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“That which was infused into his heart at his conversion is more precious to him than anything which the world can afford” ~ Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758)[1]


Reading on discipleship recently spurred me to put some words on paper. Here they are:

Discipleship must be placed within the larger context of conversion. Failing to do so might lead one to conclude that disciples do not want to obey. Conversion, however, is a change of heart; it is something that happens to you. Hence God promises his people: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek. 36:26–27, emphasis mine). This promise is connected to what God said he would do many years prior: “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6, emphasis mine).

The same patterns continues in the NT.

That conversion is something that happens to you is indicated by the use of the passive voice in John 3:3 and 3:5 when Jesus tells Nicodemus that “unless one is born again,” or “born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”[2] As Paul and his apostolic band preached one Sabbath morning, Lydia was converted. How? Luke records: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14, emphasis mine). And this same Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:6, links the power of God on display in creation to the power of God at work in regeneration: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Hence John Calvin’s observation that fallen humanity is “no more able to convert themselves than to create themselves.”[3]

In regeneration, God so changes the human heart that, whereas previously the individual had no love for God or desire to obey him, he or she now does. Italian Reformer, Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562), said that God, “by regeneration causes the will which rejects the precepts of God to become willing.”[4] Medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153 AD) stated the matter succinctly and beautifully: “God is the cause of loving God.”[5]

Since regeneration brings such a reorientation to one’s life, we can say the following:

Disciples Love Jesus. While imperfect (1 Jn. 1:8–2:2), disciples genuinely love Jesus (Jn. 14:21), and thus bear fruit for him in their lives (Matt. 12:33; Ps. 1:3). They daily renounce their old way of living, and actively seek to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit (Eph. 4:25–32; Gal. 5:16–24). True, the daily battle is real (Rom. 7:21–25), but a settled intent abides—an insatiable appetite to know and obey Christ remains. Jonathan Edwards said that “the strong, lively actings of love to Christ in the soul . . . swallow up all carnal affections and desires.”[6] Simply put, the love of Christ wins out. Ultimately, disciples find obedience to Christ more enjoyable than the fleeting pleasures of sin. While obeying God’s commandments may be costly, believers do not find them burdensome (1 Jn. 5:3).

Disciples Obey Jesus. In regeneration, God implants within his children a desire to obey and a willingness to conform their lives to his commands, as Ezekiel 36:25–27 and Deuteronomy 30:6 make plain. God, through the prophet Jeremiah, indicated that this was a singular blessing of the New Covenant as well: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33). Theologian Michael Allen, therefore, says that the New Covenant “interiorizes God’s direction and instruction.”[7] This “interiorizing” of God’s instruction—along with a heartfelt love for Christ— “controls” or “constrains” believers to such a degree that it gives focus and organization to their lives (2 Cor. 5:9, 14). Disciples heed Mary’s instruction to those attending the wedding at Cana: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn. 2:5).

Disciples Love the Church. The ancient sage was right: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Prov. 18:1). While our walk with Christ is personal, it is not individualistic. God’s covenant promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 establishes God’s design to have an international body of believers who joyfully submit to Jesus as Lord.[8] God’s agenda, therefore, is for a person’s discipleship to take place in a community of believers. This means that the biblical portrait of discipleship is at odds with any notion which suggests that one’s spirituality is not linked to the visible church.[9] Jesus spoke about the visible church in Matt. 16:18 and 18:17—and in the latter Jesus calls believers to confront one another regarding sin in their lives. While we dislike confrontation, Jesus knows we need correction. And he’s committed to our growth in grace. When David sinned against the Lord through his adultery and conspiracy to murder, God sent Nathan to confront him (2 Sam. 11:1–12:15). In response, David refuses to rationalize his behavior; instead, he humbly repents and asks God for forgiveness, and pens the moving words of Psalm 51. Here’s the point: We need others to love us enough to point out both our blatant sin and blind spots—and to do so lovingly, patiently, and graciously. We have much to learn if the only thing we’re convinced of is our own irreproachability.


[1] Jonathan Edwards, “God the Best Portion of the Christian,” in Altogether Lovely: Jonathan Edwards on the Glory and Excellency of Jesus Christ, ed. Don Kistler (Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria, 1997), 7.

[2] See also John 1:12–13, 1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1, and 5:4, 18. Also, note that the NIV does not translate 1 John 5:1 accurately. For some reason, they translate the perfect tense as if it were present tense. The ESV translates it correctly.

[3] John Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles 1–13, ed. David W. Torrance and T. F. Torrance, trans. W. J. G. McDonald, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 149 (on Acts 5:30).

[4] Peter Martyr Vermigli, “The Authority of Scripture,” in The Peter Martyr Reader, eds. John Patrick Donnelly, Frank James III, and Joseph C. McLelland (Kirksville, MO: Trueman State University Press, 1999), 78.

[5] Bernard of Clairvaux, “On Loving God,” in Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, ed. Emilie Griffin; trans. G. R. Evans (New York: HarperCollins, 1987), 72.

[6] Jonathan Edwards, “I Know My Redeemer Lives,” in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards, eds. W. H. Kimnach, K. P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 158–159.

[7] Michael Allen, Sanctification, New Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 202.

[8] Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, New Studies in Biblical Theology 23 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 83–84.

[9] The most recent statistics suggest that this is what many Americans believe. See, e.g., “Among Unchurched Americans,” Facts & Trends 63:2 (Spring 2017): 15.