There’s an appropriate urgency to the work of the Great Commission. We know that every day, indeed every minute, people are dying around the world without Christ. This drove Hudson Taylor to cry out to a slumbering church in England, “A million a month are dying without God!” Paul prayed that the message of the gospel would “spread rapidly and be honored” (2 Thess. 3:1).
While embracing this urgency, however, we must never truncate or redefine the Great Commission. Our Lord commanded to us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and “teaching them to obey everything” he has commanded us (Matt. 28:19–20). Comprehensive discipleship is essential to the Great Commission. It’s not some luxury that we can’t afford because we are seeking to ignite an explosive church planting movement.
Therefore, all field laborers in the Great Commission must be eager to pour solid doctrine into the eager hearts of their new converts, build them up to full maturity in Christ, and not take shortcuts.
Paul’s Urgency to Proclaim the Gospel Didn’t Undermine the Necessity of Healthy Discipleship
No one understood this better than the apostle Paul, whose urgency to take the gospel to “regions beyond” was unparalleled in the history of missions. Paul, for all his urgency, settled into places like Corinth for a year and a half (Acts 18:11), pouring solid doctrine into the nascent church and building up new believers into spiritual maturity.
He stated his goal plainly in Colossians 1:28–29: “We proclaim [Christ], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we might present everyone perfect (mature) in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” Paul also gave the charge to the Ephesian elders to shepherd the flock of God faithfully, following his example of a detailed doctrinal ministry and careful oversight of the life patterns of the elders and the flock (Acts 20:27–28).
Much of Paul’s writing ministry in the New Testament is to existing believers to build them up to comprehensive holiness in the pattern of Christ.
Much of Paul’s writing ministry in the New Testament is to existing believers to build them up to comprehensive holiness in the pattern of Christ. The following are a few practical steps a church planter working in a cross-cultural setting can utilize to build the believers up to spiritual maturity.
1. Teach new converts that salvation comes in stages: justification, then sanctification, then glorification
Every person should be taught what each of these are and how they are related to, but different from, one other. It’s especially vital that new believers understand that justification is by faith in Christ alone, apart from works (Rom. 3:28).
However, they must also be taught that sanctification (progressive growth into Christlikeness) is essential to salvation, and that if it doesn’t occur, then justification has not yet occurred. Sanctification involves the believer working hard in concert with the Holy Spirit (Phil. 2:12–13). Mortification of sins by the power of the Holy Spirit is essential to final salvation. Without it, we cannot be saved (Rom. 8:13–14).
New believers also should also understand that in glorification we will be made perfectly righteous in body and soul by the direct action of God.
2. Teach new converts to hate sin and love holiness
All sin is spiritual poison, and God loves us too much to allow us to continue to live in sin. The most beautiful state a human soul can ever experience is that of holiness in the pattern of Christ. The law (Scripture) carefully reveals and dissects sin in our lives, and the Spirit’s role is to enable us to live out the moral law of God by his power (Rom. 8:4).
3. Hold new converts accountable
Ask probing questions about areas of growth: sin struggles, spiritual disciplines, areas of weak obedience. Be gentle but consistent.
4. Build a community commitment to discipleship
Help the growing church to see the responsibility they have to pray for each other’s battles with the world, with the flesh, and with the devil (Eph. 6:18, 1 Pet. 5:8–9). Show them how to hold each other accountable in areas of general Christian growth and specific focuses of spiritual weakness and Satanic attack.
5. Offer a clear roadmap to spiritual maturity
Model that full maturity is Christlikeness in every area of life. I divide it into four key areas: knowledge (factual and experiential), faith, character, and action. Biblical knowledge feeds faith, transforms character, and results in good works. These works, in turn, feed knowledge and cause a cycle of growth toward Christlike maturity.
6. Pray fervently for spiritual growth
Pray openly in the hearing of new believers, and urge them to pray for each other’s growth to full maturity in Christ.
We yearn to plant healthy churches who multiply, producing many other healthy churches. Only by doing the solid work of evangelism and discipleship will this be possible.
Andy Davis is a graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he received his PhD in church history. He served as a church planter in Tokushima, Japan, with IMB and has been senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, since 1998.
For further reading on the roadmap to holiness, check out Andy’s book entitled An Infinite Journey: Growing Toward Christlikeness.