Not many self-proclaimed Christians these days would claim the mantle of “Disciple”. They think those were the twelve guys who followed Jesus around (or were they Apostles?). Most have no idea what the term means and what is, therefore, involved in actually becoming one. Nor are they hearing any encouragement from their pastors to seek to become one. One of the tragedies of modern churches is that few of them have the knowledge and capacity, so that they could ever offer, to help their people to become one. Yet this is the one and only command Jesus ever gave to His Church (Matthew 28:19-20).
Why are these things, and how can we overcome them? This note will hopefully offer some insights that will help you see how you can endeavor to work with the Holy Spirit to transition from simply a believer in Christ to a follower of Christ – one who lives for Him daily.
What is a Disciple?
Perhaps we should begin by defining the term. The word translated “disciple” in the Bible’s New Testament is:
3101 μαθητής maqētēs, math-ay-tes’;
From 3129; a learner, that is, pupil.
Definitionally, the word means “student”. It’s helpful to reflect that up until sometime in the 20th century the way one learned was via apprenticeship, where the student – the apprentice – would commit himself to his “master” to learn a trade or academic subject. In this arrangement, a master of a subject was paired with perhaps one or a few apprentices who sought to grow to learn all that their master knew, and so be able to carry on the progress of his trade or subject just as he had done. Indeed, they sought to be co-equal in knowledge and skills, and ability with their master. Before institutionalized education, this was the way knowledge was passed from one generation to the next, and this is the meaning of “learner” intended by the New Testament’s usage of the term.
There is, however, an additional meaning laid out in the New Testament (NT). We learn in several New Testament passages that we must die to ourselves (Galatians 5:4, Romans 6:11, Colossians 3:3). Then we read (John 3:3) that in order to live a new life in the Kingdom of God, one must be “born again”. This birth happens when the disciple-to-be repents of his separation from his God, trusts Christ for his life, and receives into his innermost being the Spirit of God (Acts 1:8). This indwelt Spirit of God is the equivalent of immigration papers for the new citizen of God’s Kingdom. But this is just the very beginning.
In Matthew 9:9 we see that for Jesus (and assumedly his hearers) the idea of being a disciple was more than coming to know what his Master knew. First, we see that the call to follow is from Jesus Himself. Since the call is from Him, it should only be met with “Yes.” Second, we see Matthew instantly obey. At that moment he didn’t believe Jesus was the Christ, the Savior of the world. He nevertheless knew instantly in the core of his being that he had to obey, and so he did[i].
Finally, it meant that some effort to obey was required by the disciple (Jesus didn’t supernaturally lift Matthew up to follow Him; He called, and Matthew had to get up and follow). But, more profoundly, it has the meaning of learning to live his life and doing what his Master did, or would do, in the same circumstance.
So this will be our working definition of ‘Disciple’: One who purposes to learn what his master knows and do what his master instructs be done. My very favorite definition was provided by Dallas Willard[ii], who boils it down to its essence this way; disciples
“live their lives as Christ would live them, if He were they”
The Life of a Disciple
One becomes a disciple of Christ within the context of a commitment to Christ, under His supervision. It is surely not something one does on his own – of his own resources. Far from it. It is an enterprise of the Christ “in” us – His Holy Spirit. But we do have a role in the success of the enterprise, and that role is to prevent ourselves from impeding the work of that Spirit in us (“quenching” the spirit).
Jesus taught (Luke 14:33) that any who wanted to follow him had to mentally abandon everything (Matthew 19:16-30). Elsewhere He characterized the requirement as “he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Jesus was trying to teach His fledging followers that He would only accept those who set Him as the preeminent priority of their lives. They could not be divided in their allegiance between the things of their lives – family, job, relationships, finances – and Him. He was their Lord. And, just as He modeled obedience to His Father, their single-minded focus needed to be following and serving Him as He called them to do. He would take care of the rest (Matthew 7:8-11, Romans 8:32).
Many of His followers wouldn’t make this commitment (John 6:66) and so left Him, just as they do today. Abandoning oneself to live entirely for another, even the Lord, is quite simply an impossibility for the natural man.
Jesus told the “rich young man”(Matthew 19:16-22) that in order to have eternal life he had to sell everything he had, give it to the poor and “follow me”. Following Him is what this would-be disciple professed to want. So let’s just concentrate for a moment on the “sell all your possessions” part.
