Discipleship from the Inside Out
By Brother Michel Lankford
Effective discipleship starts from the spirit outward. When we talk about the spirit of a person, we are referring to the person's deepest part. The spirit of a person is that part of us that is eternal. Our spirit will live somewhere forever. We will either live eternally in God's love and His Presence, or we will live eternally separated from God in hell. In either case our spirit will live eternally somewhere forever. Overall, God looks at people in two broad categories; covenant people, and non-covenant people. Covenant people are those who have entered into an eternal relationship with Almighty God. Non-covenant people are those who have not entered into such a relationship. I will not go into the in-depth theology of these truths in this particular lesson. Suffice it to say for now that both the old and New Testament taught that in order to be considered right with God, an internal everlasting transformation must take place in the spirit (the deepest part) of the human being. Suffice it to say, that if you have truly accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, you have entered into that covenant relationship with God. For this lesson though, we want to talk about the internal and eternal change that must take place in order for us to be right with God. The Old Testament referred to it, and the Messiah labeled it being "born again."
Jesus the Christ said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In the same conversation he later said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again. Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? (See John chapter 3:1-10). Jesus was having this conversation with Nicodemus, a religious leader of the Jews. One of the amazing things is that He expected Nicodemus to understand what he clearly didn't. In order for a person to be made right with God, a deep internal and eternal transformation had to take place. That is, a person had to be transformed from being a sinner into being a righteous person; and that transformation had to take place from the inside out.
While it was not an entirely new concept in the first century it was an almost entirely forgotten one. You see, thousands of years of Jewish tradition taught that the way to be right with God was to obey the Jewish law (there were more than 600 commands), and make proper sacrifices. This approach has several problems. First, no one born of a sinful nature could perfectly obey all the commands and sacrifices for an entire lifetime which naturally led to a second problem. Over the centuries, people watered-down or even changed the requirements of God's law, because they could not live up to them and the constant guilt would consume them. This is why Jesus said, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition... thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.” (See Mark 7:1-13). Throughout his Ministry Jesus was continuously trying to re-elevate the standard that God originally intended when he gave the law. Christ would repeatedly say, “You have heard that it was said... but I say to you....." He was trying to put the law back where God had it originally. This concept is particularly true in Christ's first sermon (see Matthew chapters 5-7).
You see, what most Jewish people failed to recognize was the reality of the sinful nature. They failed to recognize that no matter how much I might want to obey, in my deepest inward part I am a sinner. The minute God tells us to do or not do something, human nature will be to desire or do the opposite of what God desires. God wants more than outward physical acts of obedience. What God desires to do is to change the inner man. He wants to save us from that inward part of our nature that drives us to disobey God in the first place. He wants to transform our nature from the inside out so that we please God out of a new nature that is reborn in His love. Now, let's go back to the conversation that Christ had with Nicodemus. Remember Nicodemus was missing the whole point. Jesus clearly expected him to understand the concept I've just discussed. To be fair however, Nicodemus had some bad teaching and hundreds of years of watered-down tradition which left him largely unable to grasp the concept. So, why did Jesus expect him to understand? Well, first he was a teacher, and second while the concept was not largely understood, a few Old Testament writers (the only Bible Nicodemus would've had), did express the idea quite well.
· The first prophet Moses taught about the wickedness of man's true nature:
Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart (Genesis 6:5-6).
· God's prophet Jeremiah understood it:
“The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it? “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give to each man according to his ways, According to the results of his deeds (Jeremiah 17:9-10).
· King David who would become a man after God's own heart understood it after becoming fully aware of his sins:
"Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5).
The bottom line is this. From the time we are very little our sinful nature rears its ugly head. Think about it. You don't have to teach a child to disobey. You don't have to train them to want what they want, when they want it, and to demand it exactly how they want it, or to throw a fit when they don't get things their own way. We don't have to be trained to rationalize, or look for loopholes around what we are told to do or not do. The moment there is a rule in place, the temptation is to push the limits, try to get around it, or make excuses for violating it. Each of these Hebrew Testament writers understood that the problem is something deep within us that God must transform, or we're sunk. The good news is that God promised such a transforming work in our human nature, throughout the Old Testament (see Deuteronomy 30:6; Ezekiel 36:25-27; Jeremiah 31:33).
Whenever there is a rule or a law in place, our sinful nature is automatically activated and works inside of us, tempting us to violate or circumvent the rule. So we know that God is good. God's rules are good, but we have a sinful nature that drives us to sin. Paul further points out that the rules can make us aware of our sinful nature, but the rules cannot save us from our inward nature. Ergo, Someone has to save us from our inward sinful nature. We NEED a Savior. All of these Old Testament Passages explain why Jesus expected Nicodemus to understand.
