Should we try to persuade men to follow Christ or not?
At some point in our Christian life, most of us have been led to believe that one of our primary duties as a Christian is to persuade others to make a “decision” to follow Christ. I’m going to go out on a limb and make what may sound like an outrageous observation. When I read the gospels, I get the distinct feeling that Jesus’ words were carefully designed to dissuade many of his admirers from following him. Think for a moment about his response to some of them:
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He said to another man, “Follow me.” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62)
Could Jesus have been any more offensive? There’s no doubt in my mind that he wanted these aspiring disciples to know that following him would mean a radical reordering of their lives; that it was going to cost them dearly. Put yourself in the place of the man who first wanted to go back and bury his father. “Let the dead bury their own dead,” Jesus says. What do you suppose your reaction to his words would have been? Is Jesus trying to persuade, or dissuade, this man from following him?
Or how about this one: “…go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21) Is Jesus trying to persuade, or dissuade, this man from following him? If Jesus had said something like that to you when you initially came to him, would you still have followed him?
This concept of giving up all your possessions is not an isolated feature of Jesus’ teaching; rather it appears pretty frequently (Luke 12:33-34; Matthew 6:19-21), and was taken quite seriously by the early church (Acts 4:34-35). F.F. Bruce, in The Hard Sayings of Jesus, concludes that “Jesus’s words were not intended for him [the rich young man] alone; they remain as a challenge, a challenge not to be evaded, for all who wish to be his disciples.”
Far too often, I’m afraid, we look for ways to evade Jesus’ challenge.
Over and over Jesus warns his followers in a variety of ways to count the cost of following him. We saw the same thing in my previous article on discipleship, based on Luke 14:25-33. In that passage, Jesus actually gave two practical examples of the danger of beginning any major enterprise without first counting the cost. In those two examples commentator Matthew Henry sees “the former showing that we must consider the expenses of our religion; the latter, that we must consider the perils of it. Sit down and count the cost.”
I haven’t even referenced all the pertinent passages of Scripture, but I believe I’ve established the fact that at least on the surface of things Jesus often appeared to dissuade seekers from following Him. So I come back to my original question. Should we try to persuade men to follow Christ or not? Yes and no. I want to make it clear that the example of Jesus and the early church leads me to believe first of all that we most certainly should invite, persuade, even command others to follow Christ. Both Jesus and the apostles used all three methods of appeal. What Jesus discouraged, I think, was taking his call lightly. And he did so by making the cost painstakingly clear.
Christ’s call to follow Him should never be received casually. Nor should it be presented casually by those of us who might be tempted to encourage others to make a “decision.” We all need to be as clear about this as Jesus was—following Him will cost us everything. The good news, of course (if we dare believe it), is that we gain far more than we ever give up. Count the cost, but also consider the reward. I don’t believe that anyone has ever regretted paying the price to follow Jesus.