In Christ beloved brethren, pastors, representatives of our congregations, and visitors.
Considering the condition in the church as well as the condition in the world at large at the present time, I know no more timely text on which to base my message to you than the words of our Savior recorded in John 8:31–32: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
A Christian is a follower and learner of Christ. Our Bible text calls such an one a disciple. Disciple, in this connection, implies infinitely more than to be a disciple of some certain philosopher or a political or social leader. Christian discipleship begins with a rebirth. The Holy Spirit says, concerning one who has been born again: “Old things are passed away; behold all things are become new.” 2 Cor. 5:17. In the new birth, the Spirit of God graciously creates in the heart of one “dead in trespasses and sins” the new “spiritual life of faith with its new light, its new desire and strength for that which is good.” In no other way can one become a disciple of Christ. The Apostle Paul is a striking example. In his case, rebirth made out of one who formerly was an enemy and persecutor of Christ and His church, a true and loyal disciple. By the grace of God, Paul also became the greatest Christian missionary of all times. The Word of the Gospel, which had formerly been an offense and a stumbling block to him, became the highest wisdom and the greatest treasure in his life. He exclaims in Rom. 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” This change from death to life in the disciple of Christ, the apostle speaks of in Romans 8:7–11, where we read: “The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
Does that mean that the disciple of Christ has reached perfection? Are the evil desires in his nature completely eradicated? Oh, no, as long as man lives in the flesh, he is subject to temptation, sin, and unbelief. The apostle exclaims: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Rom. 7:24. He continues; “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; But with the flesh the law of sin.” “If Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” Rom. 8:10. The apostle has life, not because of any righteousness inherent in himself or in his nature, but only because of the perfect righteousness of Christ, which has become his by faith. To follow Christ, says Luther, “means to obey His words, to preach that He has suffered and died for us: that is, to obey His words in faith. He that believes on Him, clings to Him, trusts in Him, He will be saved. He follows Christ in faith.”
Christian discipleship offers many glorious privileges and prerogatives. In Christ we have all the blessings and riches which heaven has to offer. We have daily a full and free forgiveness of sins; open access to the Father in prayer; adoption as children of God, and hope of the inheritance with the saints in eternal life. We have promise of all that we need here for our mortal body and life, as well as salvation for our immortal soul. “All things are yours; whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours. And ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s.” 1 Cor. 3:21–23.
Let it not be forgotten, then, that discipleship presupposes unfeigned loyalty to God and His church on the one hand, and renunciation of the devil, the world and our own flesh on the other hand. Christianity built on sentiment and emotionalism is a deception. It may, indeed, take on a form, an outward show, of godliness, but nevertheless remains a vain thing before God as long as it does not rest firmly on God’s Word and promise as its only foundation.
According to Luke 9:57ff., a certain man said to Jesus; “Lord, I will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest.” Jesus answered him: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” To another Jesus said; “Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.” Jesus answered: “Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.” Still another said: “Lord, I will follow Thee, but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house.” Jesus answered him: “No man having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” It is obvious that these examples are to serve as warning examples against the very common so-called Christianity which is built on good intentions, impulse, sentiment and emotion. It may lull the conscience to rest for a moment, but in the end it will leave one comfortless. True Christianity rests on the foundation of the eternal Word alone. It is not dependent on the frailty of man. It has comfort, peace and happiness unending for every one; but it presupposes adherence to the Christ revealed in the Word. Following any other leadership will bring disaster.
The rich young man, according to Matt. 19:16ff., wished to be a disciple of Christ; but his heart was attached first of all to the treasures and pleasures of the world. He was willing in some way to serve Christ; but not at the expense of his riches. Boldly he asserted that he had fulfilled all the demands of divine law from his youth. Jesus, knowing the underlying cause of his trouble, said unto him: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give it to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” The young man went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. In the eyes of his fellow men this rich young man evidently was blameless, but before God he was an idolator,. having given the love of his heart to the things of the world.
Thus we are taught by the foregoing warning examples that neither our money, our possessions, our boast of good works according to the law, nor our sentiments, our attitude or good conduct will make us disciples of Christ.
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Having once by the grace of God become disciples, we are exhorted to continue in His Word, which is the condition of our discipleship from beginning to end. Discipleship means, according to the Word of God, daily to subdue all natural rebellious inclinations of our hearts and minds against God’s will and His ways; daily to read and meditate upon His Word and by the grace of God submit to its teachings in all things; thus daily gaining new strength and comfort from its gracious promises.
