The story is told of a busy father who wanted to occupy his toddler so the boy wouldn’t distract him. The father tore a world map into several pieces and sent the little boy to his room to put it back together, instructing him not to return until the job was done. Surprised by his son’s soon reappearance with the task complete, the father asked how he got it done so quickly. This was his son’s reply: “You see, Dad, there’s a picture of a man on the back of the map, and I figured that to put the world together, all I had to do was to put the man together.”
His answer is both intriguing and instructive. We live in a broken world, and key to putting it back together is putting the men and women who live in it together. Improving conditions in the world at the expense of improving the lives of the world’s most valuable resource is a colossal failure of our generation.
This raises important questions: How do we take Christianity to a deeper level? How do we cultivate fully devoted, happy, and whole followers of Christ? How do we help new Christians order their private world, ensuring that commodities such as discipline, character, and integrity are plentiful in the stockroom where they matter most?
Within the broad framework of Christianity, a one-word answer is offered: discipleship.
This day-to-day process of sanctification is how women and men in Christ are put together, or “built up.” It’s why Reggie McNeal has described discipleship as the process of “people becoming people.” And therein is the Christian’s dilemma. He or she is delivered from sin’s penalty but is still dealing with sin’s presence and practice — complete in Christ but still living in a broken world, with a heart prone to wander.
This raises new questions. Having redeemed us, why does our loving God allow us to struggle in our walk with Him? Why does God’s plan of redemption include struggle and frustration? Answering this question could get highly theological. But to keep it simple, let’s just say that the reason for the process — the reason God doesn’t just zap us and get it over with — is that He doesn’t want robots for disciples. It’s the same reason He gave Adam and Eve free will in the garden. He didn’t want robots then, and neither does He want robots now. Just as Adam and Eve exercised their free will in disobedience, God wants us as new believers in Christ to exercise our will in obedience.
Though perhaps implicit, this is emphasized throughout the New Testament, where our volitional will is the focus of commands such as “put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13); “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25); and “put on the new man” (Ephesians 4:24). In both His first creation and in His new creation, God’s design is that those made in His image exercise their volitional will in obedience to Him. And as New Testament believers, we have the presence of the Holy Spirit in us to give us the power to do so.
This is good news! In Romans 8:13, referenced above, it is by the Spirit that we put to death the deeds of the flesh. So, simply stated, believers play a role in the sanctification process, and we have the power of God within us to do so.
This prompts an important reminder. The Holy Spirit often works through people — someone sitting across the table from another believer who helps him or her grow, shed old habits, heal hurts, and rise above past failures — especially someone who has experienced overcoming grace in these areas. It has been well observed that just as hurt and harm typically take place in relationships, so healing and health usually occur in relationships. Disciples are best made by other disciples. This is why Jesus has entrusted the important task of making disciples of all nations to His disciples.
This is the reason for the Incarnation. God, who is a Spirit, manifested Himself in human flesh so we could see and know and touch Him (John 1:1-18). This is God’s way. As Howard Hendricks wrote in Teaching to Change Lives: Seven Proven Ways to Make Your Teaching Come Alive, “God’s method is always incarnational. He loves to take his truth and wrap it in a person.”
Afraid of being alone in the dark one night, a little girl asked her father if someone could stay with her. When her dad assured her of God’s constant presence, she replied, “I was hoping for someone with skin and bones.” So it is in discipleship. God puts on skin and bones, working through people to shape other people into Christ’s image.
Yes, Christ is with us always, even “to the very end of the age.” Through the great mystery of His plan, one of the ways that He makes His presence known is through the lives of ordinary people like you and me.
This article is an adapted excerpt from Vibrant Church: Biblical Reflections & Practical Tools for a Vibrant 21st Century Church by Israel Steinmetz and Whaid Rose. To purchase a copy, visit https://center.artioscollege.org/resources/.