Core Foundational Beliefs of Discipleship

In stressing discipleship in my pastoral and professorial roles, there are core foundational beliefs that have been impressed upon me by my mentors and the study of Scripture. Here are the top five that guide me as I work with others.

The authoritative command of the risen Christ is for the church to be engaged in the work of making disciples. This truth is made most clear in the Great Commission that the Lord Jesus Christ gave his disciples on the mountain following his resurrection. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matt. 28:18-20 ESV). The church must seek to glorify God and the work his Son did in redeeming his people by actively working with people to shape them in becoming true disciples of the Lord.

The making of disciples must be seen as an intentional work, not an incidental one. Though the Great Commission is seemingly clear, commentators debate over the manner by which this commission is to be conducted. The discussion centers around the word translated “go,” a participle in the original language. Those interested in discipleship argue over whether it should have a casual or a formal understanding. Often participles are used in an adverbial sense to modify the main verb.  Since the main verb in this sentence is to “make disciples,” those promoting the casual understanding given by the adverbial sense maintain it can be translated “going” or “while you are going.” In this understanding, discipleship takes place in the informal, ordinary affairs of life. Certainly one can influence another in the common living of everyday life, but that is not the thrust of the meaning here.

For “go” is not an adverbial participle, but a participle that meets all the conditions necessary for what is called an attendant participle.[1] This is a participle whose action coordinates with the main verb, which takes on the force or mood of the main verb.  Since the main verb “make disciples” is a command, so is the going.  As someone has said, “To turn this go into an adverbial participle is to turn the Great Commission into the Great Suggestion!”[2] We do not want to perpetuate the problem identified by Bill Hull, who said, “The church continues to try to reach the world without making disciples” in an intentional way.[3]

A disciple is defined as one who through faith in Christ offers his or her life in order to follow Jesus in obedience. The heart of discipleship is found in the words of Matthew 16:24. “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.’” Discipleship is living in self-denial in order that Christ may be followed in obedience as Lord (Luke 14:26-27, 33). As such, a disciple of Christ daily examines himself in the manner George MacDonald outlines:

Have you done one thing today because he said, Do it, or once abstained because he said, do not do this.  It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in him, if you do not do anything he tells you.”[4]

In addition, according to Christ the disciple 1) knows and believes in Jesus (John 6:66-69); 2) abides in God’s Word (John 8:31-32; 14:21); 3) labors in prayer (Luke 18:1); 4) loves God’s people (John 13:34-35); 5) serves others (John 12:26; Luke 17:7-10); and 6) bears fruit (John 15:8).

Thus, discipleship means understanding the true life and death nature of following Christ.  Everywhere Jesus spoke of discipleship, he associated it with life and death.  For instance, he stated in Luke 14:26-27, “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and yes, even his own life, then he cannot be one of my disciples.  Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”  One cannot be a disciple of Christ unless he is willing to die to self and live unto Christ.  Nothing, not even the deepest of human relationships, is to be allowed to interfere with obedience to Christ. Those who do not grasp the importance of the church in covenant with Christ in the making of disciples do not comprehend the seriousness of this task.

In order to make disciples, significant time and energy must be expended from one person to others in instructing them in Christ’s way. The importance of this truth comes out in the word for “make disciples,” which is just one word in the Greek.[5]  This word means to make learners, pupils, or students out of people.  It is a word where we get English words like “man” (so called because he is a “thinking” being), “mind,” and “mental.”  Yet it entails far more than mere mental understanding.  That is why this word also gives us English words denoting fields of mental practice, such as “medicine” and “mathematics” which are derivatives. To become a disciple means then that one puts himself under the correcting influence of another who will shape and mold his life. Paul laid this out clearly for Timothy when he told him, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (II Tim. 2:2).

The presence of Christ is experienced in a special way when the church is committed to discipling relationships. The Scriptures say that Jesus “appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him” (Mark 3:14). Throughout the gospels, the presence of the disciples with Jesus gave them incredible experiences of the kingdom of God and special insights into Christ’s person and work.[6] The impact of their time with the Lord can be seen in what was noticed when two of the disciples were brought before the Sanhedrin for their preaching ministry. “Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13, emphasis mine).

Some may raise the question, “Being with Jesus is not the same as being with me, though, is it?” Clearly the apostles had a unique experience with Christ in those three years. However, Jesus promised that it was “to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Furthermore, the Lord stated that when his people are gathered even in small numbers for the purpose of discipline and discipleship, he is there in the midst of them (Matt. 18:20). The smallest acts of care done “to the least of these brothers of mine” have been “done also to me” the Lord taught (Matt. 25:34-40). Because the church is the temple of God, Christ is present with his people in unique ways when discipleship interactions are taking place (I Cor. 3:16).

In closing, to emphasize this last point, recall again the ending of the Great Commission to make disciples. “And lo, I I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

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[1] The conditions for an attendant participle are:  1) The main verb must be aorist; 2) the participle must be aorist; 3) the main verb must be in the imperative or indicative mood; 4) the participle precedes the main verb; and 5) it usually occurs in the context of a narrative.  Usually meeting three or four of these conditions is enough to treat a participle as an attendant one.  In the case of Matthew 28:19, all five conditions are met.

[2] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 645.

[3] Bill Hull and Robert Coleman, The Disciple-Making Pastor: Leading Others on the Journey of Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 12.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Greek word is matheteuo.

[6] See such verses as Matt. 26:37-38; Mark 9:2; Luke 7:11, 8:1, 9:10, 9:18, and 22:14.

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