In the previous posts, I argued that it is crucial for a church to have a shared, workable understanding of what it means for someone to be a disciple, or “student” of Jesus, and what happens when a church lacks that shared understanding. If Jesus’ central calling to his church is to “make disciples”, and a church doesn’t know (or disagrees significantly on) on what kind of people Jesus says we’re supposed to be “making”, then for all intents and purposes, that church is “flying blind”—like an airplane with no radar, or a ship with no compass.
At NSCBC, then, we’ve tried to clarify who a disciple is and what it looks like when we grow. We define a disciple as “someone created by a gospel to learn Christ and lead others to do the same, by the power of the Holy Spirit”.
Markers of Growth (Not Arrival)
You still might be wondering, “What does that actually look like in practice?” How would I know if I, or someone else, has been “created by the gospel?” How would I know if I’m “learning Christ”? For that reason, we’ve articulated 5 broad “marks” of what it looks like to grow as disciples, which you can explore each of them in more depth here. But for the next several weeks, we’ll look at them afresh, one at a time. The key thing to note is that disciples are always growing—always in progress—and so these “marks” are purposefully worded so as to emphasize growth, not “arrival”.
It Starts in the Heart
Growing disciples are disciples who are experiencing renewal—that is to say, they are being consistently changed at a deep, heart level. Not only have they been graciously and decisively made new by God (given a new identity, new future, new source of trust, new leader—or “Lord”), but they are continuing to marvel in God’s grace day by day, and have it re-orient and empower every aspect of their lives.
The Bible consistently uses the language of God making us new (decisively) and continuing to renew us (over a lifetime) to describe the inward change that is at the heart of following Jesus:
• “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
• “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Cor. 5:17)
• “You…have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (Colossians 3:10)
• “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2 Cor. 4:16)
Tim Keller has helpfully described what this renewal looks like:
“Personal gospel renewal means the gospel doctrines of sin and grace are actually experienced, not just known intellectually. This…renewal includes an awareness and conviction of one’s own sin and alienation from God and comes from seeing in ourselves deeper layers of self-justification, unbelief, and self-righteousness than we have ever seen before. There is a new, commensurate grasp of the wonder of forgiveness and grace as we shed these attitudes and practices and rest in Christ alone for salvation. Perhaps we have previously said that we were “resting in Christ’s work, not our own work” for salvation, but when we experience gospel renewal, we have a new clarity about what this means in our mind and a new experience of actually doing it with our heart.”
This kind of person renewal is the wellspring out of which all of the other changes flow, both personally (greater growth in holiness, a greater hunger for God’s word, growth in hospitality and witness) and on a corporate & social level (the church loving one another well, being unified, working for justice in the world and defending the powerless).
This fruits of experiencing renewal will express themselves differently at different stages in our Christian life, but here are some common pointers that renewal is happening in your life:
• You are becoming more aware of, and concerned the motives behind your actions, not just the actions themselves
• You are becoming more aware of how often you compare yourself to others, and more aware of why you do this
• You feel a decreasing desire to “people please”
• You are frequently coming to see new aspects of the gospel as personally relevant and beautiful to you
• You have a growing amazement at your forgiveness in Jesus
• You are growing in your admiration of specific aspects of the wisdom, character, love and power of Jesus
• You find yourself becoming less critical of others, even as you recognize their faults
• You find yourself becoming more gracious with “hard to love” people in your life
• You find your hunger to engage in prayer and reading God’s word growing, so that it less frequently feels like “mere duty”
• You find that you’re becoming less “self-absorbed” and you see more of your thoughts, and emotionally energy being absorbed with how to concretely love the people around you
This list could obviously be added to, and renewal is a life-long process. The important thing is that growth starts in the heart—it is, indeed, the “spring” from which all spiritual vitality comes (Prov. 4:23)!