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The Gift of Discipleship (2)

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

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

We will quote again the question that prompted this and the preceding article: “Our discipleship: is it ‘conditional’ or ‘unconditional’? ‘offered’ or demanded’? a matter of  ‘decision’ or ‘election’?”

We pointed out last time that discipleship is given by grace alone, through the work of the Holy Spirit and based upon the meritorious value of Christ’s cross. It is rooted in election and belongs only to those who are elect.

We noticed that the very demands of discipleship are such that we would never, agree to become a disciple. It is contrary to everything we want in life.

The context also makes clear that discipleship is a gift of grace, because Jesus spoke these words to His disciples, who were already disciples, but who had an erroneous conception of what it meant to follow Jesus.

I wish to make a couple more important points about this, however.

I have been at great pains to stress, in this article and in the one before this, that no one, knowing the cost of discipleship, would ever agree of his own free will to become a disciple.

This does not mean, however, that those who are made disciples become reluctant and unwilling disciples who only remain disciples because their resistance is overcome by sovereign grace, and their ability to break away from Christ is resisted by a power greater than anything they have.

When God’s people are made Christ’s disciples by the Holy Spirit, they are made willing, obedient, eager, and joyful disciples. Yes, even though the “cost” of discipleship is self-denial and cross-bearing, the Holy Spirit alters their will so that these disciples consider it a great privilege to follow Christ—even in His way of suffering. This is why I gave to these articles the title, “The Gift of Discipleship.”

When the Canons of Dordt describe the work of conversion (which includes the work of being made a disciple), it says: “God… infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, he quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, he renders it good, obedient, and pliable…” (3 & 4, 11). (You should read the entire article.)

That disciples joyfully bear their cross is evident from the joy with which the apostles praised God when they were whipped by the Sanhedrin for preaching Christ (Acts 5:41).

Someone may ask, however: “If Jesus is simply instructing His disciples and us in the true qualifications of discipleship, why does He put it the way He does? Why does He say, ‘If any man will come after me…?’ It sounds like everyone has a chance, and the final decision rests with man.”

But that kind of interpretation is so wrong that it is not even really worth talking about.

There is certainly an implied demand here—as the questioner suggests. Disciples must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Christ. Jesus requires that. In fact, this is so much a part of discipleship that without self-denial and cross-bearing, we can never be a disciple. But the reasons Jesus puts it this way are two.

In the first place, it is our Lord’s purpose to save us so that we become willing disciples. But He does not work that willingness in our hearts blindly and as one manipulates a robot. He comes with the demands of discipleship and works by His Spirit so that we joyfully follow Him regardless of the cost.

And in the second place, because all our nature is contrary to what discipleship requires, we fulfill these demands only in the way of struggle against sin, putting down our own inclinations which are opposed to self-denial and cross-bearing, and earnestly beseeching God’s grace in prayer and supplication that we may be true disciples.

We are made willing in the day of His power, as Psalm 110 puts it (vs. 3). And so, in willingness and joyful obedience, we choose what no man can possibly choose apart from grace. As Moses did when he “by faith…chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt” (Heb. 11:25, 26).

A foolish choice from a human point of view, but a choice that leads to glory—as it did for Christ—and we follow Him.

It is all God’s work in us and through us and to His glory. ♦♦♦