One theme that consistently appears throughout Scripture is how much mankind misunderstands God, what He values, and His expectations for His people. To overcome humanity’s misperceptions, God sends messengers throughout the ages – from Old Testament prophets to New Testament apostles – to clearly communicate His identity and truth. His effort to reach (and redeem) mankind with His message of repentance, reconciliation, and restoration culminates with the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
During the three-year ministry that precedes His death and resurrection, Jesus teaches, commands, encourages, instructs, and declares God’s Word on a range of subjects. He places particular emphasis on discipleship and what it means to trust and follow Him as Lord, using a variety of metaphors and parables to depict the lifestyle of His followers.
Jesus also models the attitudes, priorities, and behaviors of this lifestyle on a daily basis, to supplement and reinforce the truths He proclaims to His audience. In doing so He removes any ambiguity as to what a decision to follow Him requires. Casual observers and carefree listeners alike quickly learn that those who place their trust and faith in Christ necessarily undergo a radical lifestyle transformation. The magnitude of this impact is enormous, extending into and influencing every nook and cranny of a Christian’s life.
Sadly, though perhaps not surprisingly, modern Christianity, as practiced by an increasing number of churchgoers, fails to reflect Jesus’ lifestyle or incorporate many of His teachings. Its adherents suffer the same spiritual sickness that gripped religious predecessors who shared a common pedigree (the Old Testament nation of Israel and the Pharisees). Though the modern churchgoer claims Christ as Lord with his lips, too often his or her life does not mirror the example Jesus taught and lived.
Jesus renounced this inconsistency, calling those who practice it ‘Hypocrites’ and quoting the prophet Isaiah to describe their condition. “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15: 8-9, NKJV). This brief passage conveys several critical truths worth examining.
Jesus uses Isaiah’s portrayal of Israel to describe the Pharisees. They prayed to God, worshipped Him, and studied the Torah. That veneer of religion, however, failed to capture their true spiritual condition (as was the case with the Israelites before them). It simply masked reality. Absent a heart that desires the Lord’s presence and actively pursues His will and righteousness, faith does not exist – at least not in any authentic or meaningful capacity.
That’s why Paul emphasizes the heart when he tells believers in Rome, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus AND believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes to righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation.” (Romans 10:9-10, NKJV; emphasis mine).
Paul informs his audience that a profession of faith in Christ is meaningless unless it springs from the heart, which leads one to pursue the righteousness of Christ under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. This pursuit is not an effort to earn salvation (which we know is by grace alone) but a manifestation of genuine faith and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. Absent that desire for and pursuit of holiness, one does not truly believe.
The churchgoer who mouths praise for God and claims Christ as Savior on Sunday morning but lives for himself the rest of the week possesses an untenable faith. It will fail on the last day when Christ returns. He will stand in disbelief when Jesus refuses him entry into heaven; he will weep in horror when he finally realizes his faith was constructed on sinking sand that the Living Water has washed away.
That a churchgoer who publically professes Jesus as Lord and actively serves in the church may not experience eternity with Christ is a difficult concept for us to digest. Yet Jesus makes it clear that such a scenario is not only possible but will be the reality faced by untold numbers of churchgoers on Judgment Day.
Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount with these words. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you, depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23, NKJV, emphasis mine).
What’s so shocking about this passage is Jesus’ description of the people He refuses to grant access to heaven; those He casts into the lake of fire with its eternal darkness and suffering. They refer to Jesus as ‘Lord’ and have performed many works in His name, as well as enthusiastically professed their faith in Him for salvation. These are not humanists, secularists, or practitioners of other religions. They are, by all outward measures, Bible-believing, Church-going, Jesus-loving people of God who sit in the pews every Sunday.
Inwardly, however, they have never surrendered their hearts to Christ. They never really know Jesus. The religious externalities they exhibit at church and within the Christian community are rooted in selfish motivations and personal agendas. None of it flows from a substantive relationship with Jesus. It is all an act. An act so compelling it not only fools their fellow churchgoers, it fools them as well.
Sadly, this scenario isn’t limited to a handful of churchgoers in a few isolated churches. Jesus says that “many” face this future when He returns to judge the living and the dead. While impossible to quantify such an imprecise term, it certainly seems possible the figure will reach into the millions, perhaps tens of millions, in the United States alone, where a glaring disconnect between the lips and lives of many churchgoers exists.
It is also important to highlight the fact that in the above passage Jesus links obedience to God’s will with knowing Him. Those who genuinely know Christ on a personal basis pursue His will on a daily basis. That desire to do the Lord’s will represents the evidence of an authentic relationship with Christ; and it is not limited to a few areas of our lives. Jesus expects us to place all areas of life under His authority and follow His leadership in each area. We are not to retain control over some areas of life and yield to Him other areas.
For some Christians, the struggle to abdicate authority of our possessions, pursuits, and passions to Jesus represents one of the greatest challenges of the Christian faith. Countless others never struggle in this area because they never learn of Jesus’ expectations; they attend a church that completely ignores the numerous passages that address the subject. Still others know what Jesus wants but in an act of willful rebellion refuse to obey.
