One of the last things Jesus said before His ascension was “…go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) so it makes sense we define what one is. To me it’s a person who does their daily best to pattern every aspect of their life after Christ. It’s a man or woman who finds no cause to hide their allegiance to the King of kings because it denotes who they are; who possess an unshakable surety of what their purpose for being on earth is; who won’t let anything or anybody steal the inner joy that springs from knowing their Savior has gone to “…make a place…” for them (John 14:2) in the Heavenly Father’s magnificent mansions; who trust fully that their final exhale in this fallen realm will be followed immediately by their first inhale of paradise air. I could go on but you get the point. A Christ disciple is one who can’t even fathom apprenticing under anyone other than Jesus and considers the designation of “Jesus Freak” a high honor. I reckon that makes me one, too.
I must mention there are some denominations that cast doubt on one’s ability to know if they’re even saved. That’s because in the New Testament one can find multiple allusions to “the elect” and those “chosen” by God before time began. If the subject intrigues you there are hundreds of scholarly books available that delve deeply into predestination and you’ll discover many contradicting opinions about it. (Norman Geisler’s Chosen but Free is a fine one for starters.) As for me I’m content to rely on what Paul and Silas told their trembling jailer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Jesus didn’t endure the agony of the cross to make salvation more complicated. But I don’t want to digress. The aim of this essay is to define what identifies one as a disciple. I think most will agree you can be a Christian without being a disciple. In other words, if somebody asked me the name of one writer I’d love to be as proficient as I wouldn’t hesitate to answer. It doesn’t mean I strive in every area of my life to imitate everything about them. There’s a lotta folks in this world who truly believe in the Lord Jesus but they’d be the first to tell you they’re not disciples. They’re definitely saved but far from committed. This isn’t to imply that those of us who want with all their heart to be dedicated apprentices of Christ are superior in any way, shape or form to anyone else. Perfection is a goal, not an attainable human condition. Paul made it clear: “For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
To be a disciple of someone is to aspire to be as good at something as they are. So what was Jesus “good at”? Dallas Willard wrote, “The answer is found in the Gospels: He lives in the kingdom of God, and He applies that kingdom for the good of others and even makes it possible for them to enter it for themselves.” As the apostle Peter explained it to the Roman centurion Cornelius: “…With respect to Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10:38). Who among us wouldn’t want to be known as someone who went around “doing good”? I certainly wouldn’t protest having that carved on my tombstone. So as a follower of Christ I consciously attempt to learn every day how to better live in the kingdom of God as He did. That means whatever task I undertake during my waking hours I’ll endeavor to do it to the best of my ability like Jesus did.
However, being a Christ disciple is far different from learning a profession, trade or craft. It involves a complete transformation of one’s mind and heart and it takes more than a lifetime to complete. It’s a matter of becoming what God intended me to be, not what I set out to be when I entered adulthood long ago. And discipleship has very little to do with “getting religious.” Hey, the Pharisees and Sadducees who coerced Pilate into sentencing our Lord to a gruesome execution were as religious as they come. For that matter, radical Islamic jihadists are extremely religious. They make sure they pray to Allah five times a day and then plot to murder all the infidels they can. What this confused planet so desperately needs is more Jesus, not more religion. And, as followers of Christ, it’s never been about what we do as much as how we do it. Look, our Heavenly Father wants us to be the unique individuals He created. Thus He’s not interested in us turning ourselves into some kind of “cookie cutter Christian” indistinguishable from any other believer. Not at all. God gave each of us particular talents, aptitudes and personality traits that make us who we are. We therefore have a specific function in His master plan that no one else can fulfill as well and there’s a quite a bit of dignity to be found in that fact. You’re not a fluke of nature. You’re not a mistake. Your life is yours to live. But only by following the leadings of the Son of God can any of us unleash our true potential.
The great thing is this: the teachings of Jesus that instruct us on how to live the life God wants us to live/experience have been faithfully preserved throughout the centuries. We have what we need. Now it’s up to us to do what He told us to do. Think of how different modern civilization would be if more folks adhered to what Christ laid out in His Sermon on the Mount alone! It ain’t rocket science, either. Jesus spoke about sinful things we either do ourselves, encounter or hear about every day – injustice and hatred, anger and contempt, lusting and coveting, rejection and mistreatment by others, etc. He didn’t preach about lofty philosophical concepts only intellectuals could grasp, He talked about stuff we can all relate to, especially those who opt to be numbered among His disciples. A Christ disciple sees beyond devoting most of their energy towards not doing or contemplating sinful things and more towards staying focused primarily on performing unselfish acts that benefit the most people as well as magnifying God’s glory. They take to heart what their Savior commanded them to do to others as if it was He Himself they were ministering to. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36).
