A Useful Disciple of Jesus Christ
April 29, 2011 Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen
Scripture: 2 Peter 1:8–1:9
I attended a school for missionary children in Kenya when I was growing up. Because the school was in a rather isolated setting, we developed our own slang, with a constantly shifting vocabulary of words and phrases that would take on a certain meaning and be used almost incessantly. Then suddenly a word or phrase would be dropped and replaced by something else. This changing vocabulary included the flavor of the month or the year in insult words that we would use to put each other down. I still remember one particular insult which was in vogue when I was in grade school (primary school). It was the word “useless.” We used it constantly. Anything we didn’t like, anyone we didn’t like, anyone we were mad at was subjected to the insult. “You’re useless!”
That word carries a peculiar sting, doesn’t it? Every human being is born with a deep need for significance and impact. We a need to be useful, to have and to fulfill some vital purpose in life. What an awful thing it is to be labeled “useless.”
I am going to read a couple of lists of words. I want you to listen to them carefully.
The first list: useless, ineffective, futile, worthless, inept, good for nothing, unproductive, sterile, barren, unprofitable.
The second list: useful, effective, productive, valuable, profitable, fruitful.
I want to address my remarks today especially to those who (will be/have been) baptized. My question is this. Which of those two lists would you like to have characterize your Christian life? Baptism is not a graduation ceremony. It is an initiation rite. It doesn’t symbolize the end or conclusion of anything. It symbolizes the beginning of new life in Christ. So, as those who will/have taken this step this morning to enact the beginning of your life in Christ, what do you want the rest of the journey to look like?
For the rest of us, some possibly quite new to the Christian life, others who have been Christians for years and years, which list describes your Christian life so far? And what do you want the rest of it to look like?
I think it is self-evident. All of us would choose the second list. We want to be useful, not useless. So what I want to do this morning is to share with you a Scripture that promises us that we do not ever need to be useless or unproductive as Christians. The passage is found in 2 Peter 1:8-9.
Let’s read verse 8:
For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Here is the spiritual truth that I want all of us to take away from the message today: GROWTH IN CHRIST-LIKE CHARACTER ENSURES SPIRITUAL USEFULNESS. If we want to be spiritually useful, we have to grow spiritually. And if we want to continue to be spiritually useful, we have to continue growing. Because I think the reverse of this principle is also true: When a believer stops growing, he stops being useful.
But before we go too far, let’s define what we mean by spiritual growth. I deliberately used the phrase “growth in Christ-like character.” I am not using my own definitions here, but following closely what Peter himself is saying. Look at his words in the opening of this verse: For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure…
What qualities is he talking about? They are the qualities he has just listed in verses 5-7:
For this reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control, and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure…
We don’t have time this morning to do a detailed study of each of the qualities in that list. But I do want to make a couple observations. The list starts with faith. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:8. That is where the Christian life begins; by trusting in Christ and his death on the cross for our sins. But that is a beginning point, not an ending point. Faith is believing in Christ and in what he did for us. But now we are to supply something. We are to bring along diligent effort, hard work, intense commitment. That effort is to add to our faith the rest of the things on the list.
When we look at the list, we find that every word in the list describes a character quality. It’s easy, as Christians, to get hung up on activities and actions. We have a list of prescribed actions: go to church, read your Bible, witness, and so on. We also have a list of proscribed or forbidden actions: don’t go here, don’t go there, don’t hang around with those people, etc. Christians from different backgrounds and from different countries may have different lists. But every group of Christians has their list. The problem is that we can get completely hung up on these actions and activities, and completely forget what lies underneath it all. That the Christian life is not so much about what we do on the outside as it is about who we are on the inside. It’s about character. It’s about the inner life of the soul as it is expressed in outward actions.
Look again at this list: goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. That list makes up a wonderful description of Jesus himself, doesn’t it? The Christian life, Christian growth, is really about becoming like Christ, being molded into his image.
It’s also important to look at that phrase, “in increasing measure.” These qualities of Christian character are never static or absolute. We can never say: “I have enough goodness, or knowledge or self-control.” Christian maturity, Christian growth is not a place of arrival, but a direction of travel. Here is the precondition for spiritual usefulness: If you possess these qualities in increasing measure…Literally, “if these things are in you and increasing…”
GROWTH IN CHRIST-LIKE CHARACTER ENSURES SPIRITUAL USEFULNESS. That’s the promise of the word of God here: For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The word translated “ineffective” here is the Greek equivalent of our word “useless.” It comes from a word that refers to “any product whatever, anything accomplished by hand, art, industry or mind” and then adds a negative prefix. In other words, someone who is not producing anything useful at all – useless. No one wants to be useless. But the promise of God is that we don’t have to be. GROWTH IN CHRIST-LIKE CHARACTER ENSURES SPIRITUAL USEFULNESS. But remember the opposite is true as well. When a believer stops growing, he stops being effective. In other words, he becomes useless.
