The Discipleship Conjecture


If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine – Jesus

I am reading and blogging through Grace, Salvation & Discipleship by Charles C. Bing, a book given to me by a friend who was eager to hear what I thought about it. In the first post we looked at how the book framed the idea of faith within the Free Grace movement (link).

Bing

In this post we will examine Bing’s presentation of discipleship. The purpose of the book and the Free Grace movement is to defend the idea that the term disciple is not a synonym for a Christian (aka believer).

Salvation is not Discipleship. This distinction is the basis of this book.

In defining a disciple, Bing offers four good observations:

  • “A disciple is a learner, someone who is learning to become like his teacher”
  • “The word disciple does not automatically refer to someone who is eternally saved”
  • “the term disciples seems to to refer to Christians as a whole without distinction [in Acts]”
  • a true disciple is “a follower of Jesus Christ as Master”

He then tries to defend the distinction, that believers are not disciples, using John 8:30-31 as the primary text. [1]

This [distinction] couldn’t be clearer than in John 8:30-31 where Jesus tells those who have already believed in Him how they can become disciples …

and later:

[Those who disagree with the Free Grace thesis] claim that every Christian is a disciple and the conditions for discipleship are conditions for eternal salvation. But this can hardly be the case when we see a passage like John 8:30-31. Here Jesus addresses those who have believed in Him for eternal life (v 30) yet He gives them a condition for being a committed disciple.

The Free Grace view of John 8:31

Early in the book the author explains good principles in studying the Bible and rightly notes that we all have assumptions and presuppositions that we carry with us. These affect how we interpret various passages.

To some degree we are all skewed in our interpretations by theological presuppositions and influences.

Bing makes a series of assumptions that guide his understanding of John 8:31

  • The Jews described as believers in John 8:30-31 are genuine Christians who receive eternal life.
  • Jesus’ dialogue that follows is directed to another group of Jews in the crowd and not the same people in verses 30 and 31.
  • If persevering in the faith is a condition for receiving eternal life then salvation would be by works.
  • Christians can deny the faith (apostasy) and still be considered authentic Christians.

Given these assumptions, the passage in John 8:31, at least according to Bing, makes the distinction between the believer and disciple clear and teaches us:

These believers entered the truth of the Word when they believed in Jesus. But they must abide in it to become true disciples.

When Bing approaches the passage with these assumptions, he sees the “Jews who had believed Him” as being genuine Christians. They have already “entered the truth of the Word” and receive eternal life based on this decision. Since the people are already believers, completely secure regardless of whether they abide or not, it is clear that the term disciple is a separate idea.These believers are invited to also “abide in His Word” and thus become followers who are committed to learning from Jesus.

Could Jesus be teaching us that one must persevere in faith in order to receive eternal life in John 8:30-31?

If we accept Bing’s first assumption, seeing the believers in 8:31 as genuine Christians, does this passage clearly teach us that there is a distinction between a believer and a disciple?

No.

If one does not make the assumptions that Bing does regarding apostasy, this passage is not nearly as clear about supporting the distinction as Bing makes it out to be.

Let’s assume for a moment that one must have enduring faith (not commit apostasy) in order to be considered an authentic Christian. When Jesus tells the believers that true disciples must continue in His word (8:31), He could be teaching them (and us) that only those who persevere in their faith (abide in My word) will receive eternal life. If they do not abide then it would prove that either (1) they were not ever true disciples but only offered a false profession of faith – or – (2) they had eternal life but forfeited it when they failed to abide.

Borrowing from Bing’s wording we could then counter his interpretation of John 8:31, arguing that it teaches us:

These disciples entered the truth of the Word when they believed in Jesus. But they must abide in it to prove they are true disciples.

Bing would reject this view, asserting that we are teaching a salvation by works.

If Jesus’ statement here is a condition for salvation, consider the consequences: Salvation is by works because the word “abide” meas to adhere to, continue in, remain in, implying obedience.

Abide (as noted above) means that you are being asked to continue what you started. Most agree that “entering into the Word” or starting to believe is not a work.So then why is “abiding in the Word” or continuing to believe then considered a work? The idea that perseverance in the faith is a work, but initially believing is not, is an assumption. It could be argued that continuing to follow Jesus is no more a work then the initial decision to trust Jesus.

What does Scripture say about entering and abiding in Jesus’ Word?

In reading John 8:31 we have the following premise:

  • True disciples enter into and remain in Jesus’ word

It can be assumed that this statement would be agreeable to those in and outside of the Free Grace movement when allowing for the different understandings of the term disciple. The logical implication is that if someone does not continue in Jesus’ Word, but ceases doing what they started, they are no longer in the Word and are not a true disciple.

