Have you ever met an unconverted believer? Or watched blood transform into Kool-Aid at church?
David Platt has.
Almost three years since the release of his New York Times bestseller Radical, Platt has written a sequel about the painful glory of Christian discipleship. Follow Me: A Call to Die. A Call to Live (Tyndale, 2013) explores the gravity of our Lord's call as well as the joy and satisfaction found when we leverage our lives for him. During The Gospel Coalition National Conference next month, you can hear Platt speak twice on these themes: once on "Why the Great Commission Is Great" and again on "Every Disciple Making Disciples, Every Church Multiplying Churches."
I corresponded with Platt, pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, about unconverted believers, whether the gospel's a call to life or to death, creating a culture of discipleship in our churches, and more.
There are many new books related to following Jesus (e.g., Idleman's Not a Fan, Chan's Crazy Love and Multiply, Greear's Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart, Stearns's Unfinished). What is the problem in evangelical churches demanding this response?
Scores of people, here and around the world, culturally identify themselves as Christians who biblically are not followers of Christ. This creates a real sense of confusion about the nature of authentic faith in Jesus. On one hand, we can so dilute Christian faith to the point where we don't actually have it. On the other hand, we can so complicate Christian faith to the point where no one can really know if they have it. As a result, I think there's a great need to come back to Scripture in the church and ask the question, What's the kind of faith in Christ that saves? And what does it mean to follow him? I think books like the ones you mention represent various attempts to answer these all-important questions.
Is it possible to be an unconverted believer?
Certainly, in the sense that demons believe Jesus is who he said he was and did what Scripture says he did (James 2:19). Though such belief doesn't save, it's common across the world today. Just about every intoxicated person I meet on the street says he believes in Jesus. Scores of people I meet around the world—including some Hindus, animists, and Muslims—profess some level of faith in Christ. All kinds of halfhearted, world-loving church attenders confess belief in Jesus. Further, Jesus seems to make clear we can all profess publicly a faith we don't possess personally (e.g., hear the cry of the damned in Matt. 7:21-23). So biblically and practically, it's very possible for one to assent to certain intellectual truths about Jesus and even participate in various church practices—completely apart from supernatural regeneration of the heart.
Many believers, you observe, have "replaced challenging words from Christ with trite phrases in the church. We've practically taken the lifeblood out of Christianity and put Kool-Aid in its place so that it tastes better to the crowds." How do you see this temptation particularly evident in "young, restless, and Reformed" circles today?
Instead of thinking about the YRR in general, I think it's helpful for each of us to individually examine the subtle tendency and temptation we face to (almost unknowingly) redefine Christianity according to our own tastes, preferences, church traditions, and cultural norms. We can so easily begin picking and choosing what we particularly like (or don't like) from Jesus' teachings, emphasizing the truths in his Word that most square with our lives and ministries while minimizing those that most challenge us. In the process, we all (including myself) begin diluting what he says about the cost of following him.
Particularly in our culture, for example, we're prone to practically ignore what he says about materialism or to functionally miss what he says about mission. In the process, we transform Jesus into our image (whether that's a "YRR" Jesus, a "nice, non-offensive, politically correct, middle-class American" Jesus, or any other version) instead of trusting him to transform us into his. So we all need to guard against the temptation to customize Jesus—especially when what he says confronts (and often contradicts) the assumptions, beliefs, and convictions that we hold dear in our lives, our churches, and our culture.
You contend, "The Christian life does not ultimately begin with inviting Jesus to come into your heart. That invitation comes from him." What happens when we get this distinction wrong?
The importance of this distinction lies in realizing God's grace is the foundation of everything we understand about the Christian life—from start to finish. If the invitation to become a Christian ultimately depends on us as sinful men and women, we will never choose him. Yet because of his grace, God takes the initiative to call—and enable—us to follow Jesus, which then transforms everything about how we understand the Christian life.
