What is the definition of discipleship? As Christians, we’re told to “go and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19), but what does that mean in practical terms?
Here is the reality if you are a Christian: You can say without hesitation, “I am a disciple.” It is a settled reality. You have decided to follow Jesus. You have repented of your sins. You have trusted Christ and what he did for you on the cross to forgive your sins. You believe he rose from the dead and defeated death. You have decided to follow him through eternity.
But here is another reality: Until we get to heaven, we are supposed to grow as Christians. It is a process. Another way of saying this is that we are commanded to continue growing as fully devoted followers of Christ.
I am a Christian is more than religious jargon. Those four words have profound implications.
Love: The Greatest of These (Again)
We must begin with a basic premise: God is love. He does not merely show love; he is love in his very essence: “But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). God demonstrated his perfect love by sending his Son, Jesus, to die for us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8).
When we seek to become more like Christ, our definition of discipleship must include that we love like Christ. While we cannot attain his perfect love, we can, through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, learn to increasingly love like he loves.
When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he commanded them to be more like Christ. In other words, he told them to become more devoted disciples. In Philippians 2:2-4, Paul writes, “Make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.”
What is Paul saying? If we are in unity with other Christians, if we are selfless, if we are humble, then we are becoming more like Christ. Indeed, we are demonstrating love like Christ’s love. Paul sums up these traits in Philippians 2:5: “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.” Then Paul powerfully reminds us: “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13).
That verse has been a game changer for me. God not only gives us the power to become more like Christ, but he gives us the desire as well. My prayer life now includes expressing my desire to yield to God’s power, knowing that God will give me the power to do things that make me more like Christ. Above all, he leads me to love others more, to put others before myself. And he gives me the desire to do it all with joy. Such is the heart of discipleship.
Loving Those Who Are Not Christians
Jesus had his critics. There were some religious leaders who did not like his association with sinners: “The Pharisees and their teachers of religious law complained bitterly to Jesus’ disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with such scum?’” (Luke 5:30).
Pretty harsh words.
Jesus was quick to respond: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent” (Luke 5:31-32).
Here we learn two important lessons about the love of Jesus, the love we are supposed to emulate. First, if the perfect man, the one who is God himself, chooses to associate with those deemed undesirable by the religious caste, should we not also associate with them? Jesus, who is perfect, made a point to eat and drink with people whom others viewed as scum. We who are forgiven sinners must follow that example.
That brings us to our second important lesson: We must be ready and eager to associate with—and to share the gospel with—those who do not know Christ. Jesus used the metaphor of a doctor coming to heal sick people. The sickness, of course, is spiritual rather than physical.
The greatest act of love was an act of evangelism: God sent his only Son to be sacrificed. We who follow Jesus must be willing and eager to demonstrate and tell others about that love.
We can’t truly call ourselves disciples of Jesus unless we love people so much that we can’t stop telling people “everything we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20) about the Savior and Lord we follow.
Staying in the Word
Several years ago, Brad Waggoner wrote a foundational book on discipleship called The Shape of Faith to Come. After examining the spiritual disciplines of 2,500 churchgoers, Waggoner discovered a consistent theme: Christians who read their Bibles daily were more likely to grow in all areas of their spiritual development.
They were more likely to obey God.
They were more likely to share their faith.
They were more likely to serve others.
They were more likely to learn deeper truths about the Christian faith.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? When you read the Bible, you are reading God’s Word. You are hearing from God. You are finding out what his plan is for your life.
Do you really want to grow as a Christian? Do you really want to be more like Christ? Read your Bible. Study your Bible. Read it in your quiet time. Study with others in a group. Be a consistent and daily reader of Scripture. Whether you try to read the entire Bible in a year or do a deep dive on a particular book or section of the Bible, read it every day.
Start or join a small group in your church and study the Bible with them. I am always amazed at the insights my community group members provide. We should all love to study in community.
Though it sounds obvious, study the Bible as your pastor preaches. Open your Bible to the sermon text. Follow along with the teaching. Read the Bible carefully as your pastor teaches the different verses.
It’s simple but profound: We can’t become more like Jesus until we know more about Jesus. And the Bible is where we learn about our Savior from his pre-incarnate days of the Old Testament to his incarnation to his ascension and future return.
I am a Christian.
Do you really want those words to mean something for you?
Read your Bible. It’s life changing.
As we seek to understand more fully what it means to be a Christian, remember that we are not looking to check items off a list. We are seeking to be like Jesus. My prayer for you is that you will simply observe Jesus’ life, and in his power, seek to be like him.
Adapted from I Am a Christian: Discovering What It Means to Follow Jesus Together with Fellow Believers by Thom S. Rainer. Copyright © 2022. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.
Thom S. Rainer is the founder and CEO of Church Answers. With nearly forty years of ministry experience, Thom has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of the local church and its leaders. He has been a pastor of four churches and interim pastor of ten churches, as well as a bestselling author, popular speaker, professor, and dean. He earned his MDiv and PhD degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has written numerous books, including three that ranked as number one bestsellers: I Am a Church Member, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, and Simple Church. He and his wife live in Franklin, Tennessee.