Discipleship as Maturity in Christ
Some preliminary observations

“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”” (Matt 28:18 – 20)


The material in the Synoptic Gospels is very clear, since Jesus’ central message is the kingdom of God[1], he calls men to follow him in receiving and expressing the divine rule. As in his own case[2], this requires total loyalty, commitment and participation in the plan of God. Put most simply, “A disciple is one who has heard the call of Jesus left everything behind and followed him in the way of obedience.” This absolute claim was fully understood by the first followers[3] of Jesus, “Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.”” (Mark 10:28).

The Western church has been struggling with the issue of authentic discipleship for at least a generation[4]. Whilst changes in the popular culture have more recently accentuated these problems[5], what is required is a re –examination of the spiritual roots of the crisis of a lack of obedience amongst the people of God.

In addressing this subject I wish to return to examine the word “disciple”. There are in fact several groups of disciples in the New Testament, the “disciples” of John (Matt 9:14 etc.), the Pharisees (Mark 2:18 etc.), and Saul (Acts 9:25) all appear. Whilst there are 269 uses of “disciple” in total, none occur after Acts 14. This suggests, in contrast to popular church usage, that the vocabulary of discipleship is inadequate to deal with the reality of the Christian life. It involves recognising that the conditions of discipleship post- Pentecost are radically different from that of the Gospels. Not that leaving all behind and following Jesus (Luke 14:24- 35) are invalid means of speaking about the Christian call, but to talk primarily in these terms is to omit the central ingredient of our union with Christ. This point can be illustrated by highlighting two foundational errors in the common approach to disciple –making.

The Contemporary Failure to Disciple- 2 foundational errors

1. Discipleship replaces Jesus

a. The problem

Many sincerely set their heart on becoming more committed disciples of Jesus. They wish to grow spiritually through the so – called “means of grace”: prayer, bible study, worship, fasting, and fellowship with other Christians. They are serious about their character development e.g. loving God (Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28.); loving others (Matthew 5:43-48; Matthew 25:31-46;Luke 10:25-37;John 15:12-17; Romans 12:9-18;1 Corinthians 13; 1 John 4:19-21), expressing the fruit of Spirit (Gal 5:22 – 24). They are zealous for mission e.g. evangelism, stewardship, care for the poor. All of the above are valid but fail to produce mature believers as often such efforts are pursued as a way into grace rather than a response to grace.

The apostolic method, in terms of obeying the Great Commission, does NOT to call people to become disciples[6] but preaches the gospel of Christ. Discipleship is the result of teaching the gospel of the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12; 19:8; 28:31) which has come to its completeness in Jesus. This is particularly clear in the structure of Paul’s letter to the Roman church, often seen as his fullest exposition of the message he proclaimed[7].

b. A proper focus

The subject of the gospel is not “how to get saved”, but Jesus. “(T)he gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, (1:1 – 4). Paul then goes on to highlight that the object of faith is “Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith[8] for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Rom 1:4 – 5). Faith is not directed towards something called “deeper discipleship” but towards a deeper relationship with Jesus.

That Jesus is the Alpha and Omega of the matter of discipleship is confirmed by how Paul repeats the essential themes of his introduction to Romans at the end of the letter. “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom 16:25 – 26).

In post – Pentecost terms, “the obedience of faith” is equivalent to “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so famously put it, ‘Only those who believe obey,’ is what we say to that part of a believer’s soul which obeys, and ‘only those who obey believe,’ is what we say to that part of the soul of the obedient which believes. If the first half of the proposition stands alone, the believer is exposed to the danger of cheap grace…If the second half stands alone, the believer is exposed to the danger of salvation by works”[9]

It is the thorough exposition of the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) that is required today. Those who believe in Jesus, that is, the Jesus not only of the Gospels, but he who is so thoroughly expounded in the apostolic teaching of the epistles and Revelation, will show total loyalty, commitment and participation in the plan of God[10]. This is because the content of the plan is the person of Christ himself (Eph 1:10).

2. Schooling rather than Community

a. The problem

The second mega problem with the process of discipling flows from the first and is even more difficult to deal with. The Western church has replaced the Hebrew – biblical context of instruction in a community environment with a schooling model. It is obvious that Jesus and his disciples[11], the early church[12] and Paul and his teams[13] did life together, but we have individualised and stratified life[14].

A schooling model images many values that are not Christian, such as an emphasis on right belief rather than right practice, a focus on special sessions rather than a whole life approach, a one sided teacher- learner relationship rather than mutuality and equality, a tendency to lose the value of each individual. The mission of the church is not reflected strongly in this sedentary model. Jesus and Paul did not go on “short term mission trips”, for them, life was mission.

A glaring example of this scholastic culture is that Bible/theological colleges are characteristically led by “settlers” rather than “pioneers”[15], who as such lack the necessary gifting ability to impart authority for outreach. Often this results in the production of disciples of a church tradition rather than disciples of Jesus.

b. A proper focus.

Disciple language in the New Testament is more from the perspective of how the church was seen from the outside as a community distinct first from Judaism and secondarily from pagans. It is of great importance that after the resurrection Jesus does not call his followers “disciples” but “brothers” (Matt 28:10; John 20:17; Hebrews 2:11- 12, 17)[16].

Discipleship is best understood as part of the normal life of the community of faith. It must be intensely relational i.e. voluntary, committed, long term, intentional, reciprocal[17] (rather than superior – inferior), informal, centrifugal (looks outwards) and disposed to serving others. Personal growth is an expected by – product of life together[18]. Such a life together involves abiding corporately in the Word (Col 3:16).

