What comes first? Not, the chicken or the egg, but rather, Conversion or Discipleship? Were Jesus disciples converted before following Him? or did they begin to follow Christ before being converted? And why does it even matter?
As we have sought to be faithful to Jesus’ cultural mandate to ‘make disciples of all nations’, these are two of the questions we have found ourselves pondering. Immediately terms need to be defined. What does it mean to be converted? What does discipleship mean? Important questions if we are committed to finding real answers. The apostle Paul’s conversion appears to happen very suddenly and dramatically on the road to Damascus. There was an immediate radical change in this man’s lifestyle. Other’s, like John Wesley speak of a more gradual drawing of the spirit until their ‘hearts are strangely warmed’ like Wesley’s was 24 May 1738 on Aldersgate Street. Conversion is that moment of revelation when your spiritual eyes are opened to see that Jesus truly is the Son of God & Lord of the Universe. A moment when, the light of God’s revelation breaks into the darkness of the human heart bringing greater understanding & clarity about reality. The result in the convert is a change of mind and heart, a turning from a life of selfishness & self-centeredness to a life of self-sacrifice and Christ-centeredness. It is definitely a supernatural working in by the Holy Spirit, requiring a definite faith response & working out by the convert. The convert yield’s his/her life to the Lord-ship of Jesus Christ & commits to learning & living his teachings. So what is required to move a person’s heart to this place of conversion?
Preparation is required. ‘Break up the fallow ground’. John the Baptist had been sent to prepare the way. In the culture of Jesus time it was not uncommon for a Rabbi (or Jewish Teacher) to call to himself students to be trained. Infact, it was a great honor for the student. It is believed that the region Jesus called his disciples from was an area with Rabbinic schools sensitive to God’s agenda in the earth. They were educating the people preparing them to recognize the Messiah when he came. So when Jesus began to call the men he chose to follow him there was an anticipation, a readiness. But was their response to this invitation to follow their moment of conversion? Or was this when the process of pre-conversion discipleship began?
It is maybe the clearest to see this process unfold in the life of the Apostle Peter. He has many powerful break-through moment’s with Jesus. Remember when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”, Peter’s response, “You are the Christ!” This was probably months after Jesus had given the invitation to follow him, clearly Peter was seeing something very unique in Jesus. Was this Peter’s moment of conversion? Could this be called a post/or mid-discipleship conversion? Jesus acknowledges, “Flesh & Blood has not revealed this to you Peter, but my Father in heaven”. On another occasion after many realized that the cost of following Christ was too great and left Jesus, Jesus turns to those that stayed and asked, “Will you leave me too?” Peter speaks up again on this occasion, his response, “Where can we go? Only you have the words of life.” It looks like he’s really got it until Jesus gets arrested and crucified at which point it really looks like John the beloved is the only man left standing? But after Peter’s sifting & Jesus resurrection, we see Jesus reinstate Peter asking him three times, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?” Peter’s response, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.”
Relationship is essential to the process of discipleship, & trust is at the root of any meaningful relationship. Jesus’ great desire is for our trust in Him to grow strong. With his disciples Jesus continued to provide a safe place for them to cultivate trust while he gave them the time & evidence needed to come to their own conclusion about his identity as the Son of God. In our broken world we all to various degree’s wrestle with complex trust issues. Really working through these issues takes humility, & relationship, & time, & tenderness, & wisdom. Engaging the unconverted in the process of discipleship prior to their revelation of Jesus as Savior and Lord is not putting the cart before the horse, but rather a glimpse into the heart & processes of God. Jesus was accused of being a sinner because he ate with sinners. Was this compromise? Or was he hoping to engage them in a process that could be called pre-conversion discipleship? Someone once wisely said, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” An understanding of the power of belonging is at the core of us attempting to re-emphasize ways to engage in a discipleship process that produces real & lasting conversion. Creating that sense of ownership & belonging, before confronting someone about what they should believe, may not yield 100% fruit, but I am convinced it yield’s greater fruit. Taste and see that the Lord is good.