The term discipleship has made its rounds within churches for decades. Its use has encompassed everything from church programs or classes to one-one-one relationships between a mature believer and one who is new to the faith. It has involved Bible studies, hanging out over coffee, working together in ministry, and lengthy discussions over biblical ethics and morality.
That specific term, however, is not found in the Scriptures. It comes from a biblical phrase that’s the central command of the Great Commission: make disciples. If it’s principal to Christ’s commands, we need to understand fully and rightly what it means to make disciples. In this article, Zane Pratt fleshes out a biblical framework for disciple making.
As we look in the Bible at the teaching and examples of Jesus and his apostles, we discover that disciple making is the Christ-commanded, Spirit-empowered duty of every disciple of Jesus. We have the mandate to evangelize unbelievers, baptize believers, teach them the Word of Christ, train them to obey Christ as members of his church, and make disciples of all nations. Every element in this description is worth unpacking.
All Believers Make Disciples
First of all, the command to make disciples extends to every believer. This isn’t t reserved for a small spiritual elite. Everyone in the body of Christ is necessary for any disciple to grow to maturity in Christ. Not everyone will play the same role in the disciple-making process, but everyone in the body of Christ is irreplaceable. A local church is intended to be a group of disciples who make disciples, with no one excluded from the task. (1 Cor. 12:12–26; Eph. 4:11–16)
In the Power of the Spirit
The power to make disciples comes from the Holy Spirit. He is the one who takes people who are dead in their sin and makes them alive in Christ. He is the one who transforms believers into the image of Christ. He is the one who puts sin to death and clothes believers in the character of Christ, as perfectly described in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). He is the one who opens the minds of believers to the meaning of the Bible, and He’s the one who empowers ministry. No one should shy away from this task because they sense their own inadequacy. By ourselves, all of us are inadequate, but the Holy Spirit is more than sufficient for the task. (John 3:3–8, 14:16–18, 25–26, 15:26–27, 16:4–15; Rom. 8:1–17, 26–27; 1 Cor. 2:9–16, 12:1–31; 2 Cor. 3:17–18, 5:1–5; Gal. 5:16–26; Eph. 1:11–14; 2 Tim. 1:14; Titus 3:4–7; 1 John 3:24, 4:13)
Disciple Making Includes Evangelism
Disciple making includes sharing the gospel with the lost, then baptizing those who respond in repentance and faith as the public testimony of what has happened to them in salvation. Evangelism and disciple-making are not separate, disconnected activities. A church that simply helps existing believers become better Christians without also sharing the gospel with unbelievers is not a disciple making church. The beginning of the discipleship process is rebirth, and no one can be born again apart from hearing the gospel. Evangelism and baptism are the essential starting point of making disciples.(Matt. 28:16–20; John 3:1–18; Acts 2:37–47, 4:1–4, 12, 31, 5:14, 42, 6:7, 8:1–8, 9:1–19, 10:34–48, 11:19–24, 16:25–34; Rom. 6:1–4; 2 Cor. 5:11–21; Phil. 1:12–18; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Tim. 4:5)
Disciple Making Includes Teaching
Disciple making includes teaching believers to understand the content of the Bible. The task of making disciples involves more than teaching Bible knowledge, but it never involves less. The Bible is the incredible gift God has given to reshape the way we think, the things we love, and the way we live. It’s the only testimony that enables us to know God, and knowing God and Jesus Christ whom he sent is eternal life. Making disciples includes both teaching believers to know the Bible thoroughly and teaching them the disciplines of hearing, reading, studying, memorizing, and meditating on the Word of God. (Deut. 6:1–9, 32:44–47; Josh. 1:8; Ps. 19:7–4, 119:; Isa. 66:1; Matt. 4:4, 28:18–20; Acts 20:32; 1 Tim. 4:6–16; 2 Tim. 2:14–15, 3:14–17, 4:1–5; 2 Pet. 1:19–21)
Biblical disciple making includes training believers to obey all that the Bible teaches.
Along with teaching believers the content of the Bible, biblical disciple making also includes training those believers to obey all that the Bible teaches. Saving faith obeys the Word of God out of trust that everything God says in his word is true and good. Discipleship makes a holistic difference, and that difference is defined by what Scripture teaches and commands. The behavior, morality, ethics, relationships, stewardship of resources, and every other area of a disciple’s life are to be reshaped in obedience to God’s Word. We’re still sinners, and though no one attains perfect obedience in this life, the process of making disciples must include training to obey Scripture. (Matt. 7:21–27, 28:18–20; John 14:15, 21–24, 15:10–17; Acts 6:7; Rom. 6:1–23; Phil. 2:12–13; James 2:14–26; 1 John 1:8–10, 2:4–6, 3:24, 5:1–5)
Disciple Making Captures Affections
Disciple making also reshapes a believer’s relationships and affections. Disciples love God supremely, love other believers as Christ has loved us, love their neighbors as themselves, and even love their enemies. They also grow to love everything that God loves and to hate the evil that God hates. Therefore, the process of disciple making must take effect in every relationship of a disciple, and it must remake the disciple’s delights and desires. (Matt. 5:43–48, 6:19–34, 7:12, 10:37–39, 13:44–45, 22:36–40; John 15:12–17; Rom. 12:9–21; 1 Cor. 13:1–13, Gal. 5:13–15; Eph. 5:22–6:9; Phil. 3:7–17, 4:8; Col. 3:1–4:1; 1 John 2:15–17, 3:11–24, 4:7–21)
Disciple Making Takes Place in Local Churches
Disciple making happens biblically in the context of a local church. One-on-one discipleship is useful, but it’s not sufficient. We all need each other in the body of Christ. We only grow to maturity in Christ as each member of the body does his or her part. Therefore, in order for a believer to grow as a disciple, that believer must be fully engaged and committed to a local church. In pioneer missionary settings where there are no churches, it’s necessary to plant new churches in order to obey the Great Commission command to make disciples. (Matt. 28:18–20; 1 Cor. 12:1–31; Eph. 4:1–16)
Disciples Make Disciples
Disciple making should result in disciples who make disciples who make disciples, in an ongoing process of reproduction. The Great Commission, which commands God’s people to make disciples, also commands those disciple-makers to teach the new believers to obey everything Jesus commanded. This includes the Great Commission itself, which commands making new disciples. Therefore, the process of disciple making should never end until Jesus comes back. Every disciple of Jesus should participate in making new disciples of Jesus.
All of this means that disciple making is far more than a church program or a study course. It is a lifelong process of growth toward conformity to the image of Christ and active work in the service of Christ. It happens in the rough and tumble of the life of a local church, as redeemed sinners spur one another on toward love and good deeds. It keeps going until Jesus comes back or the disciple goes to be with him through the valley of death. The biblical picture of what it means to be a Christian is a disciple who makes disciples in the fellowship of the church.
Zane Pratt is vice president of training at IMB.
For more information on conversation on making disciples, explore the Disciple Making channel on our site.