“And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34, NASB).
It might surprise many people in the church today to discover that the term most often used in the New Testament for a follower of Jesus was not Christian but disciple. In fact, only three times in the New Testament are the believers, or followers of the Way, called Christians. The first and potentially most significant was in Acts 11:26, where it says the believers were first called Christians in Antioch, which was probably more of an insult. The other two uses are in Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16. Though the term was scarcely used in the New Testament, most people today would describe themselves as Christians, not disciples.
The word disciple is the most dominant term in the New Testament used to describe the believer in Jesus Christ.
Of course, both words (Christian and disciple) imply that there is a relationship with Jesus, but the connotations and applications can be misunderstood. For many people in today’s culture, to be a Christian does not necessarily mean the same as being a disciple. For them, to be a Christian is no more than simply knowing about Jesus and having some type of affiliation with Him (i.e., going to church, owning a Bible, praying on occasion, etc.). Though there is a difference of understating in our culture between being a Christian and a disciple, there isn’t in Scripture. The New Testament teaches that being a Christian means you are a disciple and to be a disciple is to be a Christian.
A shift in people’s thinking is necessary in order for the church to rediscover the important Christian practice of discipleship. One obstacle to overcome is our strong sense of individualism. Culture tends to elevate the person above society as a whole, which reduces the need for other people. This makes discipleship difficult because the very definition of the term is to be a learner—implying a relationship between pupil and teacher. When Jesus called disciples, He wasn’t calling them simply to believe (our common understating of what it means to be a Christian); He called them to follow, learn from, and obey Him—to be a disciple.
Someone who understood this growing problem and experienced the terrifying results of misunderstanding Jesus’ call to discipleship was Dietrich Bonheoffer. He was a pastor, theologian, and activist during World War 2 in Germany and became an expert on the topic. Bonheoffer took the call to discipleship so seriously that he eventually was martyred for his actions and faith at the hands of the Nazis. In his book Cost of Discipleship, he explains the gravity of this journey with German precision and care. Below are a few select quotes from this book:
- “The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by faith alone is the man who has left all to follow Jesus.”
- “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus, living and incarnate.”
- Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ, which is the law of the cross.”
- “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Discipleship, like fellowship, relationship, and friendship, possesses a vertical and horizontal element. We are disciples of Jesus (vertical) and we are to disciple other people (horizontal). In this series, the vertical form of discipleship will be stressed over the horizontal only in the sense that discipleship of other people is understood more accurately when the idea of being a disciple of Christ is clearly understood and practiced.
Have you heard the call of Christ? Have you forsaken all previous attachments and idols? Have you counted the cost? Are you committed to being a learner, modeler, and multiplier? Have you become a disciple of Jesus?
Search the Scriptures:
- Mark 8:34–35
- Luke 9:23
- Matthew 19:27–30
- Mark 10:21
Questions to Consider:
- After reading this section and based upon your previous understanding, how would you describe a Christian? How would you describe a disciple? Are these different in your mind? If so, explain why?
- When you put your faith in Jesus Christ, did you see this as a call to discipleship? What did you think when this important event happened?
- What does the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18) teach us about the horizontal element of disciple-making? In what ways are evangelism and discipleship different/similar?
- Of all the quotes listed above, which one impacted your idea of discipleship the most and why?