An excerpt from Discipleship Handbook By Bobby Harrington & Josh Patrick
“He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.“ Colossians 1:28
Everything in discipleship goes back to Jesus. The Jesus we believe in and the gospel we preach, more than any other thing, lead to the kind of disciple that we make. It is very important to get Jesus and the gospel right. We begin with this element in discipleship because it is the most important.
In an important and well received book entitled The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard calls much of what passes for conversion today as “bar-code faith.”
Think of the bar codes now used on goods in most stores. The scanner resounds only to the bar code. It makes no difference what is in the bottle or package that bears it, or whether the sticker is on the “right” one or not . . . there is something about the Christian that works like the bar code. Some ritual, some belief, or some association with a group affects God the way the bar code affects the scanner . . . And the payoff for having faith and being “scanned” comes at death and after. Life now being lived has no necessary connection with being a Christian as long as the “bar code” does its job . . . it is not necessary to be a good Christian in order to be forgiven. That’s the main point of the bar code . . .
Vast numbers of preachers and teachers propagate this false version of faith, telling people that by it “they are saved.”
In a book written for spiritual seekers, a well-known preacher and writer presents conversion this way. No substantive explanation of who Christ is or what he did on the cross or what it means to truly follow him is given before the reader is offered the following invitation and promise:
Receive Jesus into your life as your Lord and Savior. Receive his forgiveness for your sins. Receive his Spirit, who will give you the power to fulfill your life purpose. The Bible says, “Whoever accepts and trust the Son gets in on everything, life complete and forever.” Where ever you are reading this, I invite you to bow your head and quietly whisper the prayer that will change your eternity: “Jesus, I believe in you and I receive you.” Go ahead. If you sincerely meant that prayer, congratulations! Welcome to the family of God!
Without intending it, this is the propagation of “bar-code faith.” No turning from our sinful ways, no surrender, no commitment to discipleship, and little understanding of who Jesus is and what he did for us. Just bow your head, say the prayer, and “strike the deal.”
Writing in a different time, when true Christianity was rapidly declining, Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this approach “cheap grace.” “Grace” is the free gift of salvation offered to human beings through Jesus Christ. God’s provision of “grace” cost him dearly because it required the death of his son. We treat God’s grace as a “cheap thing” when we say that we accept the benefits of Christ’s death, but we do not truly appreciate it and make it a precious thing in our lives. As Bonhoeffer put it,
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
What makes this so tragic is the popularity and influence of this idea in North America today. “Bar-code faith” is the reason why so many Americans feel that they are “at peace with God,” while they live life on their own terms, without any meaningful semblance of active faithfulness or obedience to Christ. Most have been given a false security and a false sense that they have a “real relationship with God.” They claim to believe in Jesus Christ, but do not demonstrate it by the way in which they live.
A proper understanding of Jesus as the gospel helps us connect salvation and discipleship. We understand that is easy for us to start at the cross and ask for a decision, but, again, we must not skip the life, the teaching, the resurrection and current reign of King Jesus, to say nothing of His teaching on what it means to be a disciple. Many people refer to this approach as the “transactional gospel.” Both the “transactional gospel” where we just “make a deal” and “bar code faith” fall short of the true gospel.
The Jesus of the Bible offers salvation (the forgiveness of sins, a new relationship with God, and the promise of heaven) and a new life, here and now (a life of following Jesus and becoming a Jesus-centered person). God does not just grant eternal life in the future, he gives us a new life, in Jesus, now.
A brief look at the Gospel of Mark indicates that the gospel of Jesus is much more than just the cross. Mark begins his Gospel by saying that the gospel is summed up in Jesus, as everything about Him is the gospel:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, ESV).
So, this passage teaches us that the whole book of Mark is about Jesus, who, in His person, is the gospel. Jesus calls us to repent and believe in himself and his kingdom. This is what it means to believe in the gospel.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).
When Jesus makes the invitation in this passage, He has yet to die for the sins of people, but He still invites them to believe in the gospel. Here, the gospel is about Jesus, His kingdom and the need for repentance.
