The world is not transformed by making a superficial difference in many lives, but by making a profound difference in a few. Real, lasting life-change takes place not at the macro-level, but at the micro-level, one on one, close up.
You change the world by changing a life. And you change a life by making a disciple. It’s what Jesus did. He could have impressed us from the heavens, but he chose to impact us by entering our world and pouring his life into a few men who, in turn, did the same.
The disciple-making mandate is the mandate of all believers. Author Robert Coleman notes in his book The Master Plan of Discipleship, “If making disciples of all nations is not the heartbeat of our life, something is wrong, either with our understanding of Christ’s church or our willingness to walk in His way.”1
Pre-Faith Followers and Little Christs
In order to understand our disciple-making mandate, we need to understand what a disciple is. The problem is that the word disciple has been so commonly used and applied in a certain way that we think we know what it means when we really don’t.
What does the word disciple really mean? The most commonly used synonym would be follower. In the New Testament, the word disciple is used to refer not only to fully formed followers, but to “pre-faith” followers.
In John 6 it was clearly used to denote a group of followers who were not yet believers. Describing this group of followers who had been offended by Jesus’ teaching, John writes, “As a result of this many of his disciples withdrew and were not walking with him anymore” (John 6:66; emphasis added). Were these believers who had lost their salvation? No. They were seekers—new pre-faith followers who quit following him short of placing their trust in him.
On the other end of the spectrum, the term disciple described a mature, Christ-like follower. This is certainly the most common New Testament usage of the word. We are told in Acts 11:26 that the followers of Jesus looked so much like him that “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” A brand new term was coined for Jesus-followers. These followers, unlike the ones in John 6, looked so much like Jesus that they were called Christians, meaning “little Christs.”
Disciples or Converts?
So if a disciple is a follower at any stage of following, then the work of disciple-making actually begins before conversion. Traditionally, most have referred to this pre-conversion ministry as evangelism, while only the post-conversion period is seen as discipleship. I would like to suggest, however, that if the word disciple can be used of an unbeliever, as in John 6, then it follows that disciple-making takes place anywhere along the continuum.
Is this simply a question of semantics? In one sense, yes. But what we learn from John 6 is that our ministry to people prior to their conversion is a process and not simply an “evangelistic event.” Unfortunately, however, evangelism has too often been seen as just that—an event where the goal is to give people a gospel presentation and call for a decision, regardless of where they might be in their understanding of, or interest in, Jesus. The result of such indiscriminate “evangelism” can be more hurtful than it is helpful.
Disciples Move Toward Jesus
A less dichotomized view of the process of people coming to faith and maturity in Christ is to see disciple-making as the life-long process of helping people move toward Jesus—toward faith in Jesus and toward fullness in Jesus.
The moment of conversion is simply the fulcrum of the disciple-making process. A very important fulcrum. It’s the threshold of passing from darkness to light, from death to life, from hell to heaven. But it is not the finish line, nor is it the starting point of the disciple-making process.
Consequently, when I pray for God to provide me with people to disciple, I ask him for disciples on both sides of the cross—those who are moving from unbelief to faith, and those who are moving from initial faith to fullness of maturity.
Disciple Means Learner
While the most common understanding of the word disciple is follower, the most accurate definition in terms of what the Greek word actually means is learner. A disciple is a learner, an apprentice, someone who is learning to imitate his master. I like the word learner for the simple reason that it conveys the truth that it is a process. I have not fully learned to be like my Master, but I am learning. I am a learner. I am in process and that process will continue as long as I live.
Learning to Love
Jesus defines a disciple in very clear terms, saying that his disciples will be distinguished by three primary marks or characteristics. Most of us would have no trouble agreeing on the first one. Love. Not knowledge. Not a conversion experience. Not church membership. Not spiritual gifts. Not doctrinal purity. But love. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “if you have love for one another” (John 13:35; emphasis added).
As if that wasn’t clear enough, he repeats himself a few verses later in John 15:9. “Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; abide in my love.” And again in verse 12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”And yet again in verse 17: “This I command you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”
Authentic followers of Jesus are those who love. They love God, they love one another, and they love people. These followers express that love through their unique gifting and personality, but they love nonetheless.
Learning to Lose
The second distinguishing mark of a disciple, according to Jesus, is really the first mark carried to its fullest expression. In John 15:12-13 Jesus said, “This is my commandment that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (emphasis added). That is sacrifice.
Five other times Jesus defined his followers in terms of sacrifice or self-denial (Matthew 10:38; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:27). And Matthew 16:24 says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Four of those times Jesus adds words similar to these: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
To follow Jesus is to lose one’s life. This might mean losing one’s family, friends, wealth, financial security, reputation or whatever it takes to bring glory to God and the gospel. It is to lose life in order to discover life. In Luke 14:27, Jesus was very clear about what a disciple is. “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (emphasis added).
In the first two verses of Ephesians 5, Paul writes, “Therefore be imitators of God….” I am supposed to imitate God? How does anyone imitate God? What does that look like? Paul explains. “Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (emphasis added). Imitating God means walking in sacrificial love for God and people. Love and sacrifice.
Learning to Obey
What is the third mark of a disciple according to Jesus? The Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20 is clear. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…” (emphasis added). Disciples are recognized by obedience to all that Jesus commanded. This would include, first and foremost, what he had commanded them right here—to go and make disciples who, in turn, go and make disciples.
Jesus puts it all together for us in John 15:12-14 where he says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another…. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (emphasis added). In three short verses Jesus captures the essence of what it means to be his disciple. It entails three things: love, obedience and self-sacrifice.
All three characteristics of a disciple are captured in the single word: love. Jesus said that to love is to lay down your life, and that if you love him, you will obey his commandments. Love involves obedience and sacrifice. The key, therefore, to achieving the Great Commission is to obey the Great Commandments. The way you make a disciple is by loving God supremely and loving people sacrificially.
Here is how we at Crossworld have defined disciple: a disciple is one who is learning to live and love like Jesus and helps others to do the same.
First, the disciple is learning because a disciple is, by definition, a learner.
Second, the disciple is learning two primary things: to live like Jesus (in obedience to God) and to love like Jesus (in sacrifice for people).
Third, the disciple is helping others to do the same—in other words, he is committed to reproducing. Discipleship is not just about me becoming like Jesus. It’s about reproducing Jesus in another person’s life.
The disciple-making mandate is not about mere conversion. It is not even about transformation. The disciple-making mandate is about reproduction. Until we reproduce, we have not yet done what Jesus asked us to do.
Dale Losch, president of Crossworld, is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and served with Crossworld in France. He speaks widely on the topics of discipleship, missions and God’s heart for the nations.
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1Robert Coleman, The Master Plan of Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1998), 15.
This excerpt is adapted from A Better Way by Dale Losch and is used by permission. Copyright 2012 Crossworld. Visit crossworld.org.