The growing business
Several years ago, I spotted a garden centre delivery van, which ran the strap-line, ‘Our business is growing’. It seemed a slogan that could readily be adopted by any individual Christian, or church, or ministry.
The double meaning is both clever and important. We want to see the gospel growing, in our land and locality, as well as around the world, as God adds new members to his church. But we also have a responsibility to be growing ourselves, as followers of Jesus, in many dimensions and all sorts of areas of our lives and personalities. That’s our business as believers.
So, the aim of this column will be to explore contemporary issues of discipleship, in a culture that has lost its moorings along with its Christian heritage. It’s a culture where apathy is still the predominant response to evangelism, but where hostility is coming up not far behind. Yet we live still in a context of massive opportunity and we still enjoy great freedoms to be the salt of the earth, the light of Christ in the darkness, a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden (Matthew 5.13-14).
Let’s start, then, with a look at the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. The Bible word, used in the New Testament, signifies a ‘learner’, or perhaps we would use the term ‘apprentice’. That carries the idea of two connected types of learning. The first is a body of knowledge or skill, derived from an experienced teacher, but this is also in the context of a personal relationship with the instructor, learning to become like that ‘master’ and so to graduate to becoming an expert oneself.
This is probably why Paul defines the change which the Ephesian Christians had experienced through believing in the gospel, in the unusual phrase of Ephesians 4.20 as ‘learning Christ’, almost as a casual acquaintance, but being personally committed to him as one’s life-teacher and his words as the foundation of truth, on which the whole of one’s life is to be built. As the next verse indicates, ‘learning Christ’ means hearing his words and receiving his teaching, because he is the truth in himself. Becoming a Christian is being indentured to a new master, living under a new ruler.
Such concepts tend to make us anxious about the potential loss of our freedom. After all, that was what attracted many of us to Jesus, in the first place. We know that we needed to be rescued and set free from our sin and guilt in not letting God be God in our lives, refusing to allow him his rights over us, although he is the one who gives us every breath we take. But is this not merely to exchange one slavery for another? How can he be both liberator and lord? Isn’t there an irreconcilable tension between the two?
Freedom, true and false
We do not need to fear. It is a feature of God’s creation that there are no absolute freedoms in this world of time and space. We might like to dispense with the law of gravity and be free to fly, like a bird, but don’t ask me to join you in the experiment of launching off from the church tower! You can liberate your pet goldfish from its restrictive bowl onto the vast expanse of the living room carpet, but you are condemning it to die. It can only live in water. And human beings, made in God’s image, can only live spiritually in Christ. That is the necessary condition for eternal life. For the miracle of the new birth is the implantation of the very life of God, eternal life, into our individual human consciousness.
The great gospel freedoms — from sin and guilt, judgment and hell — are also accompanied, here in this world, by the possibility of increasing victory over temptation and the down-drag of our fallen humanity, but they all depend on our ‘learning Christ’, submitting to his authority and obeying his instruction, as rescuer and ruler.
When Paul writes, ‘it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved’ (Romans 10.10), he has already defined the content of that faith in the previous verse, in the affirmation ‘Jesus is Lord’. That is the unique Christian confession, enabled only by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 15.3), which opens the door to discipleship. And it is by its practical application to our lives, day by day, that we devote ourselves to what is his business and ours — growing in Christ.
David Jackman writes the ‘Notes to growing Christians’ column for EN.
Other articles in this series include: