Let’s get back to the “true religion”

Have you ever tried to summarize for those in your charge what the scriptures teach about the behavior of true disciples, about the daily life of those who follow him?

This is an important topic, most of us would agree. But these days, it’s hard to argue without people interpreting these summaries as volleys in the culture wars.

Summaries of Discipleship in the Form of a Cross

The Bible is full of moral warnings for disciples: to remain in Christ, to place his kingdom above all, to live according to his ethics even among our enemies, etc. It seems to me, however, that when we turn to the New Testament for summaries of true discipleship, three types stand out: (1) statements about the way of the cross (and the cost of discipleship), ( 2) summaries of The Law and the Prophets, and (3) new commandments on the practical working out of love for God and neighbour.

In January, I started this column by highlighting what Jesus said about cross-shaped discipleship – the first of these three types of summative statements:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, his mother, his wife, his children, his brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. He who does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, wishing to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, if he has enough to complete it? . . . Or what king, going out to meet another king in war, will not first sit down and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? . . . So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he possesses cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-28, 31, 33; cf. Matt. 10:37-39; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23-27)

The second summary type is also well known, taught frequently by our pastors and others. Asked by a Pharisee – “Master, what is the great commandment of the law?” – Jesus answered:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second resembles him: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matt. 22:34-40; cf. Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:27)

Many of us know that Jesus summarized the Hebrew Scriptures by encouraging the disciples to love God and their neighbour.

The third This type of summary, however, receives less attention in discussions of discipleship. The new rules of Jesus and the apostles for fleshing out love of God and neighbor day by day – though familiar enough to avid Bible readers – are ignored in too many congregations. One reason for this, perhaps, is that the commandments emphasize sacrificial work on behalf of those in need, whether or not we are personally related to them.

Discipleship in word and deed

For much of the history of the Church, these rules were recalled in connection with Holy Thursday, when Jesus said to the Twelve: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another: as I have loved you, you too will love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

On the one hand, it looks like a recapitulation of his summary of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:38-40). In this case, however, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to show what he meant. And as they continued to inculcate this teaching after Pentecost, they often pointed out its practical application in the love of the hopeless.

As the disciple John wrote from Asia decades later,

I am not writing you a new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. . . . Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. He who loves his brother dwells in the light, and there is no cause for him to stumble. . . . By this we know the love, that he gave his life for us, and we must give our lives for the brothers. But if someone has the goods of the world and sees his brother in need, but closes his heart against him, how does the love of God dwell in him? Little children, let us not love in words or words but in deeds and in truth. (1 John 2:7, 9-10; 3:16-17)

It was called “the royal law” or “the law of Christ”, and many considered it the main characteristic of the followers of Christ. “The whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,'” wrote the apostle Paul. “Carry one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 5:14; 6:2). Or in the words of James, half-brother of Jesus and head of the church in Jerusalem, “If you truly fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ thou shalt do well” ( James 2:8).

Discipleship is not simply about sharing spiritual experiences with others. It is about living in obedience to the King.

When James summed up “true religion”—religion that is “pure and undefiled before God”—he was describing it as “visiting orphans and widows in their affliction, and keeping oneself undefiled from the world” (James 1 : 27). . This accords with the final separation of the sheep from the goats, which Jesus will oversee upon his return. Of his sheep he says: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. . . . Truly I tell you, as you did to one of these least of my brethren, so you did to me” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).

Recover expensive love

Worryingly, recent surveys suggest only 20% of Christians think caring for widows, orphans and strangers is important to practicing their faith. Only 44% remember hearing a sermon on caring for vulnerable people. How can this be?

Let’s pay special attention to the third type of discipleship summary. It’s not just for “liberal” or “social evangelical” Christians – it’s for careful Bible readers, lovers of the Lord, and doers of the Word. Let’s not pretend to follow Jesus without hearing, teaching and doing what he says.

Discipleship is not simply about sharing spiritual experiences with others. It is about living in obedience to the King.

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