Summary: This article was written and published April ’17. This article explains an important truth that so often is forgotten by believers and their teachers – how responsibility or duty is related to relationship. In this respect, Christianity is different than any other religion in the world, even Judaism. One does not work his way or earn his way into being a Christian. This article shows you what is vital for the Christian to understand before he considers the first thoughts and actions of his proper Christian walk.
Before discussing the topic of Christian discipleship, there is a simple but important biblical principle that first must be understood. Discipleship teaching has the characteristic of being practical instruction – mostly it has to do with the things you do, what you practice as a Christian, the principles by which you live your Christian life, the responsibilities you embrace as following Jesus in your walk in this world. Certainly it is Jesus who is our example (II Cor. 3:18, I John 2:6) and we only follow others as we are convinced they are steadfastly pursuing Christ (Phil. 3:7-17). But here is the understanding – there has to be an existing relationship before responsibilities are taken up and pursued. All responsibility, all practice, flows out of the relationship which exists. If the relationship doesn’t exist, there are no legitimate responsibilities to pursue or practice. Examples: A husband is not a husband, and does not have the responsibilities of a husband, until he is actually married – up to the time of the wedding ceremony, the relationship doesn’t exist; only after the wedding can he truly act like a husband and take on those responsibilities peculiar to this new relationship. The same is true with any wife. Again, one is not a father or mother until they have their first-born child – a child has to be born to establish these relationships. It is a similar idea with brothers and sisters. Beyond all doubt, any relationship must be established first before you can pursue the responsibilities, practice or living of that relationship. All responsibility comes from whatever the relationship happens to be.
Before one learns the practice and life of being a Christian disciple, he must first become a Christian. The apostle Paul defines for us what this is:
Gal. 3:26-27 (NKJV)
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
A person becomes a Christian through faith in Jesus Christ – he is then said to be a son of God. This speaks of the newly established relationship this person has with God through Jesus Christ. He is a son, and God is now his Father. The relationship that all true Christians have is as a son, with God as their Father. With a little more pursuit of New Testament scripture, we find that the only way to become a son of God is by being born of God – and really, doesn’t that make sense?
John 1:12-13 (NKJV)
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
All true Christians are born of God. In Jesus Christ, they are all sons of God, and God is now their Father. After faith in Christ, God will seal the believer with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13). Now that He is dwelling in the believer, the Spirit confirms by witness to his spirit that he is a child of God (Rom. 8:15-16). By the indwelling Spirit the believer cries out “Abba, Father.” This witness of the Spirit is the only way I find explained and detailed in scripture by which a true Christian is assured by God that he is His and that he truly has an existing relationship with God – because he is now born of God by faith in Christ Jesus, he is a son, and not only that, but heir of God as a son with Christ (Rom. 8:17, Gal. 4:4-7). I say “with Christ” because the believer now has the same relationship with God that Jesus has as the Man, raised from the dead and glorified to God’s right hand – the true believer is a co-heir of God with Christ. Notice what Jesus says to Mary Magdalene when He appears to her immediately after His resurrection:
John 20:17 (NKJV)
Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father, but go to My brethren and say to them, I am ascending to My Father and Your Father, and to My God and your God.”
The Christian believer has the same relationship with God that Jesus has – God is His God and His Father; now for the true Christian, God is our God and our Father. This new relationship was entirely dependent on Jesus suffering and dying on the cross, and being raised from the dead and glorified; it was dependent on the work of redemption being accomplished. The believer is in Christ, and Christ is in the believer (John 14:20). The Christian relationship now exists, based on His accomplished work – surely that is the intended impression we are to have from the above quoted verse.
I place in bold type where I specifically say “the same relationship.” The important qualifier is “…the same relationship with God that Jesus has as a Man, raised from the dead and glorified…” We never share in Christ’s divinity, or the relationship Christ has as a divine person with the two other persons of the Godhead. But Jesus, who was God, purposely humbled Himself and took on human nature, so that He could accomplish the will of God and the work of redemption. The purpose of this work was to bring other men who would be redeemed through faith in Him into relationship with God. The obedience Jesus showed to God as a Man was His taking our place in all this redemptive work, so we may share His new place with God, His new place as a perfectly obedient Man raised from the dead and glorified.
