Luke 14:27 says, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
Verses like this, though often quoted, raise challenging questions for missionaries. When Jesus urged his followers to count the cost of discipleship, what did he mean? Did he simply mean that following him involves significant commitment? Or was he implying something else?
If Jesus meant the former, the warning almost seems a bit overblown. After all, we make difficult or expensive choices often. Buying a house, for instance, is costly. Choosing a spouse can be hard. Deciding on a college major is another big choice. To lump ones’ commitment to Christ in with these “hard” or “costly” choices seems trivial.
But what if Jesus meant that conversion itself is dangerous by design?
Throughout Scripture, when individuals convert, their communities often feel betrayed. To embrace the Triune God as Lord is to repudiate all other lords, identities, and systems. This decision, in the eyes of the world, amounts to treason.
If true conversion is indeed a form of communal “treason,” this has inestimable implications for the missionary task.
But before we turn to consider these implications, let us survey several biblical examples of “treasonous” conversion accounts.
1. Abraham: Leaving a Family
Abraham’s conversion took the form of leaving his family: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
Further, God changes Abraham’s name—reworking his identity—to focus on the future: “No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5).
Though we often emphasize Abraham’s relocation as his major sacrifice, we forget the communal and relational loss he underwent.
Imagine the response of Abraham’s family. How could you? What about us? Are you sure you heard right?In his cultural context, to leave his father’s household would have amounted to personal betrayal.
For Abraham, the call and cause of God were more important than his family’s potential disappointment or anger. Abraham, like all disciples, was to count the costs of family scrutiny, heartache, and accusations of betrayal.
This is what Jesus meant about counting the cost.
But Abraham’s conversion was not the only one of its kind.
2. Rahab: Leaving a Nation
In Joshua 2, Rahab had heard awe-inspiring accounts of God of Israel laying to waste the whole Egyptian nation. It is possible Rahab had friends and family in Egypt, and possibly imagined the suffering these loved ones experienced under the plagues.
One can also imagine Rahab’s fellow Canaanites warning one another: Don’t listen to stories of Israel’s God. They are false, and if you repeat them, your family will die.
But when Rahab placed her faith in Israel’s God, she did so at the risk of putting her family in the crosshairs of her government. Her allegiance to Yahweh caused her to lie to the king’s men (Joshua 2:4-6)—a literal act of treason against Jericho’s government and gods.
Rahab counted this cost, realizing her fellow citizens would be destroyed, because she was convinced that the God of Israel was the true God.
3. Ruth: Leaving a People
Another heroine of the faith, Ruth, also illustrates the dangers of conversion. In her case, Ruth committed herself to the Lord and followed her mother-in-law rather than returning to her own Moabite people.
We might imagine the bewilderment of her Moabite relatives: Why would she stay with the desolate woman Naomi instead of returning to Moab, where her people will love her and provide for her? Why are you walking out on us for some old widow? Are we worth that little to you?
Ruth’s conversion may have looked like abandonment to her family.
Yet when Ruth chose Naomi, she was grafted into the family of God—eventually becoming the great-grandmother of King David (Ruth 4:18-22) and entering into the lineage of Jesus (Matthew 1:5).
What appeared to be abandonment was really faithfulness. And because Ruth was willing to abandon her kin, God gave her a new family, a new story, and a new hope as the elders of Israel pray for her: “May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the family of Israel. May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem” (Ruth 4:11-12).
4. Paul: Leaving a Tradition
The New Testament is replete with examples of costly conversations, not the least of which being the Apostle Paul. In his sovereignty, God drew Paul to Christ even while Paul “was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1).
As a prestigious Pharisee trained under Gamaliel (Philippians 3:5), Paul certainly faced opposition from the religious community for committing what was perceived to have been religious and political treason in his conversion.
Once more, we can imagine the refrain: How could you do this to God? How could you betray your religion?
In this case, Paul’s acceptance of Christ was interpreted by his peers, almost exclusively, as apostasy.
Though, in fact, Paul had in noway abandoned the true teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures (cf. Acts 26:6-7, Romans 10:4), in swearing allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, he effectively nullified his Jewish credentials. For a season, the Jewish religious class scorned him, and the church feared him. He became the troubler of Israel. He had to start over—alone (cf. Galatians 1:17-18).
An Invitation to Treason
Scripture clearly paints the cost of discipleship in deep tones. Unbelievers will interpret a disciple of Christ’s actions in terms of betrayal, treason, abandonment, and apostasy.
In our culture’s concern with acceptance and tolerance, pressure has been exerted both on the church and the foreign missionary to deemphasize the exclusivity of Christ and the arresting, confrontational nature of the gospel.
Yet the missionary’s job is to call people to betrayal, treason, and abandonment of family, country, and false gods, apostatizing from any and all unbelieving worldviews.
These points bear repeating:
- The missionary’s job is to call people to betray their families, like Abraham—to relinquish the old ties that prevent them from believing and obeying the radical commands of Jesus.
- The missionary’s job is to call people to treason, like Rahab—to rebel against their false gods and become citizens of the kingdom of Christ.
- The missionary’s job is to call people to abandonment, like Ruth—to realize that “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).
- The missionary’s job is to call people to apostasy, like Paul—to turn one’s back on religious traditions that contradict with gospel truth and live publicly and openly as disciples.
We must allow our theology of conversion to inform our missiology. When we send a missionary into an Islamic context, we are asking converts to commit treason against a false god and a host of unbiblical cultural expectations. In Hindu contexts, we are asking converts to believe in Jesus as the only way, the truth, and the life, over and against the innumerable idols revered by various families and sects.
No Small Gods
The reality, however, is that people don’t convert to small gods. Unbelievers will not leave behind families, religions, or political allegiances for generic theism, nor for a merely human Jesus who teaches new moral maxims and little else.
Rather than seeking to make the unbeliever as comfortable as possible in his present state, missionaries must instead paint a picture of the weight of glory lying just over the horizon of the decision to embrace grace.
Missionaries must present the kingdom of God as the new and better country of Abraham. Missionaries must present false gods as the doomed king of Jericho. Missionaries must present the body of Christ as far surpassing the joys of family and relationships. Missionaries must present apostasy from false religion as resurrection into the new and living way of faith in Jesus Christ.
As we witness to the world, let us present a God worthy of the treason of conversion.
It is this kind of conversion that creates believers who, together with us, will boldly and publicly worship the God who is worth the cost to follow.