Peter also uses another word here. It is translated in the NIV as “unproductive.” KJV accurately translates the word “unfruitful.” The metaphor of fruitfulness and unfruitfulness is found throughout the Scripture, both Old and New Testament. The prophets spoke of Israel as a vineyard that produced only wild grapes. Jesus referred to himself as the vine and his followers as the branches. He promised us that if we, as the branches, abide in the vine, we shall bear fruit, much fruit, fruit that would last. Paul spoke of the fruit of the Spirit. He also spoke of his converts as the “fruit of his labor.” Jesus also told the parable of the sower and the seed, and spoke of seed that fell among thorns. This seed became “unfruitful.”
Using this metaphor, no one wants to be unfruitful. When we think of synonyms for this word, we come up with words like unproductive, sterile, barren, wasteland, desert. But we don’t have to be unfruitful. God’s promise here is that if these qualities are in us in increasing measure, they will keep us from being unfruitful.
I have been doing a lot of thinking about this principle recently. A couple weeks ago, I attended a conference for pastors of international churches. In his opening session, the speaker talked about discipleship. He contrasted two models for discipleship. One is a “learn and grow” model. The other is a “hear and obey” model. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had fallen into a “learn and grow” model and vocabulary and kind of thinking. Discipleship was about knowledge. People need knowledge in order to grow. So give them knowledge and growth will follow. If someone wants to grow, give them a book, enroll them in a class, invite them to a Bible study. What is wrong with this model? What is wrong with learning and acquiring knowledge? What is wrong with Bible studies and discipleship classes? Nothing! But in and of themselves, they do not necessarily produce genuine growth. There are lots of churches that are full of Christians who are full of knowledge. Their heads are full. Their notebooks are full. Their bookshelves are full. The margins of their Bibles are full of notes. But are they useful or useless? Are they fruitful or unfruitful? Knowledge and learning are not enough.
What is the Biblical model of discipleship? It is the “hear and obey” model, is it not? In Matthew 5-7, Jesus preached to a multitude of potential disciples. It is referred to as the “Sermon on the Mount.” It is one of the most penetrating, convicting, disturbing passages in the Bible. It is his “kingdom manifesto”. Jesus is saying, “If you want to be my disciple and a productive member of my kingdom, this is what it looks like.” I want to fast forward to the end of the sermon. Jesus concluded by contrasting two men. One of the men built a house, on solid rock. When the storms came and the floods rose, the house stood firm. The other man built his house on sand. When the storm came and the flood rose, this man’s house collapsed. What made the difference? Jesus said that both of these men, “heard these words of mine.” In other words, they had the same knowledge. They had the same information. But the first man is the one who “hears these words and puts them into practice.” Literally, he “hears these words and does them.” His house survived the storm. And the man who built on sand? He represents the man who “hears and does not do them.” His house collapsed when the storm came.
The Scripture is full of such warnings. “Learn and grow” is not wrong. It is just incomplete. “Learn, do and grow.” “Hear and obey.” Without the doing, there is no growing. This same principle comes through strongly in Jesus’ Great Commission. He commands his followers to “make disciples”. Literally, “recruit followers of Jesus Christ.” That is the driving verb of this commission. But we have not completed the task when someone raises their hand and says, “I want to follow Jesus.” There are two accompanying activities. The first one is “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” These new disciples are to be initiated and take their stand as followers of Jesus. So is the task complete then? No. We need to enroll them in discipleship classes and Bible studies. Is that what Jesus said? Almost, but not quite. “Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The word literally means “to keep”. Growth comes not from learning alone, but from obeying and from doing what Jesus commanded.
Is this not also the fundamental teaching of James in his epistle?
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.
That blessing will be a life that is useful and not useless, as Peter tells us in II Peter 1:8. It is a “hear and obey” model that God blesses. This is the challenge that I offer to those who will be baptized today, and to all who are new to the Christian faith if you desire to be “useful” in your Christian life.
Let me add a few thoughts for those who have been Christians for a while, and you have to admit you’re “stuck”. You aren’t seeing any real spiritual growth. You have to admit that you have become rather “useless” or “unfruitful” in your knowledge of Jesus Christ. In II Peter 1:9, Peter puts on his “spiritual doctor” hat. I am told that in the US, anyway, there is a general medical description which is sometimes applied to infants. It is the phrase “failure to thrive.” I think it’s a useful phrase to apply to our spiritual lives. When we “fail to thrive”, Peter gives us a couple possible diagnoses to help us discern the underlying problem. But if anyone does not have them (these character qualities) he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.
