What is a Disciple?

I had to turn off the podcast before it was over. I was listening to a discussion on how the Church needs a new approach to discipleship. There’s so much sin, so much brokenness, so much unforgiveness, so much division…you get the idea. The Church is messed up. And all of us can nod our heads in agreement – yes, the Church is messed up. And yet at the same time, most of us can affirm that the Church is life-giving – a place of healing, reconciliation, inspiration, satisfaction, joy, and deep friendship. But let’s get back to the Messed-Up Church – the MUC. How do we fix the MUC?

The podcast presented a particular discipleship course that has been years in the making. This course is designed to disciple the Church into its God-intended maturity and health. And the thing is, you just can’t order this course, read it, and apply it to the life of your church on your own. If you do that, the impact will be minimal. You need to be trained in this method of discipleship. That is the only way to ensure the maximum benefits of this course will be experienced. 

The premise behind the presentation is that we live in such complicated, challenging times and people are broken in so many ways, that we need a sophisticated approach to discipleship that will be able to both address and cut-through the complexity. The Church needs this sophisticated approach to disciple-making and specialized training is needed to understand and apply this modern approach. This course will bring the Church back to Biblical discipleship. The podcast wasn’t over, but this is where I turned it off because the words of Jesus had grabbed my attention.

Jesus said in Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…”

The Church is to make disciples (followers of Jesus) of all nations by two means – baptism and teaching them to obey the commands of Jesus. Please note that disciples not only know the commands of Jesus, they also obey the commands of Jesus. The Church isn’t to go and teach them the commands of Jesus. The Church is to go and teach them to obey the commands of Jesus. This is key. This is crucial. A disciple isn’t one with sophisticated knowledge. A disciple is one who gives simple obedience. Discipleship isn’t measured by knowledge. It is measured by obedience. Knowledge doesn’t transform. Obedience transforms. The Church doesn’t have a crisis of knowledge. The Church has a crisis of obedience. You don’t have a crisis of knowledge. You have a crisis of obedience. 

Yes, I do think that we need sophisticated knowledge to understand and address a lot of the issues we are faced with today. I was in Bible College from 1972-1976 and the moral, cultural, philosophical, legal, technological, scientific, and political landscape has shifted, and morphed, and become so much more complex. Dorothy is right. We are not in Kansas anymore. It feels like I’m in Mordor surrounded by Orcs! The demands of ministry have increased exponentially, but the criteria for discipleship has remained the same; simple obedience to the commands of Jesus. 

How does it aid your discipleship if you understand post-structuralism, but don’t obey Jesus and love your enemies? How does it transform your soul if you know how to respond to someone who has deconstructed their faith, but don’t forgive those who have sinned against you? How do you become more like Jesus if you become a social justice warrior and an advocate for marginalized peoples, but despise those who don’t embrace your cause with the same zeal? How do we see Jesus in you when you scorn and mock those who don’t vote like you do? Deeper knowledge, greater zeal, worthy causes don’t make you a disciple of Jesus. Obedience to the commands of Jesus makes you His disciple and brings transformation to your soul. Don’t mistake knowledge and zeal and a righteous cause for obedience to Jesus. Often, these things can accompany obedience to Jesus. Sometimes, they replace obedience to Jesus. If your knowledge, zeal, and righteous cause(s) bring you to the place where you despise, and mock, and scorn others, your knowledge, zeal, and righteous cause is not the result of obedience to Jesus. 

An increase of activity is not necessarily a deepening of discipleship. An increase of knowledge and zeal and righteous causes is not necessarily the developing of a disciple. An increase of obedience to the commands of Jesus is the deepening and developing of a disciple. And the greatest obedience is to love God and people. Love is the manger of a disciple. And where there is scorn, derision, and mocking, there is no love, which means there is no obedience, and so –  no discipleship. Where there is no love there is no discipleship. There can be ministry where there is no love. There can be knowledge and zeal and righteous causes where there is no love. But there cannot be discipleship where there is no love. Because where there is no love there is no obedience. And where there is no obedience there is no discipleship. 

What is God’s program for discipleship? Learn to love; give yourself away; consider others more important than yourself. At home. In marriage. As a mom. As a dad. As a friend. As an employer. As an employee. How do we fix the MUC? Obedience. Discipleship. Love.

4 thoughts on “What is a Disciple?”

