to do anything, that we just have to believe, that we can’t earn our way into heaven, that these teachings were just for a rich young man… Let’s read the entire passage in Luke 12:
Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
See, no rich young man. Just a radical teaching for his disciples. Remember, we’re to “obey everything I have commanded you”.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18)
Why is the Gospel foolishness to those who are perishing? Take Luke 6:30: “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” Most people read that, say to themselves, “that’s crazy talk”, and go do something else. We cling to our wordly possessions, give some, but no more, and if somebody steals our car, we call the police. Strict obediance to the gospel is seen as foolishness.
Futhermore, there’s an obvious problem – if we sell our possessions, give the money to the poor, give to anyone who asks, well, we’ll soon have nothing, and then how will we eat? Where will we sleep? We live in a world which will do next to nothing for people with no money, and tells us constantly that we have to work for money, even though Jesus told us that “You can not serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
In short, we will be persecuted.
Yet this is just what Jesus told us would happen. He told us that most people are going to destruction (Matthew 6:13-14), that disciples are hated (John 15:18-20), and that we will have peace, but in this world we will have trouble (John 16:33).
We’d prefer to hear a Gospel of cheap grace. That we can give some, but no more, take care of ourselves financially, and live comfortable lives free from persecution. The result is sloppy discipleship, partial obedience, indifference to others, fear of losing what we’ve got, and a distorted worldview where we confuse sin with freedom and self-reliance with reliance on God.
Let me close with some of my personal experiences, not to present myself as some kind of “super-disciple”, but to clearly illustrate how discipleship plays out in modern day life.
A few weeks ago I received a $300 gift from the parents of a student whom I was tutoring for free. It was the most significant amount of cash I had seen in about six months. Two of those three hundred dollar bills were gifted within hours to others, $100 to a man at church with a broken pair of eyeglasses, and another $100 to a different student of mine who was broke and wondering how to put gas in his truck. In both cases, I had prayed and felt that gifting the money was the right thing to do. I can also tell you that I’ve given people $5 bills and felt immediately convicted by the Spirit that it wasn’t the right thing to do, though I do believe that if someone actually asks, Luke 6:30 basically obligates me to give (it’s a commandment from God), although I will pray about each individual situation.
Although I accept cash gifts as I just described, I do all of my work for free, and pray constantly for his guidance to know just what work he’d have me do. I won’t stand behind a cash register at a store, because that implies that I won’t feed or serve people who don’t have money, and I won’t accept that kind of moral compromise in my life. On the other hand, I have often helped sweep and mop the floor at the Downtown Soup Kitchen; we should not refuse menial labor just because we’re not “called” to it by God, though in a sense I do feel called to it by God, as I’m supporting a ministry that feeds the poor. I have a college degree in Mathematics and know a dozen computer programming languages, yet all of the software that I write is published for free on the Internet. Likewise, if I hold back an essay or sermon that I’ve written, it’s because I don’t feel it’s ready or appropriate for publication; there’s no part of my writings that are done for profit while some are offered for free.
I usually sleep quite comfortably in a tent, but finding a place to put it is difficult. The “homeless problem” is the product of a society where there is no free, legal camping almost anywhere. If you don’t have the money to pay rent or a mortage, your existance is basically illegal. I’ve asked for permission to camp from property owners who seem to have no current use for their land, and been denied for apparently no other reason than to get rid of the homeless. I’ve finally accepted that almost anywhere I put up a tent to sleep, I live under threat of confiscation and eviction, and I pray to God to guide me to peaceful campsites where I can leave a tent up and sleep at night without being bothered. Theft is also a prayer concern.
I pray almost every day for food, and instead of relying on myself, I try to rely on him who fed five thousand. He’s fed me by doing work for free, he’s fed me at church dinners and rescue missions, he’s fed me out of trash cans, he’s fed me begging from door to door. The key is to pray for his guidance, pray for his work, pray for his provision, and then do exactly what he leads you to do. If he can’t get you to beg door to door (and what wonderful opportunities for ministry this can open up), then he’ll never get you to lay hands on a cripple and heal him. It’s not easy, but it’s straightforward.
People sometimes suggest that I get a job. When I was younger I would react with anger, but now I just remind myself that most of these people are disobedient to God, deceived both by Satan and a church that preaches cheap grace, and that it’s just another opportunity for evangelism. I usually point out that 90% of these jobs are immoral, because you won’t serve people without money, and that I try every day to do the work of God, whether it’s writing a computer program, tutoring a math student, or leading a political demonstration.
This treatment is dished out to break the individual and force him to work for money. Many of us know in our conscience that it’s wrong, that there’s other work we’d rather be doing, but we’re afraid of persecution. We’re afraid of being put homeless on the streets. We’re afraid of being hungry and cold. We’re embarassed at being called lazy. We need some possessions (like a laptop) in order to work. “Do not be afraid, little flock” is an easy verse to read and one of the hardest to live in practice.
So do you need to live like this to get into heaven? Is discipleship a requirement for salvation?
I don’t know, and in a real sense, I don’t care. I’m not doing this to get myself into heaven, though I admit that I certainly don’t want to go to hell! I’ve chosen to be a disciple of Christ because I believe that he’s the Messiah, the Son of God. He taught us to live in a certain way, a way that’s pleasing to God, and that’s enough for me. I’m not interested in watering the Gospel down to find some subset of it that will get me into heaven while avoiding persecution here on Earth. I’m trying to do exactly what Jesus taught, and live just the way God wants, because I believe that he’s pure and holy, and that his way, with no compromises, is always best.
I encourage you to do the same!