Despite its title, Francis Chan’s new book Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples, is less about making disciples than being the kind of people who are disciple-makers. In this regard, the book ought to have more to say than it does about sanctification—that grace-filled, Spirit-led process of change by which God transforms us into the people he wants us to be. Most of us haven’t arrived yet—to say the least. In the meantime, however, we can still do good work for God’s kingdom, not by our own strength and power, but by the strength and power of the Holy Spirit. As I argue in this sermon, sanctification isn’t so much about trying harder as trusting more.
Sermon Text: Matthew 28:16-20
The following is my original sermon manuscript, with footnotes.
For nine years Angus T. Jones has been the one-half man on TV’s most popular sit-com, Two and a Half Men. He earns $350,000 an episode, which is a nice gig. Except now he’s telling his viewers to please stop watching the show. He calls it “filth.” Why is he jeopardizing his career in this way? Because he recently became a Christian.
A recent article in Christianity Today interviewed some prominent Christian intellectuals about whether or not a celebrity like Jones should come out so publicly so soon after his conversion. I personally think it’s great that Jones is witnessing in this way, but I appreciate the wisdom of something a professor at Calvin College said: “While conversion can happen in an instant, sanctification takes time… Christian wisdom isn’t implanted in us by some sort of magic, like a mental upload in The Matrix.”
He’s completely right about that. Conversion is often the easy part of being a Christian. In fact, conversion is to being a Christian what falling in love is to being married. Those of you who have been Christians for a while and are married know what I’m talking about. Learning to live our lives as Christians—learning to repent of the sins that were part of our lives before we found Christ, learning to resist the new temptations that come our way, learning to develop Christlike love for God and neighbor—these things take time and effort. For the vast majority of us Christians, it will take a lifetime and then some. Most of us won’t become perfect until the other side of death and resurrection.
I have a pastor friend I’ll call Steve—not a Methodist pastor. Once, he was pastoring a church in a small southern town, and he had friends from the First Methodist Church there. And his Methodist friends would tell him all about terrible and unchristian things that some people at the Methodist church were doing—from gossip to greed, from addiction to adultery, and everything in between. He asked me, “Can you believe all that was going on?” And I said, “I know, Steve, it’s just terrible. Let me tell you the dirty little secret about the Methodist church. [Look around, as if no one will overhear.] It is filled with sinners!”
In fact, in a little while we’ll have Holy Communion. And we’ll pray an ancient prayer for forgiveness that includes some harsh words about our sin: We will confess to God “that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will. We have broken your law. We have rebelled against your love. We have not loved our neighbors. And we have not heard the cry of the needy.” Does that about cover all of our sins? Probably. And when we pray that prayer, none of us—I hope!—is crossing our fingers behind our backs because “of course those words don’t apply to me.” No, we Methodists make no secret of the fact that church is a sinner’s club. In fact, if you’re not one, you’re not welcome here!
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not making excuses for us Christians—Methodist or otherwise. There may be someone in this room who won’t even consider becoming a Christian right now because you’ve been so badly hurt by Christians—Christians who have hurt you in the name of Christ, Christians who have treated you in a very unloving way even while imagining that they were following WWJD, and doing what Jesus would do. And for that, I am so sorry! And I hope you’ll forgive us. But it’s hard to get on my high horse about their sin because I’m a sinner too! Which is why I’m so grateful that on the cross, Jesus Christ took upon himself the burden and guilt and shame of my sin. He paid the penalty for it, which I couldn’t pay myself, so that I could find forgiveness and peace and reconciliation with God. As Paul says, “God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.”
My point is that even though we Christians are forgiven, we are still sinners. But here’s the other important part of that equation: we don’t stay that way. We are all works in progress. Being a Christian means that we’re all in the process of change. “If you think I’m bad sinner now, you should have known me five years ago! I was much worse!” I hope that all of us who have been Christians for a while can say that. This process of change is what the Bible and the Church call sanctification. And even though we cooperate with God during this process, and it certainly seems like hard work at times, the truth is that even sanctification isn’t so much something we do as something God does. It is a gift of God’s grace. Try as we might, we can’t effect the kind of inward change we need apart from the miraculous intervention of God the Holy Spirit.
