The Basics of Christian Discipleship

As one's independent history begins with being born into the world (a physical birth), so the Christian life must begin with a new birth–a spiritual birth (Jn. 1:12-13; 3:3, 14-18, 36). Salvation through personal faith in Christ is the starting point of new life. But important as this is, it is not our final destination, but the beginning of a journey. Ahead lies the path of discipleship.

Discipling people for (and to) Christ is a fundamental task given to the church. We are to "teach [or, more literally, make disciples] of all the nations" (Matt. 28:18-20). Those are the marching orders the Lord left us at His ascension, a task to be continued "to the end of the age." The logical corollary of the need to make disciples is that discipleship is a basic aspect or function of Christian living.

It should be noted here that salvation is a matter of both position and condition (or, standing and state). Our standing concerns what God credits to us when we put our faith in Christ. It has to do with the eternal record of heaven. According to God's Word, we are eternally justified, sons of God, joint-heirs with Christ, citizens of heaven, and so on. We are "in Christ," positionally, and we are "complete in Him" (Col. 2:10). We need to understand the richness of our position, but for the most part that is not the aspect of being a Christian that is addressed here.

The seven principles relate to our condition or our state in daily experience. As opposed to my legal standing "in Christ," They have to do with the revelation of "Christ...in me" (Gal. 2:20), and the growth of the believer through the process of discipleship. Unlike our position, which is constant and changeless–because God views us in Christ who never changes–our condition can vary. It will depend on the consistency of our daily walk in the Spirit whether Christ is seen in us or not (Gal. 5:25).

The Greek word for disciple (mathetes) describes one who is a learner. And it is evident that learning from Christ will ultimately lead to the likeness of Christ being reproduced in us. In that regard, He is presented to us as the master Servant (Mk. 10:45; Phil. 2:7). Being a disciple, then, will involve being both a learner and a servant. (In the principles which follow, the term learner-servant will be used as a descriptive synonym for the word "disciple.") Fruitful ministry for God is an inseparable aspect of discipleship. "I have given you an example," says Jesus, "that you should do as I have done to you" (Jn. 13:15; cf. vs. 3-5, 14, 35). "By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples" (Jn. 15:8).

The summons to discipleship is a call to personal discipline and self denial (Lk. 9:23); 14:27). (Our English word mathematics comes from a form of the Greek mathetes. Thus the term connotes a structured life governed by specific rules.) Discipline marks out the path of learning, while self denial is at the heart of servanthood. Both put limitations upon us. Discipline excludes those things that hinder learning and growth, while self denial says "No" to those things that would divert our service. By its very nature, therefore, discipleship cannot simply be an add-on. It calls for a significant and broadly influential place in our motivations (Rom. 15:3).

Learner-Servant 1 Principle #1. The Concept of the Learner-Servant: To learn and serve.
The life responsibilities of the child of God involve two intersecting dimensions. By the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit he is to be a learner, growing in grace,1 and a faithful servant of the Lord.2 A learner from God through His Word, and a servant for God among both believers and unbelievers. Though these two functions can be defined and discussed separately, they are fundamentally linked. There is a real sense in which we learn in order to serve (see II Tim. 2:2, 15; 3:14-17). In teaching us, God entrusts us with a stewardship to be used for Him.

1 Matt. 11:29; Rom. 15:4; I Cor. 10:11; 11:1; Eph. 5:1; I Pet. 2:21; II Pet. 3:18.

2 Rom. 6:22; 12:11; 14:17-19; I Cor. 4:1-2; Gal. 5:13; 6:2; Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 3:23-24; I Thess. 1:9; I Pet. 2:15-17; 4:10.

Principle #2. The Purpose of the Learner-Servant: To glorify God.
The Lord has made everything that exists for His own pleasure3 and His own glory.4 The Westminster Assembly said it centuries ago: "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." The Lord's design for the learner-servant is a part of that great all-inclusive purpose: he is to glorify God. We are to "do all to the glory of God" (I Cor. 10:310), and that "all" we "do" can be broadly defined as our service for the Lord.5

3 The opposite of what we might call being a God-pleaser is to be a self-pleaser–which includes pleasing others for the sake of selfish advantage (Lk. 12:19; Rom. 15:2-3; Col. 3:22-24).

