What does it mean to be a Christian? Some might say that being a Christian is about church attendance and a life of ethical conduct. Others might say that being a Christian is about theological integrity and knowing the right doctrine. Some people say that it is about empowering the oppressed and alleviating social injustices. Still, others might declare that Christianity is about a relationship. They emphasize that it is not about rules, institutions, or disciplines.
I don’t think any of these answers capture what the New Testament says it means to be a Christian. Each of them describes a piece of the portrait, but none of them portray the full picture. The New Testament gives us a straightforward answer. Being a disciple is what it means to be a Christian. Discipleship is a special relationship with Jesus. True discipleship integrates all the above answers into one intimate relationship with Jesus. It is a relationship, but it is a relationship that requires discipline. Moreover, to be in association with Jesus means knowing him, and that requires good theology. Knowing Jesus also means that you will be compassionate and active to help those in need.
Discipleship is essential to the Christian life. Once again, being a Christian means being a disciple. In this article, I’m going to focus on the necessity of discipleship for the Christian.
The Call to Discipleship
Discipleship probably isn’t a new word to you. Being a “disciple” or involved in “discipleship” are churchy terms we like to use. However, the general impression is that discipleship is only for those really serious or devout Christians. People assume that you can be a Christian without being a disciple. The idea is that discipleship is for a higher class of Christians. This assumption is false.
Salvation and Discipleship
The biblical truth is that the calling to salvation and the calling to discipleship are in unity. You cannot accept one without the other. In his classic book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus.”
When Jesus launched his ministry in Galilee, he announced the good news of God’s kingdom and invited people to enter it. Mark summarized his message as, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news! ” (Mk. 1:15). Jesus’ declaration of the kingdom’s nearness meant that it was near in him. Therefore, one can only be in the kingdom if she is with Christ. With this understanding of the kingdom in mind, Jesus’ next step makes complete sense. He goes and calls his first disciples to follow him (Mk. 1:16–20).
These two scenes in Mark make the point clear. Salvation is a call to discipleship. Being a Christian means being a disciple of Jesus. Jesus invites people to enter the kingdom, and he calls his students into a special relationship with him. How do you become a disciple? The answer is in Jesus’ message — repent and believe the good news. The words repent and believe are imperatives in the Greek. Jesus summons anyone who desires citizenship in the kingdom to turn from their former allegiances then turn to him as King.
Entering the kingdom through repentance and faith is illustrated by the disciples. They were fishermen going about their business when Jesus called them. He implored them to follow him and to receive a new vocation. Mark said that when they heard the call they “immediately left their nets and followed him” (Mk. 1:18). To receive salvation and enter the kingdom of God is to answer Jesus’ call to discipleship.
The Gift of Discipleship
Jesus called his disciples in the exact opposite way of anyone else. There are two words in his invitation that change everything. Those words are “Follow me” (Mk. 1:17). They appear inconsequential and natural to pass over, but consider what those words mean.
Have you ever applied to attend a school or to get a job? When you want to be admitted to a school, you will have to present your credentials to them. You will have to show that you are intellectually qualified with degrees. You should probably also include any extra-curricular achievements and activities. For job applications, you hand over your resume that makes a case for why they should hire you. You do your best to prove why you should be their newest employee.
The same is true for any mentors that you might have. You may not have a formal application, but you will have to initiate the relationship. You’ll approach them and share your experience, why you admire their work, and why they should agree to invest their time in you. The same process worked in Jesus’ time. Rabbis and teachers did not solicit their students. You don’t appear to be a very prestigious teacher when you have to ask people to follow you.
Yet, Jesus initiates the relationship with his disciples. He calls them. He tells them, “I want you to follow me and be my student.” Not only does this reversal of the process show Jesus’ humility, but it also makes discipleship with him something that no one can earn. Jesus has no application and approval process. He won’t take resumes and is not interested in your achievements. Instead, he invites ordinary people to become his students.
You cannot earn discipleship with Jesus. Discipleship can only be received as a gift. The only qualification to follow Jesus is his invitation.
The Object of the Calling
Those two little words can teach us more. When you became someone’s student in ancient Israel, your goal was to learn the Torah from them. Even today, when we are mentored by an expert teacher we are being trained to grow in a tradition. The idea is that your teacher is preparing you for a higher value or authority. Professors teach their students to follow the authoritative texts of their discipline. Rabbis taught their students to follow the higher authority of the Torah.
What did Jesus call his disciples to? Jesus calls his disciples to follow himself. He doesn’t invite them to grow in any other higher authority or value. He is the object of their calling. When you become a disciple, the goal of your calling is to grow closer to Jesus and to become more like Jesus.
Therefore, being a Christian is not defined by anything other than being in a relationship with Jesus. That relationship makes you grow into someone who looks more like him. Everything else that we do in our Christian life should serve the purpose of that end. Theology is essential, but it is dead and worthless if it does not bring you closer to the person of Jesus. Social action, mission trips, and good works should characterize any Christ follower. But if those activities are not done as an act of following Jesus — participating with him in his mission — then they are not discipleship. The goal, end, and object of discipleship are Jesus Christ.
Discipleship is an intimate association with Jesus. Since discipleship and salvation go hand in hand, we cannot neglect the gift of being Jesus’ disciple. Reject the false assumption that you can’t be a disciple and answer Jesus’ invitation today.