Christian Discipleship: Asking the Hard Questions

Followers of Jesus are meant to be asking hard questions. Now I don’t mean we should be asking a middle-aged woman her age. Nor do I mean asking why a guy would want to barrack for the Collingwood footy club. Some of these questions are simply unanswerable!

No, the questions I have in mind are of a different order – and they are answerable. And these should be mainly asked of ourselves. That is, we need to be regularly inquiring about our own spiritual health. What condition are we in? Are we where God wants us to be in terms of our spiritual development?

Paul certainly saw the importance of such spiritual check-ups. In 2 Corinthians 13:5 for example he said this: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” Such examination and testing obviously includes asking some hard questions about our relationship with God, our spiritual state, and our commitment to Christ and others.

Of real interest is the fact that Paul actually says we should check to see whether we are in the faith. Now what is Paul on about here? After all, Paul was a Calvinist, wasn’t he? What about eternal security? What about ‘once saved, always saved’?

I don’t want to enter into that particular theological debate here, as important as it is. But let me just say that we need to take the warnings of Scripture seriously. Passages such as Heb 6:1-9 need to be considered very carefully. We cannot presume upon the grace of God.

While I do think we can have assurance of our salvation, it is always important to keep close tabs with God, and not be presumptuous about this very special relationship we have with God through Christ. We should be thinking in these terms as we look at Scripture, including its strong words and its warnings.

For example, we need to carefully ponder a serious warning such as found in Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

The interesting thing about this passage is what it immediately follows: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matt. 7:15-20)

There is an interesting connection here. Jesus is making the point that a real disciple is one whose life is showing some fruit. A life without fruit is a life in danger. If there is no fruit, then we need to be asking some hard questions. That in fact is how we are to examine ourselves, to test ourselves, as Paul exhorted us to do.

Jesus spells out his test in John 15:1-8: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

So what’s all this about? Fruit inspection. Remember those interstate vacations you took with your family? Remember coming up to a state border and finding one of those big signs warning of not taking fruit over the border? Well, we tended to respond to these warnings in one of three ways. If you’re like me, you grab the fruit, give everybody four bananas, and say ‘Quick, eat!’

Another response is to have a temporary bout of amnesia, forget you are a Christian for a few minutes, and ignore the instructions and drive on. Or, you do the right thing and dump the fruit in the bin.

That is what Jesus is saying here – we must inspect our fruit. Is it good fruit? Bad fruit? Is there any fruit there at all? And remember, nature acts in a uniform manner: Only apple trees will produce apples. Only banana trees will produce bananas. Only spiritual trees will produce spiritual fruit.

Are you producing fruit? Am I? That is a major test Jesus gave us concerning genuine Christian discipleship. It is not about works, signs, wonders, converts, ministries – but fruit. Jesus made this point in Luke 10: “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.’ ‘However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’.” It was not just the whiz-bang miraculous that seemed to be a sure sign of Christian discipleship and the main thing to be concerned about.

We need to remember that man’s capacity for self-deception knows no bounds. And that is true of believers as well. We still can deceive ourselves. We all have blind spots. We can easily become self-righteous, etc. Thus we are told in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

We can easily deceive ourselves. We have plenty of examples of high-flying Christian leaders who fell from grace. It may look like they have it all together but they can still lose out on the most vital thing: a dynamic and living relationship with God.

Consider just one example: Jimmy Baker and his PTL (Praise the Lord) ministry. In his moving 1996 book, I Was Wrong, he tells the story of how he had it all: a ministry, a mate, a mansion, a mission, and millions – but he lost it all because he forgot about the most important thing. This is what he says:

“I always felt that Heritage USA was merely the box in which we packaged the gospel, a big box, a beautiful box, but just a box, nonetheless. Unfortunately, the box began to get more attention than the gift inside. Eventually, we spent so much time, energy, and money trying to build a bigger, better box, we neglected the priceless gift of Jesus Christ.”

He continues, “We had so much going for us”. He recalls the conversions, healings and changed lives. “We had so great an opportunity . . . and we lost it, because we got our eyes on the box rather than keeping our attention on Jesus.”

Keeping an eye on our fruit

The book of Galatians talks about the fruit of the spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (5:22-23). Note that it is fruit, not works, which Paul appeals to here. As already mentioned, Jesus had said the same thing: we are to judge a person by their fruit, not by their works (Mat 7:16 ).

