by Brian Allred

Because the Great Commission assigned to the church in the last recorded words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is to make disciples, it’s important to have some sense of what a disciple is.  This is also important for the Alcuin Study Center as we seek to be a place where faithful Christian discipleship happens. So what does that mean?  In the previous two posts, we’ve attempted to formulate a definition of being a disciple and examined the demands of being disciple. In this final post, we’ll consider the development of being a disciple.

The Development of Being a Disciple

The matter of the development of a disciple encompasses both our own growth as disciples but also the issue of growing others as disciples in obedience to Jesus’ command to make disciples in Matthew 28:20. The methods for the development of disciples are actually spelled out by Jesus in the Great Commission. Perhaps they are not spelled out exhaustively, but he explicitly mentions three things in connection with his command to make disciples.[1] First, he mentions going. Discipleship is something we intentionally pursue as disciples. This includes not only pursuing our own spiritual growth and development but also sharing the gospel with the unconverted. This might even include going to other nations. It certainly included this for the eleven – the immediate audience addressed by Jesus’ words.

But contrary to the ways it can sometimes be understood, the Great Commission is not fulfilled when we share the gospel with unbelievers. That’s part of it – and a far too neglected part of it for many Christians, including myself – but the Great Commission is to make disciples. So the Great Commission also includes going and nurturing the converted toward growth and maturity. As Chad Van Dixhoorn puts it:

When a person is brought to Christ the church’s work is not done; it has only just begun. So long as Christians are immature, so long as they are satisfied with the emptiness of this world instead of the fullness of Christ, so long as we see members wobble with every wave of error that comes our way, so long as these conditions exist, we have equipping ministry to do, a ministry on the agenda, a body to build up.[2]

Notice that this work of making disciples is entrusted by Jesus to his disciples. In other words, disciples make disciples. Because of this truth, we must add something to the definition formulated in our previous post. The definition of a disciple offered earlier was a disciple is a person following Jesus in cross-bearing self-denial as a life-long, obedient learner with the aim of being informed, transformed, and conformed to our Savior.[3] But we need to add and assisting others to do the same. As Christian disciples we are to follow Jesus and exhort other people to follow Jesus as his disciples and facilitate their growth by nurturing them and modeling discipleship through our own lives. It’s this lifestyle of following Jesus ourselves and helping others follow him that captures what is meant by discipleship.[4]

Jesus mentions a second method for the development of a disciple: baptizing. It may be surprising that baptism is somehow connected with making disciples. What does baptism have to do with discipleship? Baptizing is a way of identifying with Jesus and belonging to him as his disciple. But it is also a way of identifying with the church. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes baptism as “a sacrament for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church.”[5] To make disciples involves baptizing because discipleship requires communion with Jesus and fellow believers. Being a disciple and growing spiritually is a community project. We don’t live the Christian life in isolation but are enfolded into a community of faith that grows and matures together as mutually dependent parts of a body. We can think of Paul’s analogy of the human body in 1 Corinthians 12, but also his words in Ephesians 4:15-16: “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow.”

Finally, Jesus mentions a third method: teaching. It should be obvious that there are no disciples – no learners – without teaching. We always need to be learning about the Bible, God’s truth, how to discern it, explain it, live it, and apply it to all areas of life. We teach and are taught by one another in the community of faith (see Colossians 3:16). But it is important to remember that our community as faith as Christians extends beyond the local congregation – it extends even beyond the present age. So we can be taught – indeed, discipled in a sense – by people we’ve never personally met and will never meet (this side of glory).  My own formation as a Christian was deeply impacted by C. S. Lewis who died before I was born. This view of the larger Christian community of faith is why reading good books is to be strongly encouraged in our discipleship. Reading allows us to learn from people who have studied more and longer than we have. The truth is we learn much better, much faster, and much more when we are learning from someone who knows more than we do. This leads Alistair McGrath to write: “We need to be able to tap into the wisdom of others – past and present – who have the potential to inform, encourage, inspire, and challenge us.”[6]

“We need to be able to tap into the wisdom of others – past and present – who have the potential to inform, encourage, inspire, and challenge us.”

