Christian Discipleship: Responding to the Word
By John R. W. Stott
The concept of divine revelation, and of our need to submit to it, is both eminently reasonable and practically wholesome. It is reasonable because it acknowledges that the infinite God is altogether beyond his finite creatures, and that we could never have known him if he had not taken the initiative to make himself known. It is also wholesome because submission to God’s self-revelation in Christ and in the full biblical witness to Christ, far from inhibiting the health and growth of the church, is actually indispensable to them.
God’s Word, received and responded to, has a central role in the faith and life of God’s people. I will give five examples.
First, submission to the authority of Scripture is the way of mature discipleship. I am not saying it is impossible to be a disciple of Jesus without a high view of Scripture, for this is manifestly not the case. There are genuine followers of Jesus Christ who are not ‘evangelical,’ whose confidence in Scripture is small, even minimal. Instead, they put more faith in the past traditions and present teaching of the church, or in their own reason or experience. I have no desire to deny the authenticity of their Christian profession. Yet I would add that their discipleship is bound to be impoverished as a result of their attitude to the Bible. A full, balanced, and mature Christian discipleship is impossible whenever disciples do not submit to their Lord’s teaching authority as it is mediated through Scripture.
For what is discipleship? It is a many-faceted lifestyle, an amalgam of several ingredients. In particular, it includes worship, faith, obedience, and hope. Every Christian is called to worship God, to trust and obey him, and to look with confident hope towards the future. Yet each of these is a response to revelation, and is seriously impaired without a reliable, objective revelation of God.[Browse the many books by John Stott]
1. Worship. Every Christian is a worshiper. In both public and private we recognize our duty to worship Almighty God. But how can we worship God unless we know both who he is and what kind of worship pleases him? Without this knowledge our attempts at worship are almost certain to degenerate into idolatry. At best, we would copy that famous altar which Paul found in Athens and which was inscribed ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ But Christians are not agnostic Athenians; we are to love the Lord our God with all our mind and to worship him ‘in the Spirit and in truth.’
What then does it mean to worship God? It is to ‘glory in his holy name,’ that is, to revel adoringly in who he is in his revealed character. But before we can glory in God’s name, we must know it. Hence the importance of the reading and preaching of the Word of God in public worship, and of biblical meditation in private devotion. These things are not an intrusion into worship; they form the necessary foundation of it. God must speak to us before we can speak to him. He must disclose to us who he is before we can offer him what we are in acceptable worship. The worship of God is always a response to the Word of God. Scripture wonderfully directs and enriches our worship.
2. Faith. If every Christian is a worshipper, every Christian is also a believer. Indeed, the Christian life is a life of faith. ‘Where is your faith?‘ Jesus asked the Twelve when they were afraid, and he exhorted them, ‘Have faith in God.’
But what is faith? It too is a response to the revelation of God. We can no more trust a God we do not know than we can worship an unknown God. Consider Psalm 9:10: ‘Those who know your name trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you.’ If worship is to ‘glory’ in God for who he is (his ‘name’), then faith is to ‘trust’ him because of who he is. So faith is neither naivety nor gullibility. It is neither illogical nor irrational. On the contrary, faith is a reasoning trust. It rests on knowledge, the knowledge of God’s name. Its reasonableness arises from the reliability of the God who is being trusted. It is never unreasonable to trust God, since a more trustworthy person does not exist.
Faith will grow therefore as we reflect on the character of God (who never lies) and on the covenant of God (who has pledged himself to his people). But how can we discover his character and covenant? Only from the Bible, in which these twin truths have been revealed. So the more we meditate on God’s self-disclosure in Scripture, the more mature our faith will become, whereas without Scripture our faith is bound to be weak and sickly.
3. Obedience. Jesus calls his disciples to a life of obedience, as well as one of worship and faith.
But how can we obey him, unless we know his will and commandments? Without a knowledge of these, obedience would be impossible. ‘If you love me, keep my commands,’ he said. And again, ‘Whoever has my commands [that is, knows them, and treasures them up in their mind and memory] and keeps them is the one who loves me.’
Once more, then, the Bible is seen to be indispensable to mature discipleship. For it is there that we learn the commands of Christ, and so take the first necessary step towards understanding and doing his will.
4. Hope. The Christian hope is a confident expectation regarding the future. No Christian can be a cynic or a pessimist. It is true that we do not believe human beings will ever succeed in building Utopia on earth. But, although we have little confidence in human achievement, we have great confidence in the purposes and power of God.
