We’ve gotten salvation all wrong; let’s reclaim the heart of Christian discipleship.
The Christian life is not primarily a set of beliefs—even though what we believe is massively important.
The Christian life is not primarily a personal relationship with God—even if personal faith and responsibility are absolutely necessary.
The Christian life is not primarily a religion—even though the liturgies that shape the worship and work of the church are indispensable.
The Christian life is primarily a way of living shaped by the Holy Spirit around the death and resurrection of Jesus.
It isn’t theology, religion or personal piety that most forms our identity as Christians. It is the pattern of our life in direct reflection of the life of Jesus.
But that sounds like works-based salvation.
Thinking of the Christian life as a practice or way of life, however, produces a knee-jerk response from many evangelicals. We have inherited an allergic reaction from the ghosts of the Reformation to anything that may sound like earning our salvation.
Hear me out: It was necessary for the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century to critique the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences as a way to purchase the salvation of a long-departed loved one. Salvation cannot be bought and sold; salvation is offered as a free gift of grace. Justification by grace through faith is true.
But for Protestants, the residual aftertaste of the resistance to anything that feels like “works” lives on. Salvation is one way to describe Jesus’ rescue mission to save the world. In Jesus’ mission, we are not saved by works—but we are saved for works.
Paul writes explicitly that salvation is by grace.
”By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works …” (Eph. 2:8–9)
However, Paul does not stop there. He continues by adding to this exhortation of grace that good works are included.
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works …” (Eph. 2:10)
Jesus saves us—so that through us he can save the world.
Jesus comes to free humanity, forgiving us of our sins, and transforming us back into God’s image-bearing creatures who reflect his glory and beauty into the world like a mirror.
Our mirrored reflection is constructed by living distinct lives, made distinct by the life and work of Jesus and the Spirit.
Dividing evangelism and discipleship has distorted our understanding of salvation.
But modern American evangelicals have made salvation something altogether different than discipleship.
This was true of the kind of evangelicalism that nurtured my faith in my teens and twenties. Billy Graham-style evangelism and Campus Crusade’s “Four Spiritual Laws” shaped how I imagined evangelism. As I understood it, my role was to bear witness to Jesus in cooperation with the Holy Spirit who would convict people of the truth. Together we would work towards the goal of “getting people saved.” Once they were “saved,” we could make suggestions regarding next steps.
From my experience, these varied forms of follow-up normally did not produce healthy, flourishing disciples. With a fist full of yellow “Four Spiritual Laws” booklets, my goal was to plunder hell and populate heaven. Years later, I would come to find that this form of evangelism wasn’t what Jesus had called us to do.
Jesus didn’t say, “Go into all the world and get people saved.” He didn’t say, “Get people to ask me into their hearts.” Jesus said:
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” (Matt. 28:19)
His words conveyed a clear command. Go into every person’s world, inviting them and teaching them to follow me.
The way of Jesus is the way of invitation, not the way of manipulation. We are not called to manipulate people into making a decision.
The constant call of Jesus was not “ask me into your heart,” but “come follow me.” The testimony we share is not “when I got saved,” but “when did I start participating in the life of salvation?”
We come to Jesus in order to follow him—because salvation is not found by asking Jesus into our lives, but by entering the life of Jesus where, as a disciple, we find ourselves immersed in God’s rescue plan.
Much of the language in the New Testament is about our experience “in Christ.” The movement described is such that we enter into the life of Jesus more than Jesus enters into our lives. If we go about asking Jesus into our hearts, then it becomes easy for Jesus to become a character in the one-act play called, “Me.”
A better way to paint the picture of salvation is to talk about:
• coming to Jesus
• to follow him
• in order to walk in his ways
• by entering into his life.
In this picture, salvation and discipleship are intertwined.
The Jesus way wedded to the Jesus truth brings about the Jesus life.
The way of Jesus is the way to life—real life, real human life, the good life we have all innately longed for. Jesus said:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
We all want the life Jesus offers, even if we cannot completely articulate it. The life of Jesus is the water that will quench our deepest thirst and the bread that will satisfy our deepest desires. Jesus is that living water and that bread of life.
Sadly, far too many people have assumed all that is necessary to experience that life is to confess the truth about Jesus. They have been told, “Pray this prayer. Say these words. Acknowledge this truth about Jesus. That is it. Do these things and you will experience eternal life.”
Here’s the problem: When people confess the Jesus truth and then don’t experience the Jesus life, they get frustrated and give up on the faith.
What they are missing is the very thing Jesus called us to do. They are frustrated because they haven’t yet learned to walk in Jesus’ ways as disciples. Confessing the Jesus truth is what gets us into what Jesus is doing. Walking in the Jesus way keeps us in. We need both.
As Eugene Peterson observed in his book The Jesus Way:
“The Jesus way wedded to the Jesus truth brings about the Jesus life. We can’t proclaim the Jesus truth but then do it any old way we like. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth.”
Authentic disciples cannot cling to the the truth about Jesus while avoiding the way of Jesus. The Jesus truth plus the Jesus way equals the Jesus life.
Derek Vreeland is the Discipleship Pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He is the author of multiple books including N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross. This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org.