What is Discipleship?

The Great Commission

The Missional Mandate

The Great Commission

In Matthew 28:18–20 we read, “Then Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ ”

The Claim of Authority

Now, before we get into that theological challenge, just let’s set the scene here of this text. Jesus makes an amazing claim in verse 18. He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” I think every time we read that verse we should pause and say, “Did I hear that right? Is that what He said—‘[a]ll authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’?” Literally, in the Greek language, the order of words is, “To me, all authority in heaven and earth has been given.” Jesus pushed Himself at the center stage there. Dale Bruner talks about Jesus in this text as being the “Cosmocrator” of the universe. He’s the one who’s got the whole world in His hands. It was Abraham Kuyper who said something to the effect that there is not one square inch of this universe over which Jesus does not say, “That is mine.” So Jesus makes this claim about His authority. How much? In heaven and on earth. How much is that? Everywhere there is in the universe. Jesus is the final authority overall.

The Claim before the Call

But why does Jesus make this claim prior to issuing His Great Commission upon His apostles, and then on the church? Well, I think two reasons. One is just to say, “I have the right, I have the authority to define your priorities. And, therefore, align yourself with my priorities because I am the ultimate one to whom you are accountable.” But then, He says this to let us know that He has our full backing. When we go in His name, we go under His authority. He says at the end of the Great Commission that He will be with us always to the close of the age. That whole idea of “being with” means that He supplies what we need in order to carry out His Great Commission.

The Imperative (Go) and Participles (Going, Baptizing, and Teaching)

And what is that? Well, it’s [to] make disciples of His. There is one simple singular imperative in this text. It’s [to] make disciples. And then there are three participles that go with that to really define what a disciple is or how we carry out making disciples. Do you remember what a participle is? Sometimes, you might have to think back to your high school English class and to say, “Okay, what is that part of speech?” A participle is a verbal adjective that takes on the force or the power of the main verb. Here it’s the imperative, “make disciples.” And so we make disciples by going, by moving out. And Jesus says, “How far? To all nations, to all people and groups around the globe [we’ll look at that definition a little bit later on in this course], by baptizing into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and then by teaching people to obey all that I have commanded you.” And if we repeat that cycle of going, baptizing, and teaching, it’s reproducing. And so, as I said earlier, that the mission of every church really is the same. It’s a restatement in one way or another of what it means to be making disciples. And we’ve looked at some of these definitions, some of these mission statements, from these churches in the past.

The Discipleship Dilemma

But apparently, there is some confusion about what a disciple is. Michael Wilkins, who teaches in this whole area of discipleship, who was the academic dean at Talbot Seminary, says, “When I speak to groups of people, I ask them two questions.” The first question he asks is, “How many of you can say, in the humble confidence of your own heart, that you are a true disciple of Jesus?” And he says, “The usual response I get to that is a very hesitant raising of the hand and then pulling it back down and people looking around to see if anybody else is willing to identify themselves as a true disciple.” It’s obvious that people are hesitant to do that. Then he asks a second question: “How many of you can say, in the humble confidence of your own heart, that you are a true Christian?” And people raise their hand, quite readily. What’s going on there? Why is it very hard to say that I’m a true disciple and very easy to say that I’m a true Christian? Well, maybe this next woman’s statement will help us understand that.

A woman comes up to her pastor after worship on a Sunday morning, and she says, “I just want to be a Christian. I don’t want to be a disciple. I like my life the way it is. I believe that Jesus died for my sins and I will be with Him when I die. Why do I have to be a disciple?” If you were standing there and she asked you that question, what do you think you would say? If you were that pastor and had to respond to this lady, why would you say she has to be a disciple? And what was in this woman’s mindset? What was the distinction in her mind between being a Christian and being a disciple? Obviously, there was one. Because she thought being a Christian was simply having her sins forgiven, that Jesus had taken the price of His life for her sins, that the debt of her sin was canceled [and] she now had a free way to heaven. And that’s what a Christian was, and she didn’t want to have her life changed in order to be a disciple.

The New Testament Progression toward Discipleship

Dallas Willard says that we sort of want to get rung up by the great scanner in the sky. He calls this “bar code Christianity.” If we can just get that bar code pass by the great scanner, we’re in, and we have it made. John Ortberg, pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, says that there’s a natural progression when people come to faith in Christ.


He says they start out as strangers, such as Pilate or Herod did maybe in the NT.


And from strangers, they move to become admirers. And there are a lot of people who are admirers of Jesus even in our culture today. They admire His ethical life. They admire His high standards. They admire His life of self-sacrifice. You can think of the rich young ruler in the NT. The rich young ruler comes before Jesus, falls on his knees, he calls Him good and asks what he can do to inherit eternal life. But then there’s a third category, and that is followers.


People move from becoming admirers to followers. I think of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus started out as an admirer. He goes [and] sits in a tree and waits for Jesus to come by. Jesus calls him out of that tree, asks to be with him in his household. He says, “Today, salvation has come to you,” and Zacchaeus demonstrates that he’s a follower by giving back to those he had stolen from as a tax collector.


But John Ortberg says we’ve added a fourth category to the NT categories. And then he says, “Today, we have become users of Jesus. We want to use Jesus to get into heaven when we die.” We have this arrangement that has been made for us to use Jesus to get into heaven when we die. It’s sort of fulfilling the minimal entrance requirements to get in the kingdom of God. And we have been preaching a gospel that has made us users of Jesus. I kind of see it as a motorcycle with a sidecar. We like Jesus in our sidecar. We like Him traveling with us, but we still want to drive that motorcycle. And so, we have been speaking a gospel that has not really led to discipleship.