That would give us the following:

  • False disciples enter into but do not remain in My word

Again, it can be assumed that this statement would be agreeable to those in and outside of the Free Grace movement, for the same reasons as noted above.

What does Scripture say about one who does not have Jesus’ word?

Here is what John 5:38 says:

You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent.

Nonbelievers do not have the word remaining in them. Based on this it could be argued that this verse also teaches that when someone believes in Jesus, His Word will be in them and continue to remain in them. It should be noted that the verb “have” is present, active, indicative which indicates a progressive or continuous action.

This is bolstered when we look to John’s epistle (1 John 2:3-6).

whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.

Those who are saved are placed into the Son (Eph 1:4,7; 2:6; Gal 3:26; Rom 8:1). We can know that we are in Christ when we keep His word (evidenced by our walk and love for others). If we fail to keep (abide) the word then we cannot know (with full assurance) that we are in Him.

We could also look at what Jesus says in John 8:51, where He emphasizes that anyone who keeps His Word will never see death.

Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death

We can infer that those who do not keep His word will see death as Jesus also says that these people do not believe Him (8:45).

This allows us to assert:

  • True believers (those in Christ & never see death) enter into and remain in Jesus’ word

This gives us two premises:

  • True disciples enter into and remain in Jesus’ word
  • True believers enter into and remain in Jesus’ word

It would seem that when we look at John 5:38; 1 John 2:3-6; and John 8:31, 51 we find that Christians and disciples are indeed synonymous.

Does understanding the terms disciple and believer as synonymous add conditions to receive salvation?

[Those who disagree with the Free Grace thesis] claim that every Christian is a disciple and the conditions for discipleship are conditions for eternal salvation.

In describing the view of those that do not see believer and disciple as distinct, Bing argues that they are adding conditions for obtaining eternal salvation. This claim is misleading. Few would argue that the words used to describe disciples are conditions for salvation. The words used to describe disciples would, more accurately, be seen as characteristics that are exhibited by someone who is truly saved. Bing captures the opposing view more fairly when he writes that they hold that “those who profess to believe must actually obey God’s Word in order to prove they are genuinely saved”. This concept is reflected prominently in the teachings of Scripture.

When Jesus said that His disciples would be known because of the love they have for one another (John 13:35), He was teaching us that love would be a defining characteristic that would prove who are His true disciples and followers (ie believers). Paul goes so far as to say that love is greater than faith and even a faith that can move mountains is nothing if it does not have love accompanying it (1 Cor 13:1-13). James will argue that faith without works (evidences) is useless and dead (James 2:14-26). John would write, in his epistle (1 John 3:14), that our love for others is how we can know we have eternal life.

We know that we have passed out of death into life,because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.

Conclusion

In Grace, Salvation & Discipleship, many of the interpretations of the passages used here would be contested. Some of these could be explored in later posts. Furthermore, the Free Grace movement could advance other passages, besides John 8:31, to argue for the distinction between a believer and a disciple, so the study on this topic is far from over. However, John 8:30-31 is not clearly teaching us that a believer and a disciple are distinct terms as claimed in the book.


[1] This thesis regarding discipleship and John 8:30-31 are explored on pages 18, 52, and 124-126.

3 thoughts on “The Discipleship Conjecture

  1. Let me know what your friend thinks of these blog posts.

    An additional comment would be that Bing (and much of Evangelicalism) seems to conflate the concepts of conversion and salvation, where the latter is identified almost exclusively with the former. This confusion leads to excluding bearing fruit from salvation, since it is seen solely in terms of a past event.

    This book sample (http://goo.gl/3qcK2Z) identifies some of those issues, though I have not yet read the book.

    Good thoughts.

    • I agree that conversion and salvation are often conflated, with an emphasis on a past decision rather than a gut check of what do I believe right now and am I living that out.

      Just read through about 1/2 of the sample you attached. Looks like it will be an interesting look at this.

      Here is what John Wesley, agreeing with us, wrote on this:

      My comfort stands not on any opinion, either that a believer can or cannot fall away, not on the remembrance of anything wrought in me yesterday; but on what is today; on my present knowledge of God in Christ, reconciling me to himself; on my now beholding the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; walking in the light as he is in the light, and having fellowship with the Father and with the Son. My comfort is, that through grace I now believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that his Spirit doth bear witness with my spirit that I am a child of God.

  2. Pingback: The Discipleship Observation | Dead Heroes Don't Save

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