It's no accident that in Jesus the Messiah's first public sermon, the very first words he uttered were the key to the whole thing. He said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Beloved, that is not a coincidence. The kingdom of God belongs to those who are spiritually impoverished. The kingdom of God is reserved for those who know that they are sinful and utterly helpless to save themselves by their own effort. The words "poor in spirit" (Strong’s Greek #'s 4434, 4151) quite literally means to be so helpless and powerless to help oneself, that one is reduced to begging for survival. It is only when one is aware of their spiritual neediness to that level, that we are ready to inherit the kingdom of heaven.
Decades later, the Apostle Paul gave a detailed description of our inward struggle in Romans 7:1-25. He described it in part saying, "For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do... O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God-through Jesus Christ our Lord! By the way, it's important to note that Paul declared this reality even as he was an apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ. Notice he did not say, O wretched man that I was. He understood his propensity to go his own direction. He understood that he was in constant need of God's grace, and wasn't about to deny the fact. Furthermore, please notice that this internal struggle did not end even though he was anointed by the Holy Spirit and an Apostle of Jesus Christ. That's why no matter how anointed we may be, we should not dare to think that every thought that enters our head or every word that flows through our mouth, or that every notion that enters our desires is automatically God appointed. We dare not forget our own propensity toward evil and our need for God and His grace to keep us safe. If Paul felt that way, and followed Christ that way, how much more should we?
At this point, one may wish to ask the reasonable question, if God recognized that we couldn't obey the law because of our sinful nature, then why have the law at all, if it's only going to serve to condemn us? The answer to that is simple. God put the law in place so that we could recognize our own propensity toward sin, and our need for a Savior. You see, as human beings we need to recognize the futility of trying to obey the rules on our own effort. Without such understanding, a person cannot be saved. We would simply continue to rationalize our behaviors and misbehaviors and we'd fail to understand that the problem is entrenched within us. Paul wrote that the law of God was in place so that we would come to "recognize sin as utterly sinful."
One of the reasons that we want to learn to make disciples from the spirit outward, is that it is all too easy to boil down discipleship into a new legalistic list of do's and don'ts. This would serve nothing more than feeding our own sinful nature. At the same time, while we want to avoid self-righteousness and legalism at all costs, there is no denying that Christ has commands and precepts that He requires to be obeyed. It is also true that our habits will mold and define our character. Therefore, we must walk the fine line of learning to create good and necessary habits without falling into self-righteous legalism that appeals tour sinful nature. Like I said, it's a fine line, but the one we must learn to travel if we are to succeed in obeying God. Boiling down discipleship to obeying a set of rules is basically trying to make us disciples from the outside in. In so doing, what one is attempting to do is to cause behavior modification to work its way into the deepest being of a person. It just doesn't work that way. Our sinful nature is just too strong. If we're going to be changed, it's going to have to be from the inside out.
How to Receive a Renewed Nature
If you have any wisdom at all, by this time, you probably have little or no doubt of the human beings "bent" or propensity to sin. By now we know that from a time of the Old Testament God had promised to change human nature. You're probably wondering how one goes about getting their nature changed. I'm glad you asked.
1. First, admit the reality of our situation. "I am a sinner by nature, by choice, and by my behavior. The truth is I am utterly helpless to change my sinful nature through my own effort. I need God to save me, not only from the devil but from my own sinful nature as well." And we must be honestly humble to receive God's mercy (Psalm 138:6; Proverbs 3:34; James 4:5-6; 1 Peter 5:5)
2. Come to God and Jesus Christ (John 3:36; John 3:16-18; Luke 19:10; Joel 2:32; Matthew 11:28-30; John 6:37; 1 Timothy 1:15).
3. Ask God to transform our nature (Matthew 7:7-8; Acts 26:18; Deuteronomy 30:6; Ezekiel 36:25-27; Jeremiah 31:33).
4. Knowing that salvation and a new nature is a gift we receive from God by faith, once you have admitted that you need a renewed nature, then come to God through Jesus Christ and ask for it, now simply trust God to do it (Ephesians 2:8-10; Proverbs 3:1-7; Romans 10:11; Psalm 138:8).
By the way, if you learn to apply this procedure correctly, you can succeed in almost any interaction with God.
First, admit your need for God within the reality of your situation.
Second put your trust in God and Jesus Christ to supply that need.
