The Gift of Discipleship (1)

The following article was originally written for the “Newsletter” which is being published by the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland.

“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man I will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me,” Matthew 16:24.

A reader, calling attention to this powerful verse in Matthew, asked: “Our discipleship: is it ‘conditional’ or ‘unconditional’? ‘offered’ or ‘demanded’? a matter of ‘decision’ or ‘election’?”

I remember that, as a young man, I heard a sermon on this passage by Rev. Herman Hoeksema. He began his sermon with these startling words: “Beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ. We have in this passage a three-fold prescription for going to hell.”

He meant by those introductory words to impress upon us that the requirements of discipleship were so contrary to anything we want in life that none of us would ever agree to be a disciple of Jesus. To deny ourselves? Whoever in all the world wants to do that? To take up a cross? Every man who seeks followers makes lavish promises of what benefits will be the possession of those who follow him. But here is someone who says: “If you want to follow me, you will have to carry a cross!” Who would ever do that? Follow Christ? But the path He walked led to shame, rejection, crucifixion, and death. Can any of us really say that we would deliberately choose that path that Christ walked?

I mention these things deliberately because, in a way, the very impossibility of it all points also to the answer to the question.

The question, if I understand it correctly, means to ask whether we are offered the chance to become a disciple; whether discipleship is, therefore a matter of our decision; and whether discipleship is, as a result, conditional upon what we do. i.e., we decide we would like to accept Jesus’ offer and so become a disciple of Jesus, so that our discipleship is conditioned upon our actions.

Or is the matter rather that discipleship is a matter of sovereign election; an unconditional work of grace; and a demand of the gospel?

It ought to be apparent to anyone at the outset that, if the decision were ours to make, we would never, never make it. And we would never be or become a disciple of Christ.

Let it be clearly understood that every one who becomes a disciple of Jesus becomes one through a sovereign and irresistible work of grace. Only the elect of God ever become Christ’s disciples, and the work is God’s work in its entirety. He not only makes us disciples of Christ, but by His grace He also preserves us as disciples throughout all our life. If He did not, we would resign as quickly as possible!

This is clearly taught in the whole of Scripture where repeatedly Scripture emphasizes that the whole of salvation is God’s work—and discipleship belongs to salvation!

We have an interesting illustration of this in one of the clearest pictures of discipleship in all Scripture. I refer to Mark 15:21. There we are told that Simon the Cyrenian carried Jesus’ cross behind Christ to Calvary. But he was compelled to carry it, the text says.

But this same truth is clear from the context in which these words of Jesus are found.

First of all, after his amazing confession (given to him by grace), Peter is lifted up in pride. When Jesus begins to describe the suffering that awaits him, Peter attempts to dissuade the Lord. Peter thinks he knows better than the Lord the road the Lord ought to take to His kingdom.

The Lord brushes Peter’s foolishness aside with a sharp reprimand in which He informs Peter that Peter’s remarks are part of Satan’s temptation.

And so, we have this text. The way Christ must walk is not an easy way. It is a way of suffering, and being killed. But, to be a disciple of Christ is to come after Him, and that way for every disciple is equally a way of suffering and death.

In other words, Jesus is not explaining the conditions of discipleship which a man must fulfill to become a disciple. Who in all the world would ever do what Jesus says? But Jesus is correcting a serious impression on the part of Peter and the disciples, that the way of discipleship was a way which would lead to glory, riches and fame in an earthly kingdom.

In the second place, it ought not to escape us that the text itself says, “Then said Jesus unto his disciples….” These men were disciples already, made such by sovereign grace. Now they had to learn an important lesson about what discipleship would cost. Hence these words.

There is more here. But we will save that for our next article. ❖