There is a profound ignorance that is pervasive among evangelical Christians regarding what makes us disciples.
First of all, what does the word disciple mean? It simply means anyone who is following Jesus and has learned of Him. The Greek word is transliterated as mathétés and is pronounced math-ay-tes. It is where we get the word math from, showing its roots in learning.
The profound ignorance that I am speaking of is not regarding the definition of the word. The problem is in understanding what makes us a disciple.
Commentaries, books on the teachings of the Lord Jesus, and sermon after sermon address the subject of discipleship and even the publishers of our bibles, with their inserted headings over passages, do so with a commonly held position on what makes us a disciple that is wrong.
They assert that in order to be a disciple of Jesus we need to be committed, to make a choice, to count the cost, to walk the walk, to lay down our lives…to do something.
Is this what makes us a disciple?
Have we all forgotten about Peter?
John 13:36-38 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, where are You going?” Jesus answered, “Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later.” Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.”
Here was total commitment and can we say that we will do any better? Popular teachers will tell you so from their comfortable positions. It is so easy for any man to say that he will not deny Jesus, but it is not so easy to actually do it. While it is most certainly true that we must not deny Him, as with Peter, this is not what makes us a disciple. The problem with the common understanding is that all that we can do with this position is to make useless commitments, which will fail us.
We need an answer for what makes us a disciple that is true, not something that is rooted in a confidence in the flesh. Our discipleship must be founded upon something that is a solid foundation, not something that can change.
Let us consider a few teachings of our Lord Jesus that I believe are misunderstood regarding the subject of discipleship and then I will provide what I believe is the only answer.
Luke 14:25-35 Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.
For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’
Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.
So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. Therefore, salt is good; but if even salt has become tasteless, with what will it be seasoned? It is useless either for the soil or for the manure pile; it is thrown out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
My NASB has the heading ‘Discipleship Tested’ over this passage. Jesus’ teaching is not about discipleship being tested, He is speaking of a necessary foundation for true discipleship.
When He speaks of hating our family, even our very self, He is speaking of a necessary conversion, not a work that we must fulfil. When Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” He is not saying that by acts of martyrdom we become His disciple. He is saying that we become a disciple when we spiritually apply His teaching to our lives [Galatians 2:20; 5:24; 6:14]. That spiritual teaching, when believed in, results in our conversion.
We have to understand that Jesus is speaking to an audience so entrenched in their identity as Jews, immersed in a thinking that would find the idea of a conversion an offense to their already assumed position as the children of God.
Notice Jesus’ two examples that support His teaching. One is of a man who would build a tower, the other of a king who would wage war against another king. The emphasis on both is what they have at the outset. There is something that needs to be right at the beginning. He who builds is to consider if he has enough supplies, he who wars to consider if he has enough strength. Both for the same end, to accomplish or finish what has been purposed.
Our text says in verse 25 that ‘large crowds were going along with Him’ and Jesus would have them all to understand that there is only one thing that will make them a true and lasting disciple. How we begin will determine how we end. Moralism will end in mere moralism. True conversion will end in true salvation.
Jesus confirms this after His two examples when He says, “So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” Salvation is not determined by what we put in an offering box, but it is determined by a conversion made up of renouncing a false position before God that is manifested by idols and tokens of merit. In other words, the possessions that Jesus speaks of are things deeper than coins, houses, and clothes, though they certainly can include them. He goes on to explain that if our salt is tasteless it is useless. Meaning, if what we have at the outset is without value it will fail us.
Going back to Peter, no measure of commitment can prevent us from denying Jesus and no mere willingness to carry our cross will make us disciples. No, we must have it said of us at the outset that we have carried our cross if we are to finish well. Something must be true of us at the beginning and this alone will say we are His disciples.
Here is another passage that has been misunderstood: the rich young ruler.
Luke 18:18-27 A ruler questioned Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, ‘DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT MURDER, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER.’” And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he had heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. And Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” They who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But He said, “The things that are impossible with people are possible with God.”
Jesus is not teaching us that we must give away all that we own in order to be saved. He is saying that we must give away all of our self-righteousness if we are to have eternal life. Jesus has simply shown to the rich young ruler that he has not kept the Law as he arrogantly thought. His command to him to sell all that he possessed was for the purpose of showing that he was covetous.
The one thing that would have made the rich young ruler a disciple of Jesus was repentance and faith and that alone is our answer.
The only thing that makes us a disciple of Jesus Christ is our conversion by means of repentance and faith. This is the only right beginning, the only foundation of being a disciple. Discipleship is not a rehabilitation program, it is being in Christ and living out the power of His death and resurrection in our lives.
Read my book Take Up Your Cross: Our Only Power to Live and Walk by the Spirit. On page 7, I have written, ‘Our discipleship is to be grounded in our conversion and we must avoid thinking of our discipleship as something in addition to or separate from our conversion. Discipleship is a result of our conversion and has no life separate from our conversion. Our discipleship does not determine our salvation. Rather, our salvation determines our discipleship.’