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3 Essentials of Discipleship According to Herman Bavinck

Editor: In our Family History Series we are seeking to understand how Christians of the past have pursued making disciples. We want to connect the church’s current efforts to make, mature, and multiply disciples to its historical roots as well as encourage the church to learn from her rich past. So far in our series:

You probably haven’t read much, if anything, by Herman Bavinck. I hadn’t either, but after hearing what impact he had on some ministers that I deeply respected, I decided to take the plunge and purchase his seminal masterpiece, Reformed Dogmatics, a four-volume, 3000-page collection that was translated into English only seven years ago. As I finish reading through the last of the four volumes, I now treasure Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics as an essential piece of my library. I have gleaned a wealth of learning from Bavinck and I know I’ll return to these again and again throughout my ministry. Even if you are familiar with Bavinck’s work, many are tempted to view him as only a systematician, doctrinal explanation without application. My aim is to not merely draw your attention to a man worthy of it, but also to show that we can learn much from Bavinck in terms of how we apply these critical teachings in our lives as we pursue a historically rooted discipleship.

The Preface of Discipleship: God’s Revelation

Our quest for discovering the depths of discipleship through Herman Bavinck’s eyes starts with a focus on God’s revelation. Oftentimes, especially in systematic treatments of theology, revelation is placed at the forefront, serving as a sort of apologetic. After all, if God can or does not reveal himself generally and specially, what argument is there for him? This point certainly should be emphasized, especially for the unbeliever. Yet, in our approach to thinking about God’s general and special revelation, we face the temptation of limiting its importance to only the unbeliever. We feel like revelation must be talked about only for the sake of those who need to be convinced of its reality, and it is often treated in such a way that Bible-believing Christians are exempted from the discussion. But “general revelation,” Bavinck observes, “has meaning not only for the pagan world but also in and for the Christian religion.”1

The primary Greek word for disciple is mathetes, which means “a learner.” If we can reduce the concept of God’s revelation to knowing, we can reduce the concept of Christian discipleship to learning. Bavinck connects the task of discipleship with the function of revelation here:

Now special revelation has recognized and valued general revelation, has even taken it over and, as it were, assimilated it. And this is also what the Christian does, as do the theologians. They position themselves in the Christian faith, in special revelation, and from there look out upon nature and history. And now they discover there as well the traces of the God whom they learned to know in Christ as their father.2

Discipleship starts with revelation, because it is in that moment that we are “equipped with the spectacles of Scripture” and thus “see God in everything and everything in God.” Revelation does not only help the Christian “feel at home in the world,” but also gives Christians “a firm foundation on which they can meet all non-Christians.”3 Revelation is critical to our foundation as disciples of Christ.

One last word from Bavinck on how discipleship finds its origins in revelation:

“The purpose of revelation is not Christ; Christ is the center and the means; the purpose is that God will again dwell in his creatures and reveal his glory in the cosmos…In a sense this, too, is an incarnation of God.”4

While Christ is the ultimate instrument of revelation, the highest purpose of revelation itself is that God may be glorified by dwelling with his people. As we will see, once the revelation of God captivates the heart of the believer, not only can the journey of discipleship begin, but also the horizon of its purpose will come more plainly into view.

The Purpose of Discipleship: Union With Christ

If you went to one hundred Bible-believing, evangelical Christians and asked them to define “discipleship,” you’d likely get one hundred unique answers. Because of its broad scope, everyone’s definition may look and sound slightly different. As we examined earlier, discipleship at its core is learning. Here’s my imperfect stab at a more broad, yet succinct definition: Discipleship is a faithful striving towards the heart of God and the love of man. This idea is summed up well by Luther’s famous charge, “Love God and do what you will.” Ephesians 4:1-6 is a perennial passage for determining what discipleship looks like. Paul’s words in these verses can be rightly narrowed to two: love and unity. Paul is not only helping us to understand the importance of love and unity in the body, but ultimately, love and unity to Christ. This is the entire purpose, the entire hinge on which the door of discipleship opens or closes.

Maybe your proof-text of a lifestyle of discipleship is summed up as “walking in the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). Maybe it’s becoming “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Maybe it’s Galatians 2:20, or Ephesians 2:5, or 1 John 4:13, or another. What Bavinck would argue is that all of these verses, among others, have one similar aim or goal: union with Christ. In a section called Becoming Spiritual Persons, Bavinck proves his point from a slew of verses, all of which ironically written by Paul:

“The new life is the life of the Spirit but just as much the life of Christ in us (Rom. 6:8, 23; Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:4; Phil. 1:21). Believers have been crucified, have died, been buried and raised, set at God’s right hand, and glorified with Christ (Rom. 6:4ff.; Gal. 2:20; 6:14; Eph. 2:6; Col. 2:12, 20; 3:3; etc.). They have put on Christ, have been formed in his likeness, reveal in their bodies the suffering as well as the life of Christ, and are perfected in him. In a word, “Christ is all and in all” (Rom. 13:14; 2 Cor. 13:11; Gal. 4:19; Col. 1:24; 2:10; 3:11), and they are “one spirit with him” (1 Cor. 6:17). In Christ, by the Spirit, God himself dwells in them (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19).”5

Bavinck’s understanding of Pauline theology is that at the heart of every hint of discipleship is a motivation to be united with Christ. If God is going to accomplish his highest purposes of revelation, dwelling in his creatures and revealing his glory, we must set before ourselves in our journey of discipleship this sole intention of union with Christ.

