If we are Chris­tians sim­ply by believ­ing that Jesus died for our sins, then that is all it takes to have sins for­giv­en and go to heav­en when we die. Why, then, do some peo­ple keep insist­ing that some­thing more than this is desir­able? Lord­ship, dis­ci­ple­ship, spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion, and the like?

What more could one want than to be sure of their eter­nal des­tiny and enjoy life among oth­ers who pro­fess the same faith as they do. Of course every­one wants to be a good per­son. But that does not require that you actu­al­ly do what Jesus him­self said and did. Haven’t you heard? Chris­tians aren’t per­fect. Just forgiven.”

Now those who hon­est­ly find them­selves con­cerned about such mat­ters might find it help­ful to con­sid­er four sim­ple points:

First, there is absolute­ly noth­ing in what Jesus him­self or his ear­ly fol­low­ers taught that sug­gests you can decide just to enjoy for­give­ness at Jesus’ expense and have noth­ing more to do with him.

Some years ago A. W. Toz­er expressed his feel­ing that a notable heresy has come into being through­out evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian cir­cles — the wide­ly-accept­ed con­cept that we humans can choose to accept Christ only because we need him as Sav­ior and that we have the right to post­pone our obe­di­ence to him as Lord as long as we want to!“1 He then goes on to state that sal­va­tion apart from obe­di­ence is unknown in the sacred scriptures.”

This heresy’ has cre­at­ed the impres­sion that it is quite rea­son­able to be a vam­pire Chris­t­ian.” One in effect says to Jesus: I’d like a lit­tle of your blood, please. But I don’t care to be your stu­dent or have your char­ac­ter. In fact, won’t you just excuse me while I get on with my life, and I’ll see you in heav­en.” But can we real­ly imag­ine that this is an approach that Jesus finds acceptable?

And when you stop to think of it, how could one actu­al­ly trust him for for­give­ness of sins while not trust­ing him for much more than that. You can’t trust him with­out believ­ing that he was right about every­thing, and that he alone has the key to every aspect of our lives here on earth. But if you believe that, you will nat­u­ral­ly want to stay just as close to him as you can, in every aspect of your life.

Sec­ond­ly, if we do not become his appren­tices in king­dom liv­ing we remain locked in defeat so far as our moral inten­tions are con­cerned. This is where most pro­fess­ing Chris­tians find them­selves today. Sta­tis­ti­cal stud­ies prove it. Peo­ple, gen­er­al­ly, choose to sin. And they are filled with expla­na­tions as to why, every­thing con­sid­ered, it under­stand­able to do so. But, even so, no one choos­es to be a sin­ner. It is amus­ing that peo­ple will admit to lying, for exam­ple, but stout­ly deny that they are liars.

We want to be good, but we are pre­pared, ready, to do evil — should cir­cum­stances require it. And of course they do require’ it, with dead­en­ing reg­u­lar­i­ty. As Jesus him­self indi­cat­ed, those who prac­tice sin actu­al­ly are slaves of it. (John 8:34) Ordi­nary life con­firms it. How con­sis­tent­ly do you find peo­ple able to do good and avoid evil as they intend?

By con­trast, prac­tic­ing Jesus’ word as his appren­tices enables us to under­stand our lives and to see how we can inter­act with God’s redemp­tive resources, ever at hand. This in turn gives us an increas­ing free­dom from failed inten­tions, as we learn from him how, sim­ply, do what we know to be right. By a prac­ticed abid­ing in his words we come to know the truth and the truth does, sure enough, make us free. (John 8:36)

Third­ly, only avid dis­ci­ple­ship to Christ through the spir­it brings the inward trans­for­ma­tion of thought, feel­ing and char­ac­ter that cleans the inside of the cup” (Matt. 23:25) and makes the tree good” (Matt. 12:33). As we study with Jesus we increas­ing­ly become on the inside — with the Father who is in secret” (Matt 6:6) — exact­ly what we are on the out­side, where actions and moods and atti­tudes vis­i­bly play over our body alive in its social con­text. An amaz­ing sim­plic­i­ty will take over our lives — a sim­plic­i­ty that is real­ly just transparency.