Whatever the case, the fact that millions and millions of Christians fail to yield their lives fully to Christ does not validate that version of Christianity. Jesus repeatedly describes His expectations for those who follow Him and never suggests that a casual, half-hearted commitment is acceptable. He wants our whole heart, our full allegiance, and an unwavering commitment to Him as Lord and Savior. And we evidence this commitment by reordering our priorities, redirecting our income, reevaluating our schedules, and restructuring our agendas to reflect His Lordship.
This transformation is not easy. In fact, it cannot happen without the Holy Spirit. Continual prayer is another essential element to success. And we must familiarize ourselves with biblical passages that address the lifestyle of a disciple, harboring in our hearts the truths that Jesus and the apostles taught.
And we must sever our infatuation with the world. It is not enough to dial back our obsession. Nor is it sufficient to place our love for the world on simmer. We must renounce the relationship completely. We must remove every last vestige of its existence in our lives. We cannot be the bride of Christ and maintain a mistress on the side. Jesus demands full fidelity. He will not share our allegiance with the world.
However, he does understand how easily worldly possessions attract and mesmerize individuals of all economic backgrounds, even the relatively poor people of His day. He knows that as society’s wealth escalates and the availability of goods expands, the temptation to acquire more possessions will increase – even for Christians. Aware that this attraction poses a potentially catastrophic threat to the health and existence of His followers’ faith, He offers this compelling guidance.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, NKJV).
What’s so remarkable about this passage is its simplicity. In three short verses Jesus communicates everything we need to know about collecting worldly possessions, which can be summarized in two words: Avoid it.
Despite the simplicity of the message, Jesus’ counsel contains several powerful truths. First, the obvious: earthly treasures don’t last. At best, they survive until we die. More likely, the elements destroy them, or someone steals them. Either way, we no longer have them to enjoy.
In contrast, the treasures of heaven are eternal. They last forever. No one can steal them and nothing can cause their decay. We will enjoy them for all eternity.
Embedded in this distinction is an important insight. A treasure is either earthly or heavenly. It cannot be both. No investment pays an earthly and heavenly dividend. So we must decide whether we want to enjoy immediate gratification, in which case we invest in earthly treasure, or whether we are willing to delay our enjoyment for some period of years, perhaps decades. The instantaneous pleasure of the former is offset by its limited duration (a hundred years at best). The deferred satisfaction of the latter is enhanced by its unlimited duration (it lasts forever).
When we consider the choice in such simple terms, the decision should be easy to make. I’m certainly convinced Jesus intended it that way. He wanted His followers to resist the temptation to attain earthly treasure and instead seek the kingdom of God. So He spelled out our options in basic terms.
What’s so surprising is how easy the decision is for those who act in their own self-interest. Why would anyone choose a treasure that lasts for 100 years when they can instead have a treasure that lasts forever? And when you consider the fact that the eternal treasure will undoubtedly surpass the temporary treasure in magnificence, there is absolutely no reason to choose the earthly possession. Unless, of course, you don’t believe Jesus.
Maybe that explains why American churches are packed with people who chase, collect, and consume earthly treasures with as much vigor as our unchurched neighbors; churchgoers who willingly forfeit the opportunity to build a broad portfolio of heavenly treasure because they prefer to satisfy their craving for earthly goods instead. It is at once a decision as unfathomable as it is unfortunate.
Of course, losing out on heavenly treasure is not the only consequence faced by those who embrace earthly treasure. A far worse one awaits them. Jesus identifies it in the last verse of the passage. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Jesus informs us how to recognize the object of our heart’s affection. The heart always remains loyal to the treasure. If a man stores up treasure on earth, his heart is loyal to the world. If a woman lays up treasure in heaven, her heart belongs to the Lord.
Which brings us back to two earlier verses we examined. In the context of Romans 10:9-10, we might conclude that the man with a heart loyal to the world does not truly believe. He possesses a false faith. In the context of Matthew 15:8-9, we might conclude that such an individual is the spiritual descendant of the Pharisee. He honors God with his lips and draws near with his mouth, but his heart is far from God; and like the Pharisee is destined for destruction.
Of course, false worship of God predates the Pharisees by hundreds of years. The Jewish people struggled with this issue throughout the Old Testament. One particularly powerful passage occurs in Ezekiel, where God tells the prophet:
“Your people talk about you in their houses and whisper about you at the doors. They say to each other, ‘Come on, let’s go hear the prophet tell us what the Lord is saying!’ So My people come pretending to be sincere and sit before you. They listen to your words, but they have no intention of doing what you say. Their mouths are full of lustful words, and their hearts only seek after money. You are very entertaining to them, like someone who sings love songs with a beautiful voice or plays fine music on an instrument. They hear what you say, but they don’t act on it!” (Ezekiel 33:30-32, NLT).
