When we have followed Jesus Christ for a season, we become aware of something that was not immediately apparent when we began our walk: Salvation and Discipleship are not the same thing.
What Jesus has done for us
Salvation is what Jesus has done for us. It is a work of grace, a divine gift, undeserved and all too often unappreciated. Oswald Chambers, in his spiritual classic My Utmost for His Highest, goes so far as to say: “We are condemned to salvation through the Cross of Christ” (devotional reading for February 2).
What we must do for Jesus
Discipleship, by contrast, always carries an if. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24); “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26); “Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments (I Jn 2:3).
This is plain talk, so little wonder we seek ways of avoiding it. After all, if we cannot save ourselves from our sin, how can we be expected to live the costly life of a disciple? How can we possibly follow Christ’s rigorous commandments? Better to leave it all in his hands. He will understand when we have our off-days and ask him to pinch-hit for us. Lame excuses indeed!
The Call to Discipleship
Such self-justification becomes quite unacceptable once we have heard the call of Jesus to become his disciple. The call usually comes when we have had time to learn something of his mind and his passions. It invites us to join him in his unfinished work in the world, and it changes us for ever. Once he has called us, we are Christians who have said Yes to being his disciple, or No. The one answer Jesus will not accept is, “I’ll think about it.” Better to be honest and say No.
Saying “No” to becoming his disciple
If we say No, Jesus still loves us, and we still have his gift of salvation. But we are no longer his friends. We know his mind less and less, and we do not share his passion for the salvation of the world. Moreover, if we are not careful, our relationship with him becomes increasingly self-centered and even self-indulgent, because it is limited to what he has done for us.
Saying “Yes” and getting to know him
If we say Yes when Christ’s calls us, then we truly begin to share his love for the world, his passion for God’s justice, and his impatience with those forces that frustrate his prayer, “Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” We begin to understand the full scope of his salvation, and his preference for the sinned-against of the world on whom he lavished his time and care.
A Matter of Heart and Life
Put differently, becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ means changing the priority of our faith from receiving salvation to living it out. In the words of John Wesley, it is a matter of heart and life. Jesus does not expect his disciples to become virtuoso Christians, but he does expect our loyalty. He expects us to do the best we can to love God and our neighbors, and to strive for God’s justice everywhere and for everyone. Then the plain talk from Jesus becomes music in our ears and nourishment for our souls: You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer (Jn 15:14-15).