BY RYAN COUCH
Have you ever received a gift for which you were less than thrilled, but you had to pretend you really liked it so as not to offend the giver? It is an awkward feeling, but despite your ambivalence, it is the right thing to do. When Christ gives us his gifts he is not as interested in our response as our human counterparts. He is not looking for big smiles or heartfelt appreciation. In fact, it seems that Jesus understands that receiving his gifts is not something we will always be all that excited about. Christ’s gift, namely the forgiveness of sins, is a double-edged sword: the twin blades of law and gospel. The former which indicts us as helpless, dead sinners and the latter which declares us holy and gives us new life. Christ’s gifts are hard to receive because they mean we have to admit that we are filthy sinners (maggot bags as Luther liked to say) who are incapable of saving ourselves.
Here is why Christians, humans really, are adept at taking what God gives as gift and turning it into a work. Gifts are fun, but at some point, we want to feel as though we have some skin in the game. Nobody wants to be a charity case. This proclivity extends beyond our financial well being and into spiritual and eternal matters as well. There are very few Christians who believe in justification by faith that will place works in salvific categories so we find other places in our spiritual spreadsheets where we can insert numbers for which we can take credit. One of those columns, in particular, is the one labeled "discipleship." Discipleship is one of those buzz words that is used in Christian circles that I'm not sure we understand very well.
Several years ago I spent a few days with a group of pastor friends talking about life, ministry, and theology. I sat silently as one pastor lamented the lack of growth in "discipleship" he was seeing in his parishioners. There was very little "hunger for the Word," "progress in holiness" or "desire to serve." The other pastors shook their heads in agreement, and several of them began to list practical steps that they believed would remedy this lack of discipleship. The interesting thing was that previous to this I had spent some time laying out a law/gospel framework for the Christian life. That the Christian continues to need the law inasmuch as he continues to sin and needs the gospel to bring comfort, absolution, and the reminder of his new life in Christ. A life and death paradigm over against the “ladder theology” of much of Christianity (Gerhard Forde, Where God Meets Man). My refusal to give any credence to "progressive sanctification" was met with much resistance and I was told in no uncertain terms that my theology was dangerous because it inevitably creates apathy and rebellion.
The general idea is that if Christians do not have a hill called holiness to climb they will instead wallow in the muck and mire of sin. Of course, none of these pastors made, what was to me, the obvious connection. Each one of them was, whether they would articulate it this way or not, under the impression that if they just gave their people more stuff to do they would see the outcomes they were hoping for in their people. My point, which was completely dismissed, was that it is the indicatives of the gospel that brings transformation (new life in Christ given as a gift) and that the imperatives of the law primarily serve to expose our sinfulness and drive us to the sinlessness of Christ not some feigned progress on our part.
Discipleship, as it is often defined, is the opportunity for the Christian to show God our appreciation for his gifts. This is what it means to be a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1). Jesus gave his life, and now he wants you to commit yours to him. He wants “absolute surrender," and those areas of your life that you are holding back from him are not only keeping you from experiencing all that Christ has for you it is a big slap in the face of our gift-giving God. This does bring up the question, what is discipleship? Is discipleship something we work toward and progress into or is it just another way to describe who we are in Christ; sinners saved by grace?
When Jesus handed the keys to the kingdom over to his original disciples, he told them to go about proclaiming the forgiveness of sins through baptism and teaching people to observe all that he had commanded (Matt. 28:18-20). This is the call of the Church, to teach and baptize. This is the call of the disciple of Christ…to observe what Christ commanded and to remember our baptism (death and life - a law and gospel rhythm for Christian living). Here the disciple is invited into a life that is already provided for them; observe what Christ has already taught and be baptized into Christ’s death and life that is already provided. What is it that Christ has commanded? In John 6 when Jesus was asked: “what must we do, to be doing to do the works of God?” He responded by saying, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Jesus is the work of God.
The Holy Spirit, who makes us into disciples, does so not by pushing us into our own works but by pushing us further into Christ works for us. This is what we receive when we are baptized into Christ and when we partake of his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. These are not merely ordinances for us to observe, they are gifts for us to receive. Perpetual gifts that keep on giving, giving us the very life and death of Christ. Thankfully Christ is not a giver who looks to the recipient to see if he wants to keep on giving. He does not make our appreciation, works, or behavior a contingency for the continuation of his benefits. Despite our lack of appreciation, our failure to produce good works, and our sloppy behavior Christ just keeps on giving his gifts to us. For a variety of reasons this lack of contingency does not work in the left-handed kingdom of this world, and we should not expect it to, but it is the only way Christ’s kingdom works. While we will not always receive this with the gladness and gratitude that we ought, his gifts remain the only hope we have to be what God has created us to be.
Ryan is married to his college sweetheart, Andrea. They live with their two teenagers in beautiful Bend, OR. Ryan holds Master’s degrees from Knox Theological Seminary and Trinity Seminary. He is also studying with Dr. Jim Nestigen and St. Paul Lutheran Seminary in pursuit of a Doctor of Ministry degree. Ryan enjoys good cigars and talking with people about theology and the radical message of the gospel. Ryan has planted two churches and is currently gathering with a core group of sinners in hopes to plant a law/gospel church in Bend.