One of the illustrations I use when I teach on discipleship is the image of three lines. The first line we cross is the line of commitment to Christ. We come to a point where we become followers of Jesus. Crossing the second line is the act of taking responsibility for our own spiritual growth, not expecting it to happen automatically. The third line signifies a commitment to the spiritual well-being of others. That’s the general picture. Now for some more detail.
First, these three lines are ideal. Though they represent a hypothetical normal order of Christian maturity, some people differ. God’s grace works in the life of all people before they come to faith. While it might be most logical or most common for a person to begin by crossing the first line – commitment to Christ – I have seen people who were brought to cross this line by means of taking up spiritual disciplines, the normal way a person takes responsibility for his or her spiritual life. BY grace a person catches a vision for a life with God, and, finding that vision attractive, develops (again by grace) the intention to pursue that vision, and takes up practices through which God then draws him or her to faith.
Likewise, in others God graciously imparts a deep love for people. This love is more than just a feeling of warm affection, but a deep and genuine desire to see another (or others) flourish. At this point there is need for another clarification. When I teach on the third line, taking up a commitment to the spiritual well-being of others, I am taking “spiritual” more broadly than some others. When I seek the spiritual well-being of another person, I am seeking to do my part to help them flourish in God’s Kingdom. This attentiveness seeks to help them experience the fullness of salvation, a healing not only in their relationship with God, but also their relationships with others, with themselves, and with creation. When someone who has not crossed the first or second line begins with this commitment, chances are that such a person will lack the full vision of human flourishing within Kingdom dimensions. Nevertheless, their commitment to the well-being of others (perhaps not even yet conceived as spiritual well-being), is pleasing to God. Once such a person crosses the first line of commitment, the addition of more specifically spiritual dimensions will be a natural addition.
While all three of these types of commitment are necessary steps in Christian maturity, it is not uncommon to find individuals (or even movements) that focus on only one of the three. Some individuals (and some traditions) focus solely on crossing the line of commitment to Christ. It is supposed that getting people to heaven (or into the resurrection life of the future) is the sole goal. Once a person crosses this line, he or she can then move on to the rest of life. Perhaps one’s faith is viewed as a sort of eternal fire insurance, a get into heaven free card, or an expression of personal choice. Crossing the line of faith is a good thing. But I’ve seen too many examples of people who settle for only crossing this line who later appear to give it all up, and lapse into nominal Christianity or even fall away altogether. In crossing the first line they have grasped that Jesus calls us to life. But in neglecting the other two lines they miss that he also calls us to a life, a way of living. A mere decision for Christ simply isn’t enough to sustain people in their faith over the long haul.
The three commitments represented by the three lines are so intertwined in the fullness of the salvation wrought in Jesus, that resting on any one commitment alone, not only causes one to miss the blessing of the others, but also produces a distortion of the one which one has crossed. If I settle for only crossing the first line, coming to faith in Jesus, I miss the true nature of that faith if I fail to take responsibility for living a life with Jesus or fail to recognize that that life with Jesus includes his invitation to become a willing participant in what he is doing in the world and the lives of its inhabitants.
John Wesley claimed that there is “no holiness but social holiness, no religion but social religion.” The context of this claim was an argument with people he termed “mystics.” The mystics taught that the best way to reach maturity in Christ was to go inward and go alone. Wesley, however, noticed in scripture that Jesus’ call, while directed at individuals, was not to a solitary life. He called Peter, James, John, Andrew, Thomas and the others to follow him together. Necessarily, therefore, when we cross the second line, there is a tie to a community, to an actual group of people (actual as opposed to theoretical, a visible fellowship of disciples, not merely an invisible church of true believers). Thus while crossing the second line entails personal practices and disciplines (worship, prayer, immersion in scripture, etc.), these disciplines are also best done when a living connection to other believers is sustained. This salvation we access by faith is something we live out together.
When we cross the third line, the step of taking responsibility for others, we are expressing a lack of willingness to hold the blessings of God for ourselves. We are acting on the recognition that part of what it means to be a Jesus person is to join in his mission (“as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you”). As God produces love in our hearts for our neighbors, we find a passion to see them come to know Jesus and experience the same life and love we have found.
Merit does not come into the picture – it is not the case that when we cross the third line we become worthy, either in advance or retroactively – of God’s grace experienced in crossing the first line. We cross the third line, not to earn God’s favor, but simply because living a life of active intentional blessing to others is part of our salvation. God has called us to much more than just going to heaven when we die – to more than living with Jesus for eternity.
A final observation. From one perspective it might look like crossing the line is understood as something we do. Here I am, I see the line, and in my wisdom decide to cross it. The New Testament perspective, however, compels us to see that the truer understanding recognizes the necessary action of grace throughout the process of recognizing there is a line, coming to the line, deciding the line can be crossed and that I ought to cross it, and then taking the step of crossing it. Every step of the way God is drawing me. Every step of the way God is enabling me to respond, yet at no step compelling me to take that next step. God’s loving grace is invitational more than compulsory.