For some time I have noticed what appears to be a different view of how to experience personal salvation. For one thing the whole subject of soteriology seems to have fallen by the way side so to speak in favour of a greater emphasis on being a disciple of Jesus. At first the emphasis on being a disciple of Jesus seems noble until you realize that sometimes it is a way of making a distinction from a more Gospel-focused defnition of a previous time.
Sometimes this change comes across as a blatant disregard for all things that have to do with the life hereafter. Among some Christians this change in thinking amounts to a rejection of a former generation’s focus on preparation for heaven. A common criticism of the previous Christian generation was that it was so taken up with salvation for the after life that it failed to really engage in the discipleship process. As a result, the feeling is, that personal faith lacked authenticity.
Another way in which this change in thinking is evident is in the focus of attention on the life of Jesus and the Gospels as opposed to the writings of Paul and the Apostles in the Epistles of the new Testament. “What we really need to understand,” some would say, “is what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus. Authentic Christianity is found in those who take seriously what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I’m not really interested in the life beyond. What I really want to experience is real life NOW!”
While one can appreciate some reaction to the strong “Gospel-centered” evangelistic emphasis that seemed unbalanced and somewhat exclusive at times to what it also means to be a follower of Jesus, in my view the new preaching that makes discipleship the center of the Gospel can easily distort what the Gospel is really all about. It is true to the biblical text and faith that being a follower of Jesus is an important part of what it means to be a Christian. And I can’t think of being a Christian without also being a disciple of Jesus. But I think we need to be careful not to confuse the true nature of Christianity concerning God’s saving grace.
The Gospel, as I understand it, is that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scripture, that He was buried, and that He was raised again the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3). The most important truth that we possess and preach, it seems to me, has to do with how we can be saved from our sins — both for this life and for the life hereafter. According to John the saving life of Christ is something that begins the moment one comes to believe and stretches out throughout eternity (John 17:3). It is a real salvation from the eternal condemnation which is ours because of sin. Salvation is a specific grace regarding our justification before God which we believe has promise both for this life and the life to come. And discipleship is a vital part of that salvation experience in that it is the “working out” of that salvation (Philippians 2:12).
Evangelism is a word derived from “evangel” which is from the Latin “evangelium” and the Greek, “euangelion” which means “bringing good news.” The Good News is the revelation that God has brought salvation to the world through Jesus Christ — just as the angel announced to the shepherds at the time of Jesus’ birth — “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10). The Bible teaches that one is “born again” at the moment that faith begins — a faith that acknowledges the truth concerning Jesus and His salvation. Saving faith often involves a deep conviction of the reality of one’s sin and the need for repentance. But at the least it is that personal heart recognition that Jesus died and rose again for sin. With it comes a wonderful sense of assurance that one who thus believes has come into the light, is born again, has received the Holy Spirit, and is now justified before God — because of what Jesus has accomplished by His death and resurrection.
Discipleship follows this encounter with God. It is the life of grateful obedience to One who has saved a person from his or her sin. But it is impossible to successfully be a disciple of Jesus without first trusting Him for His salvation. Otherwise, one will try to experience salvation through following Jesus by their own efforts, which the Bible rejects as a means of salvation because it is based on self-effort instead of faith in what God has accomplished through His Son.
Today I came across an excellent article that refutes the idea that there is some difference between Paul’s view of salvation as expressed in the Epistles and Jesus’ explanation in the Gospels. It is written by John Piper and is called, Did Jesus preach Paul’s Gospel? In it John Piper ably demonstrates especially from the Gospel of Luke that justification by faith was also the theme of Jesus’ ministry.
Because of the recent emphasis on discipleship to the exclusion of Gospel-centered preaching, it is important for pastors and preachers especially to be reminded of the fact that there is no dichotomy between different parts of the New Testament. The best teaching on discipleship, as far as I can see, begins with a strong emphasis on one’s need for personal salvation from sin through faith in the atoning work of Christ on the cross and in His resurrection.