What Is a Disciple?
What is a disciple? A disciple is a follower.
You can do that by following someone’s teaching from afar, like someone might say he follows the teaching and example of Gandhi. And being a disciple of Christ means at least that much. A disciple of Jesus follows in Jesus’s steps, doing as Jesus taught and lived. But it means more than that.
Following Jesus first means that you have entered into a personal, saving relationship with him. You have been “united with Christ,” as the Bible puts it (Philippians 2:1 NIV). You have been united through the new covenant in his blood. Through his death and resurrection, all the guilt of sin that is yours becomes his, and all the righteousness that is his becomes yours.
Being a disciple of Christ, in other words, does not begin with something we do. It begins with something Christ did.
Being a disciple of Christ, in other words, does not begin with something we do. It begins with something Christ did. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). He loved the church and therefore gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25). He paid a debt that he didn’t owe, but that we owe, and then he united us to himself as his holy people.
You see, God is good, and he created us as good. But each of us has sinned by turning away from God and his good law. And because God is good, he will punish our sin. The good news of Christianity, however, is that Jesus lived the perfect life we should have lived, and then he died the death we should die. He offered himself as a substitute and sacrifice for everyone who will repent of their sin and trust in him alone. This is what Jesus called the new covenant in his blood.
So Christian discipleship begins right here with the acceptance of this free gift: grace, mercy, a relationship with God, and the promise of life eternal.
How do we accept this gift and unite ourselves to him? Through faith! We turn away from our sins and follow after him, trusting him as Savior and Lord. At one point in his ministry, Jesus turned toward a crowd and said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34 ESV).
Our discipleship to Christ begins when we hear those two words and obey them: “Follow me.” Friend, if you would become a Christian, regardless of how any other teacher you have heard puts it, listen to Jesus. He says that being a Christian involves denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following him. The fundamental response to God’s radical love for us is for us to radically love him.
To be a Christian means to be a disciple. There are no Christians who are not disciples. And to be a disciple of Jesus means to follow Jesus. There are no disciples of Jesus who are not following Jesus.
Ticking a box on a public opinion poll, or sincerely labeling yourself with the religion of your parents, or having a preference for Christianity as opposed to other religions—none of these things make you a Christian. Christians are people who have real faith in Christ, and who show it by resting their hopes, fears, and lives entirely upon him. They follow him wherever he leads. You no longer set the agenda for your own life; Jesus Christ does that. You belong to him now. “You are not your own,” Paul says, “You were bought with a price” (see 1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Jesus is not just our Savior—he is our Lord.
Paul explained it this way: “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:15 NIV).
What does it mean to die to self and live for him? Don Carson has said, “To die to self means to consider it better to die than to lust; to consider it better to die, than to tell this falsehood; than to consider it better to die than to . . . [you name the sin].” The Christian life is the discipled life. It starts by becoming a disciple of Christ.
But the Christian life is also the discipling life. Disciples disciple. We follow the one who calls people to follow by calling people to follow. Why do we do this? For the sake of love and obedience.
Love. The motive for discipling others begins in the love of God and nothing less. He has loved us in Christ, and so we love him. And we do this in part by loving those he has placed around us.
When a lawyer asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is, Jesus begins by answering, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30 ESV). What God wants most of all is for all of you to love him—all your ambitions and motives, your desires and hopes, your thinking and reasoning, your strength and your energy, all of this informed and purified and disciplined by his Word.
In fact, the comprehensiveness of your devotion to God will be demonstrated by your love for those made in God’s image. The lawyer may have asked for one command, but he got two: “The second,” said Jesus, “is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (v. 31). To omit the second command is to miss the first. Love for God is fundamental to love for neighbor. And love for God must express itself in love for neighbor. It completes the duty of love.
God’s love for us starts a chain reaction. He loves us, then we love him, then we love others. John captures all this: “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:19–21 ESV).
Any claim to love for God that does not show itself in a love for neighbor is a love of a false god, another form of idolatry. In these verses Jesus and John reconnect some of the links broken at the fall.
Discipling others—doing deliberate spiritual good to help them follow Christ—demonstrates this love for God and others as well as anything.
Obedience. But tied to our love is our obedience. Jesus taught, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15; see also 14:23; 15:12–14). And what has he commanded? “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20 ESV). Part of our obedience is leading others to obedience.
Jesus’s final command was not to urge his disciples to armed resistance to Rome, or seek revenge on those who killed him. Rather, Jesus looked at his followers, and told them to make disciples, not just be disciples. Jesus makes no distinction between those to whom this commission was given, and those to whom it wasn’t given. He promises his presence to all Christians, as Pentecost would soon show. And that promise extends to the end of the ages, long beyond the apostles’ lives. Throughout the rest of the New Testament, all Christians would undertake this work according to their abilities, opportunities, and callings. This Great Com-mission is given to all those who would be disciples of Jesus. This command is given to every believer at all times.
Discipling is basic to Christianity. How much clearer could it be? We might not be his disciples if we are not laboring to make disciples.
Disciple Where and How?
Yet there is one more thing to notice about this final commandment of Jesus. It’s where and how he would have us disciple. We are to make disciples among all nations through our churches.
Among all nations. Before telling his disciples to make disciples, he tells them he has received all authority in heaven and earth, and that they should “Go.” Jesus’s authority is universal, and so is his concern. And the universality of his authority and concern lead to the universality of our mission: we go to all nations. Disciple-making is not just the preserve of Israel or the Middle East or of Africa. Christianity is not only for Europe or Asia. Christ has all authority, and so we go to make disciples of all nations.
Through our churches. After telling the disciples to make disciples, he tells them how—through baptizing and teaching.
Yes, the individual missionary or evangelist goes out into the world, into the office, into the school, into the neighborhood, whether on this side of the globe or the other. But the ministry of the ordinances and the ministry of teaching primarily occur through churches. Churches fulfill the Great Commission, and discipling is the work of churches.
Good fellowship and discipling can occur outside of the context of church membership, to be sure. But through the church’s ministry of baptism and the Lord’s Supper we recognize one another as believers. And that lends a spiritually beneficial accountability to the discipling relationships. Through the church’s and the elders’ ministry of teaching, Christians learn to obey everything that Jesus commanded.
The first place Christians should ordinarily look to be discipled and to disciple is through the fellowship of the local church both gathered and scattered. David Wells has observed, “It is very easy to build churches in which seekers congregate; it is very hard to build churches in which biblical faith is maturing into genuine discipleship.”