What does a mature disciple of Christ look like? Over the past decade Lifeway Research has delved into this with thousands of pastors and church leaders. Culling through the data, we discovered that strong discipleship ministries and practices could be put in eight categories. We call these eight categories the signposts along the discipleship pathway. One sign of growing disciples is that they obey God and deny self.
One verse succinctly captures what it means to be a follower of Christ:
“Then he said to them all, ‘If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me’” (Luke 9:23).
Of the eight signposts of a maturing disciple, the signpost “Obey God and Deny Self,” may be the most important. Obeying God is tied to practicing the other attributes. For example, Bible engagement is important, but if we’re not obeying what God shows us in His Word, we’re missing the point of engaging with Scripture. Building relationships is an important part of our walk with Christ, but if we’re doing so in the way that is contrary to God’s Word (i.e., in disobedience to God) we’re not building relationships as a mature disciple.
The maturing disciple obeys God and denies self. The two are not separate, but go hand-in-hand. It’s easy to obey God if it’s not inconvenient or requires me to deny myself. After all, It’s easy to “love my neighbor” so long as it doesn’t require me to go out of my way.
Jesus emphasized the need to deny self and take up the cross each day. In a practical sense, Jesus was calling His followers to prefer death to self in the spiritual sense. In the ancient world, this was a radical idea—and it still is today. Our fallen human nature prefers self-direction and self-satisfaction, but following Christ is a call to live in obedience to the One who is over us—and we can’t follow God in obedience if we’re following ourselves.
Christians who are growing in their walk with Jesus must learn to deny self in order to serve Christ. Our initial commitment to follow Christ includes denial of self because we acknowledge our need for Christ and turn from our sin; however, it’s easy to fall back into living selfishly! Our spiritual growth is evident as we learn to daily choose to obey God and deny our own desires and wishes. We learn to display a preference for God’s plan rather than assert our own. Transformation can be seen when we progressively set aside earthly temptations for kingdom priorities.
Ways the Church Can Foster Believers Who Obey God and Deny Self.
- Call for commitment. Pastors and church leaders who preach and teach should consistently call people to obedience. Call the congregation to act upon the Word of God that has been proclaimed. Teaching biblical truth is only half the task. We must also call people to believe it and act upon it.
The Holy Spirit is ultimately the One who convicts people to respond and act upon His Word, but He will use us in the process. Provide specific and clear calls to actions. Tepid invitations—“I invite you to respond to what you’ve heard”—need to end. Instead point out clearly how they can respond.
- Form discipleship triads. These groups have been called by a variety of names, but the principle is that believers get in groups of three. Within their Bible study groups, call individuals to partner with two other people—three men or three women together—for the purpose of praying together and supporting each other. Many triads also dig further on their group’s study, discussing and challenging each other in how they will obey and live out the Scripture they studied. This is a place of accountability.
- Invite testimonies. Let the congregation hear the stories of others who have chosen to be obedient to Christ in a specific area. This can be a full-blown presentation from a family who gave up a comfortable lifestyle to be missionaries in South America, or it can be a five-minute testimony from an individual in the church family regarding a specific way they choose obedience to God over self.
These “mini-sermons” can be powerful. They provide concrete examples of what obedience and denial look like, especially when they come from “a regular person just like me.”
As the believers in your church mature and more readily self-denial and obedience to God, the community can’t help but notice.