Obedience Based Discipleship, Part 1

Justified how?
As an Evangelical, I am firmly committed to the idea that we are justified by grace through faith, not through our works. I’ve studied Paul’s epistles, and I’ve got the theology down pat. Jesus, and Jesus alone, saves us and ensures our place in Heaven.

Unfortunately, however, when I look at Jesus’ own teaching, the message changes a bit.

Sure, we have John 3:16 and other passages, mostly in John, that affirm justification by faith, but when we look at what Jesus says about the Last Judgment, things get a bit more complicated. Consider Matthew 7:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

So only those who do the will of God enter heaven. We can get into discussions of what precisely that means, but on the face of it, it sounds like our actions matter. And in fact, Jesus tells us what doing the will of God looks like in Matthew 25:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

These passages strongly suggest that our fate on the Last Day depends on what we do, that the “will of our Father in Heaven” involves acts of compassion for the needy.

Popular eschatology tends to ignore these passages or to come up with complex schemes of different judgments so that these don’t apply to believers, but it’s hard to make that work if you actually read the passages in context.

Justification and Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom
So what are we to do with this?

First of all, if what we teach as the Gospel doesn’t align with what Jesus taught, we’ve got a problem. We proclaim that Jesus is Lord, yet how much of our proclamation comes from his teaching? We certainly need to take Paul into account, but we can’t afford to ignore what Jesus said about the Gospel as much of our evangelism tends to do.

Let’s start at the beginning. When Jesus began preaching, the New Testament summarizes his sermons with two points: we need to repent; and we need to do this because the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Taking these in reverse order, we need to look at what the Kingdom of God is. The Greek word translated kingdom, basileia, does not denote a territory ruled by a king so much as the exercise of royal authority. In other words, the kingdom is present whenever and wherever people acknowledge and obey the king. A Roman soldier in enemy territory who is following Caesar’s orders carries the kingdom within him even outside the boundaries of the Empire.

In other words, the only way to be part of the Kingdom is to live under God’s authority in obedience to him. This is a simple matter of the definition of the word basileia. Further, the Kingdom was so important to Jesus’ teaching that the Gospel writers summarized his teaching most commonly as the Gospel of the Kingdom. If we aren’t emphasizing the Kingdom, and with it the authority of Jesus over our lives, we aren’t preaching the Gospel that Jesus did.

Jesus’ proclamation that the Kingdom was at hand meant that God was moving to exercise His royal authority over the one thing in the entire physical universe that did not obey Him: the human heart. And this led directly to Jesus’ call to action, our need to repent to become part of the Kingdom.

Justification and Jesus’ teaching about repentance
The word for repent, metanoia, means literally to change one’s mind, one’s entire way of thinking. It is a reorientation of our life away from following our own desires to acknowledging and submitting to God’s authority over us. Repentance is so essential to the Gospel that Jesus tells us that unless we repent, we will perish (Luke 13:13).

Repentance changes our allegiance from this world and from our own self-centered desires to living in the Kingdom of God and in obedience to Jesus’ teaching. As Jesus reminds us, calling Him “Lord” means doing what He says (Luke 6:46). And that in turn leads to the kind of works that Jesus tells us will be the criteria by which we will be judged on the Last Day.

So here’s the question: when was the last sermon you heard on repentance? As we preach the Gospel, do we include a call to repent? If not, we are not proclaiming the Gospel that Jesus did.

We see the same emphasis on obedience in the Great Commission, the quintessential command to preach the Gospel (Matt. 28:16-20). Jesus tells us that we are to make disciples (not converts!) of all nations. The Greek word translated disciple (math­­ētēs) means a student or an apprentice. So what is it that Jesus’ disciples are to learn? What are they to be trained to do? Jesus tells us himself: we are to teach them to obey everything that he has commanded.

Justification and obedience
Obedience is the essence of discipleship and is central to the Gospel that Jesus taught. If we aren’t teaching people to obey everything that Jesus commanded, we aren’t preaching the Gospel or obeying the Great Commission.

The obvious objection to this is that it sounds like I’m arguing for works righteousness. The short answer is that I am not: our obedience doesn’t make us righteous nor does it earn forgiveness of sins. We will deal with this more, as well as the relationship of obedience based discipleship to the teaching of Paul, James, and John, in the next article.

Next steps

Of the works Jesus mentions in the passage above from Matthew 25, how are you doing? Do the poor, imprisoned, hungry have any room in your time commitments? If not, why not?

BookFurther reading:
In the Online Bookstore you might like to purchase this title: The Least of These: A Street Level Theology. For an article on how the poor are best helped, see “How to Truly Help the Poor” by Fr. Robert Sirico.



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