A Catechetical Imitation of Christ

John J. Bombaro
Friday, February 27th 2009
Mar/Apr 2009

So I get this assignment from Modern Reformation asking me to consider writing something on recovering discipleship in the local church, particularly paired with the idea of vocation. Good topic as usual. So I head off to the local evangelical bookstore to do a little reconnaissance in the "discipleship" section and find that the shelves are glutted with paperbacks from the usual suspects (Max Lucado, Rick Warren, Stormie Omartian, that Eldredge couple, Joyce Meyer, John Ortberg Shop, Joel Osteen, etc., etc.), and then it hits me that I'm looking in the wrong section for confessional input on the subject. In fact, I'm probably in the wrong store.

Then my survey of the best-sellers, blog-spots, and hottest trends of what is peddled in North American evangelicalism as biblical discipleship (under various designations such as "spiritual growth," "the art of Christian living," one's "walk with the Lord," "living the Christian life," and "life in the Spirit") revealed what seemed to be competing sides of the same neonomian coin: the cultivation of "self-feeders" via spiritual disciplines of American Christianity or the formation of sanctified selfishness through the art of developing "a better you"-in the name of Jesus, of course. Either way, the Pauline idea of Christ Jesus "whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30) gives way to fabricated standards of law-be they never so sanctimonious-and unapologetically touted as our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification.

The former mode of discipleship, as recently attested to and promulgated by Willow Creek's agenda-setting "Reveal" study and encore publications, seeks to bring believers to an elevated level of Christian discipleship by weaning them from the breast of the church that they may find solid food as hunters and gatherers beyond the walls of the cloister-crib. Responsibility for one's own spiritual growth belongs to the individual Christian. Being a disciple, first and foremost, means being a doer not a receiver. The church essentially is a nesting ground for hatching believers and regurgitating spiritual disciplines in the brood setting until those committed Christians chirping for the worms of advanced independent Bible study, quiet time, and self-anointed ministries take flight as bona fide disciples. The church-growth model of the "assembly of believers" thus proves itself to be a half-way house for pilgrims on the journey to spiritual maturity so that what "you do unto the least of these" you really do as an individual Christian, not as the Body of Christ. The cost of discipleship, then, is really a return to the wilderness, but this time with a Christianized version of Bear Grylls's "Man vs. Wild" training. Presumably, the gates of hell will not prevail against you.

As a byproduct of American Gnosticism, the latter mode of discipleship is even more dispiriting, for those two trust in Christ as their all in all (Eph. 1:23). Show me the "keys" that'll show me the money or the honey, whichever may be the heart's desire. There is no end to the recycling of techniques in this genre of literature (and so-called preaching) that takes its cues from Neo-Platonism, pop psychology and just about every pseudo-science, promising to enhance your Christian walk by informing and inspiring that power within you-you just need to learn how to unlock the potential that is the new you! From the Coptic hermits to Kenneth Copeland, the once-hidden "steps," "keys," "secrets," and "ways" of authentic discipleship are disclosed by entrepreneurial pastors in categories that leave justifying grace as an indemnification clause. In this vein, discipleship brazenly sports a sandwich board over its nakedness, whereas Willow Creek models wear a more acceptable neonomian dress concerning the Christian life and increasingly fashionable antinomian undergarments regarding ecclesiology.

But the Hydra of evangelical perspectives on discipleship has another, more prominent head: the bifurcation of the Christian life into strictly secular and sacred domains. In many evangelical churches (and even in my own experience in Presbyterian and now Lutheran ones), discipleship is spiritual disciplines plus service in the various ministries of the church, with those ministries ranging from leading Bible study to frothing milk at the narthex coffee bar. Discipleship just never seems to envelop one's distinctly non-churchly vocation(s) because of a compartmentalization factor: that's the world out there and it's full of nothing but worldliness. There just does not seem to be a theological way of understanding how a Christian's secular means of employment and assorted vocations in a non-Christian country, amidst a post-Christian culture, can in fact be a God-pleasing, God-ordained stations for the expression of biblical discipleship; at least, not without getting Christian Legal Services or Focus on the Family involved. Perhaps it is for these reasons that there is a persistent effort to baptize otherwise legitimate vocations, as God-blessed venues for the expression of discipleship, with "Christian" adjectives that fill The Shepherd's Guide: The Christians' Choice of Yellow Pages. As if that is where the Good Shepherd leads us in discipleship: to evangelical businesses. Is this the end of discipleship in the local church when paired with the idea of vocation-consume Christianly?

