What’s the difference between a person professing faith in Jesus and someone whose entire world has been and continues to be flipped upside down by becoming a disciple of Jesus?
Growing up in the Christian church, I’ve seen many families similar to mine. They have a history of faith, and the family as a whole identifies as Christian.
For some, this doesn’t extend much further than the tradition of attending church on Sundays. But for others, their identity as a Christian goes far deeper than Sunday mornings. Their faith becomes the fabric of their family culture. They view their entire world through the lens of their faith.
There’s an enormous difference between a person who identifies as a Christian and someone who lays down their life to serve Jesus as his disciple.
I would never presume that distinction means one person is saved and the other isn’t. We were never tasked with deciphering who has received salvation and who hasn’t. In fact, in his parable of the weeds, Jesus tells us that it ultimately isn’t for us to know (Matthew 13:24-29).
Too often, our focus within the Christian community is to ask who’s saved and who isn’t saved. So we expend effort on knowing whether someone is saved. Most churches measure their missional effectiveness through weekly attendance and the number of hands raised at the end of service.
As important and consequential as these indicators are, when we place such a high value on salvation metrics to determine whether a church is carrying out the mission of Jesus, we run the risk of misunderstanding what Jesus has called Christians to.
When we care more about whether a person has said a prayer, made a commitment, or identifies as a Christian more than we do the perseverance of their faith, we miss the emphasis of the Great Commission. We tend to place a heavier emphasis on the beginning of a person’s faith journey (salvation) and less on their continued growth (discipleship).
This isn’t to say that we should ever minimize the gift of salvation in favor of metrics of growth. Salvation and discipleship shouldn’t be pitted against one another. Rather, they should always remain together.
The good news of Jesus is about both the immediate salvation and justification, as well as our ongoing sanctification and redemption. We can’t divorce these two aspects of the faith from one another or place a heavier emphasis on one over the other.
Understanding the Emphasis of the Great Commission
Commonly known as the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20 is one of the most widely used verses to support a church’s mission statement. These two verses are the final words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel account. These words come after Jesus has risen from the grave and made himself known to his eleven disciples.
The reason these verses are called the Great Commission is not because that’s how scripture identifies them, but because this was the final charge Jesus gave to his disciples. So of course, it is right for the Church to pay attention to these final commands of Jesus.
A Closer Look at Matthew 28:19-20
When we take a closer look at the original Greek, there are a few conflicting views on whether or not the focus of these verses is poreuthentes (go) or matheteusate (make disciples).
Based on a simple Google search, you’ll find articles arguing that focusing on “go” is a misunderstanding because the Greek verb is not an imperative but a participle that should be translated as, “while you are going.” Those who write these articles then often say the command is really “to make disciples.” So, everything you’ve ever been taught about being called to go evangelize really is secondary to the command to make disciples.
But that isn’t really true. Both “go” and “make disciples” are commands that are equally important.
Even when it comes to Greek word studies, we have to view scripture in its context. That’s not only true when looking at English translations. It’s perhaps even more important when it comes to word studies. Just because a pastor, writer, or friend says, “in the Greek,” that doesn’t automatically mean they fully understand what’s happening in that verse.
Now, the irony is not lost on me that I’m basically telling you to trust my understanding of the Greek. So I won’t ask you to take my few years of studying Biblical Greek into consideration but will point you to someone who has dedicated a great number of years studying, teaching, and translating biblical Greek.
Dr. Bill Mounce does a great job at explaining the way verbs work together in the Greek and specifically in Matthew 28:19-20.Just because a pastor, writer, or friend says, 'in the Greek,' that doesn't automatically mean they fully understand what's happening in that verse. Click To Tweet
Rejecting the False Dichotomy
All that to be said, as we consider salvation and discipleship, the Great Commission has often been preached to place a greater emphasis on one over the other. We can see it in the way our English translations seem to emphasize “go.” Then we often see pastors and theologians correct the common reading to move the emphasis to “make disciples.”
