A definition of discipleship

OVERVIEW. Over the past several months, I have been gathering ideas and writing about the broad topic of discipleship for the purpose of organizing these thoughts and ideas into a book on the subject. This post is my attempt at a comprehensive definition of discipleship to be used in that book. In this post, the definition is stated and then explained word by word. In all this work on discipleship, the key verse is Philippians 2:12, where Paul commands us, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. – Philippians 2:12

The purpose of this article is to state and explain the definition of discipleship I will be using in all my writing and my work on the subject of discipleship. My definition is based on Paul’s words in Philippians 2:12, where the apostle commands every disciple of Jesus to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” This “working out” is the task of discipleship, but what does this mean to the 21st century disciple? Answering that question begins with defining what we mean when we use the word “discipleship.”

Another comment is probably in order here. The definition that I am proposing for discipleship is demanding, but I think this is the challenging task to which we are called as followers of the Lord Jesus. It is the most glorious calling imaginable for any mortal, to be called to live in fellowship with the living God and to display His glory through this jar of clay. Therefore, the lifelong task of “working out my salvation” such that my life conforms more and more to the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to me through faith should be likewise demanding.


Discipleship is the lifelong process of conscious, intentional, purposeful actions taken by the disciple aimed at progressively conforming the disciple into the likeness of Jesus Christ in thought, word, and deed in all areas of the disciple’s life.

Lifelong – The process of discipleship is begun as soon after justification (conversion) as possible and then continues until the disciple’s last breath. This process lasts the rest of life because there is always more to learn and more “conforming” that needs to take place to move the fallen and redeemed man into the image of Christ. Thus, in discipleship there is no retirement, because the phase that follows discipleship is to be without sin, either in heaven with Christ as disembodied souls awaiting the resurrection or in eternity as glorified saints.

Process – While justification is an event that occurs at a point in time, discipleship is process of many incremental steps over a long period of time.

Conscious – The actions the disciple takes aimed at his own growth in Christlikeness are taken consciously. The disciple is aware that he is taking these actions and is aware why he is taking these actions. The actions are thus clearly volitional.

Intentional – The actions the disciple takes are selected based on the fact that these actions bring about the desired result. The actions are selected based on wisdom and are executed after planning.

Purposeful – In the ideal, each action is taken to achieve a specific purpose or objective. There is a target in mind, a reason for the action. The goal is not to merely generate activity but is to move one step closer to the perfection of Jesus Christ in some area of discipleship. Paul did not box as a man beating the air (1 Cor. 9:26). Metaphorically, Paul boxed in order to knock out his opponent. Therefore, he “exercised self-control in all things” (9:25).He “bruised his body to make it his slave” (9:27). These are discipleship words which speak of vigorous effort aimed toward a conscious purpose.

Actions (or activities) – The result of a discipleship plan is visible, intentional action. The disciple sees areas in his walk with Christ that need to grow and then moves confidently into those areas to work out that growth. Like the salmon that will jump up the waterfall until it gains the higher stream, so the disciple continues to act until he gains the desired spiritual growth. The disciple manifests his desire for spiritual growth by intentional actions.

Aimed at (see “Purposeful”)

Progressively conforming – The aim of each conscious, intentional action is to produce change in the disciple such that the flesh is weakened and opposed and that holiness and obedience to Christ are strengthened and are more evident in the disciple’s life.

In thought, word, and deed – Our thoughts are open before God (Hebrews 4:13) and will be manifested in our words (“out of the heart, the mouth speaks”) and evidenced in our deeds. “The LORD desires truth in the innermost part” (Psalm 51:6) and His disciple “hungers and thirsts for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6), so the goal of discipleship is for the disciple always to be growing in Christlikeness in all areas of life.

SDG                 rmb                 11/9/2022                   #585

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