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Discipleship: What is it

Discipleship can be very ambiguous in nature. A person can essentially be a disciple of anyone. From Adolf Hitler and David Koresh, to biblical characters including John the Baptist, all these men had disciples, with a disciple being a pupil of another, willing to spread the message of the one leading.

In the Christian arena, discipleship has been misunderstood and therefore misapplied by far too many. In certain circles within Christianity, it has been seen as an add-on to the Christian faith. That one can have a saving faith, and yet choose not to be a follower of Jesus, as if there are commitment levels within Christianity. The Scriptures know nothing of this. They speak of the reality that everyone who believes in Jesus for salvation is a disciple of Jesus. This is clear, as Acts 11:26 points to this. Disciples, therefore, are people who have died to themselves, and now live in Christ by faith, joyfully seeking to glorify God by bearing fruit for Him. With this being the case, one can see the importance of Christ in the discipleship process, and how obedience reflects Christian discipleship to the world.

The Centrality of Jesus Christ in Discipleship

In his book “Discipleship”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Christianity without the living Jesus Christ remains necessarily a Christianity without discipleship; and a Christianity without discipleship is always a Christianity without Jesus Christ.”[1] Apart from Jesus Christ, discipleship can’t even take place. Bonhoeffer has stated,

God’s Son became human, he is the mediator— that is why discipleship is the right relation to him. Discipleship is bound to the mediator, and wherever discipleship is rightly spoken of, there the mediator, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is intended.[2]

And so to speak of discipleship is to speak of the person of Jesus Christ, and of submission to Him. In Romans 8:29, God shows us that He wants us to be conformed to the image of Christ, as we grow in the grace and knowledge of Him.

To Follow is To Obey

Being conformed to the image of Christ is a grace-driven process that takes effort. In Philippians 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 15:10, the apostle Paul reveals the divine work ethic of grace in the life of believers. Disciples work because God is at work in them, and to be a follower of Jesus Christ is to obey Jesus Christ. Faith finds expression in the way we live.[3] Discipleship is about obedience to Jesus Christ. In 1 John 5:3, and Romans 1:5, grace is the means, faith is the fuel, and obedience is the goal. Paul’s entire ministry was bent on bringing about the obedience of faith, and as is seen in Romans 16:25-26, it is God Himself who desires obedience. He sent His Son to not only die for the sins of mankind, but to also live for their righteousness. It’s in Christ’s living that we find the perfect example. He is the great disciple maker. In Matthew 10:24-25, Jesus calls out for man to look to Him as the great example. Discipleship is not merely a matter of information remembered. It is about a lifestyle that is practiced.[4] And so because of this, when the words of Christ are lived out in the life of a believer, the obedience that is on display is actually pointing to and revealing the Son who now dwells within. This is why Christian discipleship necessarily involves Jesus Christ. It is Christ who is on display when a believer obeys, and in order for believers to obey Jesus Christ, a death is required. The believer must die to himself, surrendering all that he is in commitment to Christ.

To Obey is To Surrender

In Galatians 2:20, the apostle Paul proclaims his own death. In order for Christ to live in and through him, he had to die. Christ’s death became Paul’s death, and so the life Paul then lived in the flesh, he lived by faith in Christ. And so it is with every believer. Discipleship begins at conversion, and carries on through sanctification. The apostle Paul explains this glorious truth in Romans 6:4-5, where the death of Christ becomes the death of the redeemed, and the resurrection of Christ reflects the new nature of those who believe. Upon faith in Jesus, there is a union established between the things of old and the things that are new. The old self is united with Christ in His death, and the new self is united with Him in His resurrection. This points to the reality that obedience can only happen on the path of surrender.

The Bible tells us that we cannot serve two masters. If a believer seeks to obey Christ, then that believer must surrender his rights, ambitions, and own ideas of life to Christ, and follow Him and His calling. What areas of life are to be surrendered? All areas of life are to be surrendered. This doesn’t mean, however, that believers will live perfectly obedient lives. Paul makes this clear in Romans chapter 7. He shows us the reality of the struggles that he faced as a believer in Jesus. His inner man warred against his outer flesh. He sinned, yet he desired righteousness. He desired obedience. Where once he was in love with, and enslaved to sin, he now hated it. This hatred for sin is a byproduct of a new love for Jesus Christ, and it’s this love for Jesus that is the foundation of the process of discipleship.

The Process of Discipleship

Discipleship is a process because it involves fallen man coming to Jesus Christ through faith, and then growing in the grace and knowledge of Him. In spite of the thoughts of Dempsey and Earley in their book, “Disciple Making Is…How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence”, every believer in Jesus Christ is a disciple of Jesus Christ. In Acts 14:21, Paul and Barnabas are shown to have preached the good news to the city of Derbe, with the result being that many disciples had been made. To say that one can be a believer in Jesus without being a follower of Jesus is to misunderstand biblical belief.

The Three Stages of Discipleship?

