How do we untangle ourselves and our churches from the pervasiveness of self-centered discipleship? We all need to be reoriented to who God is and who we are. Our local churches need to completely orient themselves toward the character and nature of God. Self-denial only makes sense if we get God instead of ourselves… Discipleship is being reoriented to who God is and who we are. That God is the creator and we are his creation. That he is perfect and we are both beautiful as image bearers and broken as sinners. That he is the Redeemer and that we are in need of redemption.
One of the greatest challenges facing the church is discipleship that centers around the autonomous self.
The West is in the middle of a cultural moment that centers all of reality around the autonomous self. People’s interest in spirituality is not waning, but the kind of spirituality people are increasingly interested in is a spirituality that is focused on the self. Bavinck’s claim that “God, and God alone, is man’s highest good,” could be contrasted by a contemporary cultural mantra: “Self, and being true to yourself alone, is your highest good.”
We have replaced the transcendence of God with the transcendence of self.
Though this problem is uniquely clear in our cultural moment, it is not a new problem. Ever since Genesis 3 humans have viewed the love and knowledge of self as our highest good, falsely believing that the self, not God, is a bottomless well of beauty. Salvation, according to self-centered discipleship, is not found in knowing God, but in knowing self.
We are being told everywhere that truly finding ourselves is the antidote to our stress, anxiety, and confusion, but biblical discipleship says knowledge of God is the only true antidote.
Discipleship as Self Improvement
In this turn towards the self, the church has, perhaps both intentionally and unintentionally, tailored its discipleship strategies to accommodate, and even perpetuate, this cultural shift. In other words, it is not just the secularist promise that salvation is found in self-improvement, self-actualization, and self-growth, but this is slowly becoming the promise in the church as well.
In his book No Place for Truth: or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, David Wells comments on the disappearance of a God-centered vision for discipleship and the appearance of self-centered discipleship when he says that we can see, “the shift from God to the self as the central focus of faith…” He goes onto highlight how this theological shift has led to a serious confusion about who God is, what discipleship is, and what the church’s role is.
Jesus confronts this view of discipleship as self-improvement in Matthew 16. At the very core of the chapter is the incredible scene at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks his disciples, “who do people say that the Son of Man is?” In verse 14, Jesus’s disciples respond by saying, “some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Persisting, Jesus continues his question by asking them, “but who do you say that I am?”
In his famous response, Simon Peter replies, “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responded to his disciples by saying, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, what my father who is in heaven,” (Matt 16:17).
I have heard it preached dozens of times that the question, “But who do you say that I am?” is the most important question anyone will ever answer—and for good reason. The identity of Jesus stands at the center of the Christian faith, but I want to suggest there is an equally important question. Jesus is not only interested in his disciples knowing who he is; Peter actually gets that part right. They must also know what he came to do and what is going to be required for them to follow him.
Jesus’ identity can never be separated from his work, and our identity can never be separated from our call to follow.
Immediately after this scene the text tells us that Jesus began to show his disciples that he must, “Go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” (Matt 16:21). Peter, the same Peter who just got the identity of Jesus right, responds by rebuking Jesus. You see, for Peter, true human flourishing and true life is found is self-actualization, preservation, and improvement. He has just rightly answered that Jesus is the King, which is really good news for Peter. He is going to reign and rule with King Jesus! But it is going to look nothing like what Peter thought.
How could the Christ, the King who came to rule, die on a cross? After all, Peter got into this whole discipleship thing because he thought Jesus was going to rule on a throne, and if Jesus was going to rule on a throne, then that meant Peter was going to rule as well. This is discipleship as self improvement.