  1. Hey Tim,

    You’ve certainly hit the nail on the head. Disciples are *obedient* followers of Christ. I wonder if the *obdience* aspect is being emphasized in churches. I actually know the answer to that question. It isn’t! Not nearly as much as it once was. And this is true in far too many solid Bible churches.

    It is striking to me how frequently I hear *good* Bible teachers reading the imperatives of the Old and New Testaments and then using them primarily as an impetus for repentance and thanksgiving for grace rather than an exhortation to obedience.

    Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is reduced to a, “See, Jesus is the hero of the story. We’re like the man taken among thieves, and we need Jesus in His grace to rescue us!” That’s all well and good. In fact, that might be an applicable point in a sermon. But it certainly wasn’t the point of Jesus’ story. Jesus gave the clear application: Who was a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves? The one who showed mercy. Go and *DO* likewise.”

    It seems that among far too many Bible teachers, there is a reservation around calling people to a life of faithful obedience.

  2. Thanks, Miles. We resonate together! Allow me to step on some toes. Through the “we’re a gospel centered church” movement that has captured so much of the Evangelical imagination, the message of the movement is often heard only as ‘repent and believe the gospel.’ Like everything else, the “we’re a gospel-centered church” movement was meant as a corrective to an over-emphasis on Bible teaching that didn’t have Christ as its central character – it was a corrective to preaching that centered on man. ‘Gospel-centered preaching’ exhorts us to find Jesus in every text and preach Christ. I listened to Keller and Clowney’s ‘Christ-Centered Exposition’ seminar and thought it was excellent – but in the end, reductionistic in that it reduced each text to a single dimension.

    What I mean is, to take your example of the Good Samaritan, the text is about Jesus rescuing us when no one else would and caring for us in an extended manner. I see Jesus in the text! I also see man in the text. As you pointed out, “Go and do likewise.” There is a point of application and obedience for man. Or take David and Goliath. This is about Jesus killing the giant that we couldn’t overcome. Great. I see Jesus in the text. I also see how a man, David, called upon the living God so that he might overcome his enemy. I see both. Why not!? In what way does that diminish the glory of Christ?

    Discipleship preaching – bringing the church face-to-face with their responsibilities gives the preacher a lot more to preach about, too! In fact, I just read a paper on preaching that asserted that if application isn’t made for the church, it’s not a sermon! Jesus told us to make disciples and then He told us what a disciple is – someone who obeys the commands of Jesus. The obedience of faith is the gateway to transformation!

  3. As a follow-up to my response to Miles, here is what Titus 2:11-12 says –

    For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age…

    I think we can safely insert “gospel” for the “grace of God.”

    “For the gospel has appeared, bringing salvation to all men.” And please note that this gospel comes with instructions – instructions that are applications of what it means to have the grace of God in your life. The gospel directs us not only to believe in Jesus, but to live a life set apart to God. The gospel not only points us to Jesus, but it also points us to a Christ-centered life. It goes beyond salvation and the forgiveness of sin into overcoming sin and its corruption in this life. This parallels what happened on the Day of Pentecost. While Peter was preaching, this took place –

    38Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
    39“For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”
    40And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!”

    Note carefully v20 – with many other words he brought forth the implications and instructions of the gospel, i.e., the grace of God: “Be saved from (away from) this perverse generation.” The gospel not only takes you away from the penalty of sin, it also is meant to take you away from a life of sin. This is accomplished by the obedience of faith – obedience to the commands of Jesus.

  4. Tim, as you said…
    “How does it aid your discipleship if you understand post-structuralism, but don’t obey Jesus and love your enemies?”
    Well, I’d explain it to you, but I don’t think you’d understand… LOL! 😉

    It is pretty amazing that “smarter, better educated” people keep trying to come up with a more clever, sure-fire, technically advanced way of discipleship than what we see Jesus do. Really?! It just ain’t that complicated! Jesus said it pretty plainly— “Deny yourself, take up your cross (die to self), and follow Me.” (Matt 16:24) The Titus 2 text echoes the same. And as Paul said to the Corinthians, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1)

    Perhaps the bigger issue (or problem) is the lack of faithful, godly examples in leaders for people to follow. Maybe that’s too cynical, but Jesus and the early church seemed to do an awful lot with such a simple methodology.
    Tim, thanks again for saying it straight and true!

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