This is the fifth post in a series aimed at continuing to increase our clarity around what it means to grow as Jesus’ disciples. You can read parts one , two, three, and four here.
It’s Organic: Gospel Hearts, Gospel Storied
While our church has sought greater clarity by describing 5 “marks” of growing disciples, it would be a mistake to view these marks mechanically—as if they’re items to be checked off of a checklist or “things to be working on”. While this tendency is understandable—especially when given a numbered list!—it doesn’t square with how spiritual growth is described in the Bible.
In the Bible, spiritual growth is almost always described using organic metaphors (soil, seed, fruit, trees, yeast, dough). Spiritual growth is also inside-out growth: our identity is transformed at a heart level, and out of that new identity, new actions emerge…it’s “be to do”, not “do to be” (Matt. 7:17). Therefore, it’s best to view these “marks” as signs that organic growth is taking place in us, both individually and corporately. We might even say that the marks of growing disciples “emerge” when true gospel renewal is happening.
The first mark that “emerges” in the life of a growing disciple, then, is an experience of personal gospel renewal—a gospel-transformed heart. Growing disciples evidence a deep, inner change, marked by a profound experience of and reception of God’s grace. This change flowers out into all kinds of beautiful fruit—it makes us more humble, more grateful, more gentle, more worshipful, and more bold—all at the same time.
The second mark that “emerges” flows naturally from the first. The second mark is that growing disciples begin applying the gospel to all of life. The same good news story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, which has so remade us at a heart level now resituates how we view all of life. We find ourselves “living out of a different story”, viewing life through the lens of how God is making everything new through Jesus. Both of these marks are signs of a growing connection with God and the story he’s letting us live in.
The third mark, then, has to do with our connection to people. We word it this way: “Growing disciples are forming deep, meaningful, and honest friendships, both inside and outside the church.”
A Friendship Crisis
Many people today find it very hard to form true friendships—friendships where you’re known and loved as you actually are, where you can ask and answer the question: “How are you really doing?” Numerous articles have been written about the precipitous decline of friendship in our time, and the pandemic hasn’t helped. I’ve heard it jokingly said that “Jesus’ greatest miracle was having 11 close friends in his 30’s! Friendships can be hard to form and keep, and the pace, demands, and expectations of life today don’t seem to help.
And yet, while we intuitively recognize the need for deep friendships to get through life, why is “forming deep, meaningful, and honest friendships” such a natural outgrowth of spiritual transformation?
It has everything to do with the God who befriended us.
Jesus, the Friend
At the heart of the gospel story is a profound act of befriending. Despite our sin and rebellion, God chose to befriend us. Amidst the other relevant categories of understanding God (Lord, Savior, King, Judge, etc), we mustn’t lose the category of “friend”. He has always shown himself to be a companion to us. The Psalms show us a God who we can “vent” to—who we can “tell our sorrows” to and share our joys with. The Lord “would speak to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Ex. 33:11).
When Jesus came, giving us the flesh and blood representation of his Father’s heart and character, he came as a friend. And not just as a friend for the super religious people—in fact, they had the hardest time receiving his friendship. Jesus was described as a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19). Jesus befriends the last, the lost, and the least, and then integrates us into his missions, treating us as friends throughout. He even describes the access we have to his plans and mission as evidence of his friendship: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
When we, as Jesus’ disciples, recognize how profoundly and securely we have been befriended, it naturally leads us to befriend others, both inside and outside of the church. We become people who can celebrate others’ joys, who can include others in what we’re doing, who can hold others struggles and sorrows with gentleness and care.
The Gospel Moves at the Speed of Friendships
Friendships are not only evidence of growth, but they are a key ingredient in order to keep growing. Survey the New Testament, and you’ll see that disciples are made, churches are planted, growth happens, and gospel ministry is carried out largely through networks of close friendships. Though I don’t know who originally said it, I’ve often heard it said that “the gospel moves at the speed of relationships” (or you could say, friendships). This is exactly right.
Who may God be moving you to befriend? How is this an organic outgrowth of the changes he’s working inside of you?