But we can’t separate the importance of both salvation and discipleship. I fear that too often churches, Christian organizations, and Christians in general want to choose one or the other.We can't separate the importance of both salvation and discipleship. I fear that too often churches, Christian organizations, and Christians in general want to choose one or the other. Click To Tweet
The False Dichotomy in Warring Church Models
To many people’s surprise, the idea of a church structuring its Sunday morning experience to be “seeker-friendly” is relatively new. Creating a church environment that appeals to the unchurched-and-searching only took off about fifty years ago, at least in the history of the American church.
The concept of a sinner’s prayer, altar calls, and a raised hand to follow Jesus is also rather new within the scope of all church history. All of these elements are focused on the salvation element of the Christian faith.
Seeker-friendly churches have a laser focus on the number of salvation decisions as a measure of whether they are fulfilling their mission. These churches don’t necessarily fully discard discipleship, but it’s often less of a focus in their overall approach.
Because seeker-friendly churches are oftentimes known by their vast numbers, many Christians assume that their vision for church is the vision for the Church. However, there are many churches that are far less catered to unbelievers, and they believe rightly so.
These types of churches are many times actually focused on keeping their churches small, so that the pastors and leaders of the church can personally disciple members of the congregation. These churches usually implement an official (and sometimes lengthy) membership system, hold both Sunday morning and evening services with separate sermons, along with Sunday school and a mid-week bible study.
The driving force behind these decisions is discipleship and less on reaching those who have yet to receive salvation.
It’s certainly difficult for churches to be simultaneously mindful of those who haven’t yet become believers and those who have. Yet a true understanding of the New Testament vision for the Church is that we should devote equal value, importance, and energy to both.It's certainly difficult to be simultaneously mindful of those who haven't yet to become believers and those who have. Yet we should strive to devote equal value, importance, and energy to both. Click To Tweet
The False Dichotomy in the Life of Individual Believers
When churches place a greater emphasis on either salvation or discipleship, it trickles down to the individual faith of their people.
And in the same way that I don’t think any church would say they care more about salvation over discipleship, the same is true of individual believers. We know our salvation is important, and so is our ongoing process of being a disciple who is evermore like Jesus. But we tend to place a higher importance on one over the other.
There are some Christians who are fixated on whether or not they will be in heaven once their life on earth ends. For them, being able to answer that question in the affirmative is so important that day-to-day discipleship become secondary.
When that happens, a person may identify with Christianity but never see a noticeable change in their lives. Again, I’m not claiming to know who is saved and who isn’t. But the bible tells us over and over that the good news of Jesus is equally about justification and sanctification.
On the other hand, there are other Christians who would see their salvation as the beginning of their faith journey. This is absolutely true, but the journey of being a disciple isn’t void of sharing your faith with others and truly, wholeheartedly desiring the salvation of others.
The heart of God isn’t only for his people to love him with everything they have, but for others to surrender their life to him as well. Just as it is so perfectly expressed in the Great Commission, both of these elements bear equal weight in the heart of God.
The Father desires for all to come to a saving faith in Jesus (John 3:16), but he also equally desires for his people to look differently from the world. We are meant to experience an outward transformation that is noticeable to others (Gal. 5:22-23).The heart of God isn't only for his people to love him with everything they have, but for others to surrender their life to him as well. Click To Tweet
Salvation and Discipleship Can Not Be Separated
As much as we know that the life of the Christian is meant to integrate salvation and discipleship, we often separate out the two in our churches and in our lives.
We must be mindful of the ways we see these dichotomies playing themselves out in our own lives and be on guard against swinging to one end of the pendulum or the other.
It might seem impossible to hold these two aspects of our faith in equal tension. But when we acknowledge the side to which we lean, God can begin to so kindly and graciously move us towards the direction of balance. Our desire should be to align with the heart of God—receiving saving faith in him to be made more like him.
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