For the longest time, many of us have functioned with a two-tier understanding of the Christian faith. We have been told that there were two types of Christians.
If you accepted Christ as your Saviour, you were saved. You had Christ in your life. You would go to heaven when you die. You received all the benefits of the Christian faith.
But if you were really serious about your faith, you would then commit yourself to all the disciplines expected of those who follow Christ — reading the Bible regularly, memorising Bible verses, sharing the Gospel with those who do not know Christ, etc. In other words, if you were really serious about the Christian faith you would become a disciple. But you needn’t have to be.
I have long suspected that there was something wrong with this picture. This feeling has become stronger in recent times as I examined the subject of discipleship again in preparation for various projects I am doing. I have come to see that this two-tier understanding of the Christian faith is not only unbiblical, it also results in a “flabby” Christianity because many followers of Jesus think that discipleship is an option.
Perhaps what concerns many is the fear that an emphasis on discipleship would imply that salvation is by works; that we are saved by our commitment to spiritual disciplines. The Bible is utterly clear that we can never earn our salvation (Ephesians 2:8). But the heart of Christianity is our relationship with a Christ who asks us to carry our crosses and to follow Him.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the Gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)
In fact, Acts 11:19-30 seems to imply that we are all disciples but not all can be called Christians: “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11:25-26)
This means that followers of Jesus were disciples of Jesus, and it was only at Antioch that they were called Christians. Darrell L. Bock comments: “In Antioch the testimony to Jesus as the Christ is so strong that community members are called Christians … for the first time.” (Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007, 416.)
It is important to note that “Christians” was not a term that the believers used for themselves. This was a term that society used on them. This note from the HCSB Study Bible (Holman Christian Standard Bible) brings out the implication of this development: “The term Christians probably came from Romans who labelled Jesus’ followers in Antioch ‘little Christs’. Though it was likely intended as an offense, the label is actually an honour insomuch as it indicates disciples are living Christlike lives.” (HCSB Study Bible, Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007, 1882-83.)
Have we got it all wrong then? According to Acts 11, all followers of Christ are disciples. And if we do discipleship right, the onlooking world sees Christ in us, and calls us Christians.
The Rev Dr Tan Soo Inn –
is Founding Director and Chairman of Graceworks, a consultancy committed to the promotion of spiritual friendship in church and society through publishing and training.
Picture by Gino Santa Maria/Bigstock.com