Peter tells us that the believer who “failing to thrive”; who is not growing in Christ-like character, and the promised usefulness that comes with it, has two possible problems. It could be an eye problem or a memory problem.
First of all, he is nearsighted and blind. At first that sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Actually Peter is using a graphic, if somewhat imprecise metaphor. He actually says: “he is blind, being nearsighted.” In other words, he is blind, but it is not a total blindness, but a particular kind of blindness. It is a kind of blindness that renders him unable to look ahead, to see distances, to see beyond his own hand, so to speak.
In what sense is the stagnating, non-growing Christian nearsighted? Let’s look at 2 Corinthians 4:17-18: For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
If we are nearsighted, we can only see what is temporary, what will yield immediate gratification. But faith is the ability to fix our eyes on what is eternal, what is in the distance. To see the eternal glory that awaits the growing, faithful believer.
It’s interesting, if we go back to the parable of the sower and the seed that fell among thorns, the thorns that choke the seed and make it unfruitful are clearly identified by Jesus. I am quoting from Mark 4:18-19: Still others, like the seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word making it unfruitful. Notice how all these things are temporary things, things near at hand. That’s all they can see. They are nearsighted, and this peculiar kind of blindness renders them unfruitful.
Secondly, Peter tells us that the stagnant, non-growing Christian may have a memory problem. He has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.
How does such a failure of memory prevent spiritual growth? Peter doesn’t elaborate in this text, but let me suggest two ways. First of all, if we forget that we have been cleansed from past sins, we may well continue to participate in the same sins. In Romans 6:1-2, Paul tells us: What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Remembering that we have been forgiven does not lead us to continue in sin. It increases our desire to live new lives.
Peter uses a couple very graphic metaphors in 2 Peter 2:22: “A dog returns to its vomit” and “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.” Both of these word pictures from nature are built on the forgetfulness of the animal. The dog returns. The sow goes back. Why? Because the dog has forgotten that he has been purged of that which made him sick, and the sow has forgotten that she has been cleansed from that which made her dirty. Let us not share their forgetfulness. We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
There is a second way in which such forgetfulness can hinder our spiritual growth. We may have stopped participating in the same sins, and yet still be so weighted down with guilt feelings for the sins we have committed, we have the impression that we are useless to God; that he can never use someone as soiled and spoiled as we are. Romans 8:1 announces the good news. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Why not? Because we’ve been cleansed from our sins! And because of that cleansing, there is nothing to hold us back from spiritual growth, from being molded into the image and character of Jesus Christ.
So, if you are not growing in your walk with Christ, if the character qualities that marked his life are not in you and increasing, I would ask you: Is it an eye problem or a memory problem? Whatever it is, treat it with the truth of Scripture and he will restore your vision and your memory and you will be ready and excited to go on in spiritual growth toward maturity. And with that spiritual growth will come a return to spiritual usefulness.
There is a wonderful little story in the New Testament, related to us in the letter of Paul to Philemon. It is the story of a slave, who stole from his master and then ran away. In his flight he came to the city of Rome and there, by the sovereignty of God, he came in contact with the apostle Paul who was in prison there. Through this contact, he became a follower of Jesus. The letter to Philemon is a letter Paul wrote to Philemon, the slave’s master as he sent him back to make things right. It’s a delightful little letter. But I want to focus on a couple of verses.
In Philemon 8-9 we read: I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
What isn’t immediately apparent in the English is the play on the word meanings. The name Onesimus literally means “useful.” It was a great name, but he hadn’t exactly lived up to it, had he? Paul admits, “Formerly, he was useless to you.” But now things have changed. He’s come to Christ. He’s growing in his faith. His character is being transformed to become like that of Christ. The one who was “formerly useless” has now become “useful.”
I don’t know about you, but I want to be useful. I want my life to count for something, not just for the short term, but for eternity. How can I be sure that will be true? By practicing “hear and obey” discipleship. By making effort to continue to grow spiritually and to become like Christ. For if I possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep me from being useless and unfruitful in my knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is a wonderful promise. Will you join me in that quest?
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- “You’re useless!” Why do these words carry such a sting?
- II Peter 1:8 contains a wonderful promise that we can be kept from ever becoming useless in our walk with God. But it is a promise with preconditions. Read verses 3-7 and identify and discuss the preconditions.
- Compare and contrast the “learn and grow” and the “hear and obey” models of discipleship. Which do you think best fits the Biblical model? What are the implications for you personally? What are the implications for your small group?
- Does the emphasis on character qualities (in verses 5-7) match the way Christians commonly evaluate Christian maturity and spiritual growth? Why is the answer to this question important?
- Discuss the ways that being “near-sighted” or “forgetting he has been cleansed from past sins” might lead to spiritual stagnation and a lack of spiritual growth.