Sadly, this message is an accurate representation of what happens in thousands of churches across the United States every Sunday. We express enthusiasm for the Word of God and profess to each other a desire to know God more intimately. We sit in the pews spellbound. We take copious notes and appear attentive.
But like the Israelites we have no intention of doing what God wants if it conflicts with our own desires and agenda. We are merely pretending; putting on an Oscar-worthy performance. Like the Israelites, our hearts seek after earthly treasure and our mouths are filled with idolatry. We find the singing entertaining and commend the pastor on his message but we do not act on it. We will continue to spend our time and income satisfying our own worldly cravings, all the while claiming Christ is Lord.
I have no doubt these words will offend most readers. They will insist I am casting judgment on the Church and individual believers. They will contend that my claims are false and salacious. They will assert that the Church, their congregation, and their individual faith are beyond reproach in this area.
Which leads us to the last point. Following His comments on storing up treasure in heaven and His proclamation, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus makes the following statement:
“Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).
His point? ‘Christians’ who pursue earthly treasure and whose hearts belong to this world actually believe they pursue heavenly treasure. They have convinced themselves they are filled with light and have a healthy faith. In fact, they are filled with darkness and have no faith at all.
They deceive themselves. The darkness that consumes them distorts their view of reality. They are so far from Christ they are spiritually blind, and can’t see they have no real relationship with Him. How great is that darkness indeed.
It is time to awake from our spiritual slumber and return to the Lord.
How many of us allow fear to influence our understanding of God’s will and dictate the extent to which we serve and obey Him? When the Holy Spirit prompts us in a direction we don’t want to go how many of us use a rational response to explain our disobedience?
- I can’t move to that neighborhood, Lord. It’s too dangerous and I don’t want to put my family’s safety at risk.
- I can’t go on a mission trip there, Lord. It’s too hostile to Christianity. They might put me in jail if they learn I’m a believer.
- I can’t leave my job to work at a non-profit, Lord. The reduction in salary would force me to work another ten years before I retire.
- I can’t tell people at work about my faith, Lord. That’ll jeopardize my career and sabotage my next promotion.
- I can’t give generously to the church, Lord. That’ll undermine my 401k and diminish my quality of life in retirement.
Whenever we use logic and commonsense to refute God’s call and justify our disobedience we demonstrate a lack of trust. Such actions reveal doubt and a failure to exhibit the courage of our convictions. We may want to follow God down whatever path He lays out but fear paralyzes us.
To overcome that paralysis we need a reminder that God’s omnipotence does not require favorable circumstances to emerge victorious. He can accomplish anything through anyone. In fact, He is far more likely to use the weak and unqualified to achieve the remarkable and miraculous, then He is to use the powerful and competent to accomplish the ordinary.
We must remember that God often assigns endeavors that appear impossible, sends us on journeys that look perilous, and instructs us to pursue objectives that seem overwhelming. And He does so for several reasons.
First, it forces us to rely entirely on Him. It is only in the crucible of total helplessness that our trust in God truly flourishes. After all, if we can accomplish God’s will on our own strength than we learn only self-reliance not God-reliance.
Second, it refines and matures our relationship with Christ. In situations where our focus must remain on God constantly, our understanding of Him and His character develops and deepens. We come to know Him more intimately, and we become more like Him in every detail.
Finally, it prepares us for a new mission. As we respond obediently to God’s direction today, He equips and prepares us for our next assignment tomorrow. In time our baby-steps of faith grow into giant leaps of faith.
Take some time today to ask God for an assignment that strengthens your faith, fuels your trust, and draws you closer to Him. And make that a prayer habit moving forward.
You may recall the controversy that erupted several years ago when an employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) leaked extensive details about an intrusive government surveillance program that spied on Americans. Considerable debate centered on whether the leaker acted responsibly in releasing such specifics.
One segment of the country believed his actions amounted to treason and argued he compromised America’s interests; and therefore violated his obligations as a citizen of the United States. Another segment contended his actions exposed an illegal program that violated the privacy rights of millions of Americans and viewed him as a heroic whistleblower. Regardless of perspective, though, both sides agreed on one point: individuals have an obligation as citizens.
The same principle holds for Christians. The apostle Paul tells us “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). We belong to the kingdom of God and our heavenly citizenship ought to inform and influence our priorities, interests, and decisions.
In a similar vein the apostle Peter refers to believers as “sojourners and pilgrims” (2 Peter 2:11, NKJV). This world represents a temporary destination – a nanosecond relative to eternity. Consequently, we ought to avoid establishing a lifestyle commensurate with the citizens of this world – who chase after the temporal to the detriment of the spiritual.
Paul’s words are instructive on this point, informing us, “we are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NKJV). Webster’s dictionary defines an ambassador as an ‘official envoy’ who acts as a ‘resident representative of his sovereign state.’
