Is there a difference between being born into the family of God and becoming a disciple (student) of Jesus? Or are these just two different ways of describing what it means to come into the family and kingdom of God? The way we answer this question will determine how we interpret the New Testament, and may also determine how confident we are that God really loves and accepts us as his own.
In my last post I mentioned that it seems to me that we are inclined to ride a pendulum that is moving away from what we see as the “sins of our fathers.”
For example, I think this is happening today in an emerging generation that wants to take Jesus seriously. Many young followers of Jesus believe that, in the past, the church has given way too much attention to getting people to pray “the sinners prayer” (i.e. making a decision to receive Christ as Savior”)– and too little attention to what it means to become a disciple of Christ. They prefer to emphasize that entering into the kingdom of Christ means bringing every area of our lives under the ruling influence of Jesus as King and Lord.
The concern and criticism seems valid to me. “Discipleship” and “Kingdom living” were not emphasized by a generation that gave more attention to the letters of Paul than to the Gospel Accounts of Jesus.
But here’s a problem. In the reaction against an over-emphasis, the pendulum is now moving in the other direction– with the consequence of confusing two distinct yet overlapping ideas.
The Scriptures are clear that being a disciple of Jesus is not easy. According to the Teacher, himself, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it (Luke 14:26-28).
Who among us can say with confidence that we have done this, and will continue to do so until the day we die? As much as we might want to follow Christ in this way, it is too high of a requirement to leave any of us with any real assurance.
This is why it is so important to remember that the Scriptures also tell us about one of the criminals who was crucified along side of Jesus. Recognizing his own guilt, this man merely turned to Jesus and said, “”Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).
Then there is the sinner in the temple who prayed, “Lord be merciful to me the sinner.” And Jesus said this man went home “justified” (i.e. declared righteous in God’s eyes) (Luke 18:13-14).
Many other texts also add that “without merit”, and by only “by faith” in God’s provision for our salvation we are “born into the family of God” (Romans 4:5; Eph 2:8-9; John 3:16; 5:24; 1John 5:13).
The solution is to put both together. We are born into the kingdom and family of God by acknowledging our sin, and putting simple faith in Christ. In that relationship we are then called on to grow up and to mature in the One who tells us, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).
Salvation is full of implications for us. As we grow in our understanding of the kingdom and family of God we see implications for “reconciliation” and “Christ-like” attitudes in every area of life. We have every reason to want join our Lord in caring for all that is in his heart (including active efforts to reach those who have not yet believed in him, racial reconciliation, taking poverty and the environment seriously, and being good for something in our jobs and neighborhoods).
There is no end to opportunities to grow in our disciple relationship to Christ– but only after we realize that we come into relationship with him, not by meeting the requirements of discipleship, but by simple, childlike faith in him.
I know that there are passages of Scripture that make it sound like becoming a disciple of Jesus is just another way of becoming a child of God. But that can be explained by the different way of using words like “saved”, and “soul” etc.
We can’t afford to miss that coming into God’s family is a simple act of trust that needs to be followed by whatever time we are given to grow up into the likeness of the One who saved us.
Because such discipleship and spiritual maturity does not come naturally, we need to take seriously all of the factors that can keep us from ever growing up.