And if various vocations do find a place in the scope of discipleship, there are poor, nay, depressing mechanisms in place for coping with persistent failings in those vocations. This is inevitably the result when the tendency within the church is to appraise, even define or adjudicate the legitimacy of the disciple on the basis of the qualitative and sometimes quantitative expression of discipleship in the context of the church (e.g., attendance at Bible study, services, prayer meetings, etc.), or that of vocation (e.g., witnessing at work, Christianizing one's sphere of employment, or rendering social or vocational settings as missional). Without care and boundaries, the mark of church discipline very easily denigrates into adjudicating the authenticity of one's standing as a disciple by way of some Christian community's subjective standard of piety. The recovery of discipleship in the local church, however, must stand on that which is objective.

Back in my study I find a different kind of literature on discipleship than at the bookstore. These books are on my "creeds, catechisms, and confessions" shelf and that is because the word "disciple" (mathëtës), whether in its masculine or feminine forms, quite simply means "learner." And what does the learner learn? The disciple (catechumen) learns to "sound again" (catechesis) the learning (catechism) of the Master. In Scripture there are several groups of disciples. John the Baptist had his lot (Matt. 9:14). The Pharisees have theirs (Matt. 22:16). And, of course, Jesus of Nazareth called disciples to be his students. Usually a disciple is defined by a four-fold explanation: a disciple is one who believes his doctrine, imbibes his spirit, imitates his example, and lives to do the work of his master. Consequently, the Pharisees in John 9:28 declare that they are "Moses' disciples"-arguably believing his doctrine, imbibing his spirit of obedience, imitating his example, and living to do his work.

The transition from Judaism to Christianity, however, brings with it two additional sine qua non dynamics that eclipse Old Testament religion in whatever form it may appear: resting on the vicarious sacrifice of the Master to propitiate and expiate sins; and, secondly, being united to the Master-that is, the actual creation of the disciple through holy baptism. Consequently, what is different about being numbered among the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth is the birth of the disciple through the sacrament of holy baptism and the Master himself being the subject of such learning, as well as the redeeming object of discipleship. No longer is the disciple the scholar of an Old Testament facilitator of YAHWEH's word. In the New Covenant, the Messiah himself is the source and object of divine wisdom: he is the Word of God. The disciple learns of him, from him, through him, and for him. Recovered discipleship within the local church means getting this order right: the disciple is made by being baptized and trusting in the Christ of the cross; and then by way of catechesis, learning to believe the teachings of Christ, imbibing his spirit, imitating his example, and living to do the work of the Master.

The catechetical imitation of Christ therefore begins with being made a learner, a disciple, by way of liturgical initiation-baptized "into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19)-and continues with its necessary catechetical counterpart: "teaching them to observe" all that Jesus commanded the apostles (Matt. 28:20). Baptism, it turns out, has been engineered by God to provide the framework for assimilation and orientation into the household of faith and the exercise of the faith; for our new baptismal identity provides the basis for developing a biblical mindset or worldview and the expression of discipleship that flows from it.

Looking to Luther's Small Catechism, an answer begins to emerge to the question of how Protestantism might recover discipleship in the local church in connection with the idea of vocation. In 1529, Luther consciously designed the Small Catechism in its chief parts (the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the sacraments of Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion) to accommodate the essential need for disciples-i.e., the baptized-to learn the basic biblical message through its fundamental components of Scripture and to incorporate it into their daily living.

Luther did not purpose the catechetical process to primarily make possible a subjective internal experience for the Christian neophyte, though to be sure that has its place. Neither was it principally compiled as a methodology for performance-based Christian living. Rather, it was intended first and foremost to ground the disciple's faith in the objective content of sacred doctrine. Thereby, reasoned the Wittenberg Reformer, catechesis in the catechism's contents integrates theology and life. "It fastens people's attention on the basics of both," writes Charles Arand, "so that they are not distracted by peripheral concerns. Thus by getting back to basics, as it were, the church has the opportunity to rediscover and recover something of the original purpose of the catechism"; namely, discipling the baptized that they may own their identity in Christ and give expression of their discipleship toward the brethren in the church and through their various callings to serve their neighbor in the world. In Luther's mind, that was only possible if discipleship consisted of learning the theology of the cross; for only the theology of the cross could be authentic Christian catechesis and therefore the only biblical theology for the disciple to live by. The cross of Jesus Christ is the holy gospel and it is the gospel that saves and sanctifies or, put differently, creates the disciple and issues forth in discipleship. As Herman Preus expressed it, the life of the disciple is born under the cross and can only be lived under the cross.