Jesus appoints each of us to represent Him in this world. As His official emissaries we speak on His behalf – in our speech and with our actions. The world understands the character, attributes, and priorities of the Lord as they interact with and observe us. Rather than read the Bible to ascertain who Jesus is, they simply watch His followers.
So what does the world learn about Jesus when they examine your life? Do they learn He is merciful and forgiving; that He comforts the downtrodden? Do they discover He is holy and righteous, and focuses on the heart and not on outward appearances? Do they learn that He cares deeply for people, not things? As God’s ambassador do your actions reveal unbridled excitement about a future heavenly home or a passion for securing the approval, treasures, and success of this world?
Spend some time reflecting on these questions and evaluating whether your life accurately represents the one you serve as ambassador. Then identify one lifestyle change you can make that will more effectively point people to Christ.
As Jesus’ ministry neared its end Scripture tells us “He began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again on the third day” (Matthew 16:21, NKJV).
It is a shocking revelation to those who have followed Him since the beginning of His ministry. They expect Jesus to establish His kingdom on earth soon, not die and disappear into the clouds. His pronouncement is inconsistent with everything they believe about Him. In fact, Peter had just identified Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Surely a glorious and powerful empire is more appropriate for God’s Son than a brutal and horrifying death – honor and authority more fitting than indignity and weakness.
Peter is certain Jesus is disoriented; that He has experienced a moment of confusion, and has misspoken. He decides to set Him straight and remind Him that His destiny lies in greatness not brokenness, in splendor not infamy. So Peter pulls him aside. Steeped in confidence from Jesus’ recent praise, Peter rebukes the Lord saying, “Far be it from you, Lord; this will never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22 NKJV).
Imagine Peter’s surprise when Jesus chastises him. “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23, NKJV). The reprimand catches the attention of the disciples. For the first time they understand that God’s plan for Jesus is remarkably different than their expectations. He is going to die an ignoble death, not lead a revolution.
Perhaps even more unsettling is what it means for them. They must wrestle with the reality that God’s plan for them is also remarkably different than their expectations. Jesus will not install them as leaders of His kingdom in the immediate future. Instead their commitment to Him will have perilous consequences.
To their credit they do not abandon the Lord at that moment, though they understand that Jesus’ life and death serve as a model for them, and now realize they too must surrender their lives to God – and that doing so changes everything.
I wonder how many of us are like Peter? We are certain our ambitions represent God’s will. And if the Lord disagrees then we need only correct Him. How many of us, like Peter, are mindful of the things of men but not of God; are mindful of the things of this world but not of the world to come?
As you contemplate God’s plan for your life and the possibility that it may diverge dramatically from your own plans, consider this verse from Isaiah. “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8, NIV).
How do you adopt the Lord’s thoughts as you own? By studying His word and watching how Christ interacted with those around Him. Notice who he invests His life in and how He serves them. Listen to what He teaches and the priorities He exemplifies. As you read Scripture ask God to reveal His ways to you through the lifestyle model Jesus provides. It is only as we become more like Christ that our thoughts and ways mirror God’s.
Recently I ate at a restaurant that offered a lunch buffet. Buffets appeal to many of us for two reasons. First, we choose only the food that interests us. We’re under no obligation to eat vegetables, quiche, fruit salad or anything dainty unless it interests us. And second, we’re allowed to eat as much as we want of anything that makes our mouths salivate – no need for moderation or restraint. In other words, nothing makes it onto the plate unless you like it; and if you do, then pile it on.
Many of us adopt a similar approach with the Christian faith, treating it as a spiritual buffet. We select Scripture and principles that appeal to us, and ignore those with which we disagree. Unfortunately, by establishing a faith foundation imbedded in only those biblical truths we find palatable and ignoring any we find difficult to digest, we create a personalized faith that often bears little resemblance to what Christ taught and God’s Word reveals.
Does God’s mercy interest you? Then add a helping to your faith. Yearn for Jesus’ forgiveness? Then incorporate that into your beliefs. Care for God to bless you? Take a double portion. Desire God’s love? Feast on as much as you need, since it never ends.
Incessant demand exists for this side of the faith buffet, which includes God’s grace, hope, joy, peace, and strength. No surprise we emphasize those elements of the Christian faith since they comfort, console, and even encourage us. And because each represents a gift from God, we can embrace them with confidence, knowing they represent God’s promise to every believer. For that we can be grateful.
Too often, however, our faith begins and ends with such gifts. Our spiritual palates never develop and we never dine on the other side of the faith buffet. We remain content feasting on spiritual benefits, ensconced in a view that implies the Christian faith is all about us. Meanwhile, we tend to ignore Scripture when it contradicts our plans, inconveniences us, or disrupts our lives. As a result, we frequently fail to integrate into our faith truths from the accountability and responsibility side of the spiritual buffet. In particular, Jesus’ instruction on discipleship often falls on deaf ears.
Let’s briefly examine one remarkably relevant passage in Scripture.
Jesus told His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?’” (Matthew 16:24-25, NKJV).