If you’re like me, you’re tempted to think that it was somehow easier for Jesus’ disciples than it is for us—these people who had lived and ministered alongside Jesus for three years—who had heard firsthand the teaching, who had seen the miracles, who had been empowered by him to do the same, and who, in today’s scripture, were eyewitnesses to the resurrection—we think they didn’t have to struggle so much with faith. Yet here, in verse 17, Matthew makes an embarrassing admission: “When they saw him”—the resurrected Lord—“they worshipped him, but some doubted.”
Some doubted? How is that possible? You mean these disciples weren’t perfect yet? And not only that: in spite of the fact that they weren’t perfect, Jesus sent them on this mission anyway.
Did you hear that? Even though these disciples were clearly not perfect, Jesus sent them on this mission anyway. It’s not as if Jesus said to one group, “You seven, go into all the world and make disciples, etc. As for you four who still have doubts, you better get your act together, work through all your problems, and then we’ll talk about whether or not you get to go on this mission to make disciples.” No. We’re here today in part because Jesus sent these imperfect disciples, ready or not, on this mission to make disciples of all the nations.
I emphasize this point because a recurring theme in the first third of Francis Chan’s new book Multiply, is that most of us Christians aren’t living our Christian lives properly, and that’s a big problem. And unless or until we get our act together, we’re not ready to do the thing that Jesus commands us to do in today’s scripture, which is to go and make disciples of all nations, to fulfill the Great Commission. The contrast between Andy Stanley’s book last week and Chan’s book could hardly be greater. One of you who read both books said, “Andy’s book made me want to go out and conquer the world for Jesus. Chan’s makes me want to give up because I’m not holy enough.”
To be clear: The second two-thirds of the book is excellent. From page 139 until the end of the book, Chan and his coauthor, Mark Beuving, offer a nice overview of the Old and New Testaments. They describe the Bible’s grand narrative about God’s plan of salvation, from Adam and Eve, to Abraham, to Moses, to the Exile, and, lastly, to Jesus. They show the continuity between the Old and New Testament. They describe the sacrificial system in the Old Testament and relate it to Jesus’ sacrifice. They describe our future hope in resurrection very well. They emphasize the importance of church, and, frankly, by the end of the book, I detect that even their theology about the Holy Spirit improves upon or even contradicts what they wrote earlier. It’s almost like it’s two books. But it’s with this first part of the book that I take issue. And that’s O.K. I’m Methodist, I’m a Wesleyan Christian, and Francis Chan is not. We’re going to disagree on some things. But iron sharpens iron. And I hope even through our disagreement, the Holy Spirit can make all of us better, more faithful disciples.
On page 47 Chan writes: “Being a disciple maker demands your entire life… It requires everything. It means following Jesus in every aspect of your life, pursuing him with a wholehearted devotion. If you’re not ready to lay down your life for Christ, then you’re not ready to make disciples. It’s that simple.”
To which I ask, “Is it that simple?” After all, how often do any of us achieve “wholehearted devotion”? How many of us give everything for the sake of the gospel? Suppose, for example, you were that rich young ruler to whom Jesus says, “If you want to follow me, sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor and then come follow me.” Do you know for sure that you would be able to do it? I tithe, which means I give ten percent of my income to the church, but that’s s a far cry from giving everything! I’m just glad Jesus never asked me to sell all my possessions and give the money to the poor!
And suppose someone placed a gun to our head and asked us if we were a Christian, and that if we were, they would pull the trigger. How confident are we that we would be ready to lay down our lives under those circumstances? Yet, according to Chan, unless or until we are ready to do these things and be devoted like this, we’re not fit to obey Jesus and the Great Commission. I disagree. I’m not sure that these doubting disciples in today’s scripture were necessarily ready at this point to lay down their lives, but Jesus sent them anyway.
Throughout the first part of the book, Chan places a strong emphasis the purity of our motives when we serve the Lord. For example, when you’re in a group of people, he asks, “Are you overly aware of the ones who are wealthy, attractive, or have something they can offer you? Do you worry about what people think of you? Or do you look for ways to love and opportunities to give?” If this were a quiz, I would have to answer yes, yes, and yes. See, I’m all three of those things at once! I find that I am a bundle of conflicting and contradictory motives most of the time. I believe most of us sinners are! But not Chan. If we don’t have “right motives, we are wasting our time” doing the work of the gospel—and, in fact, we’re probably doing great harm, he says.
