Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Psalm 51:10.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18.
Discipleship is ultimately discipleship of the heart. This may sound a bit funny but the heart, at least from a biblical perspective, is the seat of our volitional thoughts, our emotions, our knowledge, creativity, our conscience, and our imagination. The source of this is the image of God imbedded in us. It is His image that gives us the ability for reason, logic, inductive and deductive thinking, an awareness of our own existence and the means to be able to interact with everything. Without the image of God we would be like the animals – operating out of instinct.
When it comes to our salvation, God is rescuing our heart. We are whole beings and He created us with a physical body, but at the core of salvation is where God rescues our heart. Of course, our physical bodies come with the package, but the god of this world does not hold us in a physical prison, it is more like a spiritual prison for the heart. His image and our unique, individual identity is grounded in the image of God. If you think about it, our bodies are what they are. Sparing some kind of accident or disease, our bodies do not change much unless we put in a lot of time to pretty them up or make them look better. The effects of the curse, this fallen world catches up with everyone and we get old and wrinkly and eventually “fall asleep.” God is the one who will reconstruct our fragile earthly bodies for a permanent body that is perfectly suited for heaven. The real change belongs to the heart.
The essential purpose of discipleship is a metamorphosis of our heart. David pleaded with God that He would create in him a clean heart. He asked God to renew a right spirit in him. The focus is on that invisible and substantive element of our existence that gives us our unique sense of being self-aware. But it has been damaged, corrupted, maligned, and infected by sin. God is in the business of reclaiming our heart and then reshaping the beliefs, values, and priorities so our heart embraces beliefs, values, and priorities of Christ. As Paul mentioned in 2 Corinthians 2, now see clearly into the glory of God, the face of Christ and His work is to transform our heart. It appears to be a process where we keep on being changed from one degree to another. It takes time and it changes who I am, so I am more like Christ.
Discipleship that does not get to the heart may be ultimately ineffective. Much of discipleship in many churches is about skills, abilities, competency, and knowledge. In one sense, there is nothing wrong with this. We need to cultivate heart, vision, and know-how to empower people to be a disciple-makers. But it is vital, especially in light of how deeply broken our lives are, that we must disciple the heart. Many discipleship pathways never really try and touch a persons heart with God’s grace and love. Partly this is because we are scared to go there. We have focused so much on skills and competency that we have simply hoped that heart would be changed, rather than being intentional about allowing God’s grace to touch our heart.
Discipleship is not about outward conformity to church structures as much as it is experience the power of Christ to change my heart. We love the idea that God can work miracles, intervene in the real issues of our culture. If we refuse to allow God’s grace to touch and transform our heart, we will spend enormous amounts of time trying to learn how to do the right thing instead of experience the real thing – the Spirit of God at work transforming our heart. Ultimately, heart change leads to behavioral change, not the other way around.
Discipleship that does not change your heart tends to harden your heart. When we ignore the spiritual condition of our heart and try and just learn to use our spiritual gifts, embrace good theology, memorize verses, and get busy serving, we may actually harden our heart with the activity of life while our heart becomes more callous. These other things may be an important component of discipleship, but they cannot replace discipling the heart.