In that brief passage Jesus provides a succinct definition of discipleship and reveals several important truths. It behooves us to study and unpack this powerful and compelling message, which not only aligns with what Christ consistently taught throughout His ministry but also challenges us to reconsider our understanding of what it means to follow Christ.
Many of us find Jesus’ words alarming. We want to embrace Jesus enough to secure salvation but have little interest in denying ourselves. And we certainly have no desire to lose our lives, substantively or metaphorically. So how could Jesus be so callous as to make such severe demands of us? How could He imply we are to set aside our agenda and adopt His in its place?
The passage is so unsettling that many of us choose to ignore it, explain it away (Jesus could not have possibly meant what His plain language suggests), dismiss it as legalistic (hey, we’re no longer under the law), or decide that Jesus’ counsel simply represents a recommendation not a command (therefore we are free to accept or reject it as the Spirit leads).
In the process, we redefine what it means to follow Jesus. We decide that embracing Christ involves little sacrifice, service, or surrender because those behaviors afflict our souls and sour our disposition. And since Jesus wants us filled to the full with His joy, He can’t possibly want us to pursue a lifestyle that leaves us miserable (you might be surprised how many churchgoers make that argument).
And yet, His words appear straightforward and his message unambiguous: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
I encourage you not to ignore, dismiss, or compromise those words. To do so is to place your faith in peril. Instead, take time over the next couple days to meditate on the passage and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance as you consider the following questions:
- How is God calling you to deny yourself as His disciple?
- In what ways does He want you to lose your life for His sake?
- Are there areas in your life you have prioritized over your relationship with Jesus – and in effect exchanged your soul for?
As God begins to reveal the application of those verses for your life, you may find yourself heading in a decidedly different direction and experiencing a whole new level of trust and faith in the Lord. I can’t imagine anything more exciting.
In reading the gospel accounts of Christ’s life and ministry, have you ever noticed how often Jesus declares that those who follow Him will face challenges, trials, and difficulty? He succinctly summarized this truth during His sermon on the mount, proclaiming: “Difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14, NKJV). It is interesting to note that Jesus links the difficulty of discipleship with the scarcity of those who find salvation. Since most people reject the former (discipleship), they never truly embrace the latter (salvation).
Of course, Jesus is not suggesting works play a role in our salvation – that is entirely a product of God’s grace and mercy. What He is saying, and makes clear over and over again throughout His ministry, is that anyone who genuinely embraces Him as Lord and Savior will necessarily follow Him as a disciple. You cannot have salvation in the absence of discipleship. To confess Him as Savior is to pursue Him as Lord.
The manifestation of that pursuit, however, will be as diverse as the entire body of believers. Nevertheless, despite that variation, some commonalities exist in every model of discipleship. A few are revealed in three brief encounters Jesus had with a trio of would-be disciples. Luke describes it like this:
“As they were walking along, someone said to Jesus, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ But Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ He said to another person, ‘Come, follow me.’ The man agreed, but said, ‘Lord, first let me return home and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead! Your duty is to go and preach the Kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘Yes, Lord, I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Anyone who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God’” (Luke 9:57-62, NLT).
We learn several important insights about discipleship in these encounters. First, it requires sacrifice. We must put to death our own agenda and replace it with God’s. This is an unpopular view with many Christians because it inconveniences us and disrupts the lifestyle we want to live. We would prefer Jesus simply adopt our agenda as His and pepper His blessing on our plans.
But Jesus leaves no room for ambiguity as to what He expects of those who want eternal life. We are to lay our lives down for Him just as He laid down His life for us. As He told His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let Him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25, NKJV).
The linkage between discipleship and denying ourselves could not be clearer. We must die (to self) before we can live (for Him). Sadly, this is one of the most ignored truths in many churches today. It is also one of the most resisted truths by those who profess Jesus as Lord, because our sin nature refuses to abdicate its place on the throne of our heart. It readily allows us to proclaim with our mouths that Jesus is Lord as long as that proclamation does not translate into our abdicating full control of our plans, decisions, and lives to Him. But once our faith in Jesus begins to inconvenience, discomfort, or disrupt our lives, our flesh (sin-nature) adopts a posture of virulent resistance, knowing its very survival is at stake. It will inform us how unreasonable, extreme, and ridiculous it is to follow Jesus when such obedience infringes on our desires and dreams.
That’s why Jesus’ encounter with the three would-be disciples is so instructive. It demonstrates in no uncertain terms that following Jesus often requires we live in a manner that flies in the face of social convention. Society places expectations on people, as does the church, and too often we allow those standards to dictate the degree to which we follow and obey Jesus. But in the passage above Jesus makes clear that obeying Him sometimes require we ignore the demands of society (and even the church). When facing such situations we must remain faithful to God and not the voices around us.
Additionally, there will be instances when family and friends make demands of us that seem sensible but contravene the timing, decision, or action God has communicated to us. In Luke’s passage above the third would-be disciple wanted to say goodbye to his family before following Christ. Jesus’ response seems severe. We wonder, ‘why can’t the young man take a day or two to bid his family farewell before embarking on his journey with Christ?’ It makes no sense, we tell ourselves. Surely Jesus does not intend for us to make similar choices in our lives. Surely faith does not require such irrational acts of obedience.
