What is a disciple? A disciple is a follower. It comes from the same root word as ‘discipline’, or training. To be someone’s disciple is to be trained by that person. The “following” is a theological and ideological following; it is not a simple as “becoming a fan of Jesus”.
How do we become a disciple? We become a disciple by answering the Lord’s call to “come after Me” (Matt. 16:24). The Lord has two calls:
- “Come unto me” (Matt. 11:28) – this call is for salvation.
- “Come after me” (Matt. 16:24) – this call is for discipleship.
We cannot answer the call for discipleship if we have not answered the call for salvation. Notice that the call for discipleship is elective; “if any man will come after me”. He doesn’t want us to be disciples if our heart is not in it. Discipleship is something that we must rise up to. It isn’t automatic, and it takes energy and sacrifice.
Disciples and disciples indeed. There are two kinds of disciples… mere professors, and real disciples, or “disciples indeed” (John 8:31). The mark of real disciples is that they continue in His word, while mere professors walk away (John 6:66).
Characteristics of disciples.
- A disciple gives the Lord the first place. “If any man come to me, and shall not hate his own father and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yea, and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26). Every other relationship must take a back seat to the claims of Christ. Our devotion to even a father or mother are to be like hatred in comparison to the devotion we have to Christ! In Matthew 8 one of the Lord’s followers asked for a leave of absence to bury his father. The Lord said “Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead” (Matt. 8:22). The claims of nature must make way for the claims of Christ.
- A disciple is willing to suffer for Christ. “And whoever does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27, Matt. 16:24). The path which our Savior has marked out before us is filled with suffering. He was the “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”. The Lord was awarded a cross, and He bore it patiently, and humbly. We too, as His disciples, have our own crosses to carry. In Matt. 8 an enthusiastic scribe came up to Jesus and quickly volunteered for discipleship, saying, “I will follow you wherever you go.” The Lord responded, informing this man that the path was not an easy one, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the heaven roosting-places; but the Son of man has not where he may lay his head” (Matt. 8:20).
- A disciple is diligent in his commitments to the Lord. “For which of you, desirous of building a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, if he have what is needed to complete it; in order that, having laid the foundation of it, and not being able to finish it, all who see it do not begin to mock at him, saying, This man began to build and was not able to finish? Or what king, going on his way to engage in war with another king, does not, sitting down first, take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him coming against him with twenty thousand? and if not, while he is yet far off, having sent an embassy, he asks for terms of peace. Thus then every one of you who forsakes not all that is his own cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:28-33). Once a disciple begins to follow the Lord, there is no turning back. He had better “count the cost” before beginning to follow. A halting disciple is a mockery to the name of Christ. A disciple needs to be realistic about the sacrifice required, and then commit to making that sacrifice. In Luke 9:62 the Lord said, “No one having laid his hand on the plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
- A disciple is faithful to read and obey the Word of God. “Jesus therefore said to the Jews who believed him, If ye abide in my word, ye are truly my disciples; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” (John 8:31-32). Only those who are truly Christ’s disciples will continue in His word. Others may display a great deal of interest, but they soon grow tired of the Word, and turn after other pursuits. But a “disciple indeed” will cling to the Word of God. Then, if we continue in His Word we will progressively know the truth, and be “set free” from every type of bondage!
- A disciple shows love to his fellow disciples. “By this shall all know that ye are disciples of mine, if ye have love amongst yourselves.” (John 13:35). As disciples, we are to reflect the loving heart of our Lord, who “having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them through everything” (John 13:1). Love is not something that can stay in our minds as a mere theory… it has to be practiced in our lives.
- A disciple produces fruit to the glory of the Father. “In this is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit, and ye shall become disciples of mine.” (John 15:8). A disciple of Christ will bear fruit for the Father. What is fruit? It is the features and qualities of Christ replicated in the lives of His disciples. The Father should look down and see Christ reflected in all His disciples! When that is true, the Father is glorified by our lives and we fulfill the purpose for which we were called into discipleship.
