Discipleship pathway: Belong, Believe, Become

The following is an edited version of an excerpt from the introduction to a discipleship guidebook written by GCI pastor George Hart.
A typical presentation of the gospel goes something like this:
  • First behave (change the way you live; repent; act like you belong here). 
  • Then believe (change the way you think; have faith; believe like one of us). 
  • Then you can belong (because you have behaved and believed, God has forgiven you and made you his child. So now we welcome you to God’s family). 
This typical presentation of the gospel raises some troubling questions:
  • How much must I change before I am acceptable, and thus can belong?
  • Can I actually change that much?
  • Is God’s love toward me unconditional or is it conditioned upon my behavior and belief?
  • Can I be assured of my salvation?
Is this presentation of the gospel accurate? The Trinitarian faith represented on this blog answers no---this presentation is about legalistic religion, not gospel. Legalistic religion teaches that outsiders are accepted as insiders only if they first behave a certain way (according to the religion’s rules) and believe a certain way (according to the religion’s doctrine). Churches that embrace and practice legalism tend to be places of exclusion and condemnation. In contrast, churches that embrace and teach the biblical gospel of grace tend to be places of unconditional love, compassion and inclusion.

This is so because the gospel declares that all humanity already belongs—not because of our own works or merit, but because of who God is (his merit) and what he has done (his work) on our behalf. That work began in God the Father’s heart before creation. It then came to fulfillment in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of God the Son, who became human in the person of Jesus on our behalf. And now, God the Holy Spirit is at work making known what the Father has done in Jesus to make us his children. As we belive, the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ, leading us into intimate, joy-filled communion with the triune God—a relationship the Bible refers to as "eternal life."

A brief, yet biblically faithful presentation of the gospel goes something like this:
  • You belong: You are included---accepted by God unconditionally, just as you are. In and through Jesus, God has forgiven you and welcomes you home. 
  • So believe: Believe this glorious truth, and as you do you will experience that you truly do belong. That experience is one of a relationship with Jesus who is true and trustworthy—you can trust him to be who he says he is and to do what he says he does. This belief is not a leap of faith, but a step of trust, grounded in historical evidence.
  • And you will become: As you believe, the Holy Spirit will be at work uniting you is a spiritual union with Christ which will lead to your transformation from the inside out. As this occurs, you will become the person God created you to be in Christ. You will begin to live into the purpose and plan God had in mind when he created you. As you grow in that direction, you will discover gifts that God gives you to serve others in and through his church. As you do, you will experience even more about who you are in a relationship with God, through Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This belong, believe, become journey with Jesus is spoken of throughout Scripture, particularly in the gospel accounts about Jesus’ earthly life with his disciples. Here are two examples:
  • “Doubting” Thomas belonged to the community of twelve for three years, but he did not believe until the week following Jesus’ death and resurrection, when he encountered his resurrected Lord face-to-face. Thomas thus belonged before he believed. And then he became. According to church tradition he went on to be a missionary and was eventually martyred for his faith.
  • Peter was also with Jesus for three years. Yet, on the night Jesus was arrested, he denied his Lord three times. Later realizing what he had done, Peter, “wept bitterly.” The resurrected Jesus later came to Peter, who had returned to fishing, and met him on the shore. Jesus commissioned Peter three times to care for his flock. Peter belonged, even though he denied Jesus. Only a few weeks later, on the day of Pentecost, Peter stood in the temple and boldly proclaimed the gospel. As a result, 3,000 people were converted. Peter belonged, then believed, and over time became all that he was created to be in Christ.
This gospel engenders hope! No matter what we have believed or how we have behaved, we belong to God and he is calling us to believe that, and in believing to become transformed through participation in a journey sharing, by the Spirit, in Jesus love, life and ministry. Churches that live and share this gospel of grace are places of hope—places that are non-judgmental, where people can be honest and vulnerable. They are places where people come as they are. They are places where people know they are imperfect, but worship a perfect God. Such churches are places where grace operates and as a result, lives are being transformed by the Holy Spirit from the inside out. In such churches, people are allowed to belong despite their flaws and sins, while they grow in the love and knowledge of the God of grace who has saved them and is now transforming them.

When we journey with Jesus within such churches, we experience God’s holiness, are transformed by it, and become agents of God’s love, forgiveness and reconciliation in a lost and hurting world. We are able to help others by sharing with them the very good news (the gospel) of who God really is, and what he really has done, and to invite them to share with us the journey with Jesus. As with any journey, the journey with Jesus requires preparation. But the preparation needed is not burdensome. What Jesus asks is that we open our hearts and minds to receive all that he has already done for us.

Unpacking the steps: the discipleship pathway

Let’s now unpack what we see in Scripture are three primary steps in this journey with Jesus (we call it The discipleship pathway). As noted in the diagram below, theis pathway addresses both disciples and disciplemakers. Let's take a look at what it means for a disciple of Jesus, noting as we go the work of disciplemakers in assisting disciples on their journey with Jesus.

Step one: Belong

We are all born into this world belonging—accepted by God who has reconciled himself to humanity in and through the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. Of course, we don’t at first know this—and some go through all their lives not knowing (and experiencing the pain that come in that darkness). But the Holy Spirit is actively at work to help people come to know that they belong. In most cases, we experience a sense of belonging even before we fully understand. It's our commitment as the Body of Christ (the church) to help people experience the stunning truth that they truly do belong. And so we reach out to all people – non-believers included. We know they belong, and we want them to experience that fully and unconditionally. And so we seek to embrace unbelievers. We go, with God’s love, to them. And we welcome them with open arms when they come to us.

Step two: Believe

As a person experiences that they belong, they begin to see themselves and God in a different light. This change is a gift from the Holy Spirit—an openness to believe what they formerly rejected, or simply were unaware of. As a disciplemaking church, we seek to nurture believers—helping them believe by clearly presenting the basics of the gospel, which tells of the love of Jesus Christ and what he has done to save humanity. Our emphasis is not on rules, but on God’s grace in Christ, for we believe that it is by grace that we are saved, and that through grace we are transformed into the likeness of Jesus. And so we seek to nurture believers. We do so in many ways, including providing the nourishment that comes through clearly and accurately teaching the gospel as it is proclaimed in Holy Scripture, the Bible. 

Step three: Become

A believers being in Christ is a becoming. As believers grow deeper in the faith, hope and love of Jesus, the Holy Spirit begins to shape and mold them into the likeness of Jesus. This does not mean that he is transforming them into a first century Jewish rabbis. But it does mean that he is transforming them into who they have been created to be in Christ.

Living into that new creation includes engaging more and more as workers in the ministry that Jesus is doing, through the Spirit in our world. Each believer has a particular calling to share in the ministry of Jesus, and so disciplemaking churches seek to equip workers. This equipping takes on many forms, but the primary emphasis is learning through doing—giving emerging workers opportunity to apprentice in ministries relevant to their gifts, interests and callings. Together, we seek to engage actively and skillfully in what Jesus is doing in our world to multiply and mature his followers.
As workers mature, some are called and gifted by the Holy Spirit to serve as leaders within the church. And so we seek to follow the Spirit’s lead in multiplying new leaders. As part of this multiplication, we seek to start new and innovative gospel-shaped  ministries. As this occurs, it is our belief that the Holy Spirit will lead us to start new churches. Jesus’ work yields a movement of multiplication.

For a related Surprising God post, click here. For detailed information about the discipleship pathway (including resources for equipping disciplemakers) click here.