This is a new relationship and place for Jesus, for the reason He wasn’t always a man, nor was He, before coming into the world, the perfect obedient Man. But this He became in time, so to redeem certain other men and place them into this same new relationship with God He came into. Therefore, scripture says we are now, by faith in Him, sons of God (Gal. 3:16). Also, God’s word calls us “co-heirs” with Christ – it is because we, as redeemed men, have been given the same relationship with God that Jesus now has, as a Man. Otherwise, we could not be co-heirs of God with Him (Rom. 8:17, Gal. 4:7). But John 20:17 really is implying this same thought – His God is our God, and His Father is our Father, because we now have the same relationship He has – all dependent on His work accomplished as the obedient Man. His resurrection was as a Man as well. He is glorified to the right hand of God as a Man. Although Jesus always is fully God and fully Man, and this is a great incomprehensible mystery, it is important we are able to understand the reason and purpose why Jesus had to become a Man, and then understand the consequences and results of this humiliation. Our having the same relationship with God as He now has, is one of the results. (one of the consequences is that Jesus will remain the God-Man for the remainder of time and eternity. He is the only one there will ever be – the God-Man) We are given the same relationship He now has as a Man with God; and this is new, both for Him and for us. But His divine relationship, what He has as God before the foundation of the world, we never enter into or share.
All the above describes the Christian relationship. As you have seen, it involves the entire Trinity – by it God becomes our Father because we are born of Him; it is only though and in Christ, and dependent on His finished work; the Holy Spirit is given to every true Christian to seal and confirm the relationship. The revelation of God in the Trinity is distinctly a Christian understanding – it belongs to Christianity. The Christian relationship was modeled in the baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3:16-17). This involved the Trinity – the Son of God is acknowledged by the Father in heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son…” while the Spirit descends to seal Him as such. The commission at the end of Matthew is decidedly characteristic of the new Christian dispensation (Matt. 28:19) – baptizing the nations in the name of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But when we speak of Christian discipleship, we are not speaking of how one becomes a believer. Discipleship assumes the Christian relationship already exists. The responsibilities of being a disciple can only be pursued after we are settled in this relationship with God through Christ. Christian discipleship is all about how you practice true Christianity – it is very practical instruction. Discipleship is how you live day to day as a Christian, walking in the wilderness of this world. It is about Christian character and principles, which result in thoughts and action in us that emulate both our Father’s moral character and values (Matt. 5:45, 48), as well as the example of obedience to His Father shown in the life of Jesus (I John 2:6). Christian discipleship is the sum of our responsibilities to be lived out as Christians in this world.
Matt. 7:24-27 (NKJV)
“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: “and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. Now everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: “and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.”
This is found in Matthew’s gospel at the end of chapter seven. In Matthew, the Holy Spirit groups together this long discourse which we call “the Sermon on the Mount” – it stretches from the beginning of chapter five to the end of chapter seven. It is all discipleship teaching for those who are called the “sons of God,” being born of God (Matt. 5:9, Gal. 3:26 – Christians), for those who can legitimately say God is their Father, being in this specific relationship with Him (Matt. 5:16, 45, 48, 6:1, 8, 14, 15, 26, 32, 7:11), and who may suffer persecution for the name of Jesus Christ (Matt. 5:11-12 – again identifying the group He is speaking to as those who become Christians after His resurrection). The entire Sermon is practical instruction and represents the responsibilities of Christian discipleship.
This ending passage of the Sermon quoted above, gives a general summery of what Christian discipleship is – hearing our Lord’s words (the words of Jesus Christ), and doing them. I keep harping on the understanding that Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon is directed to Christians, even though this group did not exist at that time – there were no Christians until after His resurrection, and no church until after the day of Pentecost. For this very reason there exists a great amount of confusion and controversy among theologians and teachers – how could Jesus be giving practical instruction concerning the responsibilities of a group that wasn’t even present to hear Him? However, there was a small faithful remnant among the crowds, and certainly His disciples formed the substance of this remnant at that time. They would be the core of the church that He would begin building on the day of Pentecost (Matt. 16:18). Then the passage above gives the results of hearing and doing His words – in the place and time where discipleship is shown (in our “walk” in this world – John 17:14-17, Col. 1:10). The believer can stand strong in the midst of any trial or persecution.