According to Dempsey and Earley, there are three stages of discipleship, with the first being a time of investigation on the part of the unbeliever that leads to repentance and faith in Jesus. They refer to this stage as the Declaration stage. While Dempsey and Earley try to use biblical stories to support their claims, it seems clear in Scripture that no one, in the state of being an unbeliever, is even able to investigate Jesus to see if He is worthy of commitment. Romans 3:10-11 says that no one seeks for God, and Romans 8:7-8 crush any idea that an unbeliever can investigate the goodness of God in order to see if commitment to Him would be a good choice. John 1:12-13 then go on to reveal that those who did receive Jesus by faith were born of God, and not of the will of man. Based on this, it seems that the discipleship process begins at conversion, which itself is initiated by God (Acts 16:14, Ephesians 2:5).

The second stage of discipleship, according to Dempsey and Earley, is a stage referred to as the development stage. According to the book, this is where one commits to become a disciple. Dempsey and Earley say, Being a disciple of Jesus is more than merely belief in Jesus. The second stage of discipleship requires that we embrace the cross (see chap. 9), forsake all to follow Jesus (see chap. 10), and bear fruit by abiding in Christ (see chap. 11).[5]

This statement seems to misunderstand what biblical belief really is. This statement implies that one can believe in Jesus without embracing the cross, forsaking all to follow Him, or bearing fruit by abiding in Him. This thought crumbles under the weight of Scripture. According to John 1:12-13, believing in Jesus is to receive Jesus, and to receive Jesus is to be satisfied in Him. Biblical belief is not about simply believing a fact about Jesus, but instead is receiving Jesus as supremely valuable. When it comes to bearing fruit for God, if a person can be a believer in Jesus without bearing fruit for Jesus, then that would mean the believer had faith without works. But again, Scripture won’t let this thought survive. Faith without works is dead. Everything in Scripture points to every believer being a disciple.

The third stage of discipleship, according to Dempsey and Earley, is a stage referred to as deployment. While there is friction between Dempsey and Earley’s breakdown of discipleship and the Scriptures, the concept of deployment is absolutely biblical. Jesus Himself commanded that the gospel be proclaimed to all the nations. This command however, goes out to all who believe in Him, not just a subset of believers who choose to love Him more. The call to make disciples is a call to unite unbelievers, by faith, to the person of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:1-10). When this happens, obedience can follow.

Stepping Into Obedience

Only that which is done on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ can be classified as obedience, as Romans 14:23 clearly states that anything done apart from faith is sin. Because of this, when it comes to helping others take steps of obedience, the focus should be on helping others to maintain their faith. Instead of merely giving people a list of things to do, building each other up in faith should be the focus (Hebrews 10:19-25). Dempsey and Earley suggest meeting together in small groups to help people maintain their faith in community with each other. This can be very effective, as our walk of faith is never meant to be done in isolation. They are right on when they say, “discipleship was not learning information in a classroom; it was learning Jesus with others.”[6] This couldn’t be more true. As David Mathis states in his book, “Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines”, fellowship “is an electric reality in the New Testament, an indispensable ingredient in the Christian faith, and one of God’s chief means of grace in our lives.”[7] Discipleship must be saturated with prayer and God’s word. God has spoken, and He has revealed Himself in His Word. Obedience will never be separated from the Word of God, and so helping others to obey God would necessarily include dedicated Scripture reading, study, and meditation, as well as a dedicated time of prayer and fellowship.


Discipleship is a process that begins with conversion. The Holy Spirit works in the believer, sanctifying him or her for obedience to Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:2). This is why Jesus Christ is central to the discipleship process. Being united to Christ through faith, one begins to grow to become more like Him. The call of obedience is the same for all, but the process of sanctification does not look the same for every believer however (Romans 12:3). To follow Jesus is to obey Jesus, and to obey Jesus is to surrender. Those who obey Jesus are those who have surrender themselves to Him, from their bank accounts and their future plans, to even their very lives.

Dempsey and Earley describe three stages of discipleship. From committed belief, to following Jesus, to deployment for His sake, the stages speak of men who have pursued the person of Jesus Christ. Helping others to be obedient to the truths of Christ is to help others consume God’s Word, speak to Him in prayer, and to fellowship with other believers. Making disciples is the command of Christ, not just for the disciples of old, but for us as well today. In the Great Commission, Jesus promised to be with us until the end of the age. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert are right in their book, “What is the Mission of the Church”, when they say, “Jesus’s promise extends to the end of the age just as His commission does.”[8] May we rest in this promise as we seek to fulfill this mission.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Volume 4) Fortress Press (Kindle Edition) 59.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jim Putman, Bobby Harrington, and Robert Coleman, DiscipleShift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples (Nashville, TN: Zondervan, 2013), (Exponential Series) Kindle Edition, 81.

[4] Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey, Disciple Making Is . . .: How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2013), Kindle Edition, Kindle Locations 952-953.

[5] Ibid., 1268.

[6] Ibid., 1304.

[7] David Mathis, Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines (Nashville, TN: Crossway) Kindle Edition, 109.

[8] Kevin DeYoung, and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011) 47.


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