“Discipleship is not an option. Jesus says that if anyone would come after me, he must follow me.” ― Tim Keller
The mission of the Church is to make disciples. Jesus commanded us: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).
What passes for disciple-making these days? Having some coffee before worship? Taking part in a small group? Going through a new members class? All such modes of interaction and instruction sharing can be beneficial, albeit do they really pass for biblical disciple-making? What often takes place in these modes of fellowship is new believers are never really known or discipled. In this chapter, our goal will be to define what a disciple is and how disciple-making is to be done.
What is a Disciple?
The word “disciple,” in the Greek μαθητής mathetes means learner. The disciples of Jesus followed Him and learned from Him. A disciple is therefore a learner and follower of Jesus. A disciple also imitates the Christ-like character of another, such as when Timothy was discipled by the Apostle Paul. Essentially, there are four characteristics of a disciple of Jesus: Knows, grows, shows and goes. First, a disciple “knows” Jesus by trusting in Him for salvation and has surrendered completely to Him. Second, a disciple “grows” in Jesus by committing to the practice of spiritual disciplines in the Church and developing to their full potential for Christ and His mission. Third, as an image-bearer of Jesus, a disciple “shows” Jesus to others. And fourth, a disciple is someone who “goes” for Jesus, joining Him on His mission.
To begin with, a disciple is a person who “knows” Jesus. In other words, every believer is a disciple of Jesus. A Christian and a disciple of Jesus are one and the same thing. As the first characteristic, a disciple is someone who has trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation and has surrendered completely to Him. This is a radical commitment. In Luke chapter nine, Jesus declares the radical cost of following Him. Luke 9:57-62 tells us:
57 Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” 59 Then He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.” 61 And another also said, “Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.” 62 But Jesus said to him, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Important to bear in mind is Luke chapter nine is all about Jesus going to the cross; “He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51). Knowing this is what led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to observe: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” In Luke 9:57-62, we have three would-be disciples who underestimated the degree of commitment that Jesus requires. The text also provides three distinctives regarding the centrality of Christ in discipleship: Lordship, life and likeness. Jesus is to be first in all things (Col 1:18). This is part of what Jesus means when He said: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Lk 9:56). This is a call to abandon self-reliance and to take one’s hands off the helm of life.
Following Jesus as His disciple therefore involves a great deal of uncertainty. Surrendering to Christ is to be unconditional. There are to be no areas of a disciple’s life that are not surrendered to Christ’s lordship. One’s mind, will and emotions are all to be given up to Christ as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1). Discipleship is the lifelong relationship with Jesus whereby a disciple surrenders all of life to Jesus. Following Jesus begins by giving up everything (Lk 9:57).
Second, a disciple “grows” in Christ, as the centrality of Christ requires living solely for Him (Lk 9:60). In other words, following Jesus has moral significance. Jesus said: “If you love Me, obey My commandments” (Jn 14:15). In Luke 9:23-24, Jesus sums up this distinctive: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” A disciple grows in Christ committing to the practice of spiritual disciplines such as: Worship, prayer, Scripture reading and meditation, fasting, giving, acts of service, witnessing the gospel, etc. (Mt 6).
Christian Discipleship is a spiritual journey that involves following Christ. By Christ’s design, disciples are to grow and mature. As anyone who has served in the ministry long enough knows, there are many believers “who have remained stagnant in their faith” and remain spiritual infants (Heb 5:12). Disciples grow in grace as they follow Christ’s example in the Wilderness: When to tempted to sin, the pleasure of the sin offered must be denied. This process of growing in grace begins when the call to new life is given and in fact never ends this side of eternity (Lk 9:57-62). It is for this reason that Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightly said, “Discipleship is inseparable from grace.” The point is, disciples are not perfect, nor will they be this side of heaven. Nonetheless, God’s standard is “be holy as I am holy” (1 Pet 1:16). And God forgives our lack of being perfect by accepting us in Christ.
Third, disciples are called to be God’s image bearers, to bear the image of Jesus Christ to the world. A disciple therefore “shows” Jesus to the world. As a disciple grows in grace, they are to increasingly bear Christ’s image. Disciples are to love as Jesus loved (Jn 13:35). Discipleship is taking place as believers obey Christ and allow themselves to be transformed into Christ’s image. This is not automatic. It requires a disciple to be under the lordship of Christ, surrendering all areas of life to Him. Knowing that the old life is crucified with Christ, the life of the disciple is to exemplify obedience in all areas, whether at home, at work, at church; everywhere (Gal 2:20-21).