The conclusion we must arrive at first is that the Christian believer is in a new and distinct relationship with God which didn’t exist previously; this relationship did not exist for anyone prior to Jesus Christ being sent into this world. It did not exist under the law and in Judaism. It did not exist with Adam, either before the fall or after. And this becomes a difficult concept for anyone to correctly understand, its truth and implications – what was man’s relationship originally with God? What was Israel’s relationship – were they not God’s chosen people? Did not the covenants God made with Israel bring them, as a people, into a distinct relationship with God? Why would I claim that the Christian relationship with God, in many ways, is completely different from everything that preceded it? All great questions based on reasonable thinking, for which I must now address all to their proper biblical conclusions and understandings.
What was Adam’s true relationship with God? The simple reality is that man was created by God, much like all the rest of God’s creation. There certainly was an order in creation, and this I cannot deny; man was made head over God’s lower world and earth. Yes, there were distinctions in God’s creation, but man was still only a creature, and in this, similar to the angels as well as the animals. God was the Creator; man was the creature – part of that which God created. This was the basis of the relationship which existed for Adam and Eve.
One distinction was that man was conscious of his relationship with his Creator. This consciousness made him different from the plants and animals, but similar to the angels who also were conscious of their relationship with God. Responsibility only exists if there is consciousness of the relationship, and so this is true with both the angels and man. In any relationship with God, responsibility is measured in one’s obedience to the will of God. Doing one’s own will is always disobedience and sin.
Man is a creature in a relationship with God his Creator. All men know this, and are without excuse (Rom. 1:18-20). When Adam was in the garden and in a state of innocence, God would come down in the cool of the day and commune with him. He gave Adam one command to obey (Gen. 2:16-17). In his state of innocence man failed to obey. However, you might say, man had no knowledge of good and evil…but the test was not a matter of recognizing evil. Nothing about the tree or its fruit was evil. The command was a simple test of the responsibility of the creature – would Adam obey for the simple reason God had asked him to do so? Man’s willful disobedience brought him into a new state – man now became a fallen, miserable sinner.
But did this new state and condition mean that Adam had a different relationship with God? It did not. Man’s relationship remained the same – he was still a creature created by God and conscious of this relationship. Conditions certainly changed with man’s disobedience – he was no longer innocent, no longer in paradise, and no longer enjoying communion and the presence of God. All the consequences of sin had come upon Adam, yet his relationship remained the same. Because of this, man’s responsibility remained the same – he was still obligated to obey the will of his Creator. Only now he was in a worse condition – no longer in innocence, but a hopeless, powerless sinner. Adam’s disobedience resulted in innocence being lost forever for the human race. The knowledge of good and evil was gained by man, but this with a bad conscience under the power and dominion of sin. On this point the testimony of scripture is clear – sin was man’s new master, and universally, mankind was its slave (Rom. 6:6, John 8:34).
Could man get back to obeying the will of the Creator and therefore, fulfill the responsibilities of his relationship with God? God placed man in Adam on probation (I use this phrase “man in Adam” because mankind, equally and unanimously, experienced the consequences of Adam’s one sin – Rom. 5:12). In this period of time God would test man in three specific ways – without law, with law, and finally, by sending His Son into the world. As you may have realized, the latter two ways only involved the nation of Israel – they alone were given the law, and they alone had the prophetic promise of Messiah. It was the purpose of God’s will to single-out and isolate Israel in this way – as the chosen nation and people of God, the Jews became the test-case representing all mankind. They were privileged and favored by God above every other nation (Deut. 7:6-9). [this vital understanding of the period of man’s probation, as well as the means by which God proved mankind’s utter depravity in that period, is missing from the teachings of theology today]
So, we see that man’s relationship with God remained the same, even though his state drastically changed. And mankind was still obligated to obey God in his existing relationship. When he was without law, man filled up the world with corruption and violence (Gen. 6:11). God’s judicial action was to destroy the world by a flood, only saving one family. When God delivered Israel out of Egypt, He now had a separated people and nation called of God – He privileged them above every other nation, calling them His special treasure (Deut. 7:6-9). But mankind’s relationship remained the same, so God tests them now by giving them ten commandments to obey. They made a golden calf and broke the first commandment before the tablets made it down the mountain and into the camp. Their national history up to the Babylonian captivity is a miserable record of their disobedience to the law of God. Mankind failed under this time of testing; he had no strength, in himself, to obey and do God’s law. But God had one more test for man in his probationary period – God would send His Son into the world, according to Jewish promises and prophecies (Matt. 21:37). Jehovah/Messiah would visit Israel, and their obedience to God should have been shown by their expecting His arrival and receiving Him when He came. In this last test of mankind, man miserably failed – they crucified and killed the King of Israel, the rightful King of the world.
