The absolute essence of the great commission given to the church by the Lord Jesus Christ just prior to His departure to be with the Father, is a charge to make disciples (Matthew 28.19). However, this great commission has been misunderstood my some as a dualistic responsibility. First, get lost people converted and baptized; second, get converts to become followers of Christ. Perhaps, part of this confusion between getting someone ‘saved’ and getting someone to follow Jesus is because of the confusion over what it means to be a disciple of Christ and the definition of discipleship. The purpose of this paper is to define what it means to be a fully devoted follower of Christ—a disciple—based on what is recorded in the New Testament.
SAVED BY GRACE THROUGH FAITH
Discipleship begins with a male or female who has been born-again (John 3). One cannot be a follower of Christ if they have not acknowledged the person and work of Christ as the anointed One—the Messiah—sent from God the Father as the Son of God. One of the first disciples of Christ Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, describes Jesus as the Messiah (John 1:41). Then Nathanael, another follower of Christ, describes Jesus as “the Teacher, who is the Son of God, who is the King of Israel” (John 1:49). Finally, in Matthew 16, Peter also describes Jesus as “the Christ the Son of the living God” once again reinforcing that discipleship begins with the proper perspective on the person and work of Christ. A disciple of Christ is one who believes that Jesus is both the Son of God and God incarnate and has placed his faith in the work of Christ as his only Prophet (teacher), Priest (savior) and King (Lord).
In Growing True Disciples, George Barna makes the point that discipleship begins with an understanding that one is saved “by grace alone.” Jesus told Peter that his understanding and belief that Jesus was the Christ the Son of the Living God was a gift from the Father (Matthew 16:17). Unlike the vast majority of surveyed Christians in The Seven Faith Tribes by George Barna, most followers of Christ do not articulate a saved by grace theology when asked about achieving a right standing with God. According to Barna, “less than two out of every five Casual [Christians] (38 percent) believe they will have eternal life because of their own confession of sins and acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Savior, their only hope of receiving God’s Grace.”
THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP
By God’s grace, repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the apostolic message that, when preached, creates faith unto conversion in the hearts and minds of sinner’s who become followers of Jesus (Acts 20:21, Eph 2:8-9). Jesus continually challenges His followers to take up the cross of Jesus and follow Him (Matthew 10:38, 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23, 14.27). Faith in Him was not the end; it was the beginning of a journey. He did not establish a separate class of people known only as believers. Luke 14:27, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” is strong—if one is not presently following Jesus, he or she cannot be considered a disciple. Discipleship is the lifelong process of following Jesus as one’s only Prophet, Savior and King. Followers of Christ are those who are willing to suffer and face “persecution and death for Jesus’ sake;” this is what was meant by every reference to taking up a cross and following Jesus.
A disciple of Christ is one who puts a higher premium on his relationship with his Lord and Savior than his relationship with his father; mother, brother, sister, spouse or any other human being. Matthew 10:37 makes this point absolutely clear: “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.” With regard to this entire passage on discipleship (Matthew 10:32-39), John MacArthur writes in The Gospel According to Jesus, “our Lord gave no more definitive statement on discipleship than that. There He spells out in the clearest possible language the cost of discipleship.” One cannot separate the cost of following Jesus from the belief in Jesus if that belief is authentic faith. Again, Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). The ESV Study Bible notes are exceptionally helpful in summarizing the requirements of discipleship. Thomas Schreiner writes, “Those who would be Christ's disciples must (1) love their family less than they love Christ (14:26); (2) bear the cross and follow Christ (v. 27); and (3) relinquish everything (v. 33).” These are complementary ways of describing complete commitment [to Jesus as Lord]. According to John MacArthur, Jesus often used “slavery as a symbol of discipleship.” For example, Jesus said in Matthew 10:24, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master.” This is slavery in an atypical sense: A slave of Jesus is also a friend of Jesus when he or she obeys their master (John 15:14-15). It is a unique relationship created before the foundation of the world to honor and magnify the glory of God (Eph 1:4).
At the core of discipleship is a complete commitment to a combination of recognizing Jesus as the Christ in a personal way, and striving to live in a way that reflects a commitment to the truth that Jesus is Lord (1 John 5:1, Romans 10:9). Thus George Barna is absolutely right: disciples of Christ must “learn and understand the principles of the Christian life” and “obey God’s laws and Commands.” Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me” (John 10.27). They must represent Christ on this planet; they are salt and light (Mt. 5:13-14). Disciples of Christ “serve other people” and obey the great commission by reproducing “themselves in Christ.” Disciples of Christ have been and are being radically changed by the power of the gospel into the image of their Master by God’s sanctifying and enabling grace. Their repentant faith is exclusively in the finished work of Jesus as their only Prophet, Priest and King. They are not a separate class of believers but are, instead, true believers different from those who name the name of Jesus but will hear the fateful words “I never knew you” (Mt. 7:23). True believers are followers of Christ—they are those whom Jesus said “will enter the kingdom of Heaven” and whom He characterizes as one those did “the will of the Father” (Mt. 7:21).
Barna, George. Growing True Disciples. Colorado Spring, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2001.
Barna, George. The Seven Faith Tribes: Who They Are, What they Believe and Why They Matter. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009.
Kaiser, W. C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
MacArthur, John. The Gospel According to Jesus: What is Authentic Faith? Anniversary Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.
Schreiner, Thomas. ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008.