taking the words of Jesus seriously

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 the way 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 toward the goal of “getting people saved.” Once they were “saved,” we could make suggestions regarding next steps. With a fistful of yellow “Four Spiritual Laws” booklets, my goal was to plunder hell and populate heaven. But in my experience these varied forms of follow-up normally did not produce healthy flourishing disciples. Years later I would come to realize this method 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.” He didn’t say, “Go make good citizens of the empire.” Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). His words conveyed a clear command: Go into every person’s world and invite people to become followers of Jesus. We are not called to manipulate people into making a decision. The way of Jesus is the way of invitation, not the way of manipulation. The constant call of Jesus wasn’t “ask me into your heart,” but “come follow me.” The question we ask is not when did we “get saved,” but when did we start participating in the life of salvation? Faithful followers of Jesus will make good citizens because Jesus teaches us to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). However, making good citizens isn’t the primary task of the church.

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 disciples, we find ourselves immersed in God’s rescue plan. Much of the language in the New Testament is about our experience “in Christ.” We enter into the life of Jesus more than Jesus enters 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 of talking about salvation is to talk about coming to Jesus and following him in order to walk in his ways by entering into his life. In this way, salvation and discipleship are much more intertwined.

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 the living water and the 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’s it. Do these things and you will experience eternal life.” The problem is that people confess the Jesus truth and when they 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 truth about Jesus includes a kind of allegiance to Jesus. When we confess that we believe Jesus is Lord and Savior, we are trusting Jesus alone to lead us and to save us.  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, “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 truth about Jesus while avoiding the way of Jesus. The Jesus truth plus the Jesus way equals the Jesus life.

The Jesus truth is that he is God’s Son and our Lord. Jesus is very God of very God, showing us what God is like. Jesus is equally our Lord, a rather archaic way of speaking of a person with authority. Our British neighbors across the Atlantic have a House of Lords and so perhaps the title “Lord” still carries meaning for them. For Americans the only time we use the world lord is when we are talking about a landlord. Those of us who have rented a house or apartment understand what a landlord is. My wife and I rented for the first five years we were married, two houses and one apartment. When we were in the last house we rented, Jenni wanted to hang a wallpaper border in the kitchen. As much as we wanted to add some color in the kitchen, we couldn’t without the permission of the landlord. If we wanted to paint the walls, we couldn’t apply one drop of paint without permission because the walls of that house did not belong to us. They belonged to the landlord. When we confess the truth that Jesus is Lord, we are confessing that our lives no longer belong to us. They belong to Jesus. We just live here. Jesus now owns the right to our lives.

Confessing the Jesus truth is not enough to experience the Jesus life. We must also walk in the Jesus way. Paul’s words are clear: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith” (Colossians 2:6-7). Jesus is the way to be truly and fully human, because Jesus is fully human. We were created by God as human beings to bear God’s image, to reflect God’s image into creation, and to reflect creation’s praise back to God. Sin twists us out of shape, so that we reflect a broken image. The way of Jesus is the way to be fully alive and thus fully human. The way of Jesus has been laid out for us in the Sermon on the Mount. It is the way of forgiveness, peace, and reconciling love. It is the radical way of truth, faithfulness, and enemy-love; the way of prayer, faith, and self-giving love. Not only do we experience the Jesus life when we walk in the Jesus way; we also become the means by which God is rescuing the world.

If we are going to make disciples, then we must start by becoming disciples ourselves. So ask yourself, “Do I want to follow Jesus?” In the end we all do what we want to do. So do you want to follow Jesus? Maybe you are struggling with that desire. Maybe you know intellectually that you ought to follow Jesus, but your desires are headed in a different direction. That’s okay. You can ask for God the Holy Spirit to change your desires, so that your ought to becomes your want to. So what do you want to do? When blind Bartimaeus stood before Jesus his need was clear, but Jesus still asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” In this moment, Jesus is asking you, “What do you want? Do you want to follow me, confessing my truth, walking in my ways, and experiencing my life?” If your answer is yes, then join us in this adventure of becoming a disciple of Jesus.

Excerpted from By the Way: Getting Serious about Following Jesus by Derek Vreeland (Herald Press, 2019). All rights reserved. Used with permission. HeraldPress.com

About The Author


Derek Vreeland is the discipleship pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he leads small groups and discipleship ministries and serves on the pastoral leadership team along with Brian and Peri Zahnd. Vreeland is a regular contributor at Missio Alliance, and his work has been published by Outreach. The author of several books, Vreeland has degrees from Missouri Western State University, Oral Roberts University, and Asbury Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Jenni, have three sons.

Related Posts

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.


Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
    Check which Newsletter(s) you'd like to receive:    

You have Successfully Subscribed!