When Jesus says: “If ye continue in my Word,” He certainly does not refer only to words spoken by Himself in the days of His sojourn here in flesh; but He refers to all revealed Scripture. “Search the Scripture, for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they. which testify of me.” John 5:39: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” 2 Tim. 3:16. “The prophecy came not in old time, by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” 2 Peter 1:21. According to Luther; God is concerned especially about the revelation and knowledge of His Son through the whole Scripture; Old and New Testament, all points to the Son. (Cf. St. Louis Edit. 3, 1958.) Jesus’ referred to Scripture and quoted Scripture, thereby placing upon it His stamp of approval. According to the evaluation of Scripture by Jesus, there is no room for the idea of our day of “non-fundamental” teachings of Scripture, in the sense that some teachings of Scripture are unimportant,. may be ignored, or set aside. “All Scripture is given. by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” 2 Tim. 3:16. “These things,” says the Spirit of God (certainly not meaning only a few things), “are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. And that believing, ye might have life through His name.” John 20:31. All Scripture is therefore certainly included in what Jesus calls “My Word.”
Finding an excuse for setting aside or discrediting any portion of Scripture or any teaching revealed in God’s Word, under the cover of the so-called “totality of Scripture,” is likewise a falsehood and a deception, leading away from the truth. True discipleship of Jesus demands continuance in all the teachings of the Bible. Let us not be deceived by those who look for new revelations or new developments of the truth. God has in Christ revealed His whole counsel for our salvation. This counsel, He wants us to follow faithfully and uninterruptedly.
Insisting on such a course is not pleasing to flesh and blood. It will bring friction and separation. If, however, faithful continuance in the Word causes separation, it is a God-pleasing separation. And where the truth gathers and binds together, there is a God pleasing union. Man-made union, at the expense of the eternal Word, is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. The true follower of Christ may reap much enmity and even persecution, as a result of his persistent testimony to the whole counsel of God. Results, however, must be left to the Lord. A faithful adherence and continuance in His Word is all that the Lord demands of His disciples. The eternal Word does not change with times and seasons. The truth remains the same from age to age. The attitude of mortal man to the truth of God’s Word and Will may change from time to time, although his natural heart remains the same. It is at enmity with God-deceitful and treacherous. The only safe and sure stabilizer for the mind and the heart of the disciples is the revealed Word in the Old and the New Testaments. “It is the power of God unto salvation.” Through this Word, God comes to sinful man with His regenerating and sanctifying grace. The law discloses God’s perfect holiness and justice, as well as the sinfulness and corruption of natural man. The Gospel reveals God as the loving and merciful Saviour in Jesus Christ to a sin-cursed world.
Christian discipleship is exclusive. The disciple may, indeed, on account of his natural weakness err in many ways. He says with David: “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse Thou me from secret faults.” But he also says with Joseph: “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” His hope of salvation rests on Christ alone and Him crucified. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” Acts 4, 12. Life and conduct are ours and, therefore, tainted with imperfection and subject to error, but the Word of truth is God’s and inerrant. “The Scripture cannot be broken.” John 10:35. Allowing the erring human mind to lead one away from the revealed truth is; indeed, a most dangerous experiment, a danger which lurks mighty close to every person’s door in our unionistic day and age. To declare that the proud human mind is not the chief factor in leading men away from the revealed truth is to charge God with having given us a Bible that cannot safely guide men on the way to salvation. Salvation is a free gift of God. “Truly in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills, and from the multitude of mountains: truly the Lord, our God, is the salvation of Israel.” Jer. 3:23. The Lord has made it our only concern faithfully to bring the message of salvation to sinful man. Compromising divine truth and error in order to unite people of differing creeds, does not give renewed strength to the church as a whole or to any individual Christian. It brings confusion and corruption. “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” 1 Cor. 5:6. “If ye continue in my Word, then are ye my disciples indeed,” says the Lord, “and ye shall know the truth.” Knowledge of saving truth and Christian discipleship are dependent on continuation in the revealed Word. To the natural human mind that Word will, to the end of time, continue to be foolishness. To the mind enlightened by the Spirit of God, or in other words, to God-born faith this Word will to the end of time continue to be the highest wisdom. Truth thus embraced and thus known “shall make you free”: free from guilt and blame before God; free from a guilty conscience; free from bondage under sin and Satan; free from the bondage and curse of the law; free to serve God with a whole, glad and thankful heart and mind, being assured that “all things work together for good to them that love God.” Rom. 8, 28. That is the glorious promise which Jesus holds forth to His faithful disciples who continue in His Word.