As He often did, Jesus was looking here for some shock value with His message (e.g. “if you don’t hate your father and mother…you cannot be my disciple”). He knew it would be preserved and communicated to countless people, and it has been. And, as was also typical, Jesus was not being literal here. What He was trying to get His followers to understand was that they had to put Christ’s priorities first, above their own. He was not literally telling us to sell everything so that we were possession-less; but that we were to think of ourselves and our lives as if we were – unimpeded by other concerns.
In the 1930s Dietrich Bonhoeffer[iii] wrote of Jesus’ call this way: “Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ.”
I’m Going To Need Some Help
Jesus taught that after He rose to the Father, He would send a “helper” (John 16:7) – the Spirit of God. His Spirit is the enabler of our sanctification, the One who facilitates this abandoning, as Peter announces in his greeting in his first letter (1 Peter 1:2):
“according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.”
The Spirit sanctifies (sets apart for His purposes) the follower for obedience to Jesus – living and thinking as Jesus taught.
“But why”, you may ask, “if this all ‘just happens’ to the new ‘believer’ in Christ don’t I see more people actually acting like Christ among my Christian friends?” The short answer is because they have not made Christ the Lord of their lives. Perhaps they have been deceived by the modern church into believing that whatever they do, however they live, “by grace you have been saved through faith”. Or perhaps they simply can’t let go of their own self-interest. Whatever their mindset, while they may claim He is their Lord, they have never committed to live as if He is their Lord in reality.
Discipleship and the Grace of God
Bonhoeffer[iv] wrote with piercing insight on the idea he saw emanating from many pulpits that he described as “cheap grace”. The concept of divine Grace, Bonhoeffer observed, had been twisted from its original meaning into a doctrine of “Whatever you do makes no difference. You’re saved!” He argued that the core of the church’s misunderstanding was that Grace did not give dispensation to the sin but to the person. He says:
“The justification of the sinner in the world degenerated into the justification of the sin and the world. Costly grace was turned into cheap grace without discipleship.”
Grace, he argued, was never a free pass to live in the world as the world, as Paul taught (Romans 6:1-4). It was, rather, the unspeakable gift to those called into life with their Lord, to live as He taught, but in the world, despite the lifetime of temptation and struggle that environment brought with it. Clearly, “dying to self” was not to be a one-time sanctifying event, but an intense, lifetime vocation.
He notes that upon realizing this as a monastic monk, Martin Luther had an epiphany, finally realizing that God’s grace called him (and all Christians) into obedience to Christ in the world, where His light could be seen in his life, but not of the world. He had to conclude that the monastic model was a kind of heresy. Rather than costing nothing, hidden away in the mountains in some idyllic commune, Luther understood that it would cost him his life. And so he took up his cross and re-entered society apart from the relative safety and insulation of the monastery as a Pastor to his countrymen, and became a founder of the Reformation.
Transformation of the Heart
Recognizing that you have a Lord can create trauma for many. We’re so wedded to our modern, Western cultural imperatives of achievement, status, self-worth, and gratification, that we find it hard to come to the realization that we are, in fact, simply servants of the Lord of the Universe who chose to make us. Coming to this realization compels the adoption of several attitudes of the heart:
- Humility – one can’t hold onto self-pride if one’s whole being is wrapped up in his Lord. If you refuse to believe that Christ can lead your life far better than you can, and defer your choices to His, you haven’t yet accepted Him (James 4:6, 10).
Thomas A Kempis, in his “The Imitation of Christ[v]” says simply this: “If you are humble in all you do and submissive to God’s will, you will have peace in all you do.”
- Repentance – often Christians come to their belief only intellectually, not from their heart. Truly offering yourself to the Lord requires that you commit to turning away from/rejecting your old self (“deny yourself”) before following Christ.
- Dependence – for the committed Christ follower, He is the source of every good thing (James 1:17). If you spend time worrying about financial issues, health issues, getting that promotion…whatever it may be, then you have not ceded control of your life to Him. If you do so, He will provide for you (2 Corinthians 9:10).
- To Live in His Presence – Jesus says “And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and all of your soul and all of your mind and all of your strength.” One in whom the Spirit is not only present but is living through them finds it difficult NOT to dwell on the Lord and His will for him in the moment; finds it hard NOT to love Him totally. It becomes for him a new and persistent consciousness. He naturally but graciously defends himself against disruptions – like media or small talk or truly unimportant distractions — to the experience of His presence.
(A.W. Tozer has some insightful comments on the attitudes of the Spiritual Man here.)
