What is a disciple, anyway?

Everyone seems to agree that a disciple is not simply a person who prays the prayer of salvation and then goes to a church service on Sundays, although in actual practice this may be the definition that is most common. Churches may be full of people who have prayed a prayer of salvation, but does that make them disciples? Or is there more to it?

How we define a disciple matters. Jesus clearly told His disciples to go out and make more of them, and anyone who desires to share the Gospel needs a starting point.

Here is a working definition: Learners. Followers. Lovers. Of Jesus. Together.

The word disciple means “learner,” and [the believers’] object of learning is obviously Jesus. But there is an important difference between learning “about” Jesus and learning “of” or “from” Him. Unfortunately, we can learn a tremendous amount about Jesus and still not learn to know Him.

I used to believe that the missionary task was divided into three parts: evangelism for the unsaved, a discipleship course for the newly saved, and leadership development for leaders. I have since learned that “making disciples” describes a lifelong process. From the first conversation with a believer to the final breath, our task is to make disciples–before salvation, after salvation, and throughout life. The process of learning to know Jesus may be punctuated by significant, life-changing moments, but it continues for a lifetime.

Following Jesus involves a dynamic process that starts with putting into practice the general teachings that He laid out. But it also includes a very specific dimension of doing, saying or going exactly where He is indicating at any moment in time.

As we learn to follow His commands and put them into practice, our lives are conformed to the general truths expressed in what He said. The circumstances of our lives give us the choice to seek first the kingdom. We learn to trust Him when things go wrong or things happen that we do not understand. We become more mature believers by obeying and putting into practice these general commands.

Obedience often demands sacrifice, but it also propels disciples forward. Following Jesus will lead us out into a broken world to convey the Father’s love.

The true sign that we have been learning from and following after Jesus is this: that we will love like Jesus loved.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)

Love and unity among diverse people is not natural to the human race. Fear, distrust, anger and belligerence are common. When we learn of Jesus and from Him while following Him, we also learn to love like He loved.

Of Jesus
The life-long dynamic process of learning “of” Jesus leads us to know Him and be more like Him. Christ-likeness is an essential attribute if we are to follow Him and carry out His will as followers.

The disciples learned to follow Jesus together, and generally when He spoke, He spoke to all of them. One notable exception to this pattern occurred when Jesus spoke to Peter on the beach after the resurrection, but generally, each of them was learning of and from Jesus in a group with other disciples who were also learning of and from Him.

Learning draws us together into His heart to know Him and become like Him.
Following draws us together into His work to obey him no matter what the cost.
Loving draws us into His people, which in turn can transform the world.

Charlie Davis
Adapted from chapter 1 of his book Making Disciples Across Cultures, InterVarsity Press, © 2015; Used with permission from InterVarsity Press