Third, properly apply God's word and persevere until you see the desired result. In the case of salvation, all we need do is ask and believe. To develop our Christian character we will have to persevere in developing other habits that Christ desires.
Understanding a Spiritual Secret
Part of me wishes that I could say that after you have received a renewed spirit through Jesus Christ, all our work was done and that all we needed to do is wait for the rapture and go to heaven. The reality though is that there is a spiritual secret that I wish someone would've shared with me in the beginning of my walk with the Lord. Are you ready?... Here it is. The secret is this. A renewed spirit and salvation are a free gift, but true maturity and character are not free. These things take work, and lots of it.
Notice figure 1 if you please. It represents the internal dynamics of the human being. All human beings are essentially made up of three parts; Our spirit, our soul and our body. When one becomes born-again his spirit is renewed. In our figure, the spirit is represented in a blue circle because blue represents the presence of God. The yellow circle represents our soul. Now, the human soul is made up of our mind and thinking, our emotions, and our will; which is our desire and choices. When we ask for and receive a renewed nature through Jesus Christ, our spirit and eternal being is renewed by the Holy Spirit through what Jesus Christ accomplished by His death and resurrection. We receive that as a free gift of grace by God (Ephesians 2:8-10). We cannot earn that gift by any of our works.
However when we receive Jesus Christ our spirit and eternal being is saved and renewed, but the renewal of our soul does not occur instantaneously. The renewing of our souls; our mind, will, and emotions is also not a gift! Renewing the soul part of our being is a cooperative effort between me and God working together. That's why some people can sincerely believe in Jesus, but still have mental/emotional challenges, or they may struggle choosing between what they want and what God wants in their day-to-day lives. That is not abnormal, but should be expected.
Jesus indicated that renewing our soul (our minds will and emotions), would take effort when He said, "…with perseverance, possess your souls" (See Luke 21:19). Now if the renewing of our souls came as a free gift, then why would it require perseverance or enduring effort on our part? Quite simply, it wouldn't. My spirit is instantly renewed when I receive Christ, but my soul is renewed only as I persevere in cooperating with God to renew it. Every habit and Christian discipline we try to develop in this course is intended to help you persevere in continuously submitting your soul and body to Jesus Christ, until it is totally renewed.
Paul the apostle reiterated the case when writing to the Christian church at Rome. Paul wrote:
"Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:1-2)
In the passage above, Paul is talking about the renewing of our soul and body, but not our spirit. We know from the beginning of the book that Paul was writing to born-again Christians in Rome (Romans 1:6-7). So, why would he be telling the born-again Christians in Rome to be transformed by the renewing of their minds if it automatically happened when they were born again? The passage obviously indicates that renewing our minds is the process, and it's one that begins after we are born again. The apostle Paul further illustrates the point in Philippians chapter 4:1-8). In that passage the apostle takes great lengths to describe how the Christian ought to direct his mind. He would not have done that if our mind and our thinking was instantly renewed. If you need more proof, you need look no further than the book of Acts. Peter (like all the apostles) was a believer in Jesus Christ. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and delivered the first public sermon of the church (see Acts chapter 2). Nevertheless, Peter still had old traditions, and prejudices to overcome. For one thing Peter still believed that righteousness demanded he keep to the kosher eating habits of eating certain foods, and abstaining from other foods. God by the Holy Spirit taught Peter otherwise. In this area his mind, his thinking and attitudes had to be renewed. In this case, God demonstrated it to Peter in a very dramatic way through a vision. I think God did it this way for Peter because his beliefs were so entrenched, that simple teaching would not have convinced him (Acts 10:9-16). The Christian church at Corinth had an unbelievable amount of theological and belief problems to overcome. Even though they were Christians who believe Christ, some bad theology and attitudes had gotten into their thinking and there was affecting their behaviors. The apostle Paul was noticeably concerned, judging by his first letter to the Corinthians.