Fourth, disciples are to make other disciples, going with Jesus on His mission. Disciples are to be like Jesus in life and ministry, keeping their hands on the plow, serving in that part of the Vineyard that Christ put them in (Lk 9:62). Christ saves and calls His people into a fellowship with Himself and His saints (1 Cor 1:9). All Christians are therefore disciples who, by Christ’s design, are to be equipped for service within the fellowship of the local church. There are to be no “Lone Ranger” Christians (Heb 10:25). The church is absolutely essential for disciple-making because it is in the local church that we are equipped and taught. It therefore takes a church to make disciples.
What is Disciple-Making?
Disciples are made in the local church by the power of the gospel through three imperatives: Leadership, accountability and relationships. The word ‘disciple’ mathetes μαθητής according to Merrill Unger is, “one who professes to have learned certain principles from another and maintains them on that other’s authority.” Christ determined the place of discipleship was to be within the gathered community of believers. Jesus’ method of making disciples was that He first “shared who He was through words and deeds.”
Likewise, by Christ’s design, the Church shares who Jesus is through the gospel. This takes place corporately and individually as it is mediated through godly church leadership, that is, through pastors, elders, deacons, and lay leaders, in whatever program or outreach and at whatever home group or other time of fellowship where Christians meet. Among other things, leaders ensure the core doctrines of the Christian faith is taught, along with delegating service opportunities and supervising programs within the church.
First, leadership in the church is imperative to disciple-making and encompasses three convictions: (1) It is the church’s responsibility to follow-up and disciple new converts to bring them to maturity; (2) It is the church’s responsibility to facilitate small groups for discipleship; (3) It is the church’s responsibility to facilitate leadership training. Whatever the mode, disciple-making occurs in the local church as church leaders teach and emphasize the necessity for the whole body of Christ to participate in disciple-making. The role of pastors in this is to invigorate the life of the church by equipping others, so that disciple-making will occur.
Disciple-making can go on within the church without leadership, albeit less effectively as pastors not only shape what the congregation believes, they also model it and encourage the discipling of others. As Bonhoeffer once noted, “leaders facilitate disciple-making in the local congregation as others see them live out the Christian life and others see them do it.”
As a second imperative, disciple-making also involves discipline and accountability. In order for disciple-making to happen within the church, believers have to be accountable to God’s Word, His spiritual leaders, and each other in the local congregation (Eph 5:18; Heb 13:17). Perhaps one of the biggest detriments to disciple-making in the church today is caused by a lack of accountability? Americans today seem to be overly sensitive and too individualistic. Both of which are barriers to disciple-making. Accountability is therefore reciprocal to discipleship. No accountability, no disciple-making. Accountability is imperative to holy living (1 Pet 1:16). Christians must be accountable to each other if there is ever to be any genuine growth toward spiritual maturity (Pro 27:17; Gal 6:2, 5).
It may be said that everyone who has fallen in their Christian walk has failed to be accountable in some way. Many, who, confident of their own spiritual arrivedness, have fallen in an extra-marital affair or a financial conundrum. Without accountability, a fall is not far off. Accountability is therefore an imperative of disciple-making. Accountability is often thought to be a Puritanical practice for kill joys. However, as Stu Weber observes, “The thrust of accountability is not meant to be punitive, but preventative.  Every believer (disciple of Jesus) needs the accountability that comes from intimate relationships with other godly people.
The third imperative for disciple-making is relationships. It may be asked: Why does accountability proceed relationships? It does because believers that have not held themselves accountable to God’s Word and each other in the local congregation cannot really experience genuine fellowship with God’s people. Fellowship with the local church is a test that many fail. Those who have a personal relationship with Christ are to have relationships with Christ’s people. It is these relationships that will enable the believer to persevere for the long haul. For, it is within Christian relationships that disciple-making primarily takes place within the local church.
Disciple-making is facilitated by leadership and accountability but cannot have real meaning without relationship (Rom 15:4; Col 3:16; Heb 3:13; Jude 1:20). Echoing this point, John MacArthur observes, “Discipleship is nothing more than building a true friendship with a spiritual basis. It’s not being friends with someone because you both like the same sport, the same music, the same hobbies, or work at the same place. At the core of your friendship should be openness about spiritual issues, which will carry your discipling relationship along.”
The prerequisite for spiritual relationships is first a genuine love for the other less spiritually mature believer, and second, a genuine desire for to be discipled. The less mature believer in fact may not necessarily realize they are being discipled. Nonetheless, disciple-making is still taking place.
