Evangelism: What Is a Disciple?

In my last post, Evangelism: Making Disciples, I suggested that the ministry of evangelism is the specific task of making disciples.  The imperative of the “Great Commission” (Matt 28.19-20) leave us no other option.  That begs the question of what exactly is a disciple of Jesus Christ.  In answering this question, I’ll offer a simple sketch of a disciple and if more needs to be said then you can do so as a comment (which I welcome very much).

To begin with, being a disciple of Jesus means to be his follower in its simplest terms.  To be a follower requires a person to walk (follow) behind Jesus learning from him.  This provides us with an early hint learning to be a disciple is more than the cognitive learning of orthodox belief.

A passage which I think provides a good synopsis of discipleship lived out within the community of disciples is Acts 2.42-47.  What we see in this passage is that these disciples had a new lifestyle, with new habits and practices such as hospitality and generosity.  This was in addition to being people of apostolic teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer.  Their new way of living and being was a result of believing that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah.  This does not mean they necessarily had a perfect Christological belief yet.  They simply believed that as the Messiah, Jesus was the Lord.

What we see about this first community of disciples is a new way of believing and living.  They believed as Jesus believed and so they also lived as Jesus lived.  Believing that Israel’s God was fulfilling his redemptive promises in Jesus of Nazareth (cf. Mk 1.14-15) and establishing his kingdom will on earth as it is done in heaven, these disciples embraced the self-sacrificial call to the cross (cf. Mk 8.34-35) and the call to a life of humble service (cf. Jn 13.1-20).

A disciple is, from what has been observed, a person who has learned to believe and live like Jesus.  While such a person may not be able to express a Chalcedon Christian faith, they have, nonetheless, a new faith that is confessionally-committed to Jesus as Lord and Messiah.

What that means is that as a disciple, such person is no longer convinced that the life and peace they seek can be found in the things of this world whether it be themselves, family, careers, wealth, government, and all of the other provisions of this world which appear to offer life and peace.  Instead, they believe that life and peace is found in God’s kingdom established in Jesus of Nazareth.  They believe in turn that this calls for a new way of living shaped by the teachings of Jesus and the inbreaking kingdom gospel he preached.  While this includes the personal repentance from sins, it is not limited simply to a personal piety nor is it an escapism faith simply concerned with “going to heaven.”

My next few posts will focus on how we, as a collective church, cultivate such discipleship so that we are making disciples in our evangelism.

7 responses to “Evangelism: What Is a Disciple?

  1. HI Rex, thanks for your thoughts. I’d be interested in your reflections on my last couple of blog posts seeking to define the Christian mission: similar ideas.
    I think your argument would be more consistent if you define a disciple in the present tense. It’s not necessarily someone “who has learned to live like Jesus”, but someone “who is committed to learning to live like Jesus.” You have to allow for disciples with a variety of stages of spiritual growth. I get the feeling that your article as a whole leaves that flexibility, just not the definition itself.
    ALSO, I just finished reading a book by Jim Putman “Real Life Discipleship” and am now studying the companion workbook with some young leaders at my church. It’s really good at reminding us of the different stages of growth, and the need for a discipler to help disciples keep moving in their spiritual journey. It’s not deep theologically, but a helpful resource on a very practical level.

    • Peter,

      I will come over to your blog and review. Thanks for coming to mine and reading, leaving your critique.

      I think you are right about the present tense rather than the past. I do believe discipleship is a present tense life not only because they are stages of growth but also because I believe we all should continuously be “becoming disciples” if that makes sense.

      One of the questions I don’t have an answer for his to what degree of a disciple must a person be before baptism. The imperative of Matt 28.19 (“make disciples”) makes it clear that we should be baptizing those who have become disciples. Yet the “and teaching” also makes it clear that being made a disciple should not be equivalent to being a mature Christian. Nevertheless, I raise this question because in most churches where believer’s baptism is practiced, the practice is to baptize believer and then hope they become a disciple. That is because contemporary Evangelical Christianity, in the broad sense, seem evangelistically occupied with getting people to believe “in” Jesus while neglecting the need to get people to believe “as” Jesus believed, which impacts how people live (discipleship) as believers. Matthew 28.19 teaches it should be the other way, that people are not only to be taught to believe “in” Jesus but also to believe “as” Jesus believed and then be baptized and living out that baptism.

      • Rex,
        I agree with your comments except the first two sentences of the 2nd paragraph. I accept that someone begins “following” Jesus as they learn about him and make a decision to be baptised. However, I understand Matt 28:19 to contain three participle phrases that describe how to carry out the instruction to make disciples. Do it by “Going, baptizing, and teaching”. I’m hesitant to describe someone as a disciple before baptism, but absolutely agree with you that we’ve often sinfully made “teaching” a distant second to “baptising”. Of course, teaching also takes place before baptism in order for a person to reach that point. I see baptism as the point of commitment to discipleship, while prior to that it’s more an “interested/inquiring follower”.

      • I understand the hesitancy to call someone a disciple prior to baptism. I to am somewhat hesitant because if someone claims to be a believer in Jesus but has not been baptized, I would really like to know why they have not been baptized yet. It could be just their lack of knowing about baptism or it could be that they just don’t want to be baptized. I’ve encountered both circumstances and I would certainly ‘not’ describe the later as a disciple.

        Nevertheless, in Acts 19.1-7 the 12 who had yet to be baptized in the name of Jesus are called “disciples” (v. 1). So whose disciples were they? The question “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” (v. 2) implies that they were believers in Jesus (and I would say Luke therefore already sees them as part of Jesus’ ekklesia ) and thus disciples of Jesus too. None of that negates their need to be baptized in Jesus’ name but it does support the view that a person can be recognized as a disciple prior to baptism.

        I don’t know if your familiar with Paul G. Hiebert’s bounded and centered set mission paragigms (see this pic: http://goo.gl/cWABU) but basically in the bounded set, the goal is simply to get a person within the boundary whereas in the centered set, the goal is to teach people so that they are continually moving towards the center (Jesus). While the former has been the traditional paradigm, the later seems to be more in keeping with God’s mission and the purpose of gospeled preaching/teaching in scripture.

        So I would still stand behind the idea that baptism is for those who have become believers and disciples. It doesn’t mean they have become mature disciples but that baptism is much more than just to be assured of salvation. Baptism becomes also an passive act of submission in faith (being buried in death with Christ) to the Lordship of Jesus Christ (see also, Gordon T. Smith, “Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation,” http://goo.gl/yHxPd).

        Grace and Peace,


        P.S. I enjoy this dialogue.

  2. Good thoughts. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Pingback: Evangelism: Relationships and Community « Kingdom Seeking

  4. Pingback: Evangelism: Teaching the Gospel and Scriptures « Kingdom Seeking

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