New Testament discipleship is not merely a course in Christian fundamentals; it is the essence of the true Christian life. The entire church should be geared to producing and training disciples of Jesus Christ.
A pastor friend said that at a youth camp some years ago, he asked the youth to list words that God uses to describe those who are saved. He said, “We came up with something like fifty in total, and then I pointed out to them that they had forgotten the most used word, which is ‘disciple.’”
Indeed, the most common name for a New Testament believer is “disciple” or “methetes” in Greek. The term “believer” appears two times (Acts 5:14; 1 Ti. 4:12); “Christian” appears three times (Acts 11:16; 26:28; 1 Pe. 4:16); “saint” appears 62 times; “brethren” appears about 135 times; but “disciple” (referring to a disciple of Christ) appears about 268 times.
Scripturally speaking, a New Testament believer and a disciple are one and the same.
Jesus Christ defined discipleship in very serious terms. Consider John 8 and John 15.
“Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (John 8:31).
In John 8:31, Christ said the “disciple indeed” is one who continues in His Word. The Lord was addressing Jews who believed on Him but not in a saving way. See John 2:23-24. They were believing in Jesus as a miracle worker, as a great prophet, as a political messiah, but they were not acknowledging their personal sinfulness and owning Him as their Lord and Saviour.
A believing in God’s Word, a love for God’s Word, a continuing in God’s Word, a passion for God’s Word is the clearest evidence of salvation and true discipleship.
“He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God” (John 8:47).
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
A disciple’s heart burns within him at God’s Word (Lu. 24:31).
Later, the crowds that had “believed” on Jesus turned away from Him (John 6:66). They turned away because they did not receive His Word (Joh. 6:64), in contrast to Christ’s true disciples.
“From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:66-69).
In John 15, Christ again identified the true believer as a disciple. “Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples” (Joh. 15:8). Christ likens the believer to a branch in the vine. Christ is the vine and the believer is a branch. Fruit bearing is the evidence of the true believer. It is not possible for a branch to be attached to the vine and not share in the life of the vine. If someone seems to be a branch of Christ but does not bear fruit, he is taken away (Joh. 15:2, 6). This refers to the professor who is not a possessor (Titus 1:16). The true believer bears fruit and is pruned to bring forth more fruit (Joh. 15:2). This describes God’s sanctifying and chastening work in the believer’s life. This describes the true believer and the true disciple as one and the same.
Salvation and discipleship are two different things, but they are closely associated and not so sharply divided as is commonly taught today. Saving faith produces discipleship. Discipleship is the evidence of saving faith. The New Testament associates saving faith with following and obeying Christ in an intimate way.
Charles Wesley got this right in the beautiful hymn “And Can It Be,” which was probably his personal testimony of salvation:
Long my imprison’d spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night:
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke; the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I ROSE, WENT FORTH, AND FOLLOW’D THEE.
To follow Christ is intimately connected with salvation. Following is not salvation, but it is the sure product of salvation.
This is crystal clear in Christ’s words in John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
This is clear in Ephesians, 2:8-10. It is common to quote verses 8-9 when sharing the gospel, but those verses cannot be divorced from verse 10. Verses 8-9 is salvation, and verse 10 is the evidence and product of salvation. The individual who has the reality of verses 8-9 will have the reality of verse 10, as well. This is true salvation as taught in the Bible.
There is no example in the New Testament of a true believer who is not also a disciple of Christ. In every case of the true believer, there is a dramatic change so that the individual becomes a follower and disciple of Christ.
Excerpted from The Discipling Church: The Church That Will Stand Until Jesus Comes. New for March 2017. This church planting manual aims to establish churches on a solid biblical foundation of a regenerate church membership, one mind in doctrine and practice, serious discipleship, thorough-going discipline, and a large vision for world evangelism. We examine the New Testament pattern of a discipling church, and we trace the history of Baptist churches over the past 200 years to document the apostasy away from the biblical pattern to a mixed multitude philosophy. We also document the history of “sinner’s prayer” evangelism which has affected the reality of a regenerate church membership. The book deals with biblical salvation with evidence, care in receiving church members, the church’s essential first love for Christ, the right kind of church leaders, the right kind of preaching, training church members to be Bible students, the many facets of church discipline, building strong families, youth ministry, training preachers, charity, reproof, educating the church for spiritual protection, maintaining standards for workers, the church’s prayer life, the church’s separation, spiritual revival, the church’s music, and many other things. The last chapter documents some of the cultural factors that have weakened churches over the past 100 years, including the theological liberalism, public school system, materialism and working mothers, the rock & roll pop culture, pop psychology, the feminist movement, New Evangelicalism, television, and the Internet. There is also a list of recommended materials for a discipling church. 513 pages. Available in print and eBook editions
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