The False Teaching of “Transitioning” into Discipleship
The fundamental premise of our [C]hristian faith is the lordship of Jesus Christ. It stands at the heart and core of Christianity. Everything in the Christian faith — becoming a Christian, living the Christian life, and the ultimate outcome of being a Christian — stands or falls on the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Charles T. Carter, “The Lordship of Jesus Christ”
Not all false teachings in the church are properly classed as theological heresies, such that they would violate a specific doctrinal statement or confession of faith. Some of the most pernicious false teachings, ordinarily more implied than explicated, can pass muster at the bar of almost any traditional confession of faith — and in fact are found in almost all kinds of churches. These are often procedural assumptions about the Faith and the Christian life that, lying just beneath the surface of a church’s vocal teachings, are never uttered but always presupposed. In many cases, it is these assumptions, and not explicit heresy, that pollute the church and eventually drive it into apostasy.
A prime example of such teaching is the error of assuming that Christians “transition” into discipleship. It goes like this: When we preach the Gospel, we are trying to get people to trust in Jesus. This trust (engendered by the Holy Spirit, of course) is a huge step, and we cannot expect that those who take that step will also take the second, and always subsequent, massive step of living obedient lives; spending time in prayer; attending public worship faithfully; reorienting their thinking in family and cultural issues; and so forth. The goal of the church is to convince new converts of the need to be disciples; it is simply too much to demand discipleship of new Christians.
Exponents of this teaching will point to texts like 1 Corinthians 3:2, Hebrews 5:12 and 1 Peter 2:2, which distinguish between immature and mature Christians, between those who can consume spiritual milk from those who can masticate meat. There can, in truth, be no doubt that differing levels of growth characterize different Christians, and we dare not dismiss this fact; but it in no way refutes the notion that all Christians are disciples. Even babyish and immature Christians desire to please Jesus Christ, labor to obey His Word, and long to worship with the church, no matter how often they fail and how imperfectly they succeed. Jesus’ apostles were constantly sinning and failing — but they were His disciples. Even though they all (except John) abandoned Him at His crucifixion, a few days later they repented and worshiped Him in all of His resurrection glory.
Not long ago a young friend of mine trusted her life to Jesus Christ. From the beginning she knew that being a Christian means following Jesus. She knew that her father, an unbeliever, would be upset by her new faith. She told me, “But I know that I must tell him that I’m a Christian.”
“Yes,” I replied, “there are no ‘undercover’ Christians. People need to know that your allegiance is to Jesus Christ. This is why baptism as a public act is so vital. It says, ‘I am a Christian, and I don’t care who knows.’”
This young lady did tell her father, who took the news much better than she had expected.
In an authentic Christian economy, this example is the routine, not the exception. In trusting Jesus Christ, saved sinners become disciples of Jesus Christ.
The High Cost of False Teaching
A severe poison has infected our churches as a result of the inability or refusal to see the error of the teaching of transitioning into discipleship. Pastors imply and operate the entire church’s ministry as though a prime ministerial job is to convince Christians, those who have “said ‘yes’ to Jesus,” to become disciples rather than working, as these pastors should, to make better disciples of Christians who already have submitted to Jesus Christ. It is simply assumed that church members and regular attendees will live much like the world lives — in fornication, hatred, pornography, avarice, racism, laziness, self-centeredness, abortion, machismo, envy, homosexuality, feminism, and so on. These churches do not understand, or they deny the fact, that in trusting in Jesus Christ, an internal act formalized externally at baptism (Rom. 6:1-6), sinners make a radical break with their previous life of submission to Satan. They now serve another Master (Rom. 8). “This [fact] does not ignore the need for Christian growth,” writes Charles T. Carter, “nor does it imply absolute perfection. However, a perfect (or full, complete) commitment must be made to Christ as Lord.”
The church that does not demand such commitment as an incontestable aspect of its Gospel message will gradually be filled with unbelievers who are nonetheless assured that are converted on the grounds that they have trusted in Christ. But this trust, or faith, according to the Bible is more than intellectual assent. It is a wholesale casting of oneself on Jesus Christ, whose atoning work on the Cross and victorious work from the empty tomb washes away our sins and whose exaltation as Lord governs our lives. When we trust Jesus, we trust him totally — to save us not just from the past penalty and future presence of sin but also the present power and pleasure of sin. Only disciples are saved. Moreover, not all forms of faith are valid. Faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:14-26). An authentic, saving faith is a submissive, working faith.
Gradually churches that separate discipleship from salvation become hotbeds of false believers, assured of their salvation on the basis of their profession, which is seemingly never questioned, no matter how profligate their lives may be. In the sacerdotal churches, it is assumed that all those baptized and in weekly communion are united to Jesus in that they are united to the church. The fact that throughout much of the history of the Old Testament, the vast majority of the Jewish males, bearing circumcision as the mark of covenant inclusion, lacked any circumcision of the heart, flatly refutes any teaching that covenant inclusion (“church membership”) in the New Testament economy confers salvation. The first epistle of John is clear — though no one is sinless in this life, people who do not live lives dominated by righteousness, that is, lawless individuals, are simply not believers, no matter how tied to the church they are.
Churches will never escape this lawless morass until they understand that the goal of salvation is not principally to allow sinners to escape God’s judgment but, rather, to create a redeemed people who love God and obey Him (Tit. 2:14). It is clear that the book of Romans, the most sustained treatment in the Bible of God’s plan for the world, teaches that God’s objective is to clean up this sinful world by the redemptive work of His Son Jesus Christ. God does this, first, by getting rid of the judgment that stands against sinful man — God judges us as righteous on the basis of Jesus’ righteous death and resurrection, which are imputed (credited) to all who trust in Jesus (Rom. 3:21-4:12). God also gets rid of sin by changing our sinful desires and implanting a righteous nature within us, created and sustained by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 6:6-23; 8:1-17). The target of salvation is draining the world’s swampland of sinful poison and replacing it with the fresh water of eternal salvation accomplished by Jesus’ redemptive work. God is not only in the rescue business, important though that is; He is chiefly in the clean-up business.
And if we do not live “cleaned-up” lives, we are exhibiting a lack of God’s saving work. Therefore, the task of the church is never to implore Christians to become disciples; it is to assist disciples in becoming better ones.