Now we clearly see that during the entire time of mankind’s probation, man was incapable of obeying the will of his Creator. God proved man in Adam to be utterly depraved. Mankind was proved to be universally lost, disobedient, and a condemned sinner. But all through this probationary period man’s relationship with God remained the same – man was the creature, and God was the Creator. And this entire time man’s responsibility remained the same – he was obligated to obey the will of the Creator. Even though man’s state and condition did change – he was no longer innocent, but a miserable sinner and chased out of the garden – still this never changed his relationship, nor did it alter his responsibility. Responsibility comes from the existing relationship, not from the present state or condition.
What makes Christianity so special? Christianity is distinct and different from every other religion known to man. Christianity begins with a new relationship being established for the unbeliever with God. No other religion is like this, even Judaism. No other religion begins with a new relationship. Christianity is unique in this – the individual, through faith in Jesus Christ, is born of God (John 1: 12-13). The beginning of Christianity starts with a birth. The unbeliever, through faith, becomes a son of God (Gal. 3:26). And this “becoming a son” is not by anything the individual willed or did, but all accomplished by the will and work of God – Christians are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, so there is not the smallest reason on our part for boasting (Eph. 2:8-10, Rom. 9:11-16). So then, the above statement could be re-worded like this – Christianity begins with a new relationship being established for the unbeliever with God, established by God.
Here is another way to answer this same question, “What makes Christianity so unique?” Christianity begins by God giving life to the unbeliever (John 3:15-16, 36, 6:47, 53-58, 17:1-3, I John 5:11-12). Eternal life is given, through faith in Jesus Christ, at the beginning of the Christian experience. This is what is meant by being “born of God” (John 1:13), or the slightly different emphasis of the phrases “born of the Spirit” (John 3:8) or “born again” (John 3:3, 5-7). But certainly, we can be confident that we are in line with scripture and in line with God’s thoughts from His word as taught by the Holy Spirit, by saying that Christianity is uniquely different from every other world religion because life is given by God first. By this the unbeliever is born of God as a son of God. The relationship is established by birth. And most importantly, God’s place in this new relationship is as Father, and our place with Christ is as sons.
The unbeliever is now a Christian, a son of God – this is the new and established relationship. This is the beginning of the Christian experience, and if this wasn’t the beginning, if this relationship doesn’t exist or hasn’t been established by a birth, then there is no real or genuine Christianity to live out and practice. Responsibility or duty (discipleship) flows out from whatever the existing relationship happens to be. You have to already be a son of God before you can truly act like one – otherwise, you are only pretending or fooling yourself and others. For every true Christian, God is his Father, and although Jesus is our Lord and Savior, in one important sense, He is our brother, and we are co-heirs of God with Him (Rom. 8:16-17), having been brought by His resurrection from the dead into the same relationship He has as a Man with God (John 20:17). Christian discipleship, our responsibility flowing out from this new relationship, is our practice of imitating our Father (Matt. 5:48). Only after the Christian relationship has been established by God, can we consider the practical responsibilities of discipleship lived out in our walk in this world.
My intention is to write several articles about Christian discipleship – about the character, principles, and words of Jesus which define Christianity, particularly the practice of this new and distinct religion. But first, I wanted to be sure it is understood that the establishing of the relationship always precedes the taking up of the responsibilities that are consequent to the relationship. This is true in all human relationships, and it is true as well in any relationship with God.