And yet, it does. Jesus interaction with each of the three potential disciples makes clear that the call of Christ supplants the desires of the flesh, however reasonable. Discipleship requires we prioritize obedience to Jesus above the seemingly sensible requests of friends and family. Though the path Christ calls us to pursue will vary by individual, each path will involve an element of sacrifice and denial of self. When the Lord leads us down one fraught with difficulty and inconvenience, we must resist the temptation to yield to moderation, social convention, worldly logic, and the demands of loves ones. It is the least we can do for the Savior who sacrificed so much for us.
If one of the Church’s primary purposes is to fulfill God’s plan by leading a fallen world into right relationship with Him, then any doctrine that undermines that objective poses a danger to not only the Church’s mission but also to the world that so desperately needs God’s love. And while any Church teaching that contravenes Scripture is both deceitful and heresy, the most dangerous are those that send adherents down a path that leads to eternal suffering and separation from God.
Applying that standard, the most dangerous doctrine taught by many churches is that of ‘Easy Believism’. It offers all the benefits of salvation without requiring any of the costs of discipleship, asserting that eternal salvation is available to anyone who recites a handful of words proclaiming Jesus as Lord and imploring God’s forgiveness. Especially popular in evangelical churches and referred to as ‘The Sinner’s Prayer’ in other circles, this teaching insists that when individuals make a verbal profession of faith they immediately guarantee their place in heaven and nothing can ever compromise that eternal destination.
While that teaching enjoys broad appeal and a significant following among those who claim Christianity as their religion, it has no foundation in Scripture. On the contrary, it disregards the explicit truths Jesus frequently proclaimed about eternal life. Whereas Jesus taught that the path leading to eternal life is difficult (see Matthew 7:14), that only those who persevere enjoy salvation (Matthew 24:13), and that following Him has a considerable cost (Luke 9:57-62), ‘Easy Believism’ teaches the exact opposite. It insists that embracing Jesus as Lord need not disrupt our lives, does not demand we endure, and imposes no cost.
Before going any further, we ought to examine closely what Jesus taught about eternal life and His expectations for those who proclaim Him Lord. After all, as the Son of God and the Savior of the world, His word is final on the matter. What we learn from careful study is that Jesus often described faith in terms of discipleship (following Him) and was unequivocal as to what that involved.
To His disciples and a crowd of potential followers, Jesus said: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34b, NKJV). To follow Christ is to deny ourselves. We set aside our hopes, plans, interests, and goals, and replace them with Jesus’. That may sound extreme, as if Christ were calling us to give up our very lives for Him. And in fact He is. In the very next verse Jesus says as much. “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35, NKJV).
While losing our life for Jesus does not necessarily mean physically dying for Him (though sometimes it might), it does mean putting to death ‘self’ and all it represents: our greed, arrogance, selfishness, debauchery, materialism, and idolatry. That expectation causes many would-be followers to bristle. They want to proclaim Jesus their Lord but retain the rights to their lives, careers, pursuits, passions, and resources. In other words, they want to limit Jesus’ lordship to a verbal profession rather than make it a substantive, exhaustive, and ongoing commitment.
Jesus anticipated many of us trying to have it both ways – wanting to declare Him Lord without actually evidencing it in our decisions, our priorities, our time, our relationships, and our lives. That is why He advises potential followers to count the cost first (see Luke 14:25-32), because the cost of discipleship is high and ought not be entered into lightly or without knowledge of His expectations. He summarizes those expectations in very succinct and unambiguous terms: “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:33, NKJV).
Forsaking all sounds comprehensive because it is. Like all of Jesus’ teachings about discipleship it requires sacrifice, which Jesus modeled for us in His life and in His death. Sacrifice was why the widow’s tiny tithe was heralded as the most generous – because she gave all. Similarly, the merchant in Jesus’ parable about the kingdom of heaven gave all to secure the pearl of great price (see Matthew 13:45).
Genuine faith compels us to put God first and adopt His agenda as our own, not carve out and dedicate parts of our lives for His use and glory while retaining other parts for ourselves. Jesus addressed that duplicitous approach to faith and warned that those who embrace it have no faith at all. “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches” (Matthew 6:24, NKJV). Nor can you serve ‘self’ and Christ. All who try reveal that their true loyalty lies with the flesh and with the world.
‘Easy Believism’ also damages the souls of men and women by suggesting that no ongoing faithfulness to Jesus is required for salvation – that He does not demand we endure to the end. That could not be further from the truth.
When Jesus sent the twelve out He warned them of the trials and challenges they would face, explaining that they would be hated and persecuted for His sake. As an encouragement He reminded them: “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22b, NKJV). Years later, as he described the end times, he repeated these words to His disciples (see Matthew 24:13). In addition, He gave that message to each of the seven churches He counseled in Revelation – those who endure and overcome will eat from the tree of life and not be hurt by the second death.