We are certain that error and evil are not going to be allowed the last word. On the contrary, truth and righteousness will triumph in the end. For Jesus Christ is going to return in strength and splendor, the dead will be raised, death will be abolished, and the universe will be liberated from decay and saturated with glory.
But how can we be so sure of these things? There are no obvious grounds for such confidence. Evil flourishes. The wicked get away with their wickedness. The problems of the world appear intractable. Global warming overshadows the horizon. Is there not more reason for despair than for hope? Yes, there would be – if it were not for the Bible! It is the Bible which arouses, directs and nurtures hope. For Christian hope is quite different from secular optimism. It is a confidence in God, kindled by the promises of God. ‘Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess,’ the author of Hebrews exhorts his readers. Why? ‘For he who promised is faithful.’ Jesus himself said that he would come again. ‘People will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory … And you will see the Son of Man … coming on the clouds of heaven.’ It is promises like these that stimulate our hope. It is ‘in keeping with his promise‘ that we are looking for a new world, in which righteousness will reign.
Here, then, are four basic ingredients of Christian discipleship: worship, faith, obedience, and hope. All four would be irrational without an objective basis in God’s revelation, to which they are a response:
- worship is a response to the revelation of God’s name;
- faith to the revelation of his character and covenant;
- obedience to the revelation of his will and commandments;
- hope to the revelation of his purpose and promises.
And God’s name, covenant, commands, and promises are all found in Scripture. That is why Scripture is fundamental to Christian growth, and why submission to its authority is the way of mature discipleship.
Second, submission to biblical authority is the way of intellectual integrity.
Many people would immediately deny this statement and even affirm the contrary. They cannot understand how apparently intelligent Christians in the modern era can possibly be so perverse as to believe in biblical inspiration and authority. They regard a commitment to the truth and trustworthiness of Scripture as untenable. They therefore charge those of us who hold to this with a lack of intellectual integrity. They accuse us of deliberate vagueness, mental schizophrenia, intellectual suicide, and other equally horrid conditions. To these charges, however, we plead ‘not guilty.’ We insist that our conviction about Scripture arises from the very integrity which our critics say we lack.
‘Integrity’ is the quality of an integrated person. In particular, integrated Christians are at peace, not at war, with themselves. Instead of being conscious of a dichotomy between our various beliefs, or between our beliefs and our behavior, so that we are ‘torn apart’ inside, there is an inner harmony. We are ‘all of a piece,’ or whole. What is the secret of this integration?
There is no more integrating Christian principle than the affirmation that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord.’ The essence of integrated discipleship is that we both confess his lordship with our lips and enthrone him as Lord in our hearts. We assume the easy yoke of his teaching authority. We seek to ‘take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.’ And when Jesus is Lord of our beliefs, opinions, ambitions, standards, values, and lifestyle, then we are integrated Christians, and ‘integrity’ marks our life. Only when he is Lord do we become whole.
The above article is excerpted from The Bible: God’s Word for Today Series by John Stott with Tim Chester. Copyright © 2019 by John Stott’s Literary Executors. Published by IVP. Used by permission of IVP. ivpress.com. Pages 24-28. All rights reserved.
BIO: John R. W. Stott (1921–2011) has been known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, and communicator of Scripture. For many years he served as rector of All Souls Church in London, where he carried out an effective urban pastoral ministry. A leader among evangelicals in Britain and the United States and around the world, Stott was a principal framer of the landmark Lausanne Covenant (1974).
Stott’s many books have sold millions of copies around the world and in dozens of languages. His best-known work, Basic Christianity, has sold two million copies and has been translated into more than 60 languages. Other titles include The Cross of Christ, Understanding the Bible, The Contemporary Christian, Evangelical Truth, Issues Facing Christians Today, The Incomparable Christ, Why I Am a Christian, and Through the Bible Through the Year, a daily devotional. He has also written eight volumes in The Bible Speaks Today series of New Testament expositions.
Whether in the West or in the Majority World, a hallmark of Stott’s ministry has been expository preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. Stott was honored by TIME magazine in 2005 as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” and was named in the Queen’s New Years Honours list as Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 1969, Stott founded the Langham Trust to fund scholarships for young evangelical leaders from the Majority World. He then founded the Evangelical Literature Trust, which provided books for students, pastors, and theological libraries in the Majority World. These two trusts continued as independent charities until 2001, when they were joined as a single charity: the Langham Partnership. Langham’s vision continues today to see churches in the Majority World equipped for mission and growing to maturity in Christ through nurturing national movements for biblical preaching, fostering the creation and distribution of evangelical literature, and enhancing evangelical theological education.
Visit the John Stott Ministries Langham Partnership website.
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