by Brian Allred

It’s not uncommon for Christians to pick up certain words that are frequently used in church circles without really knowing what they mean. I would posit that one of those words is disciple. Given that to make disciples is the final command that Jesus gives his followers in the Great Commission in Matthew 28, understanding what a disciple is and what discipleship involves is vital for both our identity and our task as Christians. We attempted to formulate a definition of being a disciple in the previous post. Let’s turn our attention now to considering the demands of being a disciple.

The Demands of Being a Disciple

It is readily apparent from the teachings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels that there is no Christian discipleship without following him, and that you cannot follow him if you’re unwilling to live in self-denial or to take up your cross (Luke 9:23; 14:25-27). Self-denial involves living for Jesus above ourselves – subordinating our desires, our wishes, our plans, our priorities to his. This means if your main pursuits in life and if your motivations for most of the decisions you make on a daily basis are personal comfort and convenience – regardless of what you say they are – you cannot and will not be a disciple of Jesus. At least not a faithful one. At least not for long. Implicit in Jesus teaching his disciples to pray “thy kingdom come,” is the need to pray “my kingdom go.”

We are called to take up our cross – that means dying to ourselves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of this in his classic work The Cost of Discipleship when he writes: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[1] That’s not comfortable. That’s not convenient. That’s not easy. Whatever it is that gives Christians the impression that following Jesus is easy, it’s not the Bible. On the contrary, the Bible is clear that discipleship is hard. Being a disciple is difficult and costly. There’s no way around it and there’s no other way to follow Jesus. Yes, following Jesus is the way to eternal life and it’s better than not following him, but whoever or whatever suggests that it’s comfortable, convenient, or easy must be recognized and rejected as propagating blatant falsehoods. If following Jesus feels easy, we need to question whether we’re being faithful to him. It’s worth pausing to ask ourselves what we’re actually denying ourselves in life in order to faithfully follow him. There are demands to being a disciple, and we don’t get to ignore them or pretend they’re optional.

Notice these demands are things we actively embrace rather than things we passively accept. We are not simply called to bear our cross but to take up our cross. A disciple intentionally makes self-sacrificing decisions and does hard things, not out of self-punishment but for the sake of following Jesus. We tell the truth when it would be easier to lie. We give generously though it feels safer to hoard. We lovingly move toward difficult people when it would be more comfortable to avoid them. We have hard, honest conversations when we’d prefer to withdraw. We deny and crucify our impatience, our desires to get even, our lust, greed, pride, excess, and selfishness in order to cultivate the virtues of patience, mercy, forgiveness, purity, moderation, humility, contentment, and care. We actively engage in the demands of study, prayer, fasting, serving, worshipping, and witnessing. You can say you want to grow, but unless you’re actively and intentionally engaging in the difficult and costly demands of being a disciple, you won’t.

And we are to be engaged in the demands, in some form, every day. Jesus says: “Take up your cross daily.” Being a disciple of Jesus is never a one-time act but a lifestyle. Being a disciple – following Jesus – is a process rather than an event. John Maxwell, author of countless Christian leadership books, makes a helpful observation contrasting events (which can be very useful) with processes. He states that events are usually helpful in encouraging decisions, motivating people, and issuing challenges, but participation in events is relatively easy. Processes, on the other hand, aim at encouraging development, maturing people, and facilitating change, and participation in processes is usually difficult.[2]

The process of discipleship requires committed consistency, perseverance, and endurance over the course of time – indeed for our entire lives.  This is why the definition of a disciple in the previous post included being a lifelong learner. There are no quick paths or shortcuts to growth. Discipleship is a lot like athletic training in this regard.[3] At the beginning of one’s Christian walk growth may occur somewhat rapidly, much like beginning a new exercise regimen. But as we develop, quick gains are uncommon. Consider that many Olympic swimmers and track athletes train for three, four, maybe five or more years in order to shave not seconds off of their time but hundredths of a second. Cutting corners can be the difference between a gold medal and a silver medal, or not medaling at all. So they must actively and intentionally engage in the difficult and costly demands of their training in order to improve. But Olympic athletes do it for pieces of gold, silver, or bronze, or for the love and honor of country. Christians have even better reasons. Christians are called to do it because we have an inheritance that will never fade, and for the glory and honor of the eternal kingdom of God, and for the glory the King.

Trevin Wax sums all of this up well:

Growth doesn’t happen in an instant. Like other disciplines, improvement happens over time, as we eat and drink and exercise. The same is true of the spiritual … it’s the daily rhythm of submitting ourselves to God and bringing our plans and hopes and fears to him that makes the difference … Over time, the discipline of reading God’s Word, hearing God’s Word, discussing God’s Word with other people in community – that has a profound effect on the kind of person you’re becoming.[4]

So how, then, do we grow as disciples? And how can we be intentional not only in our own discipleship but also in being faithful to the Great Commission to make other disciples? In other words, what is the biblical approach to the development of a disciple?  We’ll take up these questions in the next post.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995)

[2] John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 26.

[3] See 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and Hebrews 12:1 for examples of athletic imagery employed by New Testament writers.

[4] Trevin Wax. Rethink Yourself (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2020), 178-179.

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