The parable of the sower communicated a similar message (see Mark 4:13-20). Of those who hear the good news about Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice, few receive it and then bear fruit for the kingdom of God. Most wither in their faith and do not endure. They are unfruitful. That may seem an insignificant detail except that Jesus later tells us that everyone who abides in Him bears much fruit and those who do not bear fruit are not His and are cast out and burned in the fire (see John 15:1-6).
Despite the clarity of Jesus’ teachings about faith and His expectations for those who would call Him Lord (and there are many more Bible passages that reinforce the verses above), many refuse to accept His truths. They insist that the call of Christ imposes no demands on them, does not require they remain faithful, and that they can decide what areas to consecrate to Him and which ones they can keep for themselves.
Sadly, many pastors, deacons, and church leaders reject Jesus’ message for fear it will chase people from their congregations and result in people forsaking their faith. What they fail to understand, though, is that those who practice ‘Easy Believism’ have no genuine faith to forsake – they follow a faux-faith created out of whole cloth by spiritual wolves. Churches teaching that salvation and discipleship are unrelated are leading parishioners astray because Jesus never made such a distinction. For Him, discipleship and salvation were intrinsically linked.
Why, then, do millions of people fall for such deceit? Why do so many discard the clear word of God and embrace a false gospel instead? Because ‘Easy Believism’ tickles our ears and tells us what we want to hear. It appeals to our flesh, which refuses to be inconvenienced or removed from its throne in our hearts. We want it to be true and refuse to study Scripture to learn if it actually is.
Do you desire to make Jesus your Lord and receive His forgiveness? If so, search the Scriptures to understand what He expects of you as His disciple. Start with the verses above and then read through each of the four gospel accounts found in the New Testament. You may find that what Jesus taught about faith, discipleship, and eternal life is different than what your pastor, priest, or shepherd teaches. And eternity is too long, heaven too exciting, and Jesus’ presence too awe-inspiring for you to leave your faith in the hands of someone who may be more motivated by church attendance and donations than your eternal soul.
Make it a priority this week to get right with God, commit your life fully to Him, and begin building that intimate relationship with Jesus that costs everything but yields an eternity of joy, peace, and love with the Maker of heaven and earth.
A significant number of Christians, especially in the Evangelical community, embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible. They believe God means exactly what His Word says and refuse to entertain any idea that some passages in Scripture employ literary devices such as metaphors, hyperbole, and allegories. Convinced of their position, they demand church doctrine align with a literal view; all other perspectives are heresy.
For example, literalists read Genesis and insist that God created the world in six 24-hour days. They read Revelation and contend that exactly one-third of the grass is burned (and not a blade more) when the first trumpet sounds, exactly two hundred million soldiers are saddled at the River Euphrates (and not one less) when the sixth trumpet sounds, and exactly a quarter of mankind is killed with the opening of the fourth seal (no more and no less). For them, orthodoxy requires rigid adherence to every dotted ‘i’ and crossed ‘t’.
Curiously, Bible literalists often ignore other Bible passages where a literal interpretation inconveniences them or disrupts their lifestyle. They employ a literal view of Scripture on an inconsistent basis. Let’s look at three such passages often disregarded by Bible literalists.
Jesus tells his followers, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor your rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14, NKJV).
The literal interpretation of this verse is quite clear. Yet, I wonder how many of those who claim to follow the Bible literally have obeyed this verse? How many have invited the homeless, destitute, and diseased into their homes and celebrated with a dinner party, social event, or celebration? We can all come up with excuses for why we don’t. It’s too dangerous. They’ll steal my stuff. No poor or homeless people live near me. They smell bad and behave boorishly. But Jesus doesn’t condition our obedience on convenience or safety. If you follow the Bible literally, then the next dinner or social event you host should include lots of strangers marginalized by society, not friends and family.
Some will argue that their church sponsors something similar during Thanksgiving, inviting the homeless and poor into the fellowship hall for a meal. Others will explain that they visit a homeless shelter once a month to help serve meals. And that’s all well and good, but it does not represent a literal application of Scripture. Those who claim to believe the Bible literally must invite “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” into their home the next time they host a social or family event. That’s literally what Jesus taught.
On another occasion Jesus told His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24, NKJV). The literal interpretation is clear. It is difficult for the rich to enter heaven. That’s a very straightforward and easy to understand message. Yet, I wonder how many Bible literalists strive to be rich, or are rich? If your goal is to spend eternity with Jesus why make things hard on yourself by being rich?
