What is Christian Discipleship?

How would you answer if asked, “What is required to be a Christian?”

How do you think Jesus would respond to that question? Could you find daylight between His reply and yours?

The religious answer is “get baptized,” or “ask Jesus into your heart,” or “join the church,” or “keep the sacraments,” or “be good.” These are all forms of performance indicating a works-gospel.

Jesus actually answered the question different ways.

To the Pharisee who came to Him under the cover of darkness, Jesus said, “You must be born again.” The new birth is not something accomplished by the sinner but something given to him or her. The sinner is passive while God does the work of salvation.

To the rich young ruler, Jesus said to sell all that he owned, give the proceeds to the poor, and then tag along with Him. Surely this was something that the young man could do. Jesus called upon activity and not passivity. The question was, would he do it? Would he obey Jesus and give all of his wealth away? Sadly, he didn’t.

So which is it?

Is becoming a Christian something you do or is it something done to you?

The answer is: becoming a Christian requires something to be done to you—“you must be born again,” but being a Christian requires you to do something—be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus said if you are to be a Christian, you must deny yourself, pick up a cross, and follow Him.

But what about Jesus’ answer to the young rich ruler? Did it negate the miracle of regeneration? No, in fact, it did just the opposite. It showed him his need for it. Apart from the new birth, we cannot keep the commandments of God. That was what Jesus was trying to show him. He could not save himself by his works because there was something fundamentally wrong with his heart that would not allow him to trust and obey Christ. Had he believed the Lord’s answer, he would have obeyed.

Thus, to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus, one must experience the gracious activity of God converting the heart, which is to turn it toward righteousness. But that is not the sum of salvation. After regeneration, the new convert can start being and doing what Christ demands. What does He demand? He demands discipleship.

Discipleship is the heartbeat of Jesus’ Christianity. It does not save the Christian, but it is for those whom God has saved. It is not an option. There is no Christian faith without some form of discipleship. For several decades, the churches in Europe and America have not required discipleship as a condition of being a Christian. No longer does Christianity demand discipleship, but we see people remaining in the church without any signs of progress in it. This is so remote from Jesus’ explanation of being His follower.

What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus?

With the plethora of information on discipleship, you would think we would not need to discuss the definition. Yet, a great deal of confusion exists about the subject. I do believe we see much improvement with a new enthusiasm for discipleship by certain groups. These ministries are going a long way to make the necessary changes in our discipleship paradigms. But it has yet to gain steam and roll through most of conservative evangelicalism.

To understand the New Testament view of discipleship we need to know how discipleship was done in the first century, since this would have been the context of how Jesus defined it. In our Lord’s era, rabbinical discipleship meant more than academics. It was much more than having weekly Bible studies. A rabbi and his pupils would live together for as long as the rabbi deemed necessary. They would eat together, travel together, and study together. There were structured formal times of study, but for the most part, the discipleship process was very informal, and mostly came by the disciple observing the way the rabbi lived.

The relationship of the student to the teacher was so full of respect that the pupil would even walk behind the master. His entire life was in submission to the discipler. That is why the disciples often called Jesus “Master.” It was the title a disciple maker would receive from students and non-students alike.

Another way you could describe first-century discipleship is much like a father/son relationship. The teacher viewed his disciples as sons and he cared for them, provided for them (usually the education was at the rabbi’s expense), and praised or admonished them as a father would a son.

What are the components of first-century discipleship? And how can we assemble a definition from them? Let’s dive in.

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