Look… Chan would probably accuse Methodists like me of watering down the gospel—of making discipleship too easy. On the contrary: Methodists like me believe that discipleship is so hard that it’s impossible—at least apart from the Holy Spirit. In fact, I would argue that he’s the one making discipleship too easy—as if being a disciple were a matter of willpower; as if it were a matter of trying harder; as if it were a matter of deciding that, O.K., from here on out, I’m not going to struggle with temptation and sin anymore; today I’m going to be faithful to Jesus in every aspect of my life.” To which I say, “Good luck with that!” Because in my opinion, Chan’s view of discipleship seriously underestimates the power of sin in our lives.
But even worse, from a Wesleyan perspective, it seriously underestimates the power of the Holy Spirit.
See, the reason that even we sinful, imperfect, doubting disciples can go into all the world and make disciples—despite our sin, despite our mixed motives, despite our doubts—is because we are empowered to do so by the Holy Spirit. This is what Jesus is talking about when he says at the end of today’s scripture “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” See, it’s not up to us to fulfill the Great Commission—by our own strength, by our own effort, by our own righteousness. We say “yes” when Jesus calls us, but we let Jesus do the heavy lifting. Ultimately, we will be successful in this mission, not because of what we do, but because of what Christ does through us. In other words, it’s all about grace! I feel like I keep banging that same note on the piano, but I can’t say it enough. And Francis Chan doesn’t say it enough. It’s all about grace! From first to last, being a Christian is all about God’s grace!
So I’m glad an actor like Angus T. Jones is speaking out about his faith. Maybe he’s not “ready,” and he’s not perfect, and he certainly has a lot growing to do as a disciple, but the Holy Spirit can make it work. The Holy Spirit can use his witness. The Holy Spirit is just that powerful.
Besides, getting out there and actually doing ministry, even if we’re not ready, trying to fulfill the Great Commission, even if we’re not ready, trying to make disciples, even if we’re not ready, is one important means by which God transforms us into the disciples that he wants us to be. John Wesley believed that, and I believe it! I told you about my trip to Kenya last September. I told you I was afraid to go. Forget being willing to “lay down my life” for Jesus, I was afraid of the stupid plane trip; I was afraid of picking up some weird disease while I was there! And I went on the trip in part because I cared about spreading the gospel in East Africa, but let’s be honest: I also went because it was an excellent career move. I wanted to impress my district superintendent and impress my bishop—because I would love for them to notice me and say, “Look at the good work that Brent is doing in Africa!” See what I mean? My motives were hardly pure. But look what God did to me through that experience! My heart was changed because of it—and I’m even going back in February. And when I go back next month, I won’t go back as a perfect disciple, but I will be a better, more faithful disciple than I was last September. That’s how the Spirit works!
And it’s not just me: we have dozens if not hundreds of people from this church who will gladly tell you that they became stronger, more faithful, more loving disciples of Jesus Christ after getting involved in carrying out the Great Commission in places like Honduras and Paraguay and Mozambique and Mexico and Haiti and Jamaica and the Gulf Coast and the streets of Atlanta and North Fulton Community Charities. You want to be a better, more faithful disciple? It’s like building up muscles… start exercising your faith. Take part in this wonderful mission that Jesus is sending us on! The Holy Spirit will make sure that something good happens as a result.
Speaking of which, the Passion Conference was in town this week. Sixty-thousand college students from around the world gathered in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome to take part in fulfilling this Great Commission. My brother Francis Chan was even there! Among other things, they raised $2.9 million to support the eradication of human trafficking in the world. The organizer of the event, Louie Giglio, told the crowd: “The issue in the world today is not about you and me waiting on the Lord—it’s a lot more about the Lord waiting on you. God is waiting on you right now to get up and stand on your feet—your freedom is for freedom.”
That’s a call to action that we can all get behind, whether the issue is shining the light of Christ’s love on human trafficking or any number of other evils in the world, or feeding the hungy, or building a latrine in Honduras next week, or repairing a storm-damaged house, or picking up trash on the side of the highway, or sharing a word of witness with an unchurched friend, or inviting a neighbor to church. We have a responsibility and a role to play. What can we do—what can our church do—in this new year to fulfill the Great Commission? As Louie Giglio said, the Lord is waiting on us—and the good news is that he’s not waiting on us to become perfect first. He can use us right now! Not because we’re anything special; but because of God’s grace!