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Is salvation a free gift or discipleship?

Christianity is more than saying a prayer when you are seven years old—it’s repentance and discipleship. That’s how the speaker at the November Southern District Youth Conference began one of his talks to the 600 high school students. The speaker challenged students to live lives of repentance rather than comfortably relying on a prayer spoken several years back. While the speaker’s point was to challenge their understanding of salvation, some students took this to mean that their salvation was not secure. This is not a new challenge for Anabaptists.

Our Anabaptist fathers had a succinct, one word definition of Christianity: discipleship. In fact, the early Anabaptists held such a high view of discipleship they were accused regularly of “works-righteousness” or salvation by works. However the early Anabaptists viewed it differently. Followers of Jesus are saved by grace, and that grace empowers them into a life of Christian discipleship—following Jesus. If a person chooses not to enter into a life of discipleship, that person has rejected the grace Jesus offers.

As contemporary Mennonite Brethren, we find ourselves in a unique and difficult situation. As evangelicals, our focus turns to the free gift of salvation offered by Jesus Christ, no strings attached. But our Anabaptist side says discipleship is not simply a “follow-up” to salvation. Rather the choice to enter discipleship is the beginning of our salvation.

So what do we do here? I believe we have to hold these two ideas in tension, never allowing ourselves to fall to one extreme or the other. Our denominational confession (Article 5) reminds us that we are saved from something and saved to something. We are saved from sin, and we are saved to wholeness and freedom.

The moment I begin to think that I’m more of a Christian than another because of my actions, I’ve forgotten the point of discipleship—humility and love. And the moment I begin to think that I’ve “made it” because I said a prayer when I was seven (or 70), I’ve forgotten the meaning of Christianity—following Christ.

I recently heard a sermon in which the preacher reminded us that witness is not a verb, but a noun. We don’t witness; we are witnesses. When we think of the whole of our lives as a witness, we begin to rethink how we live and act. We no longer are to “be Christian” at home and church, and “be secular” at work and play. If I am a disciple, my whole life serves as a witness.

As long as my faith remains internal and does not lead me into action, it is useless. “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). If we view Christianity as discipleship, it becomes impossible to separate our walk from our talk.
As Mennonite Brethren, our first step has traditionally been to look at the teachings of Jesus to see what discipleship looks like. Because of the countless examples in the Gospels of a life of discipleship, this can be overwhelming. But if we take seriously the teachings of Jesus as the foundation for Christianity, defined as discipleship, then who Jesus was and what Jesus did will surely call us to do likewise.

I have a friend who has taken this call to discipleship to heart. Although he has a full-time job and a family and lives in the “suburbs,” he spends one morning each week volunteering at a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. This is the one time in the week he looks forward to the most. Could it be because he has found fulfillment through following Jesus’ call to discipleship?

Early Anabaptist Michael Sattler penned his understanding of discipleship as a poem:
When Christ with his true teaching came
And gathered up his flock so fair,
He taught them all to follow him
And patiently his cross to bear.
He said, You my disciples true
Must watch and be alert each day,
Love nothing more upon this earth
Than me and all my words always.
The world will seek to do you harm
With mocking and with hate and shame.
They’ll scatter you and slander you
And brand you with the devil’s name.
And when for my sake and the word
They persecute, revile, and kill,
Rejoice! for your reward is great
Before God’s throne on Zion’s hill.
O Christ be pleased to aid your own
Who dare to follow and confess,
That through your lowly bitter death
They may be saved from all distress.

To Mennonite Brethren, discipleship means much more than a personal relationship with Jesus. It requires that we take Jesus’ words and actions to heart and seek to live in response to them. This month, may we take Jesus’ call to discipleship seriously and find new ways to live out our faith as disciples of Jesus.

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