Having the fruit of the Spirit is of course a byproduct of abiding in the Spirit. Jesus made this clear in John 15:4-5, as we already saw. The word for fruit here is singular – we should see it all manifest in our lives. Romans 8:4 speaks about how the “righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit”.

Also, bear in mind that the fruit of the Spirit is not the same as the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12, eg.). Paul says the fruit of the Spirit should be seen in all of us, while the various gifts of the Spirit are not equally shared by all, but are distributed to us by the Spirit as He wills.

Moreover, this fruit should be seen in Christian relationships. As Galatians 5:25-26 says, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” Like Eph. 5:15-21, this passage teaches that the main sign of being filled with the Spirit is demonstrated in our relationships with one another. That is the real test of the Spirit-filled life. It is how we treat one another that we get an indication of the Spirit’s dwelling in us.

And as Gal. 6:6 reminds us, this includes very practical things, like the use of money: “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.” Being in loving and committed interpersonal relationships is the main test of being filled with the Spirit. Speaking in tongues isn’t even mentioned in these two passages (as important as that may be). Character and relationships are what counts.

We all know of individuals who seem to have great ministries but their personal life isn’t too hot – or their home life is a lot less than desired. But Jesus warns that on the last day it is not how many converts we have made that count, not how many demons we have cast out, or how much we have spoken in tongues. Character is the test.

Thus we must continue to remind each other: are we examining ourselves? Are we asking hard questions of ourselves? It is absolutely vital that we all ask these hard questions. For this is part of what Christian discipleship is all about.

[1756 words]

16 Replies to “Christian Discipleship: Asking the Hard Questions”

  1. Yes, great article again Bill
    We should not compare ourselves against each other as scripture warns but line ourselves up against the measure of Christ’s example in the way He lived, so that when we finish our course in life, Christ can say instead of depart from me I never knew you, but “well done good and faithful (evidence of fruit of the Spirit confirmed by Christ Himself) servant” (as Christ says in the Bible Matthew 25:21).
    True success is based on following Christ faithfully and becoming like Christ, not how good our stats are (though stats like people coming to Christ is important ). Our life needs to be connected and stay connected to Christ otherwise we ourselves can be a disqualify ourselves as a disciple of Christ even though we appear a successful Christian in ministry.

    As Christians we must regularly ask ourselves why are we doing what we doing – is it because we are motivated and compelled by the love of God (his fruit)? True disciples are known by their love for one another.
    Stephen Lewin

  2. Not sure how I should take the third sentence – we are the most loyal bunch of supporters!
    Stephen White

  3. No offence – but thanks for the encouragement on the real-world issues.
    Stephen White

  4. Bill,

    There is historical evidence that the Galatians were the Celts before they migrated through Eastern Europe and then down the Rhine through Western Europe and then onto the British Isles and finally to Ireland. Of course the Irish then in turn settled Scotland and Wales.

    John FG McMahon, Kolonga, Qld

  5. Bill there is nothing wrong with Collingwood (except having Eddie mcGuire). However I agree with you that we need to examine ourselves and our Christian faith and practice. I am always conscious that I will have to give an accounting One Day before the Judge of the whole earth.
    Wayne Pelling

  6. I’ve heard it argued that Jesus would have followed Collingwood because He was always black and white. I worked through this in college and I’m convinced it is an inherited disease that I have now passed on to my kids.

    An excellent article Bill. It is so easy to be busy working for God, and clocking up points, and feeling that you are doing well, and people telling you you are doing well. But its the fruit that counts, not the works or gifts. I am 42 and still struggling with these things. It is relationships and how we treat others that matters. You have put it all so well, thanks very much for the reminder.

    Ryan Foley, Melbourne.

