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Terminology: "Cost" of Discipleship or "Difficulty" of Discipleship


Posted by Matt Postiff April 6, 2020 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Theology  Evangelism 

Reading in Luke 9:57-62 this morning, I came upon a title in the New King James Study Bible for that section: "True Cost of Discipleship." A similar title involving the word "cost" is found at Luke 14:25 in one of the outlines supplied in Bibleworks 10.

Let us pause and ask ourselves this question: "is the term 'cost' the best word to use in this context?" My short answer: No.

In theology, precision of terminology is important. Sloppy use of terms is both a source of sloppy thinking, and a cause of it. I think the term 'cost' is used in popular parlance in a very imprecise way.

Granted, Jesus uses the term in an illustration about building a tower, in which it is obviously necessary to make a cost estimate before beginning construction. Because of the KJV translation, this came over to discussion of discipleship as "counting the cost." This, in turn creates a challenge for those who emphasize that salvation is free. They reason that since discipleship "costs" and salvation is "free," therefore the two concepts must be different. This leads to the "not all Christians are disciples" theology. They suggest that salvation and discipleship are two different things. Some Christians are believers, they say, and some are believers and disciples.

I wrote a while ago as to why the 'salvation not equal to discipleship' doctrine is false.

The thought progression from "cost" to "salvation is not the same as discipleship" explained above comes about because of a sloppy conflation of two ideas. The first is the idea of monetary cost terminology from an illustration of a building project. The second is the idea that salvation is free in terms of doing any works to earn it. When you equate the first idea with the second, you are doing a meaning transfer that is wrong.

Instead, we need to recognize that the illustration of building is like but not the same as the Christian reality it illustrates. So, you decide to build a tower. You need to think about the implications of that. Do you have the wherewithal to complete it? Similarly, you are pondering the decision to believe in Jesus. You have to consider whether you up for the difficulties that come after you believe in Him.

You take the illustration way too far if you think like this: Well, since I have to gather all the money and materials and plans and laborers in order to build a tower before I begin, that must mean that I have to do all kinds of work and make all kinds of commitments in order to become a Christian (i.e.., "be saved").

The tendency of the human brain to make this connection because of the semantic nearness of "cost" and "free" leads me to believe that the 'cost' terminology should not appear in the headings of our study Bibles. Instead, the heading should be "The Difficulty of Discipleship." This avoids the illegitimate transfer of ideas from the monetary realm to the spiritual realm. It fits perfectly with the notion that salvation is not earned by works or anything else. It also works because being a saved person is not going to be a cakewalk in this life.

As you ponder the decision to believe in Christ, you need to think: Christ offers forgiveness and eternal life through simple repentant faith. That's true. But the transformation that comes over you will be so radical that you won't be like what you were before. Your relationships with everything and everyone will be totally different. You will run into difficulties along the way that you do not experience presently. Is that the path you are willing to endure? That is the Christian life.

The difficulty of discipleship offers no contradiction with the free offer of salvation. Jesus will save you. He will wash you clean of sin. He will give you spiritual life. But your life afterward will be entirely different.

It is not that salvation is obtained at a "cost." Rather, the Christian life after you begin to follow Christ will be difficult. But it will also be blessed.

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