If I have learned anything in 35 or 40 years of teaching, it is that students don’t learn everything I teach them. What they learn is what I am excited about, the kinds of things I emphasize again and again and again and again. That had better be the gospel.
If the gospel—even when you are orthodox—becomes something which you primarily assume, but what you are excited about is what you are doing in some sort of social reconstruction, you will be teaching the people that you influence that the gospel really isn’t all that important. You won’t be saying that—you won’t even mean that—but that’s what you will be teaching. And then you are only half a generation away from losing the gospel.
Make sure that in your own practice and excitement, what you talk about, what you think about, what you pray over, what you exude confidence over, joy over, what you are enthusiastic about is Jesus, the gospel, the cross. And out of that framework, by all means, let the transformed life flow.
Gospel-centered discipleship employs both show and tell. In his little book From the Resurrection to His Return: Living Faithfully in the Last Days (Christian Focus), Carson asks: “Do you ever say to a young Christian, ‘Do you want to know what Christianity is like? Watch me!’ If you never do, you are unbiblical.”
The Apostle Paul hit this theme a number of times in his letters. For example:
1 Cor. 4:15-17: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.”
1 Cor. 11:1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
Phil. 3:17: “Brothers, join in imitating me. . . .”
Phil 4:9: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
2 Thess. 3:7-9: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you,nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.
2 Tim. 3:10-11: “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra. . . .”
In Paul’s discipleship of fellow pastors he likewise exhorts them to serve as examples for other believers to emulate and imitate:
1 Tim. 4:12: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
Titus 2:7-8: “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works. . . .”
In the book referenced above, Dr. Carson recounts a story from his student years related to this issue:
As a chemistry undergraduate at McGill University, with another chap I started a Bible study for unbelievers. That fellow was godly but very quiet and a bit withdrawn.
I had the mouth, I fear, so by default it fell on me to lead the study. The two of us did not want to be outnumbered, so initially we invited only three people, hoping that not more than two would come. Unfortunately, the first night all three showed up, so we were outnumbered from the beginning.
By week five we had sixteen people attending, and still only the initial two of us were Christians. I soon found myself out of my depth in trying to work through John’s Gospel with this nest of students. On many occasions the participants asked questions I had no idea how to answer.
But in the grace of God there was a graduate student on campus called Dave Ward. He had been converted quite spectacularly as a young man. He was, I suppose, what you might call a rough jewel. He was slapdash, in your face, with no tact and little polish, but he was aggressively evangelistic, powerful in his apologetics, and winningly bold. He allowed people like me to bring people to him every once in a while so that he could answer their questions. Get them there and Dave would sort them out!
So it was that one night I brought two from my Bible study down to Dave. He bulldozed his way around the room, as he always did. He gave us instant coffee then, turning to the first student, asked, ‘Why have you come?’ The student replied, ‘Well, you know, I think that university is a great time for finding out about different points of view, including different religions. So I’ve been reading some material on Buddhism, I’ve got a Hindu friend I want to question, and I should also study some Islam. When this Bible study started I thought I’d get to know a little more about Christianity—that’s why I’ve come.’
Dave looked at him for a few moments and then said, ‘Sorry, but I don’t have time for you.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ said the student.
‘Look,’ Dave replied, ‘I’ll loan you some books on world religions; I can show you how I understand Christianity to fit into all this, and why I think biblical Christianity is true—but you’re just playing around. You’re a dilettante. You don’t really care about these things; you’re just goofing off. I’m a graduate student myself, and I don’t have time—I do not have the hours at my disposal to engage in endless discussions with people who are just playing around.’
He turned to the second student: ‘Why did you come?’
‘I come from a home that you people call liberal,’ he said. ‘We go to the United Church and we don’t believe in things like the literal resurrection of Jesus—I mean, give me a break. The deity of Christ, that’s a bit much. But my home is a good home. My parents love my sister and me, we are a really close family, we worship God, we do good in the community. What do you think you’ve got that we don’t have?’
For what seemed like two or three minutes, Dave looked at him.
Then he said, ‘Watch me.’
As it happened, this student’s name was also Dave. This Dave said, ‘I beg your pardon?’
Dave Ward repeated what he had just said, and then expanded: ‘Watch me. I’ve got an extra bed; move in with me, be my guest—I’ll pay for the food. You go to your classes, do whatever you have to do, but watch me. You watch me when I get up, when I interact with people, what I say, what moves me, what I live for, what I want in life. You watch me for the rest of the semester, and then you tell me at the end of it whether or not there’s a difference.’
This Dave did not take up Dave Ward on the offer literally. But he did begin to watch him and to meet with him, and the Lord drew him. Today he is serving as a medical missionary.
You who are older should be looking out for younger people and saying in effect, ‘Watch me.’
Come—I’ll show you how to have family devotions.
Come—I’ll show you how to do Bible study.
Come on—let me take you through some of the fundamentals of the faith.
Come—I’ll show you how to pray.
Let me show you how to be a Christian husband and father, or wife and mother.
At a certain point in life, that older mentor should be saying other things, such as: Let me show you how to die. Watch me.