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A passion for costly discipleship

A sermon by Rod Benson

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith” (Rom 1:16-17).

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body (2 Cor 4:7-11).

Then [Jesus] said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).

[Paul and Barnabas] preached the gospel in [Derbe] and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said (Ac 14:21-22).

Hard-pressed, persecuted, enduring “many hardships,” a life characterised by self-denial and even the analogy of crucifixion? No one said the Christian life was going to be this hard! No one told me that a decision for Christ would result in a life of costly discipleship!

Yet that is the normal experience of every true follower of Jesus Christ who seeks to live in accordance with the will of God. If it is not, what might have gone wrong? What needs to change? How should we live as Christians in the world?

The Bible teaches that we are saved by divine grace through faith. We experience conversion to Christ, and are baptised into Christ.

Then what happens? What comes after conversion? What follows baptism? Good works!

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:8-10).

As Reformed theologian Michael Horton puts it, the faith that received Christ apart from works for justification also receives Christ for works in sanctification.[1]

We cannot help God out in saving us; nor do we give God a hand in making us holy after conversion. Our whole salvation comes from the Lord (Jonah 2:9). The “showers of blessing” we enjoy come down from God in heaven; they don’t go up. The good works we do because we belong to Christ are intended for the blessing of others, not for ourselves. They are not of our own devising, but are inspired and empowered by God (Ac 17:24-25; Rom 11:35-36; Jas 1:17).

One of the most beautiful expressions of this truth in Scripture is Galatians 6:7-10. Paul uses the image of a farmer sowing seed in the fields he or she has prepared for cultivation.

The same principle that applies in agriculture applies in the Christian life: good seed sown in good soil, given suitable conditions, will produce a good crop; bad seed a bad crop. If the sower sows plentifully, he can expect a plentiful harvest, but sow sparingly and you will reap sparingly as well (see 2 Cor 9:6-7).

This is a basic principle of the moral and spiritual life. What you invest your time and effort in will determine the kind and quality of the fruit your life produces (Gal 6:8).

The principle applies especially to the positive Christian duties of regular fellowship with other Christians in the local church; to the various obligations of church membership; and to financial giving.

Salvation is free, and discipleship is costly, but both produce righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17). As John Stott says: “We are not the helpless victims of our nature, temperament and environment. On the contrary, what we become depends largely on how we behave; our character is shaped by our conduct.”[2]

“Sowing to please the flesh,” As Paul puts it in Galatians 6, refers to attitudes and behaviour that feed our natural sinful human nature, untouched and unreformed by God’s grace. To “sow to the flesh” is:

to pander to it, to cosset, cuddle and stroke it, instead of crucifying it … Every time we allow our mind to harbour a grudge, nurse a grievance, entertain an impure fantasy, or wallow in self-pity, we are sowing to the flesh. Every time we linger in bad company whose insidious influence we know we cannot resist, every time we lie in bed when we ought to be up and praying, every time we [view pornography], every time we take a risk which strains our self-control, we are sowing, sowing, sowing to the flesh.[3]

In contrast, to “sow to the Spirit” is to consciously allow your mind to be “governed by the Spirit” (Rom 8:6), and to “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16, 25) – resulting in godly fruit of the mind and actions.

This is the heart and secret of costly discipleship, without which no one will please God and no church will flourish.

Each of us, and all of us together as a community of faith, needs to diligently forgo the empty pleasures and entertainments of the flesh (whatever they are for you) in favour of the pursuit of spiritual disciplines that will help you grow in Christ, discover and employ your spiritual gifts, do good work for others, and reap a harvest that brings glory to God.

It begins with disciplined habits of personal prayer and Bible reading, private and public acts of devotion to Jesus, joining God’s people for regular weekly worship and spiritual edification, participating in the duties and disciplines and delights of church membership.

This is the face of costly discipleship. This is what it means to “sow in the Spirit.” This is the simple secret to growing in Christ, developing spiritual maturity, living a life that is increasingly fruitful, increasingly faithful, increasingly contributing to a plentiful harvest for the glory of God and the blessing of others.

The practice of “sowing in the Spirit,” in unity with fellow Christians, helps to counteract the twin poisons of legalism and libertinism which Paul has denounced earlier in his letter to the Galatians (see 3:2-5, 14; 4:6-7; 5:5-6; and 5:16-18, 22-23, 25; 6:8).

Each of us must remain vigilant, steering a middle path between dead legalism and blindly keeping the rules on one hand, and doing whatever we like (or nothing at all) on the other.

As we engage in the practices of costly discipleship, there is another threat to navigate, and that is stress, burnout and despondency. God never expects you to do more for him, or for others, than you are able, or more than it is wise to do. The tortoise beats the hare every time.

In Galatians 6:9-10, Paul encourages each of us not to “become weary” or “give up” – two common and very real challenges to faithfulness in God’s service and endurance in Christian discipleship.

We all need to pace ourselves. We all need to mentor and train others. We all need a word of encouragement, a kind word, a fellow shoulder to the wheel, a timely and sincere offer of help in bearing our burdens.

Are you feeling spiritually weary today? Are you weary of spiritual disciplines? Weary of church attendance? Weary of preaching? Weary of “going through the motions” of good Christian behaviour? Weary of “keeping up appearances”? Weary of serving others?

Don’t despair. Don’t give up. Don’t head off in another direction. Above all, don’t stop your regular involvement in the life of a vital Christian community.

Often Christian growth proceeds incrementally, but progress does occur. Often a spiritual harvest takes months, years, even a lifetime for the fruit to mature. Press on! You are not alone! It is well worth your effort (2 Th 3:13; Gal 6:9-10).

A strong personal commitment to your local church is so important to your spiritual growth, endurance, and fruitfulness. You can’t do it alone. We are in this together. We are here for each other (1 Cor 12:21).

You are not here by accident. Each of us is here for a God-ordained purpose. Each of us has important contributions to make, whether through prayer, financial giving, preaching, administration, evangelism, practical helps, hospitality, or whatever gifts and abilities God has graciously given to you.

There is no such thing as a maverick Christian in Scripture. Nor is there any such thing as a “church-hopping” Christian in Scripture.

Costly discipleship is normal in the Christian life, and it requires a strong personal commitment to the local church, and (mercifully) an equivalent strong communal commitment by the local church to you.

If you wish to “sow to the Spirit,” as God desires and Scripture encourages, you will need to do it in fellowship with a community of faith, a community that shares common beliefs and convictions, a community of mutual feeding, guiding, healing and protecting: your local church.

Take the church as seriously as Jesus did. Take your Christian life seriously. Take church membership seriously. And may God be glorified through what results.


Sermon 667 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 17 April 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Michael Horton, For Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), ch. 6, my paraphrase.

[2] John Stott, The Message of Galatians (Nottingham, UK: IVP, 1968), p. 169.

[3] Stott, Galatians, p. 170.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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