The Mark of True Discipleship

“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”
    — John 8:31–32

Jesus spoke these words while He was in the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles. He spoke them to encourage those who believed in Him. His desire was to strengthen their faith, intensify their resolution, and inspire them to perseverance.

In the audience to which Jesus spoke were two kinds of people: those who believed in Him and those who did not. From the conversation Jesus had with them throughout this chapter, it appears that most of His listeners did not believe in Jesus with a saving faith. Like Nicodemus, they believed that Jesus was sent from heaven and therefore deserved a hearing. At first, they listened out of curiosity; their curiosity became interest, and their interest became faith. Jesus saw their faith and knew that it was not as strong as it ought to be. It was not a bright flame, but it was a flame, nonetheless. Jesus would never crush the young flicker of faith he saw in His followers. Instead, He fanned it and made it grow stronger. He emphasized the necessity of having a true faith in Him—a faith that would mark them as true disciples of Jesus. Such a faith characterizes itself by holding fast to the teachings of Jesus.

Hold on to My Teaching

These words contain an exhortation, a warning, and a promise. The exhortation is “hold to my teaching.” Be loyal to the end. The word hold means “to stay, to dwell, to abide.” Jesus instructed His followers to settle down in His teaching, to make their home in His words. Today we would say that Christians need to internalize what Jesus had to say.

Christianity is not a race that you can start and then give up before you come to the end. Rather, the Christian must keep on running and not falter. The warning Jesus gave was that the real battle as a follower of Jesus Christ was yet to take place. Temptations, trials, and persecution would come. The flickering faith of those who trusted in Jesus would be severely tested. It was easy for people to believe in Jesus as He performed miracles in their midst and spoke to them with great authority, but would they continue to hold fast to His words in the future? If they wanted to be disciples of Jesus, they needed to persevere to the end, even when things appeared bleak.
This warning certainly remains relevant today. There are many people who claim to believe in Jesus Christ. They admire Him and follow His teachings. The test for true discipleship, however, is not mere profession but also loyalty to the words of the Master in all circumstances and conditions.

Such a test is not an easy one. It is not easy to be a follower of Jesus Christ. We have a sinful nature and are prone to err and go astray. Our Lord is certainly well aware of that and therefore does not require faultless devotion. He does, however, require continued devotion. He requires loyalty and perseverance. When temptations come, He wants us to stand up against them. If the battle is hard, He expects us to try all the harder. The test of true discipleship is unflinching and undaunted loyalty.

Hold On to Me

If we have been called to hold on to the words of Christ, we must also hold on to Him. If we abide in His word, we must also abide in Him. We must have true fellowship with Jesus Christ before we can ever obey His commands and keep His word. Just as the branch is connected to the vine and receives nourishment from the vine, so also we must be united to Christ in order that we may be nourished and given spiritual energy to endure. If we abide in Christ, the fruit of our lives will be seen in our faithfulness to His word.

To be a Christian means that, before everything else in our lives, we must have union with Christ. The true follower of Christ is one who has tasted the spark of new life from God through the Holy Spirit. There must be that seed before there can be a plant. We must first have a life of faith before we can have a life of action. Christ lives in those who are His own. He loves them with an eternal love. The Christian responds to the love he receives from Christ by loving Christ. Loving Christ demands confession; confession of Christ demands loyalty to Him. Such loyalty is the fruit of the union between Christ and the believer. He has been united to Christ by an indissoluble tie. He is likeminded with Christ and has a love for Him and His teaching. He is so loyally devoted to Christ that even if it would be counted a disgrace to be regarded as His follower, he would nevertheless cling to Him to the point of laying down his life for Him.

Hold On to My Word

The fact that one is holding on to Christ and holding on to His word becomes evident as the fruit of the Spirit grows within the believer. Being rooted in Christ and producing good fruit go hand in hand. Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). The signs of life prove the presence of life. While one may not be able to see the root, one can certainly see the fruit as clear evidence that the root is present.

The word of Christ, to which the Christian must hold, is everything He taught while He was here on this earth. In other words, His word is His teaching. Obviously, His words do not conflict with the words of the apostles who wrote after Him nor the prophets who wrote before Him. They spoke under the guidance of Christ through the Holy Spirit. To hold to the words of Christ is to hold to the entire Word of God as we find it in the Scriptures: not only the New Testament but also the Old Testament, not only the gospels but also the epistles, not only the history and the doctrine but also the prophecy, not only the promises but also the principles and the precepts.
Abiding in His word, then, means that we choose His Word as the sphere in which we live, think, and act. We who are children of the covenant have been born and bred within the sphere of the Word. We have the precious Word of God in our homes. We have attended worship all our lives. We have been taught the Word of God in our homes, our churches, and our schools. We have been under itsinfluence all our lives.

To hold fast to the teaching of God’s Word means to receive and apply the Bible as the rule for faith and practice. We are to use it as the final criterion by which our whole lives, both inward and outward, are controlled. The Bible is to be the guiding principle for our lives. We are to cling to its redemptive message as the one great Rock for our souls, believe its promises, and obey its precepts.