If union with Christ is a fundamental of discipleship, it cannot be something we achieve by our own volition. “Union with Christ is not the result of human decision, striving, seeking, yielding, or surrendering, but of Christ’s.”6 This is what Paul meant in Ephesians 2:20 when he calls believers “[God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We do not walk alone. We do not earn his love through measuring up. His grace has perfectly covered our transgressions, and because we belong to the true vine, we are therefore branches who produce fruit.

Not only this, but being united with Christ means the Spirit is empowering and enabling us for His glory. “The spirit . . . poured out in the church is not only a Spirit of adoption, who assures believers of their status as children, but also the Spirit of renewal and sanctification.”7 Oftentimes our view of discipleship is strictly limited to what we do and how we do it. When we think about the journey, all that often comes to mind is our Bible reading habits, our prayer life, our evangelism opportunities . . . all of these are discipleship, but discipleship is more than all these things. Bavinck places a great deal of emphasis on the work of the Triune God in our lives, taking us beyond what we do and onto what God is doing. Dead men cannot raise themselves, but united to the resurrected Jesus, he has no problem restoring what’s broken. Unloving attitudes become Spirit-enabled love (1 Cor. 13). Formless groans become Spirit-articulated thoughts (Rom. 8:26-27). Remarkably, after the end of his letter to the church at Thessalonica, after Paul gives them plenty of practical tips and charges for how to grow in sanctification (5:12-22), he says in the following verse, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely” (5:23). Paul and Bavinck both recognize the ultimate purpose of discipleship is not only being united to Christ, but letting him move in and through us.

The Process of Discipleship: Ordinary Obedience

So we’ve got some principles for discipleship in our pockets now, but how do we actually implement this stuff in our lives? Discipleship is often seen as a tiered system, where those who courageously live in bold, radical situations for the gospel are elevated above simple professions of faith. John Bolt fabulously labors to explore this idea deeper in his new book, Bavinck on the Christian Life: Following Jesus in Faithful Service. Bolt discusses Bavinck’s disapproval of this celebration of only striving for or trying to live out acts of “radical discipleship.” The most radical thing we can do, according to Bavinck, is being faithfully obedient to God with ordinary simplicity. This is true “radical discipleship,” and arguably, more extreme and “heroic” than a life spent selling all possessions, taking vows of silence, and so forth. Bavinck elaborates in The Certainty of Faith:

“Nowadays we are out to convert the whole world, to conquer all areas of life for Christ. But we often neglect to ask whether we ourselves are truly converted and whether we belong to Christ in life and in death. For this is indeed what life boils down to. We may not banish this question from our personal or church life under the label of pietism or methodism. What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, even for Christian principles, if he loses his own soul?”9

If the summary of discipleship is to learn, we have been commissioned by Christ to go and make learners. But in what way will such people learn? Are we going to win souls to the gospel with scientific defenses of God alone? Do we win people with personal and character attacks, or endless banter back-and-forth on social media? Discipleship is first and foremost ordinary obedience. Making disciples, then, is letting others see the ordinary obedience of Jesus in our lives, and showing them how the same can be true of them. Some may think this is an oversimplification; but in a culture warring as hard as ever at Christianity “dying to self and taking up our cross” is becoming a practice less and less about heroism and more about holding fast to him in the small and insignificant. Even Jesus’s exceptional acts of death and resurrection are truthfully simple, unflashy acts of obedience to the Father. More from Bavinck:

“All work which man undertakes in order to subdue the earth, whether agriculture, stock breeding, commerce, industry, science, or the rest, is all the fulfillment of a single Divine calling. But if man is really to be and remain such he must proceed in dependence on and in obedience to the Word of God. Religion must be the principle which animates the whole of life and which sanctifies it into a service of God.”10

Bavinck makes discipleship simple: By God’s revelation, we become true disciples by being united to Christ and thus equipped by the Spirit for the extraordinary life of ordinary obedience.This Dutch Reformed theologian may not be a marquee name (yet) among evangelicals, but if you want to learn the essentials of the Christian life, look no further.

1 Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2003. I.320.
2 ibid. I.321
3 ibid.
4 ibid. I.380
5 ibid. IV.89
6 Horton, Michael. “Union With Christ.” Accessed September 23, 2015, at http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/questions/horton/union.html
7 Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2003. IV.251.
8 Bolt, John. Bavinck on the Christian Life: Following Jesus in Faithful Service. Crossway, Wheaton, 2015. 44-47.
9 Bavinck, Herman. The Certainty of Faith. Paideia Press, Ontario, 1980. 94.
10 Bavinck, Herman. The Origin, Essence, and Purpose of Man. Accessed September 23 at http://www.the-highway.com/origin_Bavinck.html

Zach Barnhart (@zachbarnhart) currently serves as a church planting intern with Fellowship Church in Knoxville, Tennessee and is pursuing pastoral ministry. He is a college graduate from Middle Tennessee State University and lives in Knoxville with his wife, Hannah. He is a blogger, contributor to For The Church and Servants of Grace, and manages a devotional/podcast at Cultivated.