This requires a long and care­ful learn­ing from Jesus to remove the duplic­i­ty that has become sec­ond nature to us — as is per­haps inevitable in a world where, to man­age’ our rela­tions to those about us, we must hide what we real­ly think, feel and would like to do if only we could avoid obser­va­tion. Thus, a part of Jesus’ teach­ing was to avoid the leav­en, or per­me­at­ing spir­it, of the Phar­isees, which is hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1)

The Phar­isees were in many respects the very best peo­ple of Jesus’ day. But they locat­ed good­ness in behav­ior and tried to secure them­selves by care­ful man­age­ment at the behav­ioral lev­el. How­ev­er, that sim­ply can­not be done. Behav­ior is dri­ven by the hid­den or secret dimen­sion of human per­son­al­i­ty, from the depths of the soul and body, and what is present there will escape. Hence they always failed at some point to do what is right, and had to rede­fine, redescribe or explain it away — or sim­ply hide it.

By con­trast the fruit of the spir­it, as described by Jesus and Paul, does not con­sist in actions, but in atti­tudes or set­tled per­son­al­i­ty traits that make up the sub­stance of the hid­den” self, the inner man.” Love” cap­tures this fruit in one word, but in such a con­cen­trat­ed form that it needs to be spelled out. Thus, the fruit (sin­gu­lar) of the Spir­it is love, joy, peace, patience, kind­ness, good­ness, faith­ful­ness, gen­tle­ness, self-con­trol.” (Gal 5:22) Oth­er such pas­sages eas­i­ly come to mind, such as 2 Peter 1:4 – 11, 1 Cor. 13, and Romans 5:1 – 5.

Spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion” in the Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion is a process of increas­ing­ly being pos­sessed and per­me­at­ed by such char­ac­ter traits as we walk in the easy yoke of dis­ci­ple­ship with Jesus our teacher. From the inward char­ac­ter the deeds of love then nat­u­ral­ly — but super­nat­u­ral­ly — and trans­par­ent­ly flow. Of course there will always be room for improve­ment, so we need not wor­ry that we will become per­fect — at least for a few weeks or months. Our aim is to be per­va­sive­ly pos­sessed by Jesus through con­stant com­pan­ion­ship with him. Like our broth­er Paul: This one thing I do!… I press toward the mark!… That I may know him!” (Phil. 3)

Final­ly, for the one who makes sure to walk as close to Jesus as pos­si­ble there comes the reli­able exer­cise of a pow­er that is beyond them in deal­ing with the prob­lems and evils that afflict earth­ly exis­tence. Jesus is actu­al­ly look­ing for peo­ple he can trust with his pow­er. He knows that oth­er­wise we remain large­ly help­less in the face of the orga­nized and dis­or­ga­nized evils around us and unable to pro­mote his will for good in this world with ade­quate power.

He is the one who said, I have been giv­en say over all things in heav­en and earth. So you go.…” (Matt. 28:18) Of him it was said that God anoint­ed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with pow­er: who went about doing good, and heal­ing all that were oppressed of the dev­il; for God was with him.” (Acts 10:38) We are called to do his work by his power.

How­ev­er we may under­stand the details there can be no doubt, on the bib­li­cal pic­ture of human life, that we were meant to be inhab­it­ed by God and live by a pow­er beyond our­selves. Human prob­lems can­not be solved by human means. Human life can nev­er flour­ish unless it puls­es with the exceed­ing great­ness of his pow­er to us-ward who believe.” (Eph. 1:19) But only con­stant stu­dents of Jesus will be giv­en ade­quate pow­er to ful­fill their call­ing to be God’s per­son for their time and their place in this world.

But, some­one will say, can I not be saved — get into heav­en when I die — with­out any of this? Per­haps you can. God’s good­ness is so great, I am sure, that He will let you in if He can find any basis at all to do so. But you might wish to think about what your life amounts to before you die, about what kind of per­son you are becom­ing, and whether you real­ly would be com­fort­able for eter­ni­ty in the pres­ence of one whose com­pa­ny you have not found espe­cial­ly desir­able for the few hours and days of earth­ly exis­tence. And he is, after all, One who says to you now, Fol­low me!”

[1] Toz­er, A.W. I Call It Heresy. Har­ris­burg, PA.: Chris­t­ian Pub­li­ca­tions, 1974, p. 5f

REN­O­VARÉ Per­spec­tive, Vol. V, No. 4, Octo­ber 1995. First pub­lished in a Bio­la Uni­ver­si­ty bul­letin. Avail­able in The Great Omis­sion, San Fran­cis­co: Harper­Collins, 2006. Used with per­mis­sion from dwillard​.org.

Originally published September 1995

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