Last month I contended that we need reformation and our churches need revival, and I suggested a stronger emphasis on costly discipleship (the theme of this column).
This month, I want to remind us what discipleship is. I know this may sound strange. We use the word all the time.
But I’ll argue that what passes for discipleship today, in all too many contexts, doesn’t fit the bill.
Does It Cost Much?
In the world of the Bible, a disciple was a learner apprenticed to a teacher. He or she was educated by instruction from a master and by emulating the master’s way of life. In the Greek New Testament, a disciple (μαθητής, mathétés; in Latin, discipulus) is a follower of Jesus who learns what he says and then puts it into practice, becoming more like him in the process.
Many of us today are involved in “discipleship,” at least from time to time. We talk about our Christian lives with others and help each other to persevere in faith. But how much of this talk involves real education, let alone growth in godliness? How much of it helps us get to know the Lord and become more like him? Too little, I contend.
What passes for discipleship today, in all too many contexts, doesn’t fit the bill.
There are many ways to get to know the Lord, of course, and to imitate his life. (We’ll address several in the months ahead, Lord willing.) But the most reliable way to grasp what he teaches and to live a Christlike life is to study what he says in the pages of the Bible. “All Scripture is breathed out by God,” Paul reminds us, “and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
Recent survey data suggests that some of us, at least, are avid Bible readers. Last year the American Bible Society took a poll and learned that 11 percent of U.S. adults now read the Bible nearly every day. One in six read the Bible most days during the week. Only half read it less than twice a year.
How many of us, though, could testify before God that we have made important strides in our knowledge of the Bible—and hence our knowledge of the Lord—in the past several years? If every five years you took a wellness test on your knowledge of divine things, according to Scripture, would you score better today than you did last time?
Lessons from Northampton
In preparation to teach a class on Jonathan Edwards this semester, I’m thinking again about his methods of discipleship. Edwards was a sinner who did many things wrong. But his passion for the knowledge and love of God is inspiring and instructive. To cite just one example, he met with young people in Northampton in small groups, most likely in his home, to disciple them in faith. He kept a list of Bible questions for this purpose. They’re not for the faint of heart. Here’s a sample of the questions he expected the young people to answer:
1. Which of the kings of Israel and Judah was it that reigned longest?
2. What was his name that was David’s ancestor that we read of as being in the wilderness with Moses?
3. How often was the family of the kings of Israel changed, or how often did the crown of the ten tribes go from one family to another before the captivity of the ten tribes?
8. Who was the father of the Hittites, from whence they had their name?
54. Who is the last prophet before Christ, whom we have account of, whose ministry was accompanied and confirmed by miracles?
105. How often have we an account of Christ’s working the miracle of opening the eyes of the blind?
106. How often have we an account of Christ’s stilling the winds and the sea?
133. What was the greatest number that saw Christ after risen?
139. How many men have we an account of in the Scripture that were Nazarites?
I hate to say it, but it’s true: few of our most faithful church members would fare well with these questions. Too few of our preachers, in fact, would fare well.
I know what you’re perhaps thinking. Why this emphasis on factoids, details, of Scripture? This isn’t the best way to help people grow in grace. Why not emphasize the overall storyline of Scripture, or the gospel message itself, or the ethics of the Bible?
You’re right to ask such questions and to “keep the main things the main things,” as we say. Edwards agreed wholeheartedly. For him, though, and others who have known the Lord, real knowledge of the main things—actionable intelligence about the things of God—requires attention to their details as well. The Bible’s storyline includes characters, events, subplots, twists, and turns that ground it in history and substantiate its plot. And the Bible’s ethics aren’t bolts from the blue; they emerge from the history of God’s saving work among us.
While fleshing out the gospel in exquisite detail, the author of Hebrews offers an aside:
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Heb. 5:11–14)
Edwards preached a sermon on this passage titled “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth” (1739). He told his people that biblical learning was for all—not just clergy and “men of learning, but . . . persons of every character.” God calls everyone to hunt the treasure hid in holy writ, both the “learned and unlearned, young and old, men and women.” Not even the brightest scholar will find it all.
God calls everyone to hunt the treasure hid in holy writ.
In fact, the ones who “studied the longest, and have made the greatest attainments,” Edwards confessed from many years of experience, “know but little of what is to be known.” The Bible’s “subject is inexhaustible,” for the Author “is infinite, and there is no end to the glory of his perfections.” All of us, then, should apply our hearts and minds to his Word, making the study of its books “a great part of the business of our lives.”
Edwards drove this point home by recommending that his people devote as much of their time to seeking God as seeking mammon, an exhortation we’d do well to heed today:
Content not yourselves with having so much knowledge as is thrown in your way, and as you receive in some sense unavoidably by the frequent . . . preaching of the word, of which you are obliged to be hearers, or as you accidentally gain in conversation; but let it be very much your business to search for it, and that with the same diligence and labor with which men are wont to dig in mines of . . . gold.
Lest anyone despair, let’s remember we know much more about the world at large than Edwards’s people did. In fact, our most learned members know general revelation better than Edwards himself. That said, the most essential knowledge of the Lord and his will for our lives comes from special revelation. And let’s admit that though many of us say we love the Lord, we really don’t know him very well. What a pity.
No Magic Bullet
Let’s work toward a day when more followers of Jesus will be eager to advance in the knowledge of the Lord—when their professions of affection for God and his Word will be matched by real effort to know divine truth. This is easier said than done. I’ve engaged in numerous conversations over the years about how to engender deep desire to know God. There’s no magic bullet. God is infinite; he’s not an easy subject to understand.
In July 2020, LifeWay Research conducted a survey of churchgoing Protestants and found that more than half of them struggle to understand what they read in the Scriptures. They need help with discipleship. Hence this month’s call: let’s do whatever we can to provide it. Let’s not wait for a non-existent magic solution to the challenge of discipleship. Let’s instead emulate Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch: obeying God’s call, running eagerly to those we serve, asking how to help, and guiding them as best we can in the knowledge of the Lord and his Word. If we do so faithfully, humbly, lovingly, I’m confident they too will go on their way rejoicing (Acts 8:26–39).