1. The life of discipleship was anticipated in the Old Testament, made explicit in the Gospels, and fleshed out in the Epistles and other New Testament writings.
The Old Testament set a pattern for discipleship by way of covenantal relationship—God’s calling for Israel to be his people and to walk in his ways (Deuteronomy 4:1-14; 10:12-13; 1 Samuel 12:14). When they broke covenant, Israel was described as “walking in the ways” of pagan gods (1 Kings 18:21). This walking in the ways of God finds culmination in Jesus’s call for his original apostles to “follow him.” The actual word disciple is almost exclusively limited to the New Testament Gospels and Acts, and was an early designation for followers of Jesus. The word denotes a master (or teacher) – student relationship, and meant that the student would follow in the path of life laid out by his or her master.
2. Discipleship is the highest calling, core identity, and central task of the church.
Discipleship cannot be named among one of the activities of the church, it is what the church is and does. Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he made clear in the Great Commission that making disciples was the call of the church (Matthew 28:18-20). In this sense, discipleship is not optional—there is no such thing as Christians who aren’t disciples. As a community, a church cannot tag discipleship onto its multi-level programs, it must be the core purpose behind everything the church is and does, including its worship, evangelism, social witness, multi-generational programs, etc.
3. Disciples of Jesus seek to glorify their Lord by becoming like him in all respects.
In ancient times, disciple relationships were common both in Gentile and Jewish worlds. The basic pattern was that of a student learning from and becoming like their master. This is what Jesus said in Luke 6:40, “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.” (NIV) Later, Paul said that the goal of the Christian life was predestined to be conformity to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29). Therefore, the best witness to what is expected of Jesus’s followers is the life of Jesus himself, not in spite of his unique vocation as the Son of God but especially in light of his identity. The Gospels’ witness to Jesus’s teaching, way of life, and relationship with God are fundamentally the most instructive revelation of what God expects of his people. And since Jesus fulfilled the image of God perfectly, Christians can now look to his example in order to fulfill their own original vocation as image bearers of God (Genesis 1:27; 2 Corinthians 4:4).
4. The life of discipleship is characterized by a pattern of self-denial and a focus on others.
Disciples are not characterized by conceit, narcissism, or false humility. Even excessive introspection misses the purpose of the Christian life. Rather, disciples are marked by an outward life that focuses on serving others (Mark 10:35-35). Instead of claiming natural rights or seeking maximal happiness and comfort for one’s own existence, disciples look to the needs of others, especially those in close proximity to them. Indeed, the very act of the Incarnation set a pattern for self-denial and emptying oneself of privileges in order to love others well (Philippians 2:1-8). Jesus often reminded his original disciples of the cost to follow him; it involved “denying the self daily” and “taking up the cross” (Luke 9:23). Disciples must crucify—put to death—anything that stands in the way of following Jesus.
5. Authentic discipleship requires the initial, and often ongoing, act of repentance and turning away of sin.
A disciple of Jesus that lives in the kingdom of God, or under his rule, recognizes that repentance is not a suggestion but an imperative. To repent, biblically, means not only to feel remorse for sin but turn away from it and toward God; to turn away from evil and toward the good. The Old Testament prophets regularly called God’s people to repent (Isaiah 45:22; 55:7; Ezekiel 14:6; Joel 2:12-13) and in the New Testament it is made a prerequisite for salvation (Matthew 4:17; Acts 2:37-41). Being a discipleship is totalizing and comprehensive, and requires the entirety of one’s being. When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment, he responded that one must love God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength. (Mark 12:30-31; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Hebrews 12:1; 1 John 3:6-7). Often this means re-evaluating core assumptions about identity, vocation, and culture, and being willing to allow the gospel to critique us, even when it’s painful.
6. Discipleship requires intentional practices that gradually become enduring, natural habits.
The life of discipleship, sometimes referred to as spiritual (trans)formation, is not an immaterial, mindful, transcendental life that materializes on its own. It is rather an earthy and intentional descent into practices that were modeled initially in the Old Testament saints and especially in the Psalter. Singing, praying, worshiping, communing, reading, meditating, and lamenting were the primary ways that God’s people covenanted with him. Jesus modeled these same rhythms throughout his ministry, even if reported only on occasion (Matthew 14:22-23; 22:29; Luke 5:15-16). The early church also modeled healthy spiritual habits together (Acts 2:41-47). As these means of grace are engaged, desires and appetites are transformed. What was difficult to do becomes more natural (2 Timothy 2:1-7). Discipleship is made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit who uses the Word of God throughout these various rhythms to transform us (Romans 6:4; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 5:17; Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 2:13; Titus 3:5).
7. An essential element of effective discipleship is community.
God’s salvation is not intended primarily to create individual Christians but to create a people that share an identity in Christ. Community has played an integral part in humanity’s wholeness from the very beginning: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18) In the Old Testament, the entire community was often held responsible for one person’s sin (Joshua 7:24) and people sought reform together (2 Chronicles 34, Nehemiah 9, Jonah 3). In the New Testament, Jesus’s followers regularly gathered together for several purposes, both in large and in small groups (Acts 2:41-44; Acts 4:31), and it is indeed mandated for Christians (Hebrews 10:25). Varying sizes of communities afford Christian disciples the opportunity to be vulnerable, encouraging, accountable, and supportive of one another in appropriate ways. Community is necessary for discipleship because everyone has a weakness that is served only by others, and conversely, everyone has a strength that can serve the weakness of another person. It is in isolation that disciples fall prey to Satan’s devices and fall into temptation. Together, the life shared by disciples serve as a testimony to God’s plan of renewal for all of creation.
Recommendations for further reading:
The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Complete Book of Discipleship by Bill Hull
Following the Master by Michael J. Wilkins
The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard
The Means of Grace by Andrew C. Thompson