Restoring the Centre of Discipleship: Union with Christ

Despite popular perceptions, the key to discipleship is not primarily a matter of increasing commitment, but a revelation of who we are in Christ. This is the “new creation” reality[19] that came into existence through the incarnation, crucifixion and exaltation of Jesus. Such a reality is foreshadowed by Jesus language of abiding[20] but is most expansive in Paul. The apostle’s passion is clearly expressed, “It is he (Christ) whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” (Col 1:28). It is this vocabulary of being “in Christ”[21] that is the key to understand the meaning of union with the Son of God[22].

The expression “in Christ” appears 91 times in the New Testament[23]. Paul’s central emphasis is not that grace gives benefits, but that grace gives Christ. Union with Christ involves the deepest possible identification, intimacy and oneness between the believer and Jesus. Neither ethics nor theology is the key to discipleship, but conformity to Christ (Rom 8:29; Gal 4:19).Salvation centres on Jesus because he is its content. God imparts to us what has become true of his Son through his incarnation, crucifixion and exaltation.

The centrepiece of the process of salvation[24] will involves participation in every phase of the life of Jesus lived for us. Paul boldly says, “Christ …is our life” (Col 3:4). To understand this rationally and share in it experientially requires both:

a. a thorough exposition of the Bible’s teaching of life history of Jesus

b. living this out in practice both in the world and amidst the community of faith[25]

Numerous examples could be used to illustrate what this reality involves, but I have chosen servanthood. If Christians are to serve Christ/God[26] effectively this must be derived essentially from the servanthood of Jesus. The classic passage here is Philippians 2:5- 11. Many expositors fail to emphasise that just as the words/works of Jesus were the fruitful expression of the indwelling life of the Father[27], so the servanthood of the church is a manifestation of the indwelling life of Jesus (e.g. Rom 15:17; 1 Cor 15:58; Phil 4:13). We do not simply imitate Jesus or become “like” him, as some devotee would become like their guru. To the degree that we receive a heavenly revelation of Christ as a servant to that degree we actually share in his nature[28], we become servants of God and man at the deepest level of our being. The Word becomes enfleshed again in us (Gal 2:19 – 20).

It is not to be thought that a focus on union with Christ will exclude the grace of the Father or the power of the Spirit. Seeing that our lives are now “hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3), the reality of being in Christ opens up for us the dynamic of the Trinity. The Father is the source of our union (1 Cor 1:30), the Son is the object of our union (Rom 8:29) and the Spirit is the bond of our union (Rom 8:9).


Only the revelation of an absolute person, one who is complete in love, mercy, authority, compassion, grace, justice etc., can lovingly compel[29] an absolute response of total loyalty, commitment and participation in the plan of God. Jesus alone is this absolute person who alone can exert an absolute claim for our total obedience. To the degree that Jesus is presented by word and deed, life and lip, and in the power of the Holy Spirit[30] as the fullness of God and man, to that degree disciples will be made, not only of individuals, but of communities and nations. I believe this to be the apostolic vision.

[1] ““The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”” (Mark 1:15)

[2] “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

[3] It goes without saying that there were not two classes of believer in the New Testament e.g. the idea of nominal or “carnal” Christians is not biblical.

[4] Notes in my own files stressing the contemporary importance of this subject go back to the early 1970’s.

[5] In relation to the phenomenon known as post – modernism and its “Christian life- style” option.

[6] This never happens. In Jesus case the Teacher is the teaching.

[7] The gospel is not a message only for instructing people how to come to Christ, it is the substance of the entire Christian life.

[8] Some translations have “the obedience that comes from faith”. This however is an over interpretation.

[9] The Cost of Discipleship. (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1963 c. 1937) p.74.

[10] The fullness of the plan is not made known until after Jesus resurrection e.g. Ephesians 1 contains much material that is not in Jesus own teaching.

[11] “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14)

[12] “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:42,47)

[13] “and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tent-makers by trade.” (Acts 18:3 cf. v.7)

[14] Whatever its merits, separation by age (children, teenagers, adults) is something biblically unthinkable.

[15] That is, pastor- teachers rather than apostles, prophets or evangelists.

[16] This is echoed by the exceedingly common address to description of Christians as “brothers”.

[17] As in the informal “one another”

[18] I commend Bonhoeffer’s Life Together on this score, written as an expression of actual community life.

[19] “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” (Gal 6:15).

[20] Principally in John 15 e.g. vv. 5,8 “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing…8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.

[21] “Christ in us” is the other side of the equation, but less prominent (John 15:5; Rom 8:10; Gal 2:20; Eph 3:17 etc.).

[22] At the centre of an apostolic call is “God …was pleased to reveal his Son in me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Gal 1:16).

[23] Other expressions that relate to our union with Jesus include “with Christ” (11x) plus 40 compound verbs that testify to this e.g. “buried with” (Rom 6:4).

[24] Biblically, salvation is assured but ongoing e.g. 1 Cor 1:18; 15:2.

[25] “you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom 6:17)

[26] This is how the apostles introduce themselves (Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1; Col 1:7; Tit 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1; Jude 1:1; Rev 1:1).

[27] E.g. “the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10).

[28] “by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4)

[29] “For the love of Christ compels us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Cor 5:14 – 15)

[30] “by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God… I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” (Rom 15:19)

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