The Real Goal of Christianity
People often times come to Christ with some misconceptions that usually revolve around some extreme points of view. Some believers live as though the objective was to earn the kingdom of heaven. They live constantly worried about their position with God, and how much he loves them. Some other believers go to the other extreme. They are so aware of God's grace that they often live carelessly. They believe they already have the kingdom of heaven, so they don't work on their character or relationship with God at all. These people can fall into the habit of presuming upon the grace of God, assuming He will automatically fix whatsoever they choose to neglect. This attitude can be dangerous to our character and our effectiveness for Christ. In whichever extreme these misguided believers live, they are living with one overriding misconception. They misunderstand the goal of Christianity. Both of these extreme sets of believers live as though the goal of Christianity was to inherit the kingdom of heaven, but it's not. The ultimate goal of true Christianity is NOT to barely escape hell and make heaven. When people concentrate on avoiding condemnation and getting reward, they have accidentally slipped back into a religion instead of the true relationship with the One who has already redeemed them. The goal of Christianity, is to allow God through Jesus Christ to transform us from the inside out, as we abide in a thriving relationship with Him, until He completely transforms our hearts, our minds, our motives and our behaviors, to the point where they are a glorious reflection of His own. The secret to understanding discipleship is that it is not about earning salvation, that's a gift. Discipleship is really about learning to live deliberately in intimacy and friendship with God and cooperating with Him until walking in relationship with Him transforms our mind, will, emotions and behaviors till they agree with the work that God has already done in our spirit. It's important to keep the goal and objective straight. We don't want to miss the point.
Encouragement for the Journey
Remember, it's experience and diligent perseverance that make one effective. Sometimes young believers can get discouraged. They're on fire. They love God. They want a minister, and churches are more than happy to put them to work. Unfortunately, these precious babes in Christ are often ill-prepared because they often don't have the experience and diligent perseverance that makes one effective. Scripture illustrates the point in several ways. In the apostle John's first biblical epistle he writes: "what we have heard... what we have seen... what we have touched and handled with our hands concerning the word of life... we declare to you" (see 1 John 1-4). Effective witnessing for Christ only comes as we have successfully walked with, and in obeying Jesus Christ. I know that sounds simple, but it's a concept precious believers miss almost completely. Jesus Christ lived 33 years on the earth, He ministered for only three of those years. Can you see the significance? Jesus spent 90% of his life preparing for the last 10%! Scripture records that after His first public sermon (Matthew chapters 5-7), the crowds were astonished, because he did not speak as the scribes (Matthew 7:28-29). I know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but He was also here as an example of how a man of God should live. So, what was it that gave Jesus His authority? Scripture gives us a clue. "He learned obedience through the things he suffered" (See Hebrews 5:8). 90% of Jesus life was helping to train Him so that He could successfully obey during His Ministry. What gave him his authority was that He knew how to correctly obey the voice and direction of the Holy Spirit. What's more he did it with love and with out compromising His integrity! When He spoke, Jesus did so out of his intimate love and experience with the Heavenly Father, not out of theoretical knowledge, that was the difference. That's what made Jesus affective, and it will make us affective as well. Press on beloved, press on.
· If you don't already have one, get yourself a journal. It can be a spiral notebook with school lined paper, but you may find a binder with loose-leaf paper works better. Your spiritual Journal can include just about anything you want within reason. At the very least though, each entry should include; the date and time, the passage of Scripture you read in your devotions, and any impressions, questions or prayer/desires that those passages elicited.
· Establish a regular Bible reading and prayer time if you have not already. If you're just starting out on your journey, start small. Set aside 15 minutes a day, but do it every day. For new pilgrims, I recommend starting what we call a devotional time by dividing it into thirds; five minutes reading the Bible, five minutes praying, and five minutes writing in your journal. Please don't be concerned and above all don't give up if you don't "automatically flow" into these habits easily. Even if all you write in your journal is what you read and one impression that you felt or question you had, that's fine. The idea’s to give you and God some intentional time together. It will begin to flow with some practice.
· In Your Journal: Christian discipleship is about learning to live intentionally for Jesus Christ. One of the things that helps us to do that is to keep a running journal of our journey with Jesus. It's a good idea to do a little bit of them everyday, but don't freak if you miss once in awhile. For your journal this week I would like you to start a running list in one of your journal pages. At the top of the page title it: What Needs Improvement. Sometimes, we are often burdened down with the things in our lives that we don't like about ourselves. It can tie us down and keep us from concentrating on the things we want to accomplish. So, put them to paper. Use some of your devotional prayer time to pray about those things as they enter your mind.
Almighty God blessed Lord Jesus Christ & gracious Holy Spirit; have mercy upon me. Thank you so much for mercifully purchasing my salvation as a free gift. I long to love you and obey you with every fiber of my being. I would like for my entire being spirit, soul and body to be a glorious reflection of your love and character. I'm incredibly aware that I fall short of where I want to be in my character with You. I can't really imagine what your best desire for my life would look like, but I would sure like to reach it with You. Would you please help me to yield more and more of my being to You day by day, until we reach your best desire for my life together. In Jesus name, amen.