One thing about being a disciple of Jesus is that you don’t have to necessarily go somewhere other than where you are or do something other than what you’re doing to be of valuable use to Christ. Chances are you already have a job or a career so it’s probable you’re right where God wants you to be. You don’t need a theology degree to make a difference. That’s encouraging news for simple folks like me because, “…God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). Consider it this way: you’ll likely spend at least a third (if not more) of your workweek days earning a paycheck. True, you may not stand in a pulpit or be a church elder or a monk chanting in a monastery but you are in a position to be perhaps the only Bible your coworkers and/or associates will ever read. Your “calling” may have little if anything to do with “religious activities” and a lot to do with reflecting God’s light onto others who don’t know how marvelous and gracious He is. You can be an influential Christ disciple in an office cubicle just as effectively as you can teaching a Sunday school class. Bear in mind many folks will still consider you an oddball fanatic because they won’t understand how a person can be indwelt and led by God the Holy Spirit. That’s okay. There are worse things to be labeled.
Turning our place of employment into a platform from which we can demonstrate Christian brotherly and sisterly love will take some effort and tact, to be sure. Nobody will become intrigued to know more about Jesus if we start being the resident holier-than-thou goody two shoes, the un-appointed rule-maker of what’s to be deemed “politically correct” behavior and the final determiner of moral ethics for the whole crew. If Jesus had given off any hint of that unpleasant vibe no one would’ve given Him a second thought, much less a moment of their time. There’s not a trace of uppity self-righteousness in any of His teachings. Willard opined, “A gentle but firm noncooperation with things that everyone knows to be wrong, together with a sensitive, non-officious, nonintrusive, non-obsequious service to others, should be our usual overt manner.” That’s excellent practical advice right there.
To be or not to be a disciple. That’s a choice every Christian makes. Does one have to be a disciple to enter the Pearly Gates? I don’t think so. As the aforementioned verse in Acts 16 confirms, belief in Jesus is the sole requirement in order to be saved. However, our Lord taught that there are rewards in heaven for the good we accomplish down here and Paul clarified it. He wrote, “If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:14-15). Now there are a slew of Bible experts out there who know a lot more than I do regarding what Paul was getting at but I’ll tell you what I think, anyway. If at some point in your life you accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior you automatically became an accepted member of His “herd”. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand. The Father and I are one” (John 10:27-30). It’s true that no one gains salvation through their works. Nobody earns heaven. We’re saved by grace. Period. Therefore there’ll be some in heaven who got there not because they were devoted disciples but simply because they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior while alive on earth. But, as Paul said, they’ll be akin to someone who narrowly escaped a burning building. Personally, I don’t want to be one who gains access to paradise on a technicality.
Can someone lose their salvation? That’s another controversial subject but I have to believe that if a saved person deliberately goes out of their way to sin on a regular basis, never repents and never gives God the time of day they’re severely testing our Creator’s tolerance and that has to be dangerous. Furthermore, if a man or woman publicly disavows/denounces their faith in Jesus and calls their conversion a sham, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be standing in their shoes come Judgment Day. Nobody pulls a fast one on God. He knows if we’re being sincere when we surrender our hearts to Christ or if we’re only taking out fire insurance. It’s doubtful the thief on the cross next to our Savior ever performed a charitable deed in his whole wretched life. Yet when he recognized Jesus as the Messiah he asked Him for mercy. Christ responded with, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Obviously the thief wasn’t a disciple, only a last minute believer, but he got saved nonetheless. Some, including a couple of my close relatives, think his was a “special case” and that all the “rules of justification” changed after the Resurrection but I have yet to find that expressed in the Scriptures. To be sure, many things did change when Jesus walked out of His tomb but not Him. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever!” (Hebrews 13:8). Thus a heartfelt deathbed surrender to Christ’s care and forgiveness of all sins most certainly does count.
It’s hard for me to imagine someone becoming absolved of all penalties for their iniquitous trespasses and not wanting to demonstrate to their gracious Redeemer gratitude by doing all they can to do what He commanded. But that’s exactly what I did for decades. Yes, I was a selfish ingrate. While I know there’ll be no tears in heaven I suspect I’ll have at least a few regrets about how unthankful I was for my salvation for so long. Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 illustrates that those who wisely invest their God-given gifts to further His kingdom will be rewarded with many more gifts while those who took their gift for granted (like me) will have divine repercussions to deal with. Needless to say, my overriding ambition nowadays is to make up for all the time I wasted pursuing my own plans instead of God’s. Note that in the 6th chapter of Matthew, right in the middle of His famous sermon, Jesus teaches about giving, praying and fasting being evidences of one’s faithfulness to God and He ends each segment with these same words, “And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”
Therefore it seems there’s an advantage to being the best Christ disciple we can be. Not only do we receive blessings in the here and now due to imitating the impeccable, perfect life Jesus lived for 33 years in Israel but we’ll be very glad we did in the next phase of our immortal soul’s existence. However, we should never make heavenly rewards the sole reason for living like Christ. Brennan Manning wrote, “Christianity consists primarily not in what we do for God but in what God does for us – the great, wondrous things that God dreamed up and achieved for us in Christ Jesus. When God comes streaming into our lives in the power of His Word, all He asks is that we be stunned and surprised, let our mouths hang open, and begin to breathe deeply.”