A friend sent me some comments and asks my thoughts:
Interested in your opinion.
I am trying to craft a reasonable response to the “follow Jesus to be saved” concept.
I noticed something: the only times people are told to follow Christ is when He is present and able to be literally followed. The terminology abruptly stops after the Gospels. It does not seem that the apostles even used it to describe discipleship.
The apostles seem to transition to instructions to follow us (i.e., the apostles) as examples.
Once Christ had ascended, it seems to me that there was no call to follow Christ except for a couple of metaphorical references (1 Peter 2:21 = “follow His steps” and 1 Thess 1:6 = “you became followers [imitators/different Greek word] of us and of the Lord”).
Obvious premise: Scripture does not say to follow Jesus to be saved (except as a metaphorical synonym to believe in John 10:27)
Less obvious premise: “following Jesus” was language only used during Jesus’ earthly ministry. It predominantly means to literally follow Him around and learn directly from Him. Maybe it is language we shouldn’t even use to denote discipleship.
What do you think?
That is a great discussion. A search of the word follow (akoloutheō in Greek) in the NT shows that there are 81 uses in 76 verses in the four Gospels. Most of them refer literally to following Jesus.
Outside of the Gospels, the word akoloutheō only occurs eleven times. Of those eleven, only one refers to the 144,000 Jewish evangelists during the Tribulation following the Lamb (Rev 14:4). Once in Acts it is used in reference to people following Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:43). And once in Revelation it refers to angels literally following the white horse Rider, who is Jesus (Rev 19:14). As you can see, not once in the Epistles is it used in reference to following Jesus.
There are a few other references using a different Greek word that are worthy of consideration. Paul said, “Follow [or imitate] me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor 11:1, the noun form). The Greek verb is mimeomai, which refers to imitating the behavior of someone. It occurs a dozen times in the NT, mostly in Paul’s writings when he called upon his readers to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16, the noun form; 11:1, also the noun form), imitate or follow his example (Phil 3:17, a compound form), imitate him and the Lord (1 Thess 1:6, the noun form), imitate the churches in Judea (1 Thess 2:14, the noun form), and imitate him and his coworkers (2 Thess 3:7, 9). Outside of Paul it is used to call believers to imitate mature believers who went before us (Heb 6:12, the noun form; 13:7), imitate what is good (1 Pet 3:13, the noun form), and not imitate what is bad (3 John 11).
The language of following Jesus is nearly absent from the Epistles, even using synonyms. There is much speculation as to why. Most likely it is because the NT authors wanted to keep that concept primarily centered on those who literally followed Jesus during His earthly ministry.
I wrote a blog three years ago about the related issue of why the words discipleship and disciple are not found in the Epistles (see here). You might want to read that as well since it contains some additional information.
However, the concept of following Jesus’ life and example is surely all through the Epistles. We are to follow Christ. But, as my friend suggested, we do not follow Christ today in the same way that His apostles did before His ascension. Today, we follow Him by 1) gazing lovingly upon Him in Scripture (e.g., 2 Cor 3:18), 2) seeing Him reflected in the lives of the apostles (and OT and NT saints) as recorded in Scripture, and 3) following the examples of godly men and women in our day.
My friend is 100% correct concerning following and salvation. Not once in the NT is the condition of everlasting life following Jesus. (I do not even think that John 10:27 refers metaphorically to believing in Jesus—or to following Him in this life. I think the Lord is saying that we will go where He goes. We will follow Him to heaven and then back to earth for the kingdom.)
The only condition of having everlasting life in the NT is believing in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Along with Greek and Bible classes, I also taught an evangelism course in my first semester of teaching in a Christian college. One day a missionary spoke in chapel. He said that he and his wife ministered to a group of about 3,000 tribal people. At one point, he said, the chief came to him and said, “I’ve decided. We want to become Christians. What do we need to do?” The missionary paused and then said, “I told him, ‘You need to follow Jesus.’” Nearly all the students in my class turned and looked at me. I slightly shook my head. My students knew that believing in Jesus is the sole condition, not following Him.
Are you following the Lord Jesus? You are if you are walking in fellowship with Him. He is our example. While the example view of the atonement is terribly wrong (we do not gain everlasting life by following His example), the example view of discipleship is correct. We love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). The love of Christ constrains us (2 Cor 5:14). He laid down His life for us; therefore, we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren (1 John 3:16).
Everlasting life is by faith in Christ, apart from works. Abundance of everlasting life is gained by following Christ in the way of righteousness.