Faith in Christ – “Decision” or Discipleship?
“Whoever serves me must follow me” John 12:26
Among the JEWS in Jesus’ time on earth, Jesus singled out John the Baptist for the greatest praise. “Truly I tell you,” he declares in Matthew 11:11 “among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist;” Praise indeed!
But among the GENTILES it is the man we’re going to consider today who receives the special admiration of the Saviour. So let’s look together at Luke 7:1–10
“When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well. “
In a nutshell, my plan today is to isolate the reason WHY this Centurion, this soldier from the invading army of Rome, received such high praise from Jesus so that we can take his secret to heart and apply it to our own lives.
But before we return to see what we can learn from this remarkable Roman soldier, I want first to diagnose a fundamental problem with our modern Christianity that I believe needs our attention.
Throughout my now long Christian life, the typical call from gospel preachers is for hearers to make “a decision for Christ”. One of the large evangelistic organisations that I have supported now over many years often demonstrates the effectiveness of its outreaches by the number of “decision-cards” completed. And, of course, the salvation offer does require us to make a decision. But a “decision” is actually not a very good descriptor of the wholesale “commitment” that Jesus seemed to urge on those he challenged when he was here on earth. He challenged them to “Come, FOLLOW me,” as it says, in Matthew 4:19 and the response from those that heard him, was either to offer an excuse and slink away, or to share the testimony of Peter recorded in Matthew 19:27 “ when he said . . . We have left everything to FOLLOW you!”.
The gospel, where it is preached today, and sadly this seems to be increasingly rare, tends to be framed in terms of the provision and reception of SALVATION only.
Through Christ’s perfect sacrifice on the cross, the price for ALL sin, for ALL time, has been paid, “once for all” as Paul tells us in Romans 6:10; and we, if we accept by faith that Christ’s sacrificial death was for us too, are born again to become what 2 Corinthians 5:17 describes as “new creatures in Christ”. Now, this, of course, is amazing. It is the work of God’s overwhelming and totally and completely undeserved GRACE towards us who otherwise are actually and always indefensible sinners.
But is that the full picture? Is the gospel ONLY (!!!) that God has made a way for us to escape his absolutely just, but totally terrifying, eternal judgement on our sinfulness – as amazing and as wonderful as that is? Does putting our hands up and making a “decision” on the basis of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, mean that we have received the message of the gospel?
Well, in one sense it does. As Ephesians 2:8–9 tells us: 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9 not by works, so that no one can boast. Grace, because of the perfection of Christ’s sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection, does allow us to accept forgiveness for our sins and to be born again.
Remember the criminal crucified beside Jesus who reached out to Him, bringing nothing but his faith, and Jesus assured him with the words: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43). So, recognising and repenting of our sinfulness, and reaching out to Jesus to follow him, is all we need to discover that God’s grace IS sufficient for our salvation.
Our salvation is never received, or won, on the basis of our works or our worth. It is always and only received by grace, through faith.
But the Bible is also clear that the transaction of salvation, which is provided by grace, involves not just grace but also an act of REDEMPTION. Galatians 4:4–5 says: “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to REDEEM those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” To “redeem” is to buy back - to pay a price in order to obtain ownership. The gospel work of salvation involves not only an escape from the just judgement of a Holy God for all of us sinners; a work which is offered by God’s sublime grace and accepted and received through faith. It also involves our giving up of the ownership and control of our lives, to God. As Paul puts it in: 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 — . . . You are not your own; you were BOUGHT at a price. Now, if we buy something we take ownership of it, don’t we? It’s ours. So when we accept salvation through Jesus we become God’s property – we are no longer our own.
What we seem so often to miss these days is that salvation and redemption are actually inseparable. We need to recognise that in providing salvation, Christ has also paid the price for our redemption; for the same price that takes away the penalty for our particular sins, rather than just the price for sins in general, also simultaneously activates God’s redemption of our lives, and transfers ownership from us to God himself.
Once saved then, we have to understand that we have given up our right to self-determination and must let God rule our lives. We are to ALLOW Him to be in control and submit to his complete ownership of us. We are to move from just believing based on a decision of our minds, to being those who choose now to DO what God wants us to do. We are to become FOLLOWERS of God’s will, not our own will.
And the key here is that it is DOING what God wants, it is being OBEDIENT, which transforms our decision to BELIEVE, into a commitment to be his FOLLOWERS. It’s a commitment that demands a difficult and costly response from each of us. But it is THE response that releases the personal transformation that our new birth as Christians makes possible and that changes us from passive spectators in God’s kingdom into those who will mature to become doers of the word rather than hearers only. Jesus was quite plain, starkly plain in fact, about his gospel. As it records in Matthew 16:24–25 . . . “If anyone would come after me, he MUST deny himself and take up his cross and FOLLOW me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.
The good news of the gospel is that our sins - past, present and future, have been fully and eternally dealt with. We are saved, and as new creatures in Christ we are also redeemed and have become part of God’s family. From now on we are called to live in a love-based, restored relationship with our Father God; a relationship that was forfeited by Adam and Eve in that first cataclysmic sin of rebellion in the Garden of Eden, but is now restored through the salvation and redemption which we have activated by God-given faith in the grace of God.
We are become those who, purchased by God, through Christ’s sacrificial death and victorious resurrection, are now HIS to command. We are become those who now give up the right to control our own lives and readily let God be our Master.
The gospel then, is very much about LEADERSHIP – about submitting to God’s leadership of our lives. And it is this that I think is sometimes lost in the “decision” focussed approach of modern evangelism.
