By J.T. English
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.
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,” (Matthew 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,” (Matthew 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.
Jesus envisions discipleship very differently than Peter does. If Jesus dies on a cross, and if Peter must follow him there, then that is really going to get in the way of Peter’s self-actualization.
This is not who Peter wants to be—following Jesus to a cross is not “being true to himself.” He wants to rule with Jesus in the Kingdom; what does a cross have to do with that?
Peter has a view of the self that is consistent, not only with the secular narratives of our day, but with the human narrative that begins in Genesis 3—the narrative that tells us that we are to grasp for an identity apart from God.
Jesus confronts this false narrative by telling Peter and the rest of the disciples, “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” (Matthew 16:24-25).
According to Jesus, discipleship is not about self-actualization or self-preservation—it is about self-denial. You will know yourself the most when you are carrying your cross.
All of our self-actualized visions of discipleship and our own little Kingdoms need to crumble and be crucified if the Kingdom of God is going to reign in our lives.
True self-knowledge comes, not through being true to yourself, but through denying yourself.
When we make discipleship about self-actualization, not self-denial, we fail to embody the way of the cross that Jesus beckons his followers to imitate.
Discipleship is not the pursuit of self that transforms our view of God, it is the pursuit of God that transforms the self—our whole selves.
Matthew 16 shows us that the person of Christ cannot be separated from the work of Christ. It also shows us that the way to follow the person of Christ is to carry the cross of self-denial, not the crown of self-improvement.
“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake,” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
Disciples are learning how to slowly take their eyes off of themselves as they become more and more transfixed on Christ.
So, what does it look like on the ground when we succumb to the lie of discipleship is about being true to yourself?
This is when our churches and ministries begin to offer people what they want instead of what they need. This is when disciples have a greater, more exhaustive knowledge of their Enneagram number than the attributes of God.
This is when disciples are more inclined to read generic spirituality books than of the Gospels.
This is when disciples don’t have a first-hand knowledge of their sacred text, or basic Christian beliefs, but have exhaustive knowledge of politics, sports, or entertainment.
It is when disciples are more shaped by the practices and habits of digital secularism than basic spiritual disciplines.
So, 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.
JT ENGLISH (jt_english) is the lead pastor at Storyline Fellowship in the Denver, Colorado, area. This article is excerpted from Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus with permission from B&H Publishing.