Spiritual Discipleship by J. Oswald Chambers is a compelling book that, not only defines biblical discipleship, but also exhorts, urges, and encourages disciples of Christ to continue to grow in discipleship. There were many viable and valuable truths that deserve to be discussed here. Ten truths that spoke to me and helped me grow spiritually and in knowledge of God in this book will be outlined below.
Truth 1: The “ideal disciple” takes the world by surprise
Chambers outlines in his first chapter what an ideal disciple of Jesus Christ looks like. He does this by going through the Beatitudes and organizing them as “passive personal qualities” and “active social qualities”. The ideal disciple or blessed one will demonstrate “spiritual inadequacy, spiritual contrition, spiritual humility, and spiritual aspiration”. These are each passive qualities that Jesus considers blessed. Then he moves to outline Jesus’ description of the blessedness of four active social qualities. The ideal disciple will be “compassionate in spirit”, “pure in heart”, “conciliatory in spirit”, and “unswerving in loyalty”. Chambers makes it clear that these descriptions by Jesus of what makes up blessedness is directly for his disciples since he addressed it to them (11). Although there was a massive crowd assembled to hear his sermon, Jesus addressed these words specifically to those followers who he had called.
With that in mind, Chambers makes a very important point to begin this book on discipleship.
Many think that if they had abundant wealth, absence of sorrow and suffering, good health, a good job, unrestricted gratification of appetites, and kind treatment from everyone, that would be blessedness indeed. But Jesus completely reversed that concept and substituted many of the very experiences we would like to sidestep—poverty, mourning, hunger, thirst, renunciation, persecution. True blessedness is to be found along this path, He told them.
The main truth of this first chapter is that the call to discipleship is distinctively counter-cultural. At the outset of his earthly ministry, Jesus asserts that his followers will be starkly different from the world and will have other-worldly desires and natures.
Truth 2: Discipleship is difficult and demanding
Chambers writes in chapter two that “[Jesus] began to thin their ranks by stating in the starkest of terms the exacting conditions of discipleship” (19). This truth is compelling and often left out of gospel presentations. Too often the gospel is presented in such a way that Jesus ends up being the desperate party who is in need of the other. But when Jesus called his first disciples, he laid out some very hard sayings that would rub many in our culture the wrong way. I believe that if we would lay out in clear and stark terms the conditions of discipleship, it would diminish the number of false confessions of faith, for who would half-heartedly want any part of a man who said that his disciples must love him more than family?
Jesus’ method of discipleship is so often opposite ours. Many of us desire big crowds and churches. We desire quantity. Chambers makes it clear that Jesus desires quality. He calls men and women by his grace and they follow knowing the cost.
Truth 3: Discipleship is predicated on regeneration
This truth was found in just a short couple of paragraphs. But these small lines of text speak loudly. Chambers complains about the tendency for pastors to leave out the need for repentance in their preaching. This is utter foolishness since “without repentance there can be no regeneration” (21). And while I would contend Chambers’ position by arguing that regeneration leads to repentance, I get his point. Repentance and regeneration go hand in hand. The disciple is formed through repentance and regeneration. While this call to discipleship is on the basis on faith alone, this faith will not be alone. Indeed, “obedience is evidence of the reality of our repentance of faith” (21). This leads to the next truth.
Truth 4: There are many fruits of discipleship
The disciple is proven to be a disciple by his works. His faith is illuminated by his obedience to Christ. Chambers makes this abundantly clear. He also gives some specific examples of this obedience as taught by Jesus. Firstly, Chambers describes a “continuance principle”. He exposits Jesus’ words in John 8:31-32 and writes that continuing in the Word is stark evidence of a Christ follower. Chambers asserts that “Continuance in the Word is the evidence of reality” (29).
He then outlines what he calls the “love principle”. Citing John 13:34-45, Chambers describes that the disciple of Christ will demonstrate love for others, both friends and foes. The third evidence of discipleship according to Chambers is the “fruit principle”. This is based on Jesus’ teaching in John 15. A true disciple of Jesus Christ will show evidence of his or her union with him by his spiritual fruit. Chambers rightly writes that the fruit of true believers is demonstrated in the person’s character and service. This chapter is helpful for both self-examination and gospel proclamation since “a fruitless disciple of Christ is a contradiction in terms” (33).
Truth 5: A disciple of Jesus is not following an ordinary teacher
What I love most about Chambers’ book is the fact that he gives proper attention to Lordship salvation. The disciple is not one who merely adheres to truths (although he does that). The disciple of Jesus must trust in his Savior and submit to his Master. Jesus is both Savior and Master. And it is submission to Christ’s lordship that makes the disciple, not just mere acknowledgment of his lordship, since even the demons do that. Tragically, there are countless in our culture and maybe even in some of our churches who, like Gandhi, either directly or indirectly admire Jesus as a man and teacher, but say, “I cannot accord to Christ a solitary throne” (45). Disciples of Jesus, therefore, are marked by self-submission to an exalted King.