I’ve heard this passage taught dozens of times by pastors and church leaders across the country. Curiously, the focus is almost always on what Jesus isn’t saying rather than on what he is. Ministers tell their congregations that Jesus isn’t telling us it’s wrong to be rich. He isn’t telling us that wealth is bad. He isn’t telling us that no one who is wealthy can make it into heaven. And so on, and so on. They want their flocks to understand that they can continue living prosperous lives of comfort, luxury, and excess and still experience eternity with Christ. They use the passage to teach the exact opposite message of what Jesus is communicating to His followers: Quit wasting your time pursuing wealth and the things of this world. Why? Because those who do become distracted from following Him and their faith never blossoms. Anyone serious about following Scripture literally will have a much different understanding and application of this passage than what we hear from the majority of pulpits on Sunday. Jesus’ words could not be clearer. Literally.
Finally, Jesus also informed His disciples, “You will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22, NKJV). Too often we hear that following Jesus will make things easier in life. Jesus rebukes that nonsense here and explains that things will actually get tougher. People will hate us for no other reason than our love for Him. To experience salvation, though, we must endure to the end. It is not enough to make a profession of faith and then succumb to the temptations of the world or renounce our faith in the face of persecution. Jesus declared we must endure. Only then will we enjoy eternity with Him. Too often we hear that as long as someone professes faith in Christ, he or she is guaranteed eternal salvation. But that is not what Jesus teaches here, or in any other passage. If we really believe the inerrancy and literal interpretation of the Bible, we must recognize that God calls us to remain faithful until the end.
Sadly, few Christians embrace the literal (and intended) interpretation of the above passages. Instead, most of us perform all sorts of intellectual gyrations to avoid arriving at the application Jesus intended when He taught His disciples these truths. Surprisingly, even Bible literalists reject the literal (and obvious) message of Jesus’ teachings because doing so will burden or inconvenience them. It will force them to live lives they have no interest in living and follow a faith they cannot reconcile with their current lifestyles. So to ensure their doctrinal purity they proclaim themselves defenders of Bible truth and insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible – but only when it’s an intellectual exercise that doesn’t disrupt their daily routine. But that’s not Bible literalism, that’s hypocrisy.
I’m not suggesting a literal interpretation of Scripture is wrong. Generally, I take that approach myself, except when it is clear a literary device is being used. However, when Bible literalists apply their rigid interpretation only to verses that require nothing more than intellectual assent and refuse to apply it to verses that inconvenience, discomfort, or disrupt their lives and lifestyle, then that is not only wrong, it is dangerous duplicity. And that could cost them in the end.
Increasingly, American consumers demand customized products. From coke bottles that bear individual names to homes designed to meet the exotic tastes of an eccentric buyer, manufacturers recognize the affiliation purchasers have for personalized goods and offer them with growing frequency. They understand that consumers will pay a significant premium for products tailored to their specific palates.
This phenomenon thrives in matters of faith as well, even among American evangelicals. This significant segment of Christianity confesses religious orthodoxy and a literal view of the Bible, yet it ignores passages of Scripture it finds uncomfortable. Most evangelicals view Christianity primarily from a benefit perspective. What can God do for me? They eagerly receive His love, mercy, forgiveness, peace, joy, promises, and blessings. They believe God wants to shower them with these gifts and requires little in return – perhaps regular church attendance and an appearance of holiness but nothing more.
Sadly, many evangelical pastors and leaders enthusiastically peddle false or compromised gospels that reinforce this view so they can line their pockets with thirty pieces of silver. They readily preach and promote what evangelical audiences want to hear and explain away any objectionable lesson Jesus taught. Sharing the whole truth of Scripture jeopardizes their position, income, and status. Better to preach half the truth and enjoy prosperity, reputation, and acclaim then advocate the entirety of the Bible and walk in camel’s hair eating locusts and wild honey.
What most evangelicals want, and most church leaders willingly teach, is a gospel that legitimizes their current lifestyle. They demand a faith that does not disrupt their dreams, does not inconvenience them, makes no difficult demands, and allows them to enjoy all the accouterments of this world. They insist on practicing a faith that offers the best of both worlds: a life of comfort, pleasure, leisure, and wealth in this world, and eternal life with God in the next.
What such evangelicals fail to understand, however, is that Jesus routinely rebuked that form of faith. He emphasized time and again the considerable cost of following Him as a disciple. In describing His expectations for those who place their faith in Him, Jesus asserted, “if anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me,” (Luke 9:23). Later He added, “whoever does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple,” (Luke 14:33).
The crux of these two verses is that following Christ is a full-time commitment that requires we go all-in. The result is a life so transformed that no one recognizes us. We put to death our own interests, plans, and desires, and replaced them with His. Does this sound more challenging than what the church teaches? Would you prefer a faith that is easy to follow? If so, consider the counsel Jesus offered His disciples. “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the path which leads to life, and there are few who find it,” (Matthew 7:14). Christ does not mince words about the challenge of becoming His disciple. It will be difficult. So difficult, in fact, few people actually find eternal life.
I encourage readers to meditate on these verses. Seek guidance from the Holy Spirit as to how your life should reflect these words from Jesus. Resist the temptation to disregard them or embrace the idea that Christ didn’t really mean what He said. Your salvation is at stake.