When I started seminary in 1967, Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:18–20 to “make disciples” baffled me. There was something cryptic and mysterious about it, seemingly understood by only an initiated few. At the same time, Jesus’ words demanded comprehension and performance, and this started a pilgrimage of seeking to understand and practice “making disciples.” After thirty-four years of pastoring in the United States and now after seven years as a seminary teacher in Uganda, I am still learning.
Let’s look together at three simple questions: (1) What is a disciple? (2) How are disciples made? (3) What kinds of disciple-making are there?
The Greek word we translate as disciple means learner. A disciple is a learner from the Lord Jesus. A learner is a listener and a practitioner. The Great Commission is a command to bring people to Christ to listen, learn, and practice. A disciple of Jesus becomes His learner forever.
Among the things that disciples are to be learning from Christ are:
- To deny self and to follow Jesus with singular loyalty (Luke 9:23– 26; 14:26).
- To hate sin and love holiness.
- To serve and love Christ’s church with all her imperfections.
- To love the lost and the nations and to have a passion for gospel advance.
- To “adorn” Christ’s gospel with good deeds of love, justice, and mercy (Titus 2:10, 12, 14).
- To live by faith in Christ and the gospel (Rom. 1:17).
- To rejoice that the humanly unattainable requirements of a clean record, new heart, and new power to live a holy life have been purchased and provided by Christ alone through grace alone, and they are received by faith alone. Regeneration, justification, and sanctification are all free gifts.
- To boast only in the cross and the gospel and to flee all pride and self-achievement (Phil. 3:3–9).
- To hope in Christ for future glory and grace, a hope that sustains in the many afflictions of this brief sojourn in the “valley of the shadow of death.”
Disciples are made through the ministry of the Word entrusted to the church, including preaching, teaching, evangelism, and counseling. The Word teaches, reproves, corrects, and trains in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16–17). The Word makes disciples and Christ makes disciples through the Word. He uses His servants to administer His Word formally in worship services, training classes, Bible study groups, counseling sessions, seminary classrooms, and evangelistic missions, or to preach it informally in conversations in any setting.
Making disciples is preeminently the responsibility of the church. Making disciples involves exhorting from the Word, calling people to become those who learn from Christ; teaching people what Christ has commanded; teaching people to obey all that Christ has commanded; teaching them to obey in the context of church life; and summoning the church to command all nations to follow Jesus and become His learners.
Let’s look at three kinds of discipleship:
Initial discipleship is winning disciples through evangelism, bringing sinners to Christ as learners via first-time repentance, faith, and submission to grace.
Normal discipleship takes place in the congregation. It is teaching believers all that Christ has commanded about all of life. Hungry, teachable, faithful believers will be continual learners from Jesus as they sit under the preaching and teaching of God’s Word and become doers of it (James 1:22). They will grow in the life of ongoing faith, repentance, ministry, and mission. They will be equipped, deployed, and sent to contribute to the mission of God in this world, which is to make disciples whom Christ has redeemed from every nation, building Christ’s church among all peoples, and calling them into the fullness of the kingdom of God.
Restorative discipleship is learning from Christ how to deal with problems that arise from remaining and indwelling sin. Restorative discipleship calls for specific teaching, reproof, correction, and training that will address these specific problems. The goals of restorative discipleship are similar to the goals of all discipleship: to re-establish the believer in usefulness and humble learning from Christ in order to become like Christ in heart, conduct, and mission.
Bringing people to Christ to become learners is a high calling and a privilege. Human disciple-makers are powerless in themselves, yet they are accountable to Christ, and they are active in Him. So, move ahead in faithful obedience to preach the Word. The exalted Christ ultimately makes disciples as He causes His Word to germinate and grow through your work. Through you, Christ will win, build, equip, restore, and send learners to do His mission in this needy world.