Discipled by the Spirit

The church I serve has the purpose statement “To Make and Grow Disciples.” We leaders work hard at bringing about that result. We all agree we have a long way to go.

When that statement was finalized, I quibbled with the wording. Making and growing disciples is the work of the Holy Spirit, who calls, enlightens, sanctifies and gathers all believers together in the Christian church. There is no disagreement with this classical statement of the role of the Third Person of the Trinity. But organizational purpose statements are supposed to be pithy and short. Do we really have to add the complication of the Spirit’s role in discipleship and church life? Yes, I think, for several reasons.

In the churches I know “discipleship” is one of those religious words everybody is for, but in practice, it does not motivate much new behavior. It is guilt-inducing. Who can be against better discipleship? But in churches that emphasize God’s grace through redemption in Christ, where is the personal benefit from being a better disciple and why be interested?

Contrast that approach with offering opportunities to grow in personal love, joy, peace, patience and the other products or fruit of the Spirit’s work. Such experiences were basic to the Apostle Paul’s appeals to followers of Christ in his churches. When he talked about their growth, he highlighted increases in love, joy or trust that were evident. Who would not want to be taught how to receive more of such fruit from their discipleship?

Why is it we almost always hear about only one commission given to Christ’s followers—the familiar charge in Matthew 28 to go, make disciples, baptize and teach. Those are doable acts. But in my experience appeals to the Great Commission seldom motivate fresh action.

Why don’t we pay much attention to Luke’s version in the Book of Acts of what Jesus said at his ascension: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes to you, and you will be my witnesses” here and abroad. Luke was discipled by Paul. Paul learned to recognize the Spirit as God’s presence energizing his followers.

In his Gospel Luke records Jesus telling his disciples, “I  am  going to send you what my Father has promised; wait in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Finished with their discipleship training, they went on to disciple others, who grew in the fruit of the Spirit personally. That chain of God’s empowering presence went on for two millennia of generations. When it was broken by unfaithful leaders, God’s Spirit raised up new ones who met God in his Word and grew in the Spirit.

Waiting on the Spirit can start with recognizing the power of the Spirit when he is at work. Look for hearts that are changing in the context of Father’s love and the grace of his Son’s redemptive work. The Spirit’s specialty is working on the inner being, the spirit, the heart of those encountering God’s truth.

I once preached at one of the rare congregations that in recent years built a new sanctuary. Their church leaders had never made the association between the generous offerings in their capital campaign and the Spirit at work motivating such generosity. Recognizing the Spirit in their midst, that congregation continues to be a bright spot in the dreary decline of our church body.

Jesus promised that the Father will send his Holy Spirit to all those who ask him (Luke 11: 13). That promise is not for whatever you have in mind according to your natural motivations, although the Spirit can start there. That promise covers new motivations focused on love, joy, trust and the other feeling-related products of the Spirit’s work in the hearts of Christ followers.

I have yet to meet someone who does not want more of the fruit of the Spirit’s work. Getting there is a good reason to take discipleship seriously.

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