As the Word of God is taught and lived out by more mature disciples, less mature disciples learn and apply the lessons to their lives (1 Cor 11:1). Thus, God, making use of means, works to purify His saints. Two are better than one. Believers are strengthened and become more like Christ through spiritual relationship within the local congregation: “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend” (Pro 27:17). Thus, fellowship is essential to become more like Christ.
Christ is purifying for Himself His own special people who are made zealous for good works (Titus 2:14). God is bringing many sons to glory out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation and He has been gathering His own since history began, calling them to live in a covenant fellowship with Himself and His people – the church, which is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Cor 1:9; 1 Tim 3:15; Rev 5:9). Discipleship is to be within the context of fellowship in the local church, because you cannot make a disciple without God’s means of grace (Acts 2:41-42).
There are some rather disturbing modern trends in our churches today. Even if our church abstains from the seeker-sensitive, entertainment model of doing church, there is a trend in many churches of having newcomers ascent to an abstract doctrinal system, become a baptized member of a congregation, then give their tithe and some of their time. However, this renders discipleship superfluous. While it is possible to have formal knowledge, be enthusiastic about it, and even put some of it into practice, an abstract doctrine can never be followed in personal obedience. It is not possible for believers to grow in an environment of mere formal knowledge being broadcast to them two times a week at best. What this system organically produces is believers who never make it out of the spiritual infant stage.
We will live out what we believe. We need doctrine to frame our lives but we also need holy relationships. Mankind was made to live in relationships. Abstract ideas are therefore only put into practice by intentional examples provided by life-on-life discipleship. For a church to function according to Christ’s design, “Go and make disciples,” it must practice intentional one-on-one, life-on-life discipleship (Mt 28:18; 1 Cor 11:1).
On Paul’s second missionary journey (49-51 AD), when his team reached the cities of Derby and Lystra, they met up with Timothy, who we are told was “a certain disciple,” of Jesus (Acts 16:1). Paul invited Timothy to join him and become his disciple. In other words, Paul invited Timothy to imitate him as he (Paul) imitated Christ (1 Cor 11:1). Whenever Paul taught, his disciples listened, learning from him what and how to preach and teach. They learned how to lead and whenever Paul was persecuted, they learned how he persevered. It was during this time, accompanying the Apostle Paul, that Timothy no doubt learned how to serve in numerous menial tasks such as buying travel tickets, cooking meals, washing clothes, packing baggage, and making tents. But in the process, he was being trained to be a man of God. In this way, Paul was multiplying himself in the life of Timothy.
Later, when Paul was confined to prison, he sent Titus to Crete, Timothy to Ephesus, and Epaphroditus to Colossae, along with others to different places. Paul’s discipleship training over the years in the lives of these other men made them extensions of himself. This of course is the Lord’s pattern of disciple-making. Jesus took everyday men who were “uneducated and untrained” from various backgrounds, poured Himself into their lives for three and half years, and through the power of His Spirit in them, turned the world upside down. And as they did, the world realized it was because “they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
Likewise, pastors are to lead the church in disciple-making, in a full commitment to the Great Commission. All believers are to be intentional in the making of disciples for Christ, feeding others with the Word of God while demonstrating what a life that is fully surrendered to Christ looks like. When it comes to disciple-making, believers are to “invest” themselves in the lives of other believers. There are essentially four principles of disciple-making: REAP
R – Relationship
E – Example
A – Accountability
P – Progress:
(1) Dependence on God (devotional life, direction and strength).
(2) Christlikeness – Head (thinking), heart (being), hands (doing).
(3) Spiritual gifts (discovery and use).
 Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey, Disciple Making Is: How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2013), 39.
 Ibid., 89.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), 61.
 Ibid., 56.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 51, 55, 56, and 59.
 Merrill Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1957), 265.
 Jim Putman, Discipleshift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 153.
 Ibid., 160.
 Mark R. Shaw, Ten Great Ideas from Church History: A Decision-Maker’s Guide to Shaping Your Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1997), 136.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), 153.
 Stu Weber, Locking Arms: God’s Design for Masculine Friendships (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 1995), 162.
 Wayne A. Mack, To Be or Not to Be a Church Member (Ashland, OH: Calvary Press, 2007), 64.
 Jim Putman, Discipleshift, 134.
 John MacArthur, The Master’s Plan for the Church (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 67-68.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 59.
 Ibid., 154.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959.
Carson, Don A. Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
Earley, Dave and Dempsey, Rod. Disciple Making Is: How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2013.
Putman, Jim and Harrington, Bobby. Discipleshift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.