Discipleship and Salvation. In Matthew 16 the Lord taught His disciples about the path of discipleship. He said that the path of discipleship was the only way to really “save” our life. To live for our own interests will actually result in wasting or “losing” our life. “For whosoever shall desire to save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what does a man profit, if he should gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:25-26). Sometimes these verses are applied to the eternal salvation of the soul, and there is nothing wrong with the application. Surely, many unbelievers have been close to believing the Gospel, but then suffered the loss of their eternal soul because they valued the world, its pleasures, etc. But that it NOT what these verses are speaking about. Salvation in the Bible is much broader than forgiveness of sins in the eternal sense. Sometimes it has to do with our being caught up to heaven at the rapture, and sometimes it has to do with being preserved as useful to the Lord in this life. Here the Lord is speaking to His own disciples, who were believers (except for Judas). He tells believers that they can lose their lives if they live for selfish interests now. A Christian might focus all his time and resources on making money or gaining political office… and it be all a waste in view of eternity! How sad. By contrast, the path of discipleship may mean suffering for Christ now, but it will yield the maximum fruit for God. It means we will have to miss out on “life”, but we will find our life again at the judgment seat of Christ when He accepts and rewards us for our sacrifice.
Lordship Salvation. However, if we confuse the tests and terms of discipleship with the means of justification we will fall into serious error. This is called Lordship Salvation doctrine. Beginning in the 1980’s, prominent, conservative evangelical leaders put their heads together (not a good idea) to try figure out why the American evangelical church had become so worldly. Millions of Christians had received the Gospel only to live a worldly life, tuning into Church once a month on TV. Where was the energy, the devotion of faith? They came to the conclusion that the problem lay with the gospel they had been preaching. They termed the old fashioned Gospel that Christians had preached since the Reformation as “easy believe-ism”, and started to preach a modified message. They thought they had been making the Gospel “too easy” and it was producing lukewarm Christians. Their solution?… change the Gospel and make it “harder”. Now, instead of preaching salvation by faith alone (Romans 4, Galatians 3, etc.) they began to preach that a person could not really be saved until they gave their life entirely over to Christ, until they forsook father and mother, etc. and became His disciple. Essentially, they took the tests and terms of discipleship and wrapped them up in the Gospel message! Beginning with the publication of John MacArthur’s book The Gospel According to Jesus, this error was introduced, and was at first widely debated, but the heat has since dissipated. The effect of it has been to make those believers who are weak in the faith to doubt their salvation! It is a subtle mixing of works and faith, although they would never admit to it. To say, you need faith plus anything else is no longer the principle of faith! Rather than solve the problem of worldliness, Lordship Salvation doctrine has destabilized souls and only made things worse. My point is this: they do not understand the difference between discipleship and the Gospel of the grace of God, nor do they understand the difference between (progressive) sanctification and justification. According to MacArthur,
“The gospel that Jesus proclaimed was a call to discipleship, a call to follow Him in submissive obedience, not just a plea to make a decision or pray a prayer.”– John MacArthur, An Introduction to Lordship Salvation, Grace to You
To be clear, the Bible never teaches that reciting a religious “sinner’s prayer” will get you into heaven… we agree with MacArthur in that. We also acknowledge that faith will be accompanied by outward works (James 2:22-24), but those works do NOT justify a person before God, only before man. Works are the manifestation of faith in our life, not the condition for justification! Paul is abundantly clear: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” (Rom 3:28). MacArthur is confusing discipleship with the Gospel, and subtly sets aside salvation by faith alone. We need to be warned of this error as it is prevalent in Christianity today. Brian Reynolds makes a good point in his apologetic book Lordship Salvation and the Assurance of the Believer. He says that we are to expect low yield in evangelism. Just look at the parable of the Sower (Matt. 13). Out of four casts of the seed, only 25% falls in good ground. And even then, only a few produce an hundred-fold, the others sixty-fold or thirty-fold. The problem is that new converts do not have deliverance from sin, or lack good teaching and shepherding. But don’t blame the seed! What MacArthur and others tried to do was modify the seed! This is a grievous mistake.