Thinking deeply about the doctrine of regeneration and observing my newborn daughter have sparked some new thoughts and questions about the discipleship process. I think that the new birth motif may be one helpful lens through which to view discipleship. Consider some of these observations and potential implications for discipleship from regeneration.
The New Creation Impulse
The newborn child naturally breathes, cries for milk, and longs to be with their mother. These are the normal impulses and desires of a new child. So it is with the new birth. There are new creation impulses that are simply there. The desire to be near God, hear God’s word, be with God’s people, stay away from sin, and love other people are all new creation impulses. If these impulses are absent in one who has made a profession than we must seriously consider the authenticity of the confession. The new birth creates new desires thats what it does. These desires are foundational to all discipleship. The new creation impulses together with the indwelling Holy Spirit are the engine of a Christian’s obedience.
The Dependency of the newborn
Though the impulses are present in a newborn the ability and training to fulfill the desires is lacking. A baby may be hungry for milk but they simply can do nothing about it but desire it and cry for it. The role of the mother is to discern the cry for milk and literally take the baby to the breast. At first the baby does not even know exactly how to latch on to get the milk. With some training and encouragement the mother shows the baby how to get what they desire and need. And so it is with the newly regenerated individual. There is a craving and longing for God’s word and we take them to the breast and teach them how to receive. A newborn will not find milk if they are not taken to it. This is a critical thing to understand in discipleship. Newborns can do very little and that is to be expected. We must think similarly with a new disciple.
The Expected Mess
Newborns leave a mess wherever they go. From projective vomiting to exploding diapers infants have a way of making clean things dirty. We are not shocked by this nor should we be. We simply help the infant clean up because even that they cannot do. This may be one of the most misunderstood areas of discipleship. Discipleship is anything but a clean process. In fact it is an absolute mess through in through. Old sinful patterns do not go away with the new birth. New life is created alongside an old selfish way of life. Just as new creation impulses flow out from the new child so do the old sinful inclinations.
It is inevitable that a new Christian will find himself in many a mess. In fact, this is true of all Christians whatever their maturity level. Discipleship is about journeying through the mess together. We must clean new believers through the gospel and in so doing instruct them how to go about receiving that cleansing themselves. They must understand from the get go that the mess is part of the journey, it is not odd. The way we front in our churches leads many young believers to assume that they are the only messy one there. They must understand that the mess is normal and that it must compel them to the gospel again and again.
The Developmental Process
I treat my five year old different than I treat my infant. They need different things. My five year old no longer needs me to hold a spoon to his mouth so he can eat his mutilated bananas. The developmental process of a child is a helpful perspective for thinking about the process of growth in a disciple. Every stage is different because the needs are different. One of the biggest challenges we face in discipling others is understanding where they are at and meeting them there. More often than not we assume that a person is further than they actually are. Each development stage is important for they all build upon each other. We end up stunting a disciple’s growth if we fail to meet them where they are at.
Discipleship and training is a family affair. When a child is born into a family they are given parents, siblings, and relatives. So it is in the family of God. In the new birth an individual is born into a family of people who are at all different places in their journey. Some will play the role of a father in their life while others may play the role of mothers. There will be sibling interaction and even grandparent dynamics. It is in this family context where discipleship flourishes. It takes a community to raise a child. When discipleship is placed in this line of thinking it becomes an intimate and relational process marked by loyalty and love.