Transformation of the Mind
Paul tells us (Romans 12:2) to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind…that…you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This is such a compact phrase to cover such an enormous transformation of how we think about literally everything. Like all aspects of discipleship, some part is our responsibility, and some part is given to us by the Grace of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:16, John 14:26).
What part is our responsibility?
First, and perhaps foremost, we have a lifetime of worldly habits to unlearn and abandon. No one knows but you what they are in your case. The types of things that should be on your list include:
- Those that act to distract you from openness and receptivity to God (e.g. worry, gossip, complaining, judging)
- Those that act to make you mentally dependent on them (e.g. relationships, money, your own entertainment or pleasure, or feeling of self-worth)
- Those that act to identify you as not of God to others
- Those things that are more important to you than God
What new habits are we to cultivate to replace these? Many.
- Be constantly aware of God’s presence with you, and listen for His will for the opportunity to serve Him in the things going on around you. This discipline, over time, will let you see the needs around you as opportunities for you to express God’s good-seeking love that are imperceptible to the natural man.
- Be constantly open to and willing to follow God’s leading. This is just a discipline of having a “Yes, Lord” attitude, no matter what your heart may be saying.
- Be continuously thankful. Nothing breeds humility like thankfulness. Your life is a gift of God. Everything you are able to experience is His gift. So this discipline is simply a matter of increasingly imposing these thoughts in your mind.
- See yourself as a servant. If your heart isn’t yet quite that of a servant (as it will be), train yourself to see yourself as a servant to those around you, and take steps to meet their needs. As you experience the blessing of these experiences, your heart will follow your mind to servanthood, and it will become as natural as breathing.
- See your inadequacy so as to build your humility. The experience of every true Christian upon conversion is the experience of perceiving, likely for the first time in their life, the depth of their sin. As you grow in your faith, you continue to perceive this unrighteousness, and you do so in order that you will abandon pride and exult in your humility.
- As you continue to reject your sin, treat your unrighteousness with repentance. Repentance is not a one-time event in the disciple’s life; it is an everyday habit.
- Restrain, even eliminate, your anger in response to personal affronts. Perhaps no other emotion so belies the presence of the Spirit in the disciple as anger. There is no place in the disciple for anger except in response to affronts against their Lord and God.
- Train yourself to respond to others with graciousness and forgiveness rather than judgment. Nobody is drawn to one who is self-righteous, as he is clearly not a servant of the Lord.
- Train yourself to be generous in giving. One of the indisputable marks of a disciple is that he gives freely where others withhold; does so joyously while others do so through thinly veiled objection. Gifts of your time, your finances and your care, in defiance of your long-held priorities, distinguish you as His disciple.
In all of these patterns of thinking, there is only One Person you are aiming to please, and that is your Lord.
Work With the Spirit
It is critical for us to understand that these attitudes are both choices the follower of Christ makes and gifts of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, we have to make a choice here and take our stand. And, we must consider and accept the “cost” of that choice. Being Christ’s disciple is not a state-of-being unilaterally gifted by God, as, e.g., we understand justification. To be His disciple, you have to put yourself aside (“deny himself”, if you will) and put on, instead, the mind and mission and nature of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:13-16). This is your commitment to Christ through His Spirit.
To Jesus, and to those close to Him, this was always what was meant to be His “follower” – His disciple, which only much later was given the label “Christian”.
The Spirit of God and His gifts are given to the one willing to follow Christ (John 16:13, 1 Corinthians 12:4-11) to enable him to follow Christ. This is the grace of God. And it is the engine of His power to transform His disciple and to convict the world of His reality. All we have to do is submit to Him. He does the rest.
The committed disciple should expect this same Holy Spirit to strengthen him, to protect him and to enable him to spread the light of Christ to the world around him. This is, in fact, the way it works.
What Should the Disciple Expect?
The Bible is quite clear that followers of Jesus will be persecuted for their beliefs. This was self-evident in first-century Israel. It was also true in the Roman Empire up to Constantine – a period of 300 years. But what about us, today?
Well, perhaps you’ve noticed (if you’ve actively looked – the mainstream media doesn’t feature these stories) that today in various locations throughout the world, Christians are being not only persecuted but massacred. Just because these atrocities haven’t found you in your neighborhood doesn’t mean that they aren’t happening to your brothers and sisters.
