Why Heaven Matters to Discipleship

Have you heard the phrase, “They’re so heavenly minded they’re of no earthly good!”

It’s usually a slur against Christians whose heads are “in the clouds” all the time, too focused on heavenly matters to be of any help for the practical side of life. The idea is that if you spend too much time looking to the future, you’ll miss out on making a real difference in the present.

The biggest problem with that popular saying is that it’s completely off base, both scripturally and historically. C. S. Lewis pointed out the problem:

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. . . . It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one.

To put it another way: having your mind set on heaven is the prerequisite for a Christian’s doing good on earth.

Eschatology and Discipleship

The title of my next book is Eschatological DiscipleshipNow, I realize these two words rarely sit next to each other. Most people think of “discipleship” as a set of spiritual disciplines that bring about Christian growth. And most people think of “eschatology” as a fancy word describing the end times (and all the debates about how and when Jesus will return).

Discipleship is something practical. Eschatology? Well, that’s speculation we can put at the back of a systematic theology textbook. Discipleship is about feet on the ground right now, and eschatology is about what will happen when Jesus returns on the clouds. Right?

Not quite.

When we see discipleship as something ahistorical (something that never changes no matter the context or time period), we tend to adopt personal practices of piety but fail to train ourselves to become good missionaries by seeing and embracing our role in a particular context.

When we see eschatology as something primarily futuristic (about how Jesus will return or about what happens to us personally when we die), we tend to engage in theological speculation but fail to learn how to interpret today’s world in light of the Bible’s big vision of world history.

That’s why I’m pushing for a broader, more expansive understanding of eschatology. We can’t reduce eschatology to the details surrounding Christ’s second coming, or to events that take place as soon as we die. Eschatology is shorthand for the Bible’s great story. Yes, it involves the future—where the world is going—but this future is held together by the past event of Christ’s resurrection and the future event of his return.

A broader vision of eschatology leads us to ask an important worldview question: “What time is it?” That question means: “What does obedience and faithfulness look like in this particular time?” Just as we are to work out what faithfulness looks like in a particular place, so also we must understand what shape faithful Christianity will take in a given time. We understand our times in light of God’s sovereign plan.

‘What Time Is It?’

When discipleship doesn’t take into consideration that worldview question “What time is it?” or when eschatology gets pushed off to the side as if it’s just about our personal future and not about the whole, great story of our world, then we have a much harder time reading the signs of our own times. We find it hard to navigate the darkness of our contemporary age. We can’t see how to meet current challenges in light of God’s coming kingdom.

The purpose of my next book (due out April 1) is to bring together eschatology and discipleship the way the New Testament does. Along the way, I want to provide preliminary answers to a bunch of questions:

  • Is there biblical precedent in the Old or New Testaments for linking our obedience as Christ’s followers to eschatological realities? If so, where and how do these links occur?
  • What is discipleship, and how does it relate to the mission of the church?
  • How is our obedience motivated by eschatological reality?
  • How do we contextualize our mission for the times in which we live?
  • What role does worldview formation play in the making of disciples, and what role does eschatology play in worldview formation?
  • How does our mission of proclaiming the gospel as the true story of the world interact with and confront rival eschatologies?
  • How can we strengthen various conceptions of discipleship by giving more attention to their eschatological dimension?

So, what is “eschatological discipleship”? It’s a type of spiritual formation and obedience that takes into account the contemporary setting in which one finds oneself, particularly in relation to rival conceptions of time and progress.

That’s what I unpack in this book. I hope it starts a good conversation about the practical way we can accomplish the subtitle: “Leading Christians to Understand Their Historical and Cultural Context.” It’s time we counter the prevailing rival eschatologies of our current cultural moment and display our unique identity as kingdom citizens.

If you’d like to preorder the book, it’s available at LifeWayAmazonBarnes and NobleBooks a Million, and ChristianBook.com.

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Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax

My name is Trevin Wax. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. My wife is Corina, and we have two children: Timothy (7) and Julia (3). Currently, I serve the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. I have been blogging regularly at Kingdom People since October 2006. I frequently contribute articles to other publications, such as Christianity Today. I also enjoy traveling and speaking at different churches and conferences. My first book, Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals, was published by Crossway Books in January 2010. (Click here for excerpts and more information.) My second book, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope(Moody Publishers) was released in April 2011.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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