But you know there is also something rather wonderful here about our God. We, whether toddlers, children, young people, adults, or even grumpy old men like yours truly, are always capable, aren’t we, of an explosive “strop” whenever we feel that we are not getting our way? But God, our Heavenly Father, when faced with that human rebellion birthed in the Garden of Eden and sustained implacably by all of us ever since, has responded to us, not with an angry outburst, and not with entirely justified retribution, but with the most amazing self-sacrifice. He gave up his precious only Son to pay the bitter price for our sinful rebellion. A cup, that Jesus drank to its dregs on the cross for our salvation.
Like nothing else, this declares for all who’ll take notice that God is not the angry, insensitive, unfair, despotic tyrant that some claim Him to be. It shows in fact, in spectacular technicolour, that God, unlike any human ruler is indescribably compassionate and patient towards us, even when we are spitting fire in blasphemous anger against him. He in fact demonstrates something that we despair of finding here on earth; for here, at last, is actually the leader we really can and should fully and completely TRUST and FOLLOW.
Whilst WE tend to see the crucifixion just as God’s way of bringing salvation from the terrible consequences of our sinful life; GOD is actually looking for more than just the salvation of our souls. He is looking for those who will respond to Him with love and obedience. So, He has provided not just salvation but also a route back from our rebellious refusal to follow Him. In one glorious intervention in human history, Jesus reveals himself as both a matchless Saviour AND a peerless Lord.
So what should our response be to the Cross? I think the answer is clear:
• in response to the perfect sinless sacrifice of Christ we must take hold by faith of the amazing grace gift of salvation; but also,
• in response to the colossal redemptive price paid by Christ, we MUST recognise that the ownership rights of our lives have passed from us to him!
But what now about the Roman centurion we read about at the start of my message this morning? Well the first thing to say is that quite apart from the quality of his faith, he was a pretty remarkable guy. And remember that this story is not one of Jesus’ parables. This was a real man. He was an actual living, breathing person like you and I. He was an officer of the conquering army who should have been hated and despised by the Jews, but instead he had won the warmth and respect of the Jewish community and had even financed the local synagogue. He was clearly both compassionate and unselfish. Highly regarded by his Jewish neighbours, they were keen to act on his behalf to take his request to Jesus. A request too, that was not for himself, as was the case for so many others coming to Jesus, but for his servant. This wasn’t even for one of the 100 soldiers under his command as a centurion – this was for his servant. By and large, Roman soldiers were better known for being ruthless and disciplined, rather than for their compassionate concern for others, especially those as menial as a servant.
What we have in this little episode in Jesus’ ministry is Jesus finding in this man, a response that showed that here at last was someone who really understood what he is calling us all to do. Here is a man who really does understand a true relationship with his Lord.
In Matthew’s version of our story the centurion actually addresses Jesus with the words: (Matthew 8:8) . . .“Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” The word for “lord” here in the Greek is “kyrios” meaning “master”, “ruler” or “owner”. So the “great faith” Jesus commends here is not just that this man accepted that Jesus could do miracles of healing; and not just that Jesus could do these healings by a word from his mouth rather than through his physical presence with the one to be healed; but that this Gentile, this conquering Roman invader of God’s people, understood that the God-man Jesus Christ, has AUTHORITY that is to be OBEYED. This is the revelation that this centurion had that turned the self-centred “desire“ or “wish” that so many of us substitute for “faith”, into a response that Jesus positively applauds as “SUCH GREAT FAITH!”
This Centurion knew what authority was. He was a man WITH authority over his 100 men and expected obedience from those men. What he said, HAD to happen! But also, he was a man UNDER authority. He expected to obey those more senior to himself in the army. What they said, HAD to happen, and he HAD to see to it that it did.
So, why did Jesus see this approach as critical to great faith? Well this is the brilliant thing. It is because this is how God’s kingdom works. It works on the principle of faith based on legitimate authority and there is no better exemplar of this than Jesus Himself. For Jesus is not only the one who is able to declare to the disciples after the resurrection in Matthew 28:18 (NIV) “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”, but perhaps even more amazing, he is also the one who throughout His earthly ministry again and again declares His total SUBMISSION to the Father’s authority. In John 6:38 we hear Jesus declare “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” In John 5:30 he says: “By myself I can do nothing; . . . for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” In John 8:28-29 he says “. . . I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. . . . for I always do what pleases him.” And in John 4:34 he says “My food, is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” Submission to the authority of the Father is the very hallmark of Jesus’ life and it is to be the hallmark of the faith of all those who are called to be his followers.
How far though are we showing this kind of faith in our Christian walk? How far are we, when faced with the issues and challenges of our lives, ready to not only acknowledge but also to ACT from the settled conviction that Jesus has AUTHORITY over us? This is the response, as the Centurion shows us, of SUCH GREAT FAITH that brings Jesus’s commendation and it’s also the response that prompts his intervention.
And the key is that we must be willing to truly live under Jesus’ leadership and authority. We are not just to be those who pick and choose what we will or will not do from what God asks of us. We are to be those who share the testimony of this centurion by saying: “I myself am a man under authority”. That’s our challenge this morning, and in fact, that’s the moment by moment challenge of our Christian lives.
The gospel then, is not a question of a DECISION only, of believing only; but it requires us to recognise God’s absolute AUTHORITY over us and to submit fully to Christ’s leadership of our lives as those who have been REDEEMED. Like the centurion’s soldiers, when God tells us “Go”, we are to go, and when He says “Come”, we are to come. We are to truly become FOLLOWERS, DISCIPLES, and that means a moment by moment bowing to God’s authority and His leadership in our lives.
So, let’s aim not to serve our own desires, our own plans and ambitions, our own purposes, but let’s, with the Holy Spirit’s help, morph or transform into those who always seek to serve Him. As Paul urges us in 2 Corinthians 5:9, let us determine each minute of every day to “make it our goal to please Him”.
Let me give the closing words of this message this morning to Jesus. In John 12:26 we hear Him say: “whoever serves me must follow me;”