The simple truth is that openly faithful followers of Jesus are shunned at best, and attacked at worst, in a post-modern, or Muslim dominated society. They’re “different”, and so are despised and dismissed by the worldly polity. They’re despised because when others look at their own lives they feel guilty. The secularists know they don’t think or live like that and they have, despite their protestations, a deep-seated understanding in the core of their being that the disciple is different from them because s/he is living God’s will for them.
Is disdain “persecution”? Well, it is if your school system is indoctrinating your child in their latest idea of gender identity. It is if the Bible study you have in your home violates your community’s CC&R’s. It is if the evidence of your faith in your daily life makes you an undesirable or unacceptable employee.
And then, of course, there are the so-far only foreign massacres of Christians by virulent Muslims. Certainly not a pretty picture. But one that was prophesied.
This external discrimination – even persecution – is one thing. But, as serious a consideration as it is, it’s not the main thing in the life of most disciples. The challenge (or “cost”) to the would-be disciple is abandoning himself.
We’ve already seen the instruction by Jesus (e.g. Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:23-24, Mark 8:34). What does He even mean by “deny yourself”? Like Luther, we’re pretty sure that He doesn’t mean for us to enter a monastery. But beyond that, what?
In order to understand this admonition and its particular challenge for modern Westerners, we have to spend a moment digging down into the concept of “possession”.
All of us are taught the principles of ownership by experience. “This stuff is mine. That stuff is yours.” Our houses have pieces of paper called “deeds” and our cars have “titles” that call us out as their owners. And through a lifetime of cultural experience, we come to see most everything through a lens of “mine” or “yours”. We possess the stuff that’s ours, both legally, but much more insidiously, mentally.
However, this ownership issue has much deeper roots. We “own” (in our minds) our family – our spouse and children, our parents and set of friends. We own our habits and favorite destinations and restaurants and favorite media streams etc. They’re not only our friends but in a very deep sense, we possess them. They give us comfort, security, constancy and to a large degree, identity.
The mindset of authentic Christ followers is that they cede control of the things important to them to Christ – their families, their possessions and resources, their relationships, their habits – all of their life’s priorities. The concept He is teaching is to forsake these things. This means treating them responsibly, but secondarily. He’s saying the preeminent priority of the disciple’s life must be Him and living as He instructs us to live. He’s saying that compared to living the life He set for us, everything else is secondary.
Corrie Ten Boom has a quote that clearly captures this idea. She said: “Hold everything in your hands lightly, otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open.” Possessions, relationships, favored activities all should be held very loosely. The less concern you have over these things, the freer you are to respond to the Lord. The disciple needs to be ready at a moment’s notice to forsake these things when Christ, through the Holy Spirit, calls you to His service. But more than that, for the disciple there simply is no higher priority than an obedient response to the slightest call of their Lord, unrestrained by worldly concerns.
The Cost-Benefit of Discipleship
So why would anyone sign up for such a life? There are two reasons:
- Because Jesus told us this is His will (Luke 9:23, Luke 14:26, John 12:26, 1 Timothy 2:4, Matthew 20:27), and He is our Lord.
- Because it promises to elicit the ultimate joy in its adherents. Literally, nothing compares with the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control imparted to the follower by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
On the contrary, for the one who would be a disciple of his Lord, what other choice does he have? If in fact He is your Lord, what is it, exactly, that you would refuse Him? On what basis would you presume to refuse Him? That you are ‘only mortal’? That your life is ‘busy’? That you have to put ‘food on the table’? You think He didn’t and doesn’t know all of these things? Yet, He doesn’t offer us a pass.
How do I do this?
Recognizing the vast separation between either an unbeliever or a casual ‘Christian’, and a Disciple, the prospect of making the changes necessary to leave the one to become the other can seem, even with the assurance of the Spirit’s help, extremely intimidating. So it’s quite natural to look for a little help.
Unfortunately, as noted above, most churches aren’t equipped or interested in helping grow you into discipleship. There are two basic and independent reasons why they have, for all intents and purposes, abandoned their assigned mission of making disciples.
First, for many, their guiding doctrine absolutely prohibits expending any effort in the direction of God. (It’s Grace, remember?) Churches in the Reformed tradition (which Bonhoeffer was excoriating, and which include many independent or non-denominational churches) are compelled by their obsession with Grace to teach against anything but God’s Grace in the Christian’s life. Despite the testimony of scripture, incredibly they mistake the doctrine of Grace for a blanket prohibition against spiritual action in Christian’s life. To them, endeavoring to do anything, including becoming a Disciple, is a kind of heresy. And so you find very close to zero Reformed congregations doing anything to build up their flocks into Disciples.