4 Ps. 104:24, 31; Rom. 11:36; Phil. 4:20; I Tim. 1:17; Jude 1:25; Rev. 5:13; 7:12.

5 Matt. 5:16; Jn. 15:8; Rom. 15:5-6; I Cor. 6:19-20; Eph. 3:21; II Tim. 4:18; I Pet. 4:11; II Pet. 3:18; Rev. 1:6.

Principle #3. The Priority of the Learner-Servant: To be a disciple.
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not merely one of many different facets of life. It is to become the central core and motivation of all we do. For example, a man is not a father, a salesman, and a learner-servant. He is a learner-servant in the home and on the job–and everywhere else.6 That being so, the development of learner-servants must also be fundamental to the purpose of any form of Christian training. Whether or not this translates itself into a measure of time (most hours spent), it will definitely be a dominating perspective. We will see all we do as having a bearing on the discipleship process in ourselves and others.7

6 Ecc. 12:1l 13-14; Mic. 6:8; Matt. 16:24-26; Lk. 14:26, 33; Rom. 8:28-30 (and compare Gen. 1:27-28 with Ps. 8:6; Rev. 22:3).

7 Deut. 6:4-7; Ps. 78:5-8; Matt. 28:18-20; Eph. 4:11-16; 6:6; Phil. 3:7-16; Col. 1"28-29; II Tim. 2:1-2, 24-26; III Jn. 1:4.

Learner-Servant Diagram 2 Principle #4. The Outlook of the Learner-Servant: To test everything by the Scriptures.
No quality, idea or action can be accurately assessed until it is seen from God's perspective (Matt. 4:4; Col. 2:4, 8; 3:10, 16). Humanism is built upon the lie of Satan that man does not need God--that he can, in fact, be his own god (Gen. 3:5; Isa. 14:12-15; Rom. 1:25; II Thess. 2:3-12; cf. Prov. 14:12). The Christian faith is founded on an entirely opposite premise: that all "truth" must be subjected to what God says in His Word. It is "by faith we understand" (Heb. 11:3; cf. Prov. 9:10; 28:5). Our goal must be to see life consistently from God's point of view.

With the truth of God's revelation as his final authority, the learner-servant evaluates everything according to three biblical tests or parameters. If you like, he sees everything through three biblical lenses: the purpose of God,8 the authority of God,9 and the power of God.10

Learner-Servant Diagram 3

8 Matt. 6:10, 19-20, 33; Eph. 2:4-7, 10; Ps. 16:11 (and see Principle #2.). God's purpose is the basis for our values and priorities.

9 Exod. 15:18; Ps. 24:1; Dan. 4:34-35; Matt. 8:27; Mk. 1:27; Acts 5:29. God's authority is the basis for our standard of conduct; righteous living requires obedience to Him.

10 Ps. 27:1, 14; Acts 17:25b, 28; I Cor. 15:10; Phil. 4:13, 19. God's power is the basis for our potential to live and act in a way that pleases Him.

Learner-Servant Diagram 4 Principle #5. The Character of the Learner-Servant: To be like Jesus.
We were made in the image of God in the beginning, and it is His desire that we reflect a likeness to His Son (Gen. 1:26-27; Rom. 8:29; Gal. 4:19; Eph. 4:13). Being fashioned into the likeness of Christ, through the discipleship process, will mean the character of the learner-servant will be display increasingly four key qualities: faith in11 and obedience toward12 God, godly wisdom,13 and Christian love.14

11 The Christian faith is founded upon the truth of God revealed in His infallible Word (Matt. 24:35; Jn. 5:46; 17:17; Rom. 4:21; 10:17; Heb. 11:6. The Bible provides a solid foundation on which faith can build (cf. Lk. 6:46-49).

12 In recognition of God's ownership and sovereign authority over him, the learner-servant accepts and adheres to His standard of conduct (Ps. 24:1; Jas. 4:13-15; I Jn. 2:15-17; see also Principle #4, Note 2). Submission to God's authority by obedience to His Word becomes the basis for our moral standard.

13 God's Word helps us to establish an eternal value system which comprehends His purpose and design (Rom. 8:28-29; Eph. 2:6-7, 10; Prov. 9:10; and see Principle #4, Note 1). An appreciation for God's purpose forms the basis for our values and priorities in life. When that understanding is applied to daily experience, the result is a display of godly wisdom.

