As I have studied and taught discipleship over the last few years, I have attempted to identify disparities between first century New Testament Christianity and modern American Evangelical Christianity.
Lately, I have noticed perhaps one of most glaring inconsistencies between the two.
First century New Testament Christianity focused primarily on imitating and obeying Jesus as His disciple.
However, this focus did not fail to emphasize salvation through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Rather, it focused on imitating Jesus as His disciple and conformity to His image as the end result and ultimate goal of salvation through Christ.
The first century church understood that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross set us free from the immediate power of sin; not just from the eternal consequences of sin.
They saw salvation in Jesus not just as a “get out of hell free” card; but rather as salvation from the immediate effects of sin in their everyday lives.
They understood Jesus’ sacrifice as not only the price that was paid to get them into paradise when they died; but as the price that was paid in order that they might be sanctified and conformed into His image in the present world by imitating and obeying Him as His disciple.
Even the passage that we most often point to in order to support salvation “by grace through faith,” emphasizes that we have been saved in order to do good works in Christ:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
And this is the most significant difference between first century New Testament Christianity and modern American Evangelical Christianity.
First century Christianity emphasized that believers have been saved in order that we might bring glory to God by be re-conformed to the image of God that we were originally created to be. And that this is only accomplished by us being conformed to the image of Jesus through imitating and obeying Him as His disciple (through the supernatural empowerment and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit).
Paul even goes on in Ephesians to explicitly state this truth:
You heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:20-24).
The immediate result of salvation is that we begin to live for and live like Jesus in this life now; and then we will be fully perfected in the next one.
In contrast, modern American Evangelical Christianity incorrectly emphasizes only that Jesus died so that we might be perfected in the next life; whether we imitate and obey Him in this life or not.
And this can be observed by what we say as modern American Evangelical Christians.
Next time you are in a group of supposed believers, listen closely to the conversation and/or what is being taught.
Is the emphasis on how you can encourage one another to grow in spiritual maturity by increasingly imitating and obeying Jesus as His disciple, and how you might make more disciples of Him by teaching others to do the same?
Or, is the emphasis on how you don’t really need to imitate and obey Him as His disciple because you are saved by His death; and that is the message that needs to be spread so that others can be saved just as easily without any thoughts towards obedience to Jesus?
Personally, I have noticed that much of what is said in modern American Evangelical churches is nothing more than twisted excuses as to why we don’t feel that we must be willing to abandon all in order to imitate and obey Jesus as His disciple.
Granted, it is well disguised and stated convincingly; but do not be deceived; it is contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, the Apostles, and all of Scripture.
Of course the rebuttal that I normally hear is 1 Corinthians 2:2 where Paul wrote:
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
However, this misses several important points…
First, Paul wrote, “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” not “Jesus Christ crucified.”
Do you see the difference?
Paul taught more than just Jesus’ crucifixion. Paul taught all of Jesus’ life which included His words, teachings, commands, and example; in addition to His crucifixion and resurrection.
Moreover, Paul never said that “Jesus Christ and him crucified” was the only thing he ever taught. He wrote that it was simply the only thing that he was able to teach the Corinthians because of their immaturity.
He further wrote:
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature” (1 Corinthians 2:6).
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3).
More importantly, Paul would go on to write to the Corinthians:
Imitate me, as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Imitating Jesus requires knowing more about Him than just His death on the cross. Imitating and obeying Jesus as His disciple requires knowing all of the words, teachings, commands, and the example that He gave during His earthly ministry.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul also explained what the end goal of being saved by Jesus is; just as he did in his letter to the Ephesians:
We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
In fact, almost ever letter of Paul’s either has an allusion to, or a direct reference to, being conformed to the image of God/Jesus; …as does the majority of the books in the New Testament.
This is why we insist that the first century New Testament church focused primarily on being conformed to the image of Jesus by imitating and obeying Him as His disciple.
The question then is; “Why doesn’t the modern American Evangelical church?”
In order to answer that, please ask yourself another question:
“As a modern American Evangelical Christian, while reading this article did you find yourself making the excuse that it is OK that you and the other Christians that you know don’t imitate and obey Jesus as His disciples (including by not keeping His command in Matthew 28:19-20 to make more disciples who do the same), because you believe that you are forgiven of your sins because He died on the cross for them?”
If so, please consider one more passage of Scripture which was written by one of the first disciples (and Jesus’ earthly best friend), John the Apostle:
We know that we have come to know [Jesus] if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. […] This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:3-6).

If you are interested in learning more about why it is so important that we be and make disciples of Jesus, start here with our Four Principles of Discipleship and follow the link at the end of each page to the next article:

Photo by Musa Ortaç from Pexels