Discipleship from the View of the Church, Part 4: Only the Holy Spirit Gives Growth

Editor’s note: This series comes from a sermon given at a conference on discipleship for Chinese house church leaders. It was shared by a house church pastor who leads an urban church of young professionals and university students.

This sermon has been translated and edited from its original version. 

Wang Jianguo is the collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese house church pastors writing and thinking critically about issues related to the spread of Christianity in their nation. They are committed to preaching a grace-centered gospel, developing resources for the church, and loving China’s urban centers.

Discipleship as Related to the Preaching of Christ  

Discipleship is related to the preaching of Christ. This Scripture passage specifically mentions that early church members had fellowship in their own homes because they were devoted to obeying the apostles’ teachings. They developed discipleship and small group relationships as a result of the teaching and shepherding of the apostles.

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Peter’s sermon is an example. His preaching explicates that Jesus is the one foretold in the Old Testament. Peter’s sermon is also Christ-centered. Preaching must include two critical features. First, it should be the exposition of Scripture. Second, preaching should be centered on Christ. The Bible is God’s Word, and the entire Bible testifies to the Lord Jesus. Expository preaching calls a preacher to speak, not his own words, but to clearly and succinctly expound Scripture. Christ-centered preaching calls a preacher to address the main subject of the Bible.

The Bible is about the core of God’s redemptive history, Jesus Christ. From Genesis to Revelation, the entire Bible talks about Christ. If your sermon is not expository, your preaching is off course. If your sermon is not Christ-centered, you are deviating from the will of God’s revelation. If the sermon is neither expository nor Christ-centered, it goes against the intent of God’s revelation in the Bible. Furthermore, only expository, Christ-centered preaching makes good disciples. It is like the podium of the church, which points out the right direction to the congregation. It is also like the engine of the church, which motivates the congregation to live a Christ-centered life. Such sermons help ensure that the Bible and the gospel are what promotes the congregation to live faithful lives, not moralism, rationalism, or other philosophical teachings.

If a sermon from the church pulpit is not expository and Christ-centered, it will unwittingly lead church members away from biblical truths. Discipleship born from such preaching only promotes human social relationships. You may notice that some church members only engage with certain members and ignore others. This type of relationship does not conform to the gospel! The Lord Jesus has been evidently excluded. Other relationships in the church are like that of tight “bros.” Seeing pastors together is like seeing a gathering of underworld bosses, because they are all buddies. Some Christians may say, “I won’t listen to anyone at church except you.” This is precisely how in-groups relate.

If a pastor’s sermons are not expository and Christ-centered, church members will have animosity against one another. One time I visited a church and heard a sad story. Two elderly members of that church had been against each other. If one went to a church service, the other would not attend. Some brothers and sisters admonished him to come, saying that Jesus wanted church members to love one another. He took the advice and attended service, but deliberately avoided sitting close to the other one. Their enmity became a serious issue in the church. Later, one of them got very sick. Some of the brothers and sisters said, “This brother is ill and will soon go to be with the Lord. Do you insist on keeping this hostile relationship with him in heaven? Jesus loves him, why don’t you love him?” They exhorted him again with the truth of the gospel, saying that their bitter relationship had already been restored by the cross of Christ. When no one was paying attention, this man went to visit the other at his home, opened the door and stated who he was, and that he was there to see him. When the critically ill man heard this, he immediately cried, “You are here to see me?!” He replied, “Yes! We were all wrong! We hated one another instead of loving one another.”

Existing hostility within the church can be healed and restored by the gospel. If the church does not preach the gospel, church members will be against one another, just like people in the secular world. On the contrary, expository preaching that focuses on the gospel will continually rebuild and transform unhealthy relationships among members. Otherwise, relationships would be like those of legalists, quoting verses to criticize and condemn one another; or like the relationships of hypocrites, flattering and seeking glory for one another instead of glorifying Jesus Christ. Before my church became reformed, our relationships were essentially like this – either touting or being hostile to one another – all stemming from relationships built on human emotions and in-group mentality.

