The Sea of Galilee will always be my favorite place on the earth. Almost every year for decades, I have been there reading the Sermon on the Mount and imagining what it would be like to live in one of the villages along the northwestern shores of the lake where Jesus came to teach and heal. His simple call to the Twelve–“Follow me”—changed the world and continues to be heard from disciples all over the world.
Discipleship in the Gospels and Paul
Of the 260 references to “disciple” in the NT, 88% of them are in the Gospels. Jesus prepared disciples for persecution and commissioned them to go and make disciples. Jesus taught them and showed them how humble service defines the core of discipleship (Mark 8:27-10:45).
Luke records one of the most extreme statements of Jesus on discipleship to modern ears: “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (14:33). Some disciples called his words “hard sayings” and difficult to hear. Possibly the most memorable parable in the Gospels could be the one Luke records about the “good Samaritan” as a call for his disciples to learn to show mercy toward anyone (10:25-37). As Luke tells the rest of the story in Acts, one cannot miss the role of the Holy Spirit in making disciples.
The Gospel of John differentiates between disciples and non-disciples. The call to discipleship was not easy, so some disciples quit following Jesus (6:60, 66). For John, disciples of Christ stay faithful to the words of Jesus (8:32-26), they love one another (13:34-35), and they produce fruit (15:8).
Paul taught discipleship—but he never used the term. He preferred to call followers of Christ to imitate Christ (1 Cor. 11:1; 4:16) and to be transformed into his image (2 Cor. 3:18). The goal of discipleship would be realized in the joy of honoring God (Romans 5:2).
Discipleship and the Church
In my junior year in college I began preaching every Sunday. As a returned missionary kid from the Middle East, I experienced some reverse culture shock. One shock was the discovery that people had said “yes” to church and were very loyal to its traditions, but their “yes” to be a disciple of Christ appeared weak. The opposite might be more common today. The deeper we go into being a “heritage” church, where very few members are first generation Christians, the more attention we need to give to discipleship. It cannot be assumed.
Church leaders and Christian educators can easily assume discipleship and “move on” to deeper aspects of spiritual formation. I’ve been blessed with more than a decade of Christian education as a student but remember very little training in discipleship or disciple making. As a professor for more than 30 years I have also assumed that all the study of the Bible and related topics would make us better disciples. We need to be more intentional.
Every culture in the world provides a language and values system through which the Gospel of Christ can be communicated, in which one can become a disciple, and where the church can thrive. It will always cost something. In the East and global South, folk religion and the grip of collectivistic societies challenge the values of discipleship. The consumerism, modernity, and secularism of the West challenge the sacrifice and obedience necessary for true discipleship. A deceptive view of sin undermines the power of grace and will not make healthy disciples. In The Cost of Discipleship (1963), Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasized the vital relationship between grace and discipleship.
Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which one must knock . . . (1963:46).
Discipleship at HST
The faculty at HST has selected “discipleship” as the theme for this academic year. As followers, learners, and adherents of Jesus Christ we, as his disciples, follow Christ as our Master, teacher, and Lord.
Discipleship involves “making disciples” (justification, evangelism, witness) and becoming better disciples (imitating Christ, transformation, sanctification, maturation, spiritual formation). Topics for chapel, class lectures, term papers, special projects for ministry, and personal reflections could include: the Missio Dei, salvation, the Gospel, calling, witnessing, spiritual formation, church planting, disciple making movements, evangelism, baptism, Christ and culture, incarnational witness, initiation into the kingdom of God, preaching Christ, following Christ, spiritual conversations, Christian ethics, spiritual gifts, providence of God, public faith, obedience, ministry of reconciliation, empowerment, and spiritual authority.
Evertt W. Huffard, PhD
Professor of Leadership and Missions