Someone exploring the Christian faith recently sent me this question via email:
I'm interested in what it means on a day to day level to follow Jesus, what action does that actually involve?
What a great question! Often we talk about what Jesus has done for us (he bore our sin by dying in our place so that we could be forgiven); we often talk about how a person responds to this good news (repent - turn from sin to follow God, and believe - trust that what Jesus did is sufficient to save you). But we often don't explain to someone who is not yet a believer what life would like like once they do turn to follow Jesus.
What does it look like - practically - when Jesus is Lord of our lives? Here is my response to the question:
Great question! Following Jesus is first a matter of the heart; that is, it is a re-wiring our basic motivations (perspective); second, it involves a core recalibration that manifests in the practical dimensions of life through decision-making (ethics); third, following Jesus involves fellowship with God through the Holy Spirit (experience); fourth, we are joined to a new community, the church.
Jesus taught that the heart is the source of human sinfulness (Matthew 15:1-16). So, rather than beginning with external conformity to a moral code, following Jesus begins with a heart transformation. He also uses the term ‘born again’ to describe this transformation (John 3:1-8). There are four motivational outcomes of this inward transformation: a follower of Jesus is 1) motivated to glorify God above all else (1 Corinthians 10:31); 2) moved to love God with all of their heart (Matthew 22:36-37); 3) our main thing becomes seeking God’s will (Matthew 6:33); 4) our self-orientation is replaced with a deep love for others (Mark 12:31).
Because Jesus is King, seeking his will involves submission to his Lordship; He is to be obeyed. But rather than a merely external law that has to be obeyed, this obedience is the overflow of a heart that loves God. Why would we love God? Because he has saved us from the consequences of our sins (Romans 5:8-9). And thus - our highest motivation is to glorify God in all that we do. Here’s a practical example: following Jesus doesn’t mean we quit our job; it means we do our job for the glory of God first and foremost.
All of that is the background to the specific question you asked: the practical dimension of following Jesus includes a) the motivation to glorify God, and b) the willingness to obey God, as expressed in his word. Jesus said, 'If you love me, you will keep my commandments' (John 14:15). Practically, this means our decision-making is informed by what God teaches in the Bible. So our decisions about what to do or not do, how we treat other people, our sense of morality - the total grid for how we go about living life - is informed by our submission to Christ’s lordship and obedience to his word.
But, as described in number 1, this is not so much a duty as it is a delight: our greatest desire is to bring glory and honour to God through obedience and service. This means that good works are the fruit, not the cause, of our relationship with God (Ephesians 2:8-10). Further, in practical daily life, there are ‘spiritual disciplines’ - things like reading the Bible, prayer, fellowshipping with other Christians, regularly going to church for public worship - these are not so much duties to be performed, but rather more like eating and sleeping and exercise - we need these things for spiritual health and strength.
Following Jesus is more than believing the right stuff (truth) and living the right way (ethics), it also involves the experiential dimension of fellowshipping with God. God himself comes to inhabit the core dimension of who we are, so that we can enjoy his closeness, his friendship, his power, and his help. Because we are all wired a bit differently, there is a high degree of subjective variation in how we each experience God, but the promises of scripture remain true for all followers of Jesus. The role of the Spirit in the life of the Christian is to empower us to follow Jesus; it’s like the engine that propels the car.
In this sense, following Jesus is not ‘trying to live the Christian life’; it is God living his life through us by the Spirit (Galatians 2:20-21, Romans 8:1-11). That’s why someone who says, ‘I could never be a Christian’ gets it completely wrong. No one can be a Christian; no one can live up to God’s standard. The good news is that Jesus has done it for us. For those who receive what God offers, God empowers them to live a life that is pleasing to Him.
Another experience is the daily overflow of gratitude to God for his grace and salvation. Imagine someone who has been a slave their entire life, and at forty years of age, through the intervention of a very kind person, they are set free. They spend the rest of their lives deeply thankful for this person's gracious engagement. This overflow of gratitude marks the follower of Jesus on a daily basis. The Psalmist describes something like this in Psalm 40:1-4.
Joy is another dimension of our Christian experience that marks our daily lives. We live with an effervescent awareness of God's presence in our lives, joyous because of what He has done for us. There are many more dimensions of our Christian experience, but joy is a central and key benefit.
Following Jesus rewires our connection with other people. When we turn to follow Jesus in faith through believing the gospel and turning from sin, we are spiritually joined with Christ and become part of his body (1 Corinthians 12:13). That means we are made part of a community of believers. We can say it like this: our faith in Jesus is personal, but we follow Jesus in community. That means we have a new family that cares for us, that we care for, and with whom we are following Jesus. It means we have a role to play, and it means we are living - together - for a mission bigger than ourselves. The Bible name for this community is church.
The amazing benefits of following Jesus include peace with God and forgiveness from sin. But there is much more: we get a new heart - a new core, a transformed inner being; we get gain a new perspective, a new ethical code, a new spiritual experience, and a new community - all of this is available for us. We get the presence of God with us in a new and personal way; we now live life with the sense of God being with us, and us being with God. We get the power of the Holy Spirit enabling us to live - to act, to speak, to respond - in a way that pleases God.
The first step on the journey is faith. Faith in who Jesus is, what he has done, and what this means for us - this is the portal through which we come to experience these dimensions of following Jesus. This faith is rooted in history (what Jesus actually did) and scripture (God’s explanation for what it means). As we believe, we also repent - we turn from going the wrong direction (a life of disobedience, a life living for ourselves) and we turn to follow Jesus.
This brings up another dimension of practical experience: because we are living for God, every day is a grand adventure to see what God has for us that day. Not that every genuine Christian always maximises this part of following Jesus, but it’s available: God invites us to join him on a grand mission, and that adds a compelling mystique to every dimension of life.
There is so much more - but this is brief introduction to what it means - practically - to follow Jesus.