-Alister McGrath

We would be foolish to neglect the treasury of books, writings, commentaries, and sermons that have been preserved for us in God’s providence. Of course, we do not ascribe the same weight to these resources as we do Holy Scripture, and we do not regard any of them as infallible. So we must always read and listen discerningly, but we read nevertheless. And insofar as they remain faithful to Scripture, they are means by which we encounter and grow in God’s truth. Gary Millar puts it succinctly: “Do you want to know God better? Then read his word. And read great books about his Word.” [7]

Reading is an indispensable path to spiritual growth – indispensable if for no other reason than that God has given us a book in which he reveals himself and his salvation. But reading is not the only thing we do as disciples. Being a learner encompasses more (though not less) than reading the pages of special revelation in Scripture and the volumes that explore its depths. It also includes studying and learning about God through general revelation.  Dale Ralph Davis explains how the wisdom granted to Solomon in 1 Kings 3 is demonstrated not only by the wise answer by which he resolves the case of the two prostitutes but also by the content the biblical author shares at the end of 1 Kings 4.

29And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, 30 so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. 32 He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. 33 He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish.

Davis notes how Solomon’s wisdom is excellent because its source is God (v. 29). It is also superior to all the other wisdom to be found (vv. 30-31). But it is also excellent because of its scope (vv. 32-33).

Solomon demonstrates that a wise disciple seeks to learn about God in all the areas by which he makes himself known. This means that we engage in a broad range of academic fields and disciplines in an effort to detect the reflections of his glory. Our learning as Christian disciples should be as broad as wisdom’s interests and should exhibit an incessant delight in discovery.

In the words of Davis:

Wisdom, Solomon shows us, is incurably and rightly curious – it ranges over the whole domain of God’s realm, joyfully investigating and describing all of God’s work. Since God has left the fingerprints of his wisdom everywhere … Christians should be seized with a rambunctious curiosity to ponder his works, both the majestic and the mundane.[8]

It is important to notice that the teaching Jesus has in mind, however, aims not just at being well-informed but at obedience to everything he has commanded. This is why our definition of a disciple includes the language of “a life-long obedient learner” with the aim that goes beyond being informed to being transformed and conformed to Jesus. In short, the aim of a disciple is Christlikeness. Alistair McGrath warns of “an unhelpful tendency to think of ‘growing in faith’ in terms of familiarization with theological theories rather than with a deepened love for, and commitment to, Jesus Christ. Discipleship is about following Jesus Christ, not simply locating him at the right place on a theological map.”[9]


The development of a disciple often happens informally in ordinary unplanned moments – in conversations among friends, interactions in the home, and various encounters throughout the day where God’s truth may be brought to bear upon our lives. This kind of informal discipleship is what we find reflected in Deuteronomy 6:6-7: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

But the development of a disciple is also something that should be intentionally planned with formal opportunities for facilitating development, growth, and maturity.

Alcuin Study Center exists to provide these formal opportunities as stated in our mission: to cultivate human flourishing, feed the moral imagination, and seek the common good through the robust Christian tradition of thoughtful discourse, integrated education, and cultural engagement. In other words, Alcuin Study Center seeks to support the church in disciple-making through our lectures, classes, book readings, creative collaborations, and seminars. To do this faithfully, it is important to clarify what the definition, the demands, and the development of a disciple entails.  But even more importantly, it’s critical to recognize that the Great Commission to make disciples begins with Jesus – “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” – and ends with Jesus – “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” In all our endeavors to be faithful in our discipleship – as individual, in the church, and at Alcuin Study Center – we submit to his authority and depend on his presence as our only hope. It’s all by him, to him, and for him. Amen.

[1] To make disciples is the only imperative (command) in the Great Commission in the original Greek.

[2] Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith (Carlisle PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2014), 343.

[3] This is the shorter of two definitions offered. The longer one was a disciple is a person in loving fellowship with God by grace through faith in Jesus following him by the power of the Holy Spirit in cross-bearing self-denial as a life-long, obedient learner with the aim of being informed, transformed, and conformed to our Savior.

[4] The term discipleship does not occur in Scripture.

[5] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXVIII. 1

[6] Alistair McGrath, Mere Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018), 60.

[7] Gary Millar, Need to Know (Epsom, Surrey, UK:The Good Book Company, 2020), 24.

[8] Dale Ralph Davis, First Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Fearn, Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2002), 49-50.

[9] McGrath, 108.

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