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The General Rule of Discipleship

The concluding phrase of the General Rule of Discipleship tells us that “witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world and following his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion” are possible only by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Discipleship is dependence upon grace. The Holy Spirit opens the heart and mind to Christ and his grace. Only grace leads you to Christ and keeps you with him. The Holy Spirit helps you follow Jesus in the world through promptings and warnings “provoke you to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).

The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. Jesus describes the Spirit’s work in John 14:15-17 & 26

‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. …

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

The word translated in the NRSV as “Advocate” is the Greek word Paraclete. It may also be translated as “Comforter,” “Counselor,” or “Helper.” Jesus tells his disciples that following his death, resurrection, and ascension to the Father they will not be left alone. The Holy Spirit will be with them and in them. He is the presence of Christ with and in them, serving as advocate, comforter, and guide. The Spirit will be their teacher. Reminding them of all Jesus taught them and equipping them to proclaim and live his Good News of God’s reign of love, righteousness, and justice.

The Holy Spirit is, therefore, Christ’s presence working in the disciple to remind you of his commands to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, love your neighbor as yourself, and love your fellow disciples as Christ loves. As he reminds you of the commands he also supplies the grace needed to obey. As you cooperate with that grace to obey all of Jesus’ commands grace flows through you for others and for the world. You become a channel of God’s love. As love flows through you the Holy Spirit heals your sin-damaged heart, restoring the image of God to wholeness. New heart-habits are formed as your character reflects that of Jesus. Wesley called these new heart-habits “holy tempers.” You know them as “fruit of the Spirit:” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23a). This is what Wesley called “holiness of heart and life,” and “universal love reigning in the heart and governing the life”; which is the telos, or aim, of the Christian life.

The General Rule of Discipleship (To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.) is a simple guide for the Christian life. It serves to remind disciples of the essential practices required of those who accept the challenge of Jesus to “deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). It aims to help disciples to keep Christ at the center of all they do as they conduct themselves in their home, workplace, recreation, and the church. As they keep Christ at the center, faithful disciples follow the teachings about Jesus no less than the teachings of Jesus.

The General Rule of Discipleship aims to help disciples maintain balance between works of piety and works of mercy, the personal and social practices of Christian discipline. It serves to remind us loving God (works of piety) compels Christians to love whom God loves (works of mercy). Charles Wesley beautifully summarizes the outcome of the life described by the General Rule:

Let us plead for faith alone,
Faith which by our works is shown;
God it is who justifies,
Only faith the grace applies.
Active faith that lives within,
Conquers hell and death and sin,
Hallows whom it first made whole,
Forms the Savior in the soul.

Let us for this faith contend,
Sure salvation is the end;
Heaven already is begun,
Everlasting life is won.
Only let us persevere
Till we see our Lord appear,
Never from the Rock remove,
Saved by faith with works by love.

(Charles Wesley, The United Methodist Hymnal, #385)

The General Rule of Discipleship is not proscriptive or prescriptive. It is open and inclusive, welcoming to all where they are, as they are. It does not tell you what to do, or not do. Rather, the General Rule points toward Jesus and provides guidance for the Christian life by reminding you of his teachings and how to do them (Matthew 7:24-27; Luke 6:46-49). It serves as a guide for living the baptismal covenant and growing in holiness of heart and life; loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself.

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