  7. Nearly fifty years ago I was given a book by Henrietta C.Mears called “What THE BIBLE is all about.” When she talks about 1st Epistle of John, she says that its aim is to give us assurance of what we believe. The word KNOW is used over thirty times, e.g., “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may KNOW that you have eternal life.“ 1 John 5:13

    But how do we know? Henrietta says that John gives us seven tests of whether we KNOW we are children of God, each of which is introduced by the word IF:

    IF we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. 1 John1:6
    IF we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 1 John 2:8
    IF we obey his commands. (We KNOW that we have come to KNOW him) The man who says, “I KNOW him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 1 John 2:4
    IF anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we KNOW we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did. 1 John 2:6
    (IF) Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother ( he) is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. 1 John 2:10
    IF anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 1 John 2:15
    IF you KNOW that he is righteous, you KNOW that everyone who does what is right has been born of him. 1 John 2:29

    Dr. Williams. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a consistent thinker. Since his enthronement he has not deviated from the intellectual and theological principles that have guided his academic writings. Paramount among these is the belief that truth is unknowable. Certainty lies only with those who lack critical self-awareness: “For the fundamentalist, the will of God is clearly ascertainable for all situations, either through the plain words of scripture (as received in a particular but unacknowledged convention of reading) or with the aid of supernatural direct prompting: Christian revelation is there to offer clear and important information – how to be right,” he asserted in his 1994 book Open to Judgment (OTJ, p. 221).

    When God does illumine us, “when God’s light breaks on my darkness,” he stated, “the first thing I know is that I don’t know – and never did” (OTJ, p. 120). This denial of certainty is what the reign of Christ over us means: “Christ’s is the kingship of a riddler, the one who makes us strangers to what we think we know” (OTJ, p.131). For Dr. Williams, theology does not reveal God; it reveals that there is no revelation, no single knowable truth and that he who claims possession of the truth, and uses it to exclude others from the fellowship of the church, shows by his very actions that the truth is not in him.

    In practical terms, this means the church should not be quick to draw lines. “Heresy is possible,” Dr. Williams concedes, “but before we throw the word around, we need to remember that orthodoxy is common life before it’s common doctrine” (OTJ, p. 264). Hence the mission of the church is to stay together, united by this common life while it seeks the (centuries) long pursuit of common doctrine.”

    Rowan Williams also says that IF we are “ imaging in (our) personal and sexual life the love and justice of Christ” (1997 ‘Knowing Myself in Christ’) then that is just fine. It does not matter whether the relationship is heterosexual or homosexual (or for that matter adulterous, incestuous, polygamous or paedophile); the most important thing is that the partners are IMAGING the love and justice of Christ.

    David Skinner, UK

  8. David,

    From what you have reported, I can only respond, “Poor Dr Williams seems to have been deluded for a long time, then.”

    John Angelico

  9. John, not just deluded but decieved, distracted and double-minded.

    David Skinner, UK

  10. First of all Collingwood barracking in my family had ended with me – my kids support Tigers and the Dons.
    Secondly, what an excellent analysis of Rowan Williams’s theological position. He did write an excellent book about the Arian heresy, however like his accent, I still cannot understand his theology, but David has gone a long way to interpreting it – the theology – for me.
    Wayne Pelling

  11. Bill, thank you for your timely comments. Some thirty years ago God gave me insight into THE fruit. I had heard people say that they had A fruit of the spirit, quoting joy or peace, etc. It is, as you say, a whole fruit, containing all the listed attributes. We have all picked up a luscious looking fruit, only to discover that it contained a grub, or was sour, or dry.
    Tom Wise

  12. HI Bill,

    Great article. This is the first time in a while that I have read one of your articles (sorry about that) and I must say that God definitely led me to this one. It is something I really needed to hear. I call myself a Christian, a Christ follower but I KNOW that I have very little fruit at the moment. I spend my days putting other things ahead of my personal relationship with Jesus thus making me very spiritually poor. I want to change and sometimes it is hard. Thank you for reminding me what is most important in life.

    Grace Soroka

  13. Thanks Grace

    Hey, I will make a deal with you: if you pray for me, I will pray for you. I too would like to see more fruit in my life. Many blessings,

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. Thanks Bill,

    Okay its a deal. I will pray for you to see more fruit in your life.

    Grace Soroka

  15. Knowing who we are is of prime importance, knowing what we believe is very close behind. We cannot fully know ourselves unless we first have a full understanding of what we believe and why we believe it…what we must understand is the fact that we own nothing.

    The Bible says that God has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing, even the faith we have is a gift from God.

    It is the Spirit of God abiding in us who is producing this fruit in our lives, we must make ourselves available to what God is wanting to do in, and through us. We cannot produce spiritual fruit through the works of the flesh.

    Are we making ourselves availabe to the leading of Holy Spirit? Are we asking ourselves the hard questions? Are we examining our lives in the light of God’s Word?

    Eddie Mercy

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