Baptism is an identity-making event. Having been baptized into Christ's death (Rom. 6:3) and "buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too [through baptism] might walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4 ESV). The disciple is numbered among the forgiven and receives the Holy Spirit who starts them on the warpath against the flesh the rest of their tension-filled life. This is what it means to live simil iustus et peccator; that is, as one daily being raised through the waters of baptism for our justification (Rom. 4:25) and at the same time needing the drowning of the old man with its works of sin (Rom. 6:6; Col. 3:9). The disciple's Christian life among the brethren and through their vocation is going to be one of persistent failure, of constant sin and transgression. If the Christian's status or standing before God and the world is the result of the expression of his failed discipleship, then the disciple has been enslaved by sin and duty-guilt. Luther will have none of this devilish defeatism when it comes to who we are as disciples of Jesus the Son. The design and purpose of catechesis-indeed, of the Small Catechism itself-is intended to counteract this deceptive, counterfactual state of affairs. The catechism or the Scripture-content learning of the disciple ultimately throws itself back upon the objectivity of God's identity-making, saving work, and promise through his gospel Word and sacraments.

It works the other way around, too. For Luther, there is a use of the law for the baptized that is altogether instructive and flows from one having been justified freely by God's grace. It says, "You are in the church by way of having been made a disciple by the power of God's word and sacrament and since this is the case, the expression of your discipleship may be seen as part and parcel of being Christian." Honoring your father and mother or St. John's emphasis on loving one another is the recognition that you are a disciple, made one by baptism, continuing as one through the learned expression of discipleship, loving your brethren, and being an upper room servant through a motley of vocations. The catechetical imitation of the Christ who serves is thus built upon the foundation of baptism in which God brings the justifying benefits of Christ.

Drawing off of the words of 1 Peter 3:21, "Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." Luther said that those with a clear conscience are most free. It turns out then that it is the understanding of one's identity in Christ through baptism that undergirds the twofold theses within Luther's treatise, The Freedom of a Christian: "A Christian is perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all" (LW, 31:344). In other words, the disciple is free from sin, judgment, guilt, and the condemnation of the law. There is no "you have to" in order to be justified. Christ has fulfilled all the law and brings grace that is received through faith alone, and at the same time the disciple is bound to a life of servant-discipleship through various vocations through the law of the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-4). For the liberated-yet-enslaved disciple, there is no neonomianism or antinomianism because there is only the law of the Spirit. The life of the disciple's faith is thus shaped around the gospel, not Christian service or vocational expression, though to be sure the manifestation of discipleship to the world takes place in and through the power of forgiveness that breeds love for the brethren and service to neighbor (2 Cor. 5:18-19). Anything otherwise would make the gospel law and the law gospel.

Having ascertained from Matthew 28 what a disciple is (viz., catechumens undergoing catechesis to live out the catechism), we then see that this learning sends the seasoned and illuminated disciple out into the world to be salt and light, to exercise discipleship in love for the brethren ("By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" [John 13:35]), through one's vocation ("Love your neighbor as yourself" [Matt. 22:39; Gal. 5:14]), as well as the Ten Commandments (the law of love spelled out in specific terms), which Luther set as the first chief part of the Small Catechism.

Manifesting the Christian life by having love for one another has both ecclesiastic and missional components. Corporate confession and holy absolution, the Pax Domini and, of course, Holy Communion, liturgically facilitate the expression of discipleship and bear witness that Christ is King in the midst of a gracious and peaceful kingdom. Christ catechizes the baptized in the midst of the church, because the learning of Christ takes place where Christ's real voice (the Word) and real presence (the sacraments) may be found: hence the catechism instructs in the gospel of God (the Apostles' Creed), the devotion life of the disciple (the Lord's Prayer), and a multipronged exposition of the sacraments. But vocation, too, has a missional enterprise, yet it is not, in Luther's thinking, ecclesial because on the whole vocation pertains to God's left-hand kingdom.

Luther was fond of articulating God's governance through a theology of "two kingdoms" though which God rules both the spiritual and the earthly realm, though in different ways. "In the spiritual realm of God's right-hand kingdom, God works through the word and sacraments. In the earthly realm of His left-hand kingdom, God rules through the means of vocation." In the context of the present discussion, we might say that we learn of Christ as disciple-citizens in the spiritual realm of the church, but express our discipleship as servants to our neighbor in the earthly realm of government through our respective and numerous vocations. Most vocations are learned, inherited, entered or earned outside of the auspices of the church. Consequently, being a disciple does not include learning from Christ the skill of carpentry. The Messiah did not come to have us imitate his trade, much less hone skills on butchery, baking, and candlestick making. Such things pertain to vocation and God's left-hand governing and have no place in the catechism. It is in the right-hand kingdom, the kingdom of the church that we learn of Christ what may be the will and ways of God for man. Thus, the doctrine of the two kingdoms or governments of God precludes the prevailing evangelical idea of the "ministry of everything." One does not have a lawn-mowing ministry or a ministry of chiropractic adjustment. There is only one ministry of Word and sacrament, which is the stuff of disciple-making and content of the disciple's learning. It is principally this that Luther wants the catechumen to believe, teach, and confess. It seems that, when it comes to vocation, leaving techniques behind for good old-fashioned catechesis promises to do more to further the life of discipleship.