Then Mark tells us that Jesus and his gospel includes the call to make radical decisions of obedience. We cannot be true disciples unless we are willing to lose our life for the gospel:
“Then He called the crowd to Him along with His disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35, NIV).
Jesus and His gospel, we learn, require unconditional loyalty. It is a process or increasing growth and surrender for a person to grow to the point where they can obey this teaching. But, as humanity’s true king, Jesus calls for full surrender and loyalty.
So, what Jesus offers, as Scripture shows, is the invitation of the gospel to come to Jesus for both salvation and a changed life. Both parts are integral.
The coupling of these teachings is the full Jesus and the whole gospel. Jesus has a core gospel focused on His grace through the cross. But he is a teacher, example, and reigning Lord. Jesus offers salvation and a way of life.
Too often, people teach and share a transactional gospel that does not explicitly necessitate obedience to Jesus and a life of discipleship. Jesus demands more and points to something much bigger than we often describe. The storyline of Jesus and the gospel fits within the broader story of God’s relationship with humanity and the kingdom, as outlined in the Old and New Testaments.
Below, we’ve summarized the key movements of that story in less than 300 words.
CREATION: God created the world. He is holy and loving; He created us to live with him in paradise.
FALL: Adam and Eve rebelled against God by Satan’s influence. Humans are now separated from God, gravitating to sin in thought, word and deed. Satan has major spiritual control over the whole world.
ISRAEL: God reached out and promised Abraham that he would bless the world through him. Abraham placed his faith in God and became the father of the nation of Israel. Through Moses, God redeemed the people of Israel from Egypt and gave the Law and the Ten Commandments. Through the tabernacle/temple, God forgave the Israelites of their sins. God also foreshadowed his kingdom promises to Israel: a perfect king will descend from King David; a faithful people will follow him; the kingdom will never end; and they will live in a paradise land.
KING JESUS: God sent Jesus as the Messianic King to establish the kingdom. Jesus is the key to Abraham’s promise and Israel’s prophecies. He was the ideal Israelite and teacher and he took the penalty for our sin on the cross, rose from the dead, and defeated Satan. He ascended to heaven, where He now reigns. He invites people into his “already, but not yet kingdom.” His message is salvation by Grace (free gift) through faith to all nations and He will return to judge the living and the dead.
RESTORATION: Jesus redeems those who place their faith in him. True faith is empowered by God’s Spirit so people turn from their sin (repentance) and surrender their lives to Jesus and His teachings. After Jesus returns to judge humanity, his reign will be fully established. He will take His children into the eternal kingdom in the renewed paradise of God in the New Heaven and New Earth.
This summary illustrates the broad story line of Jesus and his rightful claims on us. The Jesus described in this summary is the one who calls us into a life of discipleship. This is the Jesus we are called to follow.
Within the story of Jesus and the kingdom is the most central part of the gospel—His victory over sin and death for the sake of humanity through the cross. The core gospel is central, but the full gospel is bigger than its core. Again, we need to emphasize both.
The Heart of the Gospel
Let’s look within the storyline of Jesus at the core gospel of His cross. Our eternal destiny depends on whether or not we are saved by God through Jesus in His cross—in His death, burial, and resurrection. The passage in 1 Cor. 15: 1-6 shows us that this focus is the key, or foundational, item of our faith:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received … ” (ESV).
Paul’s language is clear—your faith in Jesus and His work on the cross is the basis of your standing with God. You are saved through it, and there is nothing more important! The passage goes on to summarize the core gospel:
“Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the 12. Then He appeared to more than 500 brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” (ESV).
Here, the gospel focuses on Jesus Christ’s death for our sin. But even this gospel is not just His death—it includes His burial and resurrection—and how they are in accordance with the broader story of Scripture. Jesus is God’s son, and He conquered sin and death. He is now the reigning king of humanity, and His kingdom will be fully consummated when He returns.
This focus offers the broader picture assumed throughout the Bible and in Paul’s letter to church of Ephesus: “… by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8, ESV). John 3:16 also sums it up: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (ESV).
