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Children and Disciples

Like clockwork, each new generation rides a pendulum of reaction to “the sins of the fathers.” As grateful as we may be for the good we have inherited, we are apt to “overcorrect” what we see as the failures of our parents.

Seems to me that this is happening in the way an emerging generation looks at spiritual salvation and growth.

Many young followers of Jesus believe that, in the past, too much attention was given to helping others “get saved” by making a decision to receive Christ as Savior. Today, a young and growing spiritual community prefers to think in terms of becoming a disciple of Christ. Instead of focusing on salvation from a future judgment, this emerging generation sees the need for bringing every area of life under the ruling influence of Jesus as Lord.

The new perspective is important. Many of today’s young evangelicals grew up in churches that did not emphasize “discipleship” and “kingdom living.” As a result, they are now reacting to a generation that was more concerned about helping others to get ready for heaven than in addressing the needs of their neighborhoods.

The fact is, however, that the parents and grandparents of today’s young evangelicals were reacting to the liberalism and social gospel of an earlier generation. Their effort to clarify the need for personal faith in Christ and growth in the hope of Jesus’ promised return had made them suspicious of any social or environmental concern.

Now, once again, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. In a reaction against those who see salvation as a once-and-for-all decision of faith, many young evangelicals talk about what it means to bring Jesus to the needs of our neighbors. Instead of emphasizing a “decision” to receive Christ, they talk about a process and journey of faith that shifts our focus from the future to the present, to engagement with the culture rather than separation from it, and from being saved for heaven to bringing something of heaven to earth.

As some healthy corrections are made, it’s important that we don’t lose some clear distinctions that a prior generation understood.

Qualifications for Disciples—Jesus made it clear that He was asking His followers to do more than make a decision to believe that He was the long-awaited Messiah and Son of God. He said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).

He said, “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” (14:27-28).

Following Jesus involves more than enjoying the wonder of His forgiveness. It challenges us to put Christ, His body, and His mission above our own natural commitments to home, work, and happiness.

This call to discipleship is the goal of Christ­like­ness as we make it our highest desire to join Jesus in His prayer: “Nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (22:42).

This is the kind of faith that enables us to follow Jesus into our own time and world. But such radical commitment is not what it takes to be born into the family of God.

What It Takes To Be Born into His Family—As important as it is to grow into the likeness of Jesus, the Scriptures also tell us about the importance of first making a decision to trust Him as Lord and Savior. We see this in one of the criminals who was crucified next to Christ. He had no time to become a disciple. The best he could do was recognize his own guilt, turn to Jesus, and say, “‘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 broken sinner in the temple who prayed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” And Jesus said this man went home “justified” (i.e., declared righteous in God’s eyes, 18:13-14).

Or there’s the jailer of Philippi who cried out to Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” And they answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31).

Many other texts add that “without merit,” and only “by faith” in God’s provision for our salvation can we be “born into the family of God” (John 3:16; 5:24; Romans 4:5; Ephesians 2:8-9; 1 John 5:13).

The Answer Is Both/And—Personal salvation is foundational to finding our spiritual life and bearings. Only as we find forgiveness, identity “in Christ,” can we find the sense of security and peace that our hearts long for.

But, according to the New Testament, our birth into the family of God is the beginning—rather than the end of our faith.

As important as it was for a previous generation to clarify the decision of saving faith and the hope of a coming kingdom, a new generation is right in emphasizing the many implications of being disciples and followers of Jesus today.

Paul wrote not only about salvation by faith but also about the need for behavior that “adorn[s] the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10). This is how many young evangelicals are making their faith in Jesus visible. In their concern for social justice and racial reconciliation, they are showing that they have heard what Jesus said about the Good Samaritan. In their concern for the environment, many are showing that they believe this still is “our Father’s world.”

Once again, the challenge will be to ride the pendulum to “center” and then jump off at a point where the personal decisions involved in salvation and the lifelong learning and attitudes of discipleship are held in healthy balance.

Father in heaven, please help us to discover what it means to live as citizens of heaven—while showing as much concern for our generation as Your Son showed for His. —Mart De Haan

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