Article 2020-08 Converts or Disciples?
Sects with anti-Christian teaching seek to creep into the church, but members must know that whoever continues to sin knowingly and willfully may lose his salvation. Therefore, Jesus never told us to make converts, but disciples of all nations. Some mission fields show that un-discipled converts may resist Christian living more than pagans do. Finally, Paul says that there are no ‘elite Christians’: all are made perfect in Christ.
We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ … My purpose is … that they may have the full riches of complete understanding … in order that they may know … Christ in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 1:28; 2:2,3)
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul combats the teaching of ‘gnosticism’: a mixture of old paganism and Jewish sectarism with a Christian veneer. It taught that knowledge, superior to that of other believers, could be received through revelation, when one lived frugally, sticking to the law and certain days of celebration. Its general thought was that evil dwelt only in the body, not in the spirit, and that the body could sin without affecting the spirit. In fact, the more one sinned, the more one experienced grace and forgiveness.
In Ephesus and Pergamum such teachers called themselves ‘Nicolaitans’. Their teaching stimulated sin and carnal behavior. They believed that they could not perish because they believed in Jesus, but their teaching and behavior was anti-Christian. Paul wanted to stop such destructive thinking from rooting in Colossae.
Such teaching flourished among people who had been converted to a certain extent, but were not properly discipled into the new life of Christ. Paul seeks to address both issues in Colossians. His teaching is of great value for today’s cultures too.
One of Paul’s concerns was what happens to people once they indicated their desire to obey Christ. Often it is the decision of the moment, when they see the light, but after that they must be made into disciples, otherwise they will never become true followers of Christ. Consistent obedience must be learned, it does not come from self. For example: when a child is born, it needs to be fed, bathed, dressed, taught to speak, to behave and later go to school. That is a process of years. It is not different with new converts. You cannot leave them to their own devices after repentance. Paul saw how people, so to speak ‘hire’ Jesus as Savior, but never make Him the Lord, Who truly rules their lives.
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace (Hebr. 6:4-6)
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People must be taught Christian behavior and Paul’s letters are meant to be used to that end. Half-hearted believers think that, after coming to Christ, it doesn’t matter anymore how they live and behave. They claim that, once they believe, they can no longer fall away. But it is more important how one ends his Christian walk, than how one begins it.
This problem was not new. When the Israelites came out of Egypt they were all saved from that slavery and its evil ruler. Yet almost none of them made it to the Promised Land; most fell in the wilderness because of their unbelief and sin.
Paul wanted to correct gnostic thinking in his letter to the Colossians and show them what correct Christian doctrine and behavior is like. If thoroughly scriptural Christianity cannot be taught because there are no people to disciple new Christians, evangelism can be counter-productive. What happens then?
Some people tell the gospel message, but do not make sure that new believers are taught about Christ’s Lordship in everything. After a while, those new believers fall back into their worldly, sinful habits. After that happens, such people still call themselves Christians, but do not at all behave like Christians should. When they are taught what true Christian lifestyle is all about, they resist it more fervently than unbelievers do.
It is almost as if receiving a little of the gospel instead of a proper discipleship training immunizes people against it. Jesus said “Make disciples of all the nations, baptize them, teach them all I commanded you”. He never said ‘make converts in all nations’. Being a convert is not enough. Converts do no lay down their lives as disciples are taught to do. They don’t deny themselves. They don’t want to hear of taking up one’s cross. Converts will never change the world. Disciples do.
Once you were alienated from God … because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation – if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel (Col. 1:21-23)
Paul’s words ‘if [you are] … not moved’ indicate that the gospel is not a cheap message that, once accepted, will guarantee eternal benefits even if neglected. It can be lost. He explains this also in his exhortation to ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’, as he wrote to the Philippians. We see the same thought in Ezekiel and in the letter to the Hebrews. Paul was as much concerned about discipling his converts as about making them; he didn’t want to run his race in vain, as he told the Corinthians and the Galatians.
He regarded the discipling of converts as part of his missionary program. His discipleship-program contained elements, such as encouragement of heart; unification in love; a complete understanding of Christ, in Whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; living in Christ; being rooted and built up in Him; strengthened in the faith and overflowing with thankfulness. People who have been taught well in these areas will not easily be deceived.
Two other letters, directed against the doctrines of ‘false teachers’, are Peter’s second letter, and the letter of Jude. Both picture the teaching of the Nicolaitans – although that name is not mentioned by either of them – by the way in which they combat it.
Discussion & dialogue
- Discuss your views on the ‘once-saved-always-saved’ theory, making use of the Bible verses, provided in the Teacher’s Guide
- Discuss what the contents of a discipleship program should be: how can it be biblical, not colored by cultural preferences, and not legalistic?
- Explain how themes 2, 5 and 7 feature in this chapter