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The Cost of Discipleship


Whenever I discuss the cost of discipleship, I have a rather large bias. I suppose it was triggered when reading Oswald Chambers’magnificent devotional, My Utmost for His Highest. One of the central themes that drills throughout his writings is the unavoidability of death in our discipleship to Jesus. Here’s an extended quote from January 15:

No one enters into the experience of entire sanctification without going through a “white funeral” –the burial of the old life. If there has never been this crisis of death, sanctification is nothing more than a vision. There must be a “white funeral,” –a death that has only one resurrection –a resurrection into the life of Jesus Christ. Nothing can upset such a life, it is one with God for one purpose, to be a witness to Him.

Have you come to your last days really? You have come to them often in sentiment, but have you come to them really? You cannot go to your funeral in excitement, or die in excitement. Death means you stop being. Do you agree with God that you stop being the striving, earnest kind of Christian you have been? We skirt the cemetery and all the time refuse to go to death. It is not striving to go to death, it is dying –”baptized into His death.”

Have you had your “white funeral,” or are you sacredly playing the fool with your soul?[1]

It was passages like this that began to inform my understanding of “cost”and Jesus’own explanation of how to become a disciple when he said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”(Luke 9:23).

My journey in understanding this experientially began at the end of my first year of ministry as I went through a year long process where I lost my health, my reputation, my job, and a significant relationship. I felt broken and abandoned, with the clear sense that God was deliberately going through a checklist to bring me to my knees. One day, in frustration and anger I blurted out loud, “Look, you have taken away my health my reputation my job and my girlfriend. I have nothing left.”I was not expecting a reply, but a voice spoke to me as clear as if God was standing in front of my face, “Yes I know—I want you with nothing.”

I burst into tears at the horror of it all. God wanted me with nothing so he could become everything.

Many Christians associate the “cost of discipleship”as a heavy burden that must to be carried on their backs which causes them all sorts of frustration, pain, orstress. We picture Jesus with a cross and see him struggling, and suppose that if we want to be his disciple, then we will have to struggle as well. But while the Bible certainly alerts us to the reality of unpleasant consequences due to our public decision to follow Jesus, and calls us to consider the implications carefully, I think defining the cost of discipleship as unpleasant difficulties may distort and obscure the core of what Jesus is getting at.

In Jesus’own commentary on disciples taking up their cross, he continues, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it”(Luke 9:24). Jesus did not carry his cross around Judea as a continual inconvenience. Jesus carried his cross with purpose to the point of execution—and died on it. To imitate Jesus is to do the same. Later, Paul appears to echo Jesus, “I die daily”(1 Cor. 15:31, NKJV). So I never feel I am able to escape Bonhoeffer’s commentaryondiscipleship which rings incessantly in my ears, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[2]

But why does Jesus describe death as the doorway into discipleship? Jesus appears to explain this a little when commenting on his own literal death and the need for death to precede new life, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).

I would suggest the cost of discipleship is high because thecostiseverything I am, have,and desire to be. However, this is only a cost from the human point of viewbecause the cost is a cost to the sinful nature. Consequently Paul explains,

“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.” (Rom. 6:3-7)

It appears that this crucifixion of the sinful self is necessary for two main reasons.

Firstly, as Paul has just suggested, the death of the sinful self is the only way torelease the sin that is poisoning meas a “slave to sin”. Let’s say that I am angry at the unfair way my boss has treated me. That anger can soon turn to bitterness. I can pray all I like for God to take away my anger and bitterness, but in parallel to my frustrated prayers, my sinful nature isperversely clinging onto that bitterness with an iron grip. Only asmysinful self is put to deathtoday,can specific sinbe released from my fingers, and my general orientation as a sinner be addressed.

Secondly, the death of the sinful self is necessary to create space for the filling of the Holy Spirit.The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) is the evidence that the nature of Christ is within me and is displacing my sinful nature. This is how I am changed to reflect Jesus and become an attractive, authentic, and compelling witness (Zech. 8:23). I am not looking for modification but transformation accomplished as the nature of Christ replaces the nature of my Self. As Ellen White comments, “the soul must be emptied of self, that Christ may pour his Spirit into the vacuum.”[3]And again:

Emptied of self we must be, else we cannot show that Christ is formed within, the hope of glory. The Lord would have self hidden, for when it appears, souls are misled. The preciousness and importance of truth must appear, and will appear, when self is hid with Christ in God; then Jesus will be revealed in our lives. Our characters will be moulded after the divine similitude. Then the Holy Spirit will control the human agent. Men will possess the attributes of Christ.[4]

When Jesus reveals himself through me, God is glorified. This glorifying of God, which I would suggest is the highest and noblest privilege for a human being, is why the cost of discipleship is paid. Yes, there will be continual, painful challenges in my life with Jesus. But once Chamber’s “white funeral”has become the touchstone of my discipleship—once I know what Jesus means when he says that becoming his disciple necessitates a daily death—these other difficulties become more manageable. For each day my new instinct is to go back to the point of crucifixion, to pay the cost again, and become nothing. Then Jesus becomes everything, I enter into the deepest possible fellowship with him, and am propelled outwards in his service.

Thus Christ is made known in the world.

[1]Chambers, Oswald, My utmost for his highest. Ed. James Reimann (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House, 1992), Jan 15.

[2]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963), p. 99.

[3]Signs of the Times, 1891.

[4]12 Manuscript Releases, 50.

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