But true faith includes both trust and submission. We submit out of a genuine faith that acknowledges Jesus and all that for which he stands (Romans 3:20-25; James 2:20-25). The concept of being a disciple is rooted in what it means to be truly saved by grace through faith. Faith is a living thing. It is an ongoing dynamic: a responsive interaction between the disciple and the Lord. Faith follows Jesus as our grace-giver and Lord.
True faith not only trusts Jesus, it obeys. Jesus is the Lord who is – at this present moment – ruling and reigning at the right hand of the Father. Everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. Jesus is to be followed, obeyed, and treasured above all else. There is no other way.
CULTURAL CHRISTIAN DISCIPLE OF JESUS
I believe in Jesus I truly trust and follow Jesus
I sing to Jesus I surrender to Jesus
I applaud Jesus I participate in Jesus’ mission
I maintain a safe distance from Jesus I get as close to Jesus as I can
I study Jesus, but remain unchanged I follow hard after Jesus and experience deep transformation
I use Jesus to fulfill a personal agenda I am willing to throw myself into Jesus’ mission
I am fluent in religious language I am more concerned about who people are before God than how they sound
About 150 years ago, a man named Charles Blondin came to the United States from overseas. He was fascinated with Niagara Falls, so much so, that he resolved to cross over Niagara Falls on a tightrope. So, he made a hemp cord 1100 feet across, 160 feet above Niagara Falls, and he said he was going to cross from one side to the other. He was quite a showman. A crowd of 100,000 people gathered to watch him walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls, inch by inch, step by step. Can you imagine the drama of that moment?
This is life or death. He had no safety net. He crossed all the way over on his first attempt. Many people, of course, were taking pictures of him, so he did it again. This time he brought a camera with him and took a picture of the crowd while they were taking pictures of him. He went another time and took a chair with him. He even balanced a chair on the rope and stood on the chair. He went back another time and made an omelet. He actually did this and lowered it to passengers on the Maid of the Mist (a boat in the river below) so that one of them could have it for breakfast. He went another time and took a wheelbarrow with him. The crowd went crazy.
After he returned with the wheelbarrow, he turned to the crowd and asked them, “Do you believe I can do this?” Of course, they all believed. Then he asked them, “Now, who will get into the wheelbarrow?” Then, it got really quiet. All 100,000 people were silent…except for a man named Harry Colcord who knew Blondin. He had worked with him. He got into the wheelbarrow…inch by inch…step by step. Can you imagine that ride? In a wheelbarrow, on a tightrope, crossing over Niagara Falls? They made it to the other side.
The crowd went crazy again, but the crowd didn’t get in the wheelbarrow. Everybody applauded Charles Blondin, but only one man trusted him enough to let him lead him across a tightrope. Jesus never went up to people and said, “Admire me.” He only said, “Follow me.” He said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
“Get in the wheelbarrow and let me lead you.”
Let’s be clear about what we are asking. Can it be said of you that you are a true disciple of Jesus? Look at our definition of a disciple again. Disciples follow Jesus, form their lives around Jesus, and faithfully join the mission of Jesus (Matthew 4:19).
A disciple forms his or her life around Jesus. Formation is a word which connotes transformation and development. In Matthew 4:19 Jesus said, “I will make you.” Jesus is the one who changes us by his Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3: 3-17). There is an important clarification as we define a disciple in this second part – discipleship is grounded in the commitment to Jesus as Lord, but true inner transformation is a process. The journey is often a crooked, twisted pathway. But it is guided by the Holy Spirit and grounded in supportive relationships and service. It includes suffering, repentance, persecution, confusion, and both regressive and progressive steps (sometimes simultaneously). And yet God works in our journey so that we become more and more like Jesus over time, if we allow Him.
Jesus says that one day all of humanity will be divided into one of two camps: Those who truly follow him and those who do not. There will be no third option. There will be no respectable distance-keepers who admire Him from afar but withhold their devotion. Who are the real disciples? How will you make true disciples of Jesus?