We now realize that to be a Christian is to be loved, pursued, and found by God. We realize that in our sin we were separated from his presence, deserving nothing but his wrath. Yet despite our darkness and deadness, his light shone on us and his voice spoke to us, summoning us to follow him. His majesty captivated our soul and his mercy covered our sin, and by his death he brought us to life. We ultimately became his children not because of any good we did—any prayers we prayed, steps we took, or boxes we checked—but solely because of his lavish grace. We realize every single moment of the Christian life—from normal spiritual discipline to radical biblical devotion—is fueled by the God who not only pursued us by grace in the past but also empowers us by grace in the present and emboldens us with an unshakeable guarantee of grace in the future.
You write, "In the gospel, God is calling [you] to die." We're used to thinking of the gospel as a call to life, but in what sense is it also—even first—a call to death?
The initial call to Christ is an inevitable call to die, and it's been so since the beginning. Jesus came into a world where everything revolves around self—protect yourself, promote yourself, preserve yourself, entertain yourself, comfort yourself, take care of yourself—and his message was clear: "Slay yourself." The moment of salvation involves not only confession of sin but death to self—death to our every self-indulgent attempt to find life apart from God and every self-righteous attempt to find life by earning his favor. We die to ourselves and trust in Christ, identifying with the One who lived the life we couldn't live, died the death we deserve to die, and conquered the enemy (death itself) we couldn't conquer. When this happens, we identify with Paul: "I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live" (Gal. 2:20). In other words, "I've died."
Of course, the beauty comes in what the apostle says next: "Christ now lives in me, and the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." Just as Jesus promised, in losing our lives we gain them. This is the beauty of what we see in the first disciples in the first century, and it's my desire for every disciple in the church today: that we'd all, in greater and deeper ways, realize that following Christ costs us everything we have (a daily death to self), but that he's worth it. For in him, there is satisfaction that supersedes circumstance, love that surpasses comprehension, and an overarching purpose for living that transcends every other pursuit in this world. If we don't emphasize the weight of this call to death in the gospel, we'll never realize the wonder of the call to life in the gospel.
You observe, "Masses of men, women, and children around the world are sitting comfortably under the banner of Christianity but have never counted the cost of following Christ." Besides robust expository preaching, how can a local church create a culture in which discipleship is perceived and practiced properly?
I certainly want to accent "robust expository preaching" because it's truly the week-by-week teaching of every part of Scripture for what it says (not what we wish it did) that keeps us from the dangers of cultural, casual, customizable Christianity.
Beyond this, I can think of several other practical ways to create a culture of Christ-exalting, risk-taking discipleship in the church. Here are just three:
(1) Prayerful dependence on and desperation for God's Spirit in the church. We'll never grow as disciples or give our lives to making disciples so long as we're doing so in our own power, ingenuity, innovation, and wisdom.
(2) Healthy biblical community involving grace-driven, gospel-saturated accountability for growing as disciples and giving ourselves to making them. I'm zealous to war against the spectator mentality that sees the Great Commission as a cozy call to come, get baptized, and sit in one location instead of going, baptizing, and teaching in all nations. I'm convinced biblical disciple-making demands the intersection of biblical community and biblical mission. Our churches, then, must have an outlet for such disciple-making in a way that both nurtures community and promotes mission.
(3) Healthy understanding of both local and global disciple-making. Since wherever we live is the chief place we're going to make disciples, we must encourage one another to lead others to follow Christ in our homes, neighborhoods, communities, and cities. At the same time, we must understand there are homes, neighborhoods, communities, and cities around the globe with little to no gospel access. Not only haven't they heard, the chances of them ever hearing are slim unless something changes. And something has to change!
We must change the ways we're praying, giving, and going so that all the peoples of the world might hear Christ's gospel and exalt Christ's glory. This won't happen by simply creating a missions committee, taking a missions offering, or tacking a "missions week" onto our annual church calendar. This will happen when we infuse God's zeal for his global glory—both in our neighborhoods and among all nations—into the very fabric of our churches on a weekly basis, calling persons to pray, give, and go with a special view to those who've never heard. Local ministry is totally necessary, no question. But global missions is tragically neglected. So we must give ourselves to both—and call all followers of Christ to give themselves to both. This is the only obedient response to a King who's commanded us to make disciples of all nations.