14 Love can be defined as the sacrificial giving of one's self for the good and blessing of another (I Cor. 13:4-8; cf. Jn. 3:16). It is made possible by God's gracious enablement (I Chron. 29:11-14; Matt. 22:37-40; Jn. 8:42; Rom. 5:5; 13:8-9; II Cor. 5:14; Eph. 4:15-16; 5:2; Col. 3:14; and see Principle #4, Note 3). God's power is the ultimate source and resource of our potential to love. His gracious gifts of time, talents and treasures fulfil the purpose for which they were given when they flow through us, back to the Lord and out to others. That is the essence of love (cf. Jn. 13:34-35; 14:15, 21, 23; Gal. 6:2, 9-10; I Jn. 2:5; 3:14-18; 4:20-21).

Learner-Servant Diagram 5

The Bible also describes what happens when man tries to become his own god, and his own source of truth, determining his own values and standards, and relying on his own human potential (Prov. 14:12; cf. Isa. 53:6a; Jn. 5:39-44). These areas in fact correspond to the basic categories of sin: unbelief and self rule, materialism and sensuality. They are evident in the very first sin in Genesis 3:6: "Good for food" (to satisfy the cravings of the flesh), "pleasant to the eyes" (a materialistic outlook), "desirable to make one wise" (self rule). And all of this is rooted in a rejection of God's revealed truth (vs. 1, 4).

Or see the three categories in First John 2: 15-17: "the lust of the flesh" (sensuality, an abuse of potential), "the lust of the eyes" (materialism–what I see is what I want, a distortion of values), "and the pride of life" (self rule that sets its own standard). Or see Hebrews 12:15-16: "any root of bitterness" (coming from self rule and a perceived violation of "my rights"), "any fornicator" (an immoral person–sensuality), "or profane person" (one who devalues things of superior worth as Esau did–materialism).

A word sometimes used in Christian education is integration. It comes from the Latin word integratus, meaning to make whole or complete. The development and growth that takes place as we learn from God's Word (I Pet. 2:2) puts all the pieces together in their proper relationship and balance. And life can only be integrated fully and properly within a biblical framework (Deut. 8:3). To put it another way, no one can be truly whole and completely fulfilled until he has adjusted his life to God's purpose, authority and power.

To see how much the Bible has to say about the integrated life, consider that this is quite often the meaning and intent of the word "perfect" in the King James Version. God has His perfect will for us (Rom. 12:2), which brings all life's tangled strands together to form a tapestry of great beauty. The application of His Word to life produces "perfected" people (II Tim. 3:16-17), where the word is used not in the sense of sinless perfection, but of maturity and completeness. Since Christ is the supreme example of such integration in character and conduct, we can summarize the ideal with the word Christlikeness.

Principle #6. The Sphere of the Learner-Servant: To live and serve where God puts you.
The learner-servant lives in several sometimes overlapping spheres, within which he has God-given responsibilities. The four most common "spheres" are: the home (Col. 3:18-20), the local church (Col. 3:12-16), the workplace (Col. 3:22–4:1), and the community–which by extension becomes the nation and the world (Col. 4:5-6). (First Peter 2:4–3:7 covers the same four areas.) Since we sometimes relate to the same people in more than one sphere, there will be some overlap. But the important thing is to live for the Lord consistently where we are (cf. the parable of The Good Samaritan, Lk. 10:25-37).

As well as living within several overlapping spheres, the learner-servant will also function as part of a chain of command and a circle of love. The chain of command describes those people above us to whom we are responsible, and those below us for whom we are responsible. The circle of love is composed of those individuals within a particular sphere to whom we have the opportunity to demonstrate Christ-like love.

Because of the overlap, the chain of command is not always simple and direct. Further, it will be seen that those in our chain of command also become a part of our circle of love. The two thus do not define two exclusive and separate groups, but rather two ways of relating to people. Both aspects can be seen in many Scriptures (e.g. Jn. 13:34-35; 14:15; Rom. 13:1-4, 8-10; I Thess. 5:12-13; I Jn. 3:23).

If we lived in a theocracy, with all of society operating consistently on biblical principles, submission within the chain of command in any sphere would present no threat of compromise. However, we do not yet live in an ideal world. There may be times when obeying a superior would involve us in direct disobedience to God. On such occasions, a courteous appeal to the one in authority may reveal some flexibility–a willingness to accept a creative alternative to reach a legitimate goal. However, if this is not possible, we must in humility obey God, accepting the consequences (Acts 5:28-29, 40-42).

