Current approaches to discipleship tend to run along one or the other of two tracks. One type copies the neo-revivalist tactics of North American evangelicals. It anchors discipleship in a unique experience of God in worship and serves then as the basis for specific practices that move “nominal” members of the church into more disciplined lives of faith. The other, far more prevalent, approach mimics the mainline Protestant “social gospel.” It conceives discipleship in terms of progressive social agendas, sees “moral deliberation” as the dominant purpose of congregational life, and views the public witness of the church primarily in terms of social and political action. This essay critiques both approaches and proposes in their place an understanding of discipleship grounded in the classic distinction between law and gospel. Accordingly, discipleship is pictured as a matter of death and new life.
God uses the law to reduce sinners to nothingness and the gospel to create new beings in Christ. In this light, discipleship is more properly viewed as something God does to believers, rather than something that believers do for God or for the world. The law/gospel approach to Christian life resists reducing discipleship to acquired techniques. Instead, it views discipleship in terms of Christians faithfully living out their vocations as baptized children of God. Through the preaching of God’s law/gospel Word, believers are created and formed to live by trusting God’s promise to be God and by loving their neighbor in service of creation’s well-being.
Critique of the Recent Approaches to Discipleship
Both contemporary types of discipleship are apologetic in the technical theological sense of the term. The first responds to modern secularization by accommodating the secular conviction that faith does not interfere with public life but is properly located in the privacy of experience. Practices are fostered in order to help sustain such “God experiences” deep within the pious. The fundamental attitude with respect to religion in the modern world has been to make it a private, interior matter, and the first type concedes to this tendency. The second seeks to justify the legitimacy of faith through its ability to effectuate ethical change in the world, particularly on behalf of the powerless and voiceless. An important aspect of modernity—challenged in light of world wars, genocide, and abuse of the environment—is social progress, the quest to establish an ideal community in which class divisions will have disappeared. Both socialists and (perhaps surprisingly) many capitalists have sought such an ideal community—albeit through different, competing economic strategies.
In contrast to the prevailing approaches to discipleship, the Lutheran tradition is more ambitious, more radical. It speaks to the heart of personal and public sin. The aim is not to reform immoral humanity or immoral society but to announce the death of sinners. Sinners, along with the old order, are passing away. The Christian gospel declares God’s promise to bring forth a new creation in Christ. The Lutheran tradition continues to approach discipleship in the tradition of Isaiah and Jeremiah’s confidence in the power of the Word of God alone to make disciples (see Isaiah 55, Jeremiah 18 and 31, and Rom. 9:20ff).
The church is most authentic when it makes truth claims that deal with ultimate matters in distinction from penultimate matters.
The church can make the most difference in the world when it tends to the Word. It tends to the Word in catechesis and proclamation. The church is most authentic when it makes truth claims that deal with ultimate matters in distinction from penultimate matters. Its critique of society is always to unmask idolatry in the public realm for the sake of a truthful relationship with God. In addition, it moves Christians and others to speak up on behalf of the oppressed in the wider public. As a “creature of the gospel,” the church is sustained by God’s grace. Its mission is to administer, freely, this grace to sinners who are in no position to reciprocate with merit. The church offers a genuine alternative community to a politics prone to idolatry and an economics prone to greed. Its uniqueness is found not primarily as an alternative ethical community. Rather, it is a community established through the Word, a recipient of grace given in the proclaimed gospel and administered in the sacraments. Its life is grounded in God’s truth and generosity; its mission consists of sharing this truth and generosity with others.
Christians continue to be in the world (as God’s good creation), yet not of the world (in rebellion against God). Offering no excuse for “quietism,” they trust that ultimately God will rectify injustices in His left-hand rule. Discipleship happens best when people's horizons are situated and discerned through the variegated and manifold lens of Scripture and guided by properly distinguishing law from gospel.
The More Promising Approach to Discipleship
Where do we go with respect to discipleship? How might we be true to Luther’s view of discipleship? Given the challenges facing today’s church—long in the making—the “solution” I propose will appear ridiculous: Can we trust the Word? Will we tend to it and preach it—let it have its way with us? We have lost confidence in both tending to the Word and preaching it. By tending to the Word, we must seek to cultivate a renewed catechesis.
Most people leave the church due, not to burnout, but to indifference. If we are one more agency or club among many, we have no right to insist that people stick with it. The more promising approach is to tend to the Word, allowing people to walk within the thick narratives of Scripture—to see themselves in the accomplishments and failures of Israel’s history and the early church, to see themselves as Jesus’ sometimes brash, sometimes cowardly disciples and to learn from Him. Imagine the vitality of a church membership engaged with the prophetic books of the Bible, believing that they speak to us and challenge us every bit as much as they spoke to Israel of old. Imagine a church membership that has learned to express joy and grief as we pray the Psalter and meditate on Wisdom literature. What if it were to get in our imaginations that Revelation’s longing for Christ’s return is our longing? Wouldn’t the promise of it compel the leaders of the church to tend to the biblical story as though it were the story of disciples today? The Christian Scriptures make ultimate claims on believers. In that way, people will see penultimate matters in a new light: the life of the disciple is not about religious self-improvement but about the freedom of trusting God to be God and taking care of His creation. We are, after all, intertwined with all creatures and called to be stewards promoting the health and well-being of the earth.
The life of the disciple is not about religious self-improvement but about the freedom of trusting God to be God and taking care of His creation.
When Scripture is at the forefront of our imagination, we have a compass by which to discern our discipleship to Christ, wherever we are called in the world. There is no “one size fits all” here. Instead, how we juggle our responsibilities and the accountability that we have before God and the world, measured in tandem with our abilities, can only be discerned by us. This is no license for relativism. God’s commands stand. However, our assessment of how each individual is to live as a disciple of the crucified Lord, within the places where each lives, will be distinct, just as Peter’s or Mary Magdalene’s or Paul’s ministries were different from one another. Each bears witness to Jesus, but each does so in his or her own way. Clergy need to be at the forefront of educating youth and adults, inviting them into the horizons and depths of Scripture.
Our preaching is not simply to keep cantankerous people at bay or entertained.
However, we must also preach law and gospel so vitally that God’s promise may clearly be heard by sinners who are, for all practical purposes, lost in hell. Our preaching is not simply to keep cantankerous people at bay or entertained. There is no technique by which to fix the church, any more than there is a technique to fix the world. In fact, it is not our job to redeem God’s creation. As citizens, disciples of Jesus, like all other citizens, we are obligated to speak out against injustice as it is encountered in social structures. In living out the obligation of citizenship, disciples require wisdom, not technique.
And as disciples in the world, it is our calling to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the sick and imprisoned: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). It is appropriate for us, as citizens of this world, to call the powers of this world to accountability on behalf of those whose well-being is least well-off. But in so doing, along with Luther, we acknowledge and honor God’s right and left-hand ways of governance and do not confuse the two. We are motivated not by the goal of achieving a (post-) millennial utopia but by easing the pain of those who hurt and providing hope to those whose power is limited.42 Ultimately, it is the forgiveness of their sins for which Jesus died and not, an egalitarian political community, as desirable as that may be. As the church, the calling of disciples is to administer the office of the keys—to forgive and retain sins.