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The Gospel That Leads to Non-Discipleship

The Way We Have Communicated the Gospel: The Bridge

We’ve been discussing the difference between being a Christian and being a disciple in people’s minds. Many people are willing to embrace being a Christian [but] then make it very difficult for themselves to see themselves as a disciple. And one of the reasons for that is just the way we’ve understood “Christian” and the way we’ve been communicating the message of the gospel.

In our previous session I said that we’ve added a category that is not a NT category to what it means to be a follower of Christ, and that is to be users of Christ. And we tend to use Him to get into heaven when we die—that being a user means to preach a gospel that is the minimal entrance requirements to get us into heaven when we die.

And so, I want to ask the question: What’s that gospel that we’ve been communicating that leads to being users of Jesus rather than followers of Jesus? Well, there’s a very popular presentation of the gospel that you would find in many different forms called “Steps to Peace with God.” It comes out under the banner of Billy Graham, a man who I’ve admired all of my life. But let’s look at the message that is being communicated today and see if actually leads to discipleship or leads to simply being a Christian as we’ve been defining it.

God’s Purposes

The first element in this gospel presentation is that God has a purpose for our life. God loves us and wants us to experience peace and the eternal fulfilling purpose in our life. We’ve been made in the image and likeness of God. We were designed for a love relationship with Him, and that’s what we have as the reason for our existence.

Our Problem

But, of course, a problem occurred. Something broke that relationship. We call that sin. And sin in the nt and ot is really distrusting the goodness of God and rebelling against the authority of God. And sin leads to separation. You go back to Gen 3. What happens after Adam and Eve sin is [that] they run and hide from God in the garden. Their shame and their sin and their guilt separates them from God.

God’s Bridge

But of course God doesn’t leave us there. He sends His son to pay the penalty for our sin and build a bridge to Himself. And so that bridge is Jesus Christ, coming from God to man, coming from His holiness to our unholiness. And Jesus comes to take upon Himself the sin of humanity, the debt that we have paid to God—that we need to have paid to God.

Place Your Trust in Jesus

And then the next step is, in order for us to have the debt of our sin canceled, we need to put our trust in Jesus as our savior and receive Him by personal choice. And so this is where we usually pray what we call the Sinner’s Prayer, acknowledging our need before God, our confidence to Jesus as the one who can meet that need, and a belief that the debt of our sin has been taken care of. That the credit from Jesus’ account has been transferred to our account. And so the image of the bridge illustration is a very common one that we see used. I’ve used it many times myself. And as I sat down with people [I] said, “Here’s what the message of the gospel is. God is on one side. Humanity is on the other side. There’s this big gulf in between. That gulf is our sin.”

There’s a holy God on one side, sinful humanity on the other side. How can we ever bridge the gap between them? Of course it comes from God’s side. God takes the initiative through Jesus Christ to build that bridge to us. Romans 5:8 says that “God demonstrates his love for us in [that] while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

And then we ask the decision question: Will you receive Jesus Christ right now and trust Him alone for forgiveness and eternal life? In other words, how do we summarize the message of the gospel? It’s forgiveness, it’s eternal life. That’s what we received from Jesus Christ.

The Decision Question

Certainly, all that is true, but is that all the gospel? Is that the totality of the gospel? I would ask the question: Where is discipleship in this presentation? What is expected of someone who prays this prayer? There’s not much expected besides being on the receiving end of God’s benefits. We want to get on God’s benefits plan, and that is forgiveness of sin and then having our eternal future taken care of. But there is very little expectation for life change to occur.

The Need to Include “Regeneration” into Gospel Witness

In order for there to be a totality, a full-orbed gospel, we need to shift our paradigm from a justification-by-faith-alone paradigm—at least as it’s generally taught today—to a much broader paradigm of regeneration. Because if it’s simply about justification, it’s a legal transfer that occurs when we put our trust in Christ. And it simply makes us the recipients of all that Christ has done for us, which is wonderful, but there is no obligation, there is no commitment that comes with it.

Dallas Willard puts it this way: “Simply put, as now generally understood, being ‘saved’—or becoming a Christian—has no conceptual or practical connection with such a transformation” for a lifetime of change and transformation or of discipleship. And he suggests that we need to move from justification to a regeneration paradigm of our understanding of our faith. The regeneration is that we’ve passed from death to life; there’s a dramatic shift that takes place. Apart from God, we are dead in our sins, but what Jesus Christ has done is come and revived us and transferred us from the kingdom of darkness to a kingdom of His beloved Son. And we are now under a new regime and a new authority and a new kingdom in our life.

C. S. Lewis says that when we make a commitment to Christ we receive the “good infection.” I love that. You know, we think of infections generally as bad, something that will eventually take over our whole bodies and maybe lead to death. But the good infection is the infection of the Holy Spirit that is to infuse every aspect of our being so that we enter a lifetime process of transformation into Christ’s likeness and begin to live out the intention for our life.

This is what the Scripture talks about as eternal life or zōē, [which] is eternal life. This new life that comes within us. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish” but have what? Eternal life. This new life is infused in us. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” And so, we are to be captured and motivated by this new life that it takes us over. And the journey of the Christian life is to be transformed from the inside out and passed from death to life. Put off the old and put on the new.