Principle #7. The Function of the Learner-Servant: To praise, build up, and witness.
Each Learner-Servant has been uniquely gifted by the Lord to fulfil three primary functions: the exaltation of God (worship), the evangelizing of the lost, and the edification (building up) of believers, and in some ways of unbelievers as well. (It will be seen immediately that these three not only define the functioning of the learner-servant individually, but summarize the work of the local church.)

An all-wise Creator has given to each learner-servant a one-of-a-kind complex of gifts, preparing him to make a unique contribution in the world (Gen. 1:26-27; Ps. 139:13-16; Rom. 12:4-8; I Cor. 12:14-27). Perceiving life from a biblical perspective he is to interact with the world around him (and above him) in three primary ways.

By word and deed the learner-servant is to bring praise and glory to God (Ps. 29:2; 45:11b; and see Principle #2). "The Father is seeking such to worship Him" (Jn. 4:23-24). And God is glorified not only by our doing, but by our very being. He is glorified in us as we, His image-bearers, reflect the beauty of His character. He is glorified in us when we fulfil the design and purpose for which we were made, because we thus demonstrate His infinite wisdom and goodness in making us as we are.

As well, the learner-servant is to use whatever gifts and opportunities God has given to win the lost to Christ and support the proclamation of the gospel (Acts 1:8; Matt. 28:18-20; II Cor. 5:19-20; I Pet. 3:15; cf. Prov. 11:30).

The learner-servant is also to strengthen and help his brothers and sisters in Christ (Rom. 14:19; I Cor. 12:25-27; Eph. 4:11-12, 29; Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:24-25). There is a dimension of this edifying work that is only possible with the regenerate. But a ministration of kindness and Christian love can be extended to all (Matt. 5:16; Rom. 15:2; Gal. 6:10). The greatest kindness we can show them, of course, is to point them to Christ.

When the life of the disciple of Christ is defined in this way we can only say with Paul, "Who is sufficient for these things?" (II Cor. 2:16). The answer is that we must depend upon the Spirit of God who indwells each born again believer (II Cor. 3:5). Many passages assure us of the total adequacy of the Holy Spirit to provide what is needed (Acts 1:8; I Cor. 2:12-13; 3:5-10; 15:10; II Cor. 3:18; Gal. 5:22-23; Col. 1:28-29; I Jn. 4:4). In this regard, the Bible speaks of being filled with the Spirit, and walking in the Spirit.

Ephesians 5:18 says, "Be filled with the Spirit." It is a command, and the verb tense suggests a continuing responsibility–literally it is: be being filled, keep on being filled. It is helpful to know that the Greek word for "filled" can also mean fulfilled. As the Spirit's power becomes operative in us and "fills" every area of our lives unhindered by self and sin, He fulfils in us the purpose for which God has made us. This filling and fulfilling takes place as we walk in the Spirit.

Galatians 5:16 says, "Walk in the Spirit and you shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh." Walking is the Bible's common picture word for a life of step by step faith and obedience toward God. That defines how the Spirit's filling is appropriated and maintained. Filling is what God does; walking is what we do. As we walk, He fills. As He fills, we walk.

Learner-Servant Diagram 6 The two aspects relate to the main axes of the learner-servant diagram. The Holy Spirit fills us to accomplish God's purpose by His power. The believer walks by faith in the revelation in God's Word and obedience to His sovereign authority. As Philippians puts it, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (2:12). Work out, by walking in the Spirit, what God is doing within. "For it is God who works in you [by His power] both to will and to do for His good pleasure [accomplishing His purpose]" (2:13). The latter is the essence of His filling ministry.

The relationship between the filling and the walking is also revealed by the fact that Ephesian 5:18 and Colossians 3:16 are parallel passages–as seen by the context of each. "Be being filling"–that is God's part. "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly [let it find a home in your heart]"–that is our part, accomplished through our ongoing walk of faith and obedience (cf. Col. 2:5-7). "He who heeds the Word will find good, and whoever trusts in the Lord, happy is he" (Prov. 16:20).

A final word. I have found, over the years, that the diagrams shared above provide a useful way to understand and analyze the Scriptures. These patterns are repeated over and again. If you make use of them and find them helpful, why not pass the material on to others.