If a pastor changes his preaching style and begins upholding the gospel through expositional, gospel-centered preaching, he will find that church members who got along well in the past will turn against each other. This is highly likely. Take marriage for example. Before marriage, two people are very much in love. Once they are married, it does not take long to criticize and blame each other over life issues. As human relationships go deeper, people become vulnerable. Weaknesses and shortcomings surface, and they find fault with each other. It is safer to just nod and exchange casual greetings rather than deepen the relationship. If church members intend to deepen their relationships instead of maintaining shallow harmony, conflicts and resistance will surface. Nevertheless, as church members continually proclaim the gospel, they will be transformed and healed along the way. In this way, we can promote and renew church culture and practice discipleship centered on the gospel. You do not want to be afraid of relationships; rather, you must make an effort to go deeper in relationships with church members through the gospel. This is important direction, and a biblical lesson.

Discipleship and the Empowering of the Holy Spirit

A true church is one empowered by the Holy Spirit. How do we distinguish a true church from a false one? Wherever biblical truth is preached, there Christ is exalted; wherever Christ is exalted, there the Holy Spirit empowers. The Holy Spirit comes to bear witness to Jesus Christ. Discipleship must be done alongside of the Holy Spirit, and move toward the same goal. Discipleship must aim to make disciples who live out the life of Jesus Christ. If a church does not stand true to Scripture, nor exalt Christ, nor rely on the Holy Spirit, that church opposes the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. In the sight of our Lord Jesus Christ, a church that disobeys the Holy Spirit faces the danger of its lampstand being removed, although its doctrine is as pure as that of the church in Ephesus. Preaching biblical truth and proclaiming and exalting Christ is the only way to have the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is crucial. The Holy Spirit is actually the one doing discipleship, and we partner with him along the way. We plant and water, but only the Holy Spirit gives growth. We do discipleship by the guidance and illumination of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit disciples individuals because he intends for that person to testify continually to the Lord, and to reveal who Jesus Christ is through that person. The Holy Spirit brings every Christian into a mission: to witness Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. If discipleship is not aimed toward this, it does not have the presence of the Holy Spirit. If discipleship in a local church is just for personal enjoyment, we might as well build three tents (like Peter suggested at the Mountain of Transfiguration) so we can eat good meals, sing hymns, and commune together. But this reflects a church that is closed and has become ingrown. We enjoy being together, but feel reluctant to engage in spiritual warfare against the devil and the false ideologies of the secular world. Active discipleship motivates believers to bear witness for the Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel. If this is not the purpose, the Holy Spirit is not present, and discipleship is doomed to lose its function and vitality.

The mission given to the disciples by the Lord Jesus Christ included a task they could fulfill, and one they could not. He commanded them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, but the disciples were incapable of taking up that task. Therefore, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would come upon them and they would receive power to be his witnesses. Even though Jesus Christ was resurrected, we know from Scripture that the apostles were not transformed by that marvelous act. They even chose to go back their former jobs as fishermen. However, after Jesus ascended to heaven, the apostles and disciples continually devoted themselves to prayer. Then the Holy Spirit was poured upon them, and they became bold to bear good witness for the Lord. The church must be empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will lead the church in the right direction to witness to the Lord Jesus and inspire her to pray continually and earnestly. Without the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians are incapable of bearing witness to Jesus Christ. This is why discipleship must be done with the right goal and through faithful prayers; otherwise, it will not be healthy.

Translation provided by Jane and the China Partnership team.


How does preaching that is a) based on Scripture and b) focuses on Christ lead to the making of good disciples?

What is an example of discipleship done alongside the Holy Spirit?

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Further Reading

Witness In Persecution: Heart Struggle
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How I Prayed For Instruction
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God's Love in Trials: A Letter of Encouragement
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