Truth 6: A disciple of Jesus has a holy ambition
I loved Chambers’ statement, “too many disciples are content with the status quo and cherish no ambition to improve their spiritual condition and fulfill a more useful ministry.” I think too often in the Christian life we can become complacent. So many Christians, including myself, can be guilty of abusing grace by not growing in holiness. Somewhere along the way, we lose an ambition to pursue Christ and likeness to him. While it is very tempting to become complacent as a Christ-follower, that is not the life we have been called to. I want to point out two holy ambitions mentioned by Chambers.
Firstly, disciples of Jesus should have an ambition to become more like Jesus. More pointedly, disciples of Christ are to have an ambition for Christ. We should want more and more and more of him. We should have the attitude of the Moravian church and her leader who once said “I have one passion: it is He, He alone!”
Naturally, this ambitious and fiery passion for Jesus will lead to a holy ambition to see peoples from all nations come to Christ. This is the second ambition. Of all the things that I gleaned from this book, this was the most important. When the gospel is shared, these two things are sadly left out in so many cases. Chambers made it clear that the disciple of Jesus has the “passion for the glory of Christ in the salvation of souls” that David Brainerd had when he proclaimed: “I cared not how or where I lived, or what hardships I endured, so that I could but gain souls for Christ.”
These two ambitions are to embody the disciple of Jesus Christ. These two desires and ambitions will lead to a fruitful ministry since the goal in all of these is the glory of God. God is glorified when we desire him above all others and desire others to know him.
Truth 7: A disciple of Jesus is to grow in maturity
Similar to the last truth, followers of Christ are to continue to grow in maturity. In fact, this is great evidence of a true disciple. True Christ-followers will continue to grow in holiness. Chambers makes a key point that I agree with. He writes that “no rapid growth in Christian maturity will be attained until the first indispensable step of submission to the lordship of Christ has been taken” (emphasis his, 82). However, this is only the first step. One who is in Christ will take strides in spiritual maturity. This is primarily due to the grace of God in working in us, although disciples of Christ are to work out our own salvation (Phil. 2:12-13). This means that the life of a Christian is the life of a warrior who fights sin at nearly every moment. But the Christian can do so with the unshakeable hope in the truth that sin has been defeated and we are reigning with Christ!
Truth 8: The life of a disciple of Jesus is one of intense training
One of my favorite chapters in this book is entitled “The Disciple’s Olympics”. I played basketball and baseball competitively in high school so this chapter was very personal to me. The essence of the chapter is summed up in this concise statement by Chambers: “The Holy Spirit urges each of us to do in the spiritual sphere what the athlete does in the gymnasium” (91). A disciple should therefore continually work in a disciplined manner to become more like Christ. This is in a real sense the goal of salvation—to glorify God through conformity to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29). Intense Bible study, frequent prayer, and intentional disciple-making should mark our lives as disciples. Just as the Olympic athlete trains strenuously for hours upon hours, Christ-followers are to train their hearts and we have the assurance that “it was He who initiated our faith, and it is He who will strengthen us to complete the course” (95).
Truth 9: Compassion should fill the heart of the disciple of Jesus
Walking directly in the footsteps of the Master, a follower of Jesus should be compassionate toward the “crowds”. There are thousands of unreached people groups and billions of lost people in our world. Our hearts should be broken at this reality, knowing that there are so many who have yet to hear of Jesus as well as countless in our own cities and neighborhoods who stand in rebellion to God. I love Chambers’ statement concerning this truth: “[E]very disciple of the compassionate Christ will be concerned to see that the unevangelized millions will have an opportunity to hear the gospel” (102). Apart from Christ there is no hope. At the truthful thought of millions and even billions with no hope, our hearts should break and as a result our lives should be centered around glorifying God through disciple-making. We should be compassionate toward the physical and spiritual needs of those around us and around the world. This Christ-like compassion should always lead us into sacrificial living and giving.
Truth 10: The prayer life of the disciple should be radical
While Chambers does not directly use the term “radical,” I do believe he implies this. This is an area of life that many Christians struggle with, including myself. In my early years as a Christian, I was never taught how to pray. As a result, in my own ministry with children and youths, I teach them how to pray biblically. According to Chambers, the disciple can pray with authority and should pray audaciously (108-109). Each day we fight battles against sin and temptation to sin. One of the weapons we use in this fight is prayer. Chambers strongly writes “the fulcrum on which defeat or victory turns is our ability to pray aright and make intelligent use of our weapons” (108). As followers of Jesus we can pray with authority because we are united to the conqueror of sin, Satan, and death. In praying with authority, we demonstrate the reality of our reigning with Christ.
I often am guilty of being too mild in my prayers. I can identify with what Chambers says about most disciples’ prayer lives: “[Our prayers] seldom soar above past experience or natural thought” (109). Although our intercessor is the Lord of all the universe, we so often pray mildly and repetitively (in the sense that our prayers reflect on past experiences). A disciple should pray for things that are unknown to us or what we think to be impossible. Praying like this requires faith.
While in my immediate future I can only see myself doing ministry in my small town, my prayers should be for a very fruitful ministry maybe among an unreached people group. Will that happen? Is that what God has called me to? I do not know. But that is the point. Disciples of Jesus should pray for their family members who are callously hardened against God. For those atheist friends who want no part of God, we should pray for God to save them. Through confident prayer in faith in a risen Savior and almighty God, the impossibilities of men can become realized possibilities with God.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY. with his wife Erica.