In the disciple's vocations, principles of discipleship are expressed amid the struggle of their simil iustus et peccator existence. In Luther's theology of the cross, there are but two principal reasons for discipleship: knowing and loving God in Christ crucified and training the et peccator dynamic of the disciple's existence for servanthood in worship and vocation. And it is that et peccator nature that Luther says we ought to treat roughly with the gospel, because it is the gospel that slays it.

It is precisely here that the rubber of catechetical learning meets the road of Christian discipleship in vocation. My wife and I, for example, are in constant recognition of our failure to meet the ideal of "godly parents." But discipleship manifests itself in our respective vocations as father and mother through the power of forgiveness and returning to the touchstone of being justified by God's grace alone, by faith alone, on account of Jesus Christ alone.

Certain forms of discipleship break down at the point when we prove ourselves moment-to-moment failures at our respective vocations. We try to imitate Christ through our vocations, and when we failed we found that our former evangelical wisdom threw at us more techniques for swimming in quicksand. Luther, however, would have the disciple to know their identity and adopt a liturgical rhythm to their Christian life. In fact, he built in these liturgical elements into the Small Catechism's instructional and devotional parts.

Take for instance the Small Catechism's section on "Daily Prayers" that "the head of the family should teach his household to pray morning and evening." The day starts with a remembrance of baptism: "In the morning when you get up, make the sign of the holy cross and say: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." The catechumen knows that they have been adopted into the family of God and then enters into the drama of redemption by repeating the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, followed by this wonderful prayer intended to launch the disciple into their vocational service:

I thank you my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear son, that You have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that You would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that in all my doings and life may please you. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.

Then, when the battle-weary disciple readies for sleep after having sinned against God in thought, word, and deed in their vocations, one's baptismal identity is renewed and the drama of redemption reaffirmed.

In the evening when you go to bed, make the sign of the holy cross and say: "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." Then kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord's Prayer. If you choose, you may also say this little prayer: "I thank You, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have graciously kept me this day; and I pray that You would forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen."

The best line Luther saves for last. "Then go to sleep at once and in good cheer" (Und alsdann flugs und fröhlich geschlafen). How is that possible after having made a mess of one's vocation? Simply because the disciple, being simil iustus et peccator, is invited and urged by Christ to go to the touchstone of their baptism at each and every occasion. The catechumen knows that there is a liturgical rhythm to being a disciple and a life of discipleship and, thereby, is able to live without despair or delusion and even go to bed in peace and joy.

Our vocations, then, are opportunities for us to do the theology of the cross to our brethren and neighbors and experience it for ourselves as forgiven sinners. For the baptized, we do what we are. Our identity, be it in the right- or left-hand kingdom, goes back to something more objective-holy baptism. This obtains for all people-old and young, able and disable, employed and unemployed, single or married, parent or not. The objectivity of our sacramental identity in Christ allows disciples to love with the reality of simil iustus et peccator, to live with our sinful failures and still go to bed in good cheer. Discipleship, then, goes back to the touchstone of baptism at each and every occasion. It is the justifying identity of the disciple-not his or her vocation.

If there is hope to recover in the local church discipleship as the learning of Christ and then living it in love to the brethren and through the disciple's vocations, then we must recover a catechetical imitation of Christ, replete with a sacramental identification with Christ and a liturgical rhythm for Christian living and the dying to self, especially when we fail at virtually every step along the way.

1 [ Back ] Charles P. Arand, That I May Be His Own: An Overview of Luther's Catechisms (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), 16-17.
2 [ Back ] Herman A. Preus, A Theology to Live By: The Practical Luther for the Practical Christian (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 149.
3 [ Back ] Gene Edward Veith, Jr., The Spirituality of the Cross (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 73.
4 [ Back ] Gustaf Wingen, Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Evansville, IN: Ballast Press, 1999), c.3.
Photo of John J. Bombaro
John J. Bombaro
Rev. John J. Bombaro (PhD, King’s College London) is senior pastor of St. James Lutheran Church, Lafayette, Indiana, and special projects supervisor at the US Naval Chaplaincy School, Newport, Rhode Island.
Friday, February 27th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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