As we mature, God expects us to make a response to the instruction that we have received. Will we remain under its influence and hold fast to its teachings? Will we remain in the sphere in which we were raised? Will our devotion to it grow as we do? Will we teach it to our children? Those are important questions, because holding fast to the word and abiding in Jesus are the marks of true discipleship.
At a recent lecture I attended, it was reported that 67 percent of young people do not hold fast to the words of Christ. They leave the church. Those are alarming numbers! All too often the youth in the church feel that they are under some harsh restraint because of their upbringing and because of the church. They feel fenced in by the Word of God. They long to climb over the fence to find newfound freedoms. They want a wider sphere where they can indulge in more pleasure. Many Christian colleges are known as drinking colleges where students—free from their mother’s apron strings for the first time—experiment with all manner of worldly pleasures. It also happens at home when parents do not lay down certain rules for their “mature” children.

With their new-found freedom they become promiscuous in their relationships. After all, they are free—free to get pregnant, free to get sexually transmitted diseases. They go out drinking because they are free—free to get drunk, free to get hangovers, free to have blackouts, free to become alcoholics. “Yes,” they argue, “we are free from God and His laws.” They are free to do their own thing, free to make up their own minds and go their own way—free to pave their own way to hell.

Much of that, I dare say, comes from a two-kingdom theology that many Christians have adopted. Whereas in the past, every square inch of our human existence was considered under Christ’s domain (A. Kuyper), today many Christians have separated the church from the world. On Sundays, they go to church; the rest of the week belongs to the world, and the church need not interfere. Though many would deny this theology and speak openly against it, they carry it out in practice.

Consider the question of consuming alcohol. Scripture does not forbid the use of alcohol. Just as it is not money that is the root of all evil, but the love of money, so it is not the use of alcohol that is evil, but the misuse of it that Scripture frequently warns against. Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana (John 2). Still, I never cease to be amazed at how protective and defensive people are of their right to consume alcohol—and lots of it—to the degree that church councils have discussed how they can guard against the abuse of alcohol at wedding receptions. Time and time again, however, they are told that wedding receptions are out of the council’s “jurisdiction.” While people expect a beautiful God-focused wedding at the church, many think that they can raise hell at the reception (and I have been to enough receptions to believe that I am using the phrase correctly).

This is two-kingdom theology, pure and simple. Remember that true Christianity consists in an unwavering and consistent continuance in the Word of God. It is not a matter of reading the Bible one day and discarding it the next. It is not worshipping God on Sunday and denying Him throughout the week. It is not a passive, indifferent acknowledgment of Christ as Savior. It is living with Him as the Lord of your life.

The test for true discipleship is not mere profession but also loyalty to the words of the Master in all circumstances and conditions. Every square inch of our lives must be a constant seeking to bring glory to God. A glass of wine at dinner or a toast to the bride and groom can be done in an honorable, God-glorifying manner. As soon as we take alcohol consumption out of the sphere that seeks to bring glory to God, we place into the totally depraved sphere of self-gratification. In such a sphere, the use of alcohol quickly becomes the abuse of alcohol. Abiding in His Word means that we choose His Word as the only sphere in which we live, think, and act. To claim any sphere as outside of His Word is two-kingdom theology.

Hold on to My Truth

True freedom is not found by breaking away from restraint but by seeking knowledge for truth. Truth makes one free. Freedom never means escape from restraint. It means obedience to the Word of God. That obedience comes not out of obligation, nor does it come because we think we can earn our salvation. It is rejoicing in the truth that God so loved the world that He sent His Son into this world to save His people from their sins. It comes out of gratitude for the salvation that has been earned for us through Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15). Obeying what Christ commands comes as a result of God’s love and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in us.

Unfortunately, those who heard Jesus speak responded in the same way that many people respond today. They were insulted that Jesus would say they that they were not free and therefore still in bondage. After all, they were children of Abraham! They had never been slaves to anyone! They had become so blind that they did not see their bondage to Rome—and worse—their bondage to Satan. Jesus told those who thought they were free that they were sinners. They needed the life-giving blood of His sacrifice to make them free. In the garden of Eden, Adam thought he could have freedom by disobeying God and thereby he fell into sin, becoming a slave to Satan. All the children of Adam were born as slaves to Satan.

Jesus Christ, the second Adam, died for our sins. By doing so, He has freed from bondage those who abide in Him. And “if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed” (John 8:36). In that truth we find our freedom. Everything else is untruth and leads only to bondage. To be under the gracious influence of the Word of God is to be truly and joyfully free. To break with this gracious influence from God is to place ourselves under the bondage of Satan, who seeks only our destruction.

The followers of Jesus Christ are not under bondage. On the contrary, they alone know the truth, and that truth has made them free. Other may seek it—they may search the world over—but as long as they reject the Word of God, they will not find it. By abiding in the Word of our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, we prove ourselves to be disciples indeed. The rewards for being His disciples are the knowledge of truth and the enjoyment of the glorious freedom of being a child of God.

Rev. Wybren H. Oord is the co-pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and the editor of The Outlook.

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