Bonhoeffer[vi] was particularly impassioned in calling out the church on this issue. Speaking of his church’s wholesale adoption of no-cost grace, he says this:
“The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized Church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving. We poured forth unending streams of grace. But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard… What had happened to all those warnings of Luther’s against preaching the gospel in such a manner as to make men rest secure in their ungodly living? Was there ever a more terrible or disastrous instance of Christianizing of the world than this?”
The second reason is more pervasive but quite doctrine-independent, and that is that the idea of promoting the discipline of growing into Christlikeness is simply too offensive to the average church attender’s sensibilities to be a tenable message. Christ, using some hard-hitting hyperbolae tells us that in order to be His disciple, things have to change:
Luke 14:26-27 (ESV) “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.  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
Luke 14:33 (ESV) So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Now, you don’t have to use much imagination to figure out how these messages would play coming right after the Sunday morning announcement of the next discipleship class. These are some of the most counter-cultural messages in the entire New Testament. And, though a bit hyperbolic, they are the words of the Lord.
Their effect is to offend the people looking to just live their normal, comfortable lives free from their Lord. They tell themselves they have God’s gift of grace; they’ve had their “ticket punched” for heaven, so think: “don’t bother me with this spiritual lifestyle stuff. That’s just for monks and pastors and crazy Jesus people”.
This is the abject failure of the modern church. However, the churches making these decisions are perhaps less egregious than those teaching social or “feel-good” gospels, or any of a thousand other messages that completely ignore or disclaim Jesus and His call. These are hardly churches at all.
However, if you are lucky enough to attend a church that actually values discipleship, it likely has a program that can be helpful.
There are many methodologies out there (try this search) whose stated objective is to make/build disciples. You can find various of these implemented in the few churches that still consider this their mission. Among these offerings, there seems to be no standard approach. But, most share some common features, including:
- Techniques used to develop the habit of consistent Bible study and meditation on it (Philippians 4:8, John 8:31-32).
- Techniques used to promote the ability to see opportunities to express God’s love and will in everyday situations (Ephesians 1:18, Ephesians 5:8-14, Colossians 4:6).
- Techniques used to promote a consistent habit of asking God to make His will known to the student in every situation he confronts (Ephesians 6:18, James 1:5).
- Promoting fellowship among groups of students, and one-on-one mentoring used to encourage and guide the student in his vocation of becoming more and more like Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:11, Hebrews 10:24-25, Ephesians 4:5), including fellowship with Jesus. (John 15:15)
But what if your church doesn’t offer such a program, or perhaps doesn’t have a seasoned disciple for you to learn from? In this situation, it’s probably best to simply look at where we’re trying to go – Christlikeness – and work out a plan, customized to your own needs and schedule, that can help you get there (2 Peter 3:18). Such a plan could contain many of the disciplines we’ve noted above, and the referenced readings (especially Bonhoeffer and Willard). You may be confident that God will honor your effort (Ephesians 3:20).
Discipleship is the life vocation that every believer in Christ as Lord is called to. It is a life of relying on God’s costly Grace and little else.
This vocation requires that the follower place Christ first – above all of his other worldly responsibilities and priorities. The disciple understands that he is a subject of his Lord, a servant of his Master, Christ, and conducts himself in recognition of this fact, devoting himself to obedience to Christ and His Holy Spirit’s leading.
The Spirit of God is the agent that enables, guides and empowers the disciple to live his faithful life (Phil 2:13), be it in persecution, or in joy. Very simply, all the disciple has to do to be victorious is to trust the Spirit and follow Christ. Bonhoeffer sums up this life with eloquence:
“To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenceless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray.”
[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Touchstone, 2017, p 62-78
Bonhoeffer presents a compelling analysis of the co-dependency of obeying through faith and having faith through obedience that is well worth your consideration. There he offers this summary statement regarding Peter’s step of obedience out of the boat:
“But we should completely misunderstand the nature of grace if we were to suppose that there was no need to take that first step, because faith was already there. Against that we must boldly assert that the step of obedience must be taken before faith can be possible. Unless he obeys, a man cannot believe.”
[ii] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, NavPress, 2012, p 241
[iii] Bonhoeffer, op. cit., p 90
[iv] Bonhoeffer, op. cit., p 50
[v] Thomas A Kempis; The Imitation of Christ, Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1993,1988,1977
[vi] Bonhoeffer, op. cit., p 54