As I began this series of articles I listed eight strategic principles I have observed in healthy disciple-making churches. Last week I talked more in-depth about the relational component of disciple-making. Today I will expound on the transformational element.
Effective churches define what it means to be a maturing Christian disciple differently than do most churches. Most of us would say that the more you know about the Bible the more mature you are as a Christian. And there is, without a doubt, a knowledge component to Christianity. However, the Bible describes a maturing Christian as someone whose life is being transformed daily into the image of Christ. As such, effective disciple-making churches reject the popular definition of a mature disciple is simply someone who knows what to do (attends classes, participates in a small group, regularly attends worship, etc.). Their mantra is discipleship is not just about the transfer of information, but it is about genuine life transformation.
Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ involves doing His will, not just knowing what His will is. It calls for people to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. In other words, it is an obedience-based rather than simply a knowledge-based discipleship model. Knowledge is necessary but is not enough in and of itself. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matthew 7:21-23).
In James 2:18-20, we read, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” If you read the entirety of James chapter two, you would agree that James is using the word “faith” to describe a person’s emphasis on “knowing about God” and the word “works” to describe a person’s emphasis on obedience—doing what God says we should do.
Paul’s description of a disciple in Romans 12:1-2 includes both a knowledge and an obedience component—both are necessary. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” I wish our Bible translations would use the original Greek word instead of the word “transformed” in verse two. It is a word that provides a vivid picture of the Biblical meaning of being “transformed, and it is a word we are already familiar with because we use the Greek word in biology: “metamorphosis.” When we hear the word metamorphosis, we immediately picture an ugly worm being transformed into a beautiful butterfly. The Biblical definition of a maturing disciple is just that dramatic. Paul declares in II Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
Jesus’ sharpest criticism was directed at the religious elite--they had great knowledge but were not being transformed by their knowledge. “Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do” (Matthew 23:1-3). Jesus then gives a series of exhortations beginning with “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” describing areas where their knowledge of what is right isn’t impacting their willingness to do what is right.
Throughout the epistles, life transformation is emphasized. Paul’s deeds of the flesh versus the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5:19-25 is one example:
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Peter’s three-fold emphasis on obedience in I Peter 1:1-2, 13-16, and 22-23 is another:
To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied.
Sunday morning I heard Good News Jail and Prison Ministry Chaplain John Heatley preach at my home church. He shared three questions he regularly asks someone who has landed in jail:
"There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death "(Proverbs 14:12).
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
His prayer is that they will admit that doing things THEIR way isn’t working and that they will humbly trust in the Lord and learn to heed God’s word and avoid repeating the mistakes that got them where they are.
Notice that his experience as a jail chaplain has led him to seek the Biblical balance between knowledge and obedience. Remember, “To him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). What does your discipleship-making model reflect relative to transformation?
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.