The need for a demanding definition of discipleship

POST OVERVIEW. This post points out the problems with a broad and shallow definition of discipleship and simultaneously argues for a demanding definition in which conscious, intentional effort produces growth in Christlikeness.

If the disciple is to progress in holiness, usefulness, and obedience in his walk with Christ, then his course of discipleship must be rigorous enough to produce these desired results. And the beginning of any course of discipleship is a clear understanding that discipleship is the means to bring about a desired end.

In Philippians 2:12, the apostle Paul commands believers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” This is an excellent theme verse for your discipleship. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” When? All the time. Where? Wherever you are. For how long? Till Christ returns or calls you home. To what end? To the end that you will be conformed to the holiness and usefulness and obedience of Christ. What falls under this idea of working out my salvation? As a disciple of Jesus, everything in your life is part of your discipleship. “Disciple” is your identity and discipleship is your activity. The disciple is consciously and intentionally and purposefully engaged in discipleship to the greatest of all ends, to be pleasing to Master, to be useful to the Master, to be holy like the Master, and to be obedient like the Master. I contend that a demanding definition of discipleship is necessary if we, as fallen and weak human beings, are going to use our limited days and our feeble energies to make serious progress in our journey toward Christlikeness.


I have gone to some length already to set the bar high in terms of defining discipleship because my observation is that a vigorous definition of discipleship is hard to come by in American churches. My sense is that most American churches do not even have a concept of discipleship. The idea that all professing believers are expected to grow in Scriptural knowledge, in obedience to Scripture, in holiness, in usefulness to the church, and in their witness for Christ in the world is a foreign concept in most American churches. This is lamentable, but it is not about these churches that I am concerned right now.

There are other churches which do have a concept of discipleship, and which do desire to be engaged in it, but their definition of what constitutes “discipleship” is so weak that it will fail to produce any meaningful results in sanctification. An anemic definition will produce anemic results. One example I heard of recently had a course in the church that was named “Discipleship” but which was, in reality, simply a year-long Bible survey. While this might qualify as a basic component of a vigorous course in discipleship, to equate this Bible overview with discipleship falls well short of the mark. This situation is not good, and it is difficult to see how this attitude toward “discipleship” is going to produce any meaningful or lasting fruit. But I am not targeting this group of churches now, either.

Finally, there is a third group of churches that not only has a concept of discipleship, but their church leadership also intentionally seeks to lead the church into a culture of discipleship. But there is a common flaw even among these well-meaning, intentional churches, and it again comes down to the definition of discipleship. In a church that I have attended recently, the definition of discipleship was “doing spiritual good to another believer.” While this is not technically wrong, such a broad and benign definition brings with it the very real possibility that the disciples in your flock think they are engaged in discipleship when, in fact, they may be doing nothing more than fellowship. If the aim of discipleship is not clearly stated as persistently growing in Christlikeness in all aspects of the disciple’s life, then broad and shallow tactics and strategies will suffice, but you will find that the lives of the disciples in your flock will be little different from the world.

The following are some further comments on this theme:

  • Discipleship involves the EFFORT of the disciple himself. That is, each disciple’s spiritual growth in Christlikeness is his own responsibility. In Phil. 2:12, the apostle Paul commands every disciple to work out HIS OWN SALVATION with fear and trembling. So, discipleship is not a committee activity. Rather, I am personally responsible for working out my own salvation. Other disciples can certainly help me, but it is my responsibility before the Lord to grow in holiness, obedience, and usefulness. I can and should solicit the help of other disciples to help me with skills and knowledge, but the working out is up to me. In college, you could get assistance from professors or tutors or other classmates, but your grade in the class was your responsibility. It is the same principle with discipleship.
  • Discipleship is purposeful, meaning that the disciple pursues a particular course of action for the purpose of growing in a particular area of our walk with Christ. Examples might be attending an Equipping Class at your church on Evangelism to be a more effective witness for Jesus or memorizing a chapter of the Bible to hide the Word in your heart and to have that Scripture available for meditation at any time.
  • Discipleship implies there is a target or a reason for an action. Usually growing disciples will plan their discipleship activities and then be sure to execute those plans so that progress is sustained. Planning your goal-centered activities puts the theoretical on your calendar, but only execution of those plans allows you to reap the benefits of your planning. So, growth in Christlikeness occurs only where there is intentional effort in specific activities aimed at the desired end of spiritual growth.

Of course, this does not mean that there is no benefit or spiritual growth to be had in routine activities. It is certainly true that much is learned, and much growth can be obtained from small steps over a long period of time. The point I am emphasizing here is that true discipleship does not occur randomly or accidentally. A disciple does not accidentally memorize the book of Ephesians or randomly come to understand the doctrine of election.

  • Imagine that you desire to run a marathon and so you begin your training. If you are planning to run 26.2 miles, then you need a training plan strict enough and demanding enough to allow you to accomplish your desired goal. In that training plan, you do not consider walking from the parking lot into the grocery store to be a training activity. Why not? Well, there are several reasons why not, but one of the reasons would be that walking the short distance into the grocery store is not an activity done in order to run a marathon. It is not done with the marathon in mind and for the conscious purpose of completing the 26.2-mile marathon. A legitimate training activity is done with the goal of the training in mind. And so it is with discipleship. A disciple engages in discipleship activities because these, if executed diligently, will help me grow in Christlikeness. These activities will bring about spiritual growth in me and will enable me to accomplish my goal of being holy and useful and obedient.
  • A person who says they want to be a concert pianist, but whose only musical activity is thirty minutes a day on the guitar will not achieve their aim, no matter how convinced they are that their musical regimen is creating a pianist. And why not? It is because their regimen is too weak. Just so, if you desire to be useful to the Master, an effective ambassador for Christ, an example to other disciples, a person who passes on spiritual strength and encouragement to the succeeding generations, and holy as the Lord is holy, then you need a discipleship regimen that is capable of those desired results.
  • Discipleship requires the disciple to expend conscious effort. Paul commands each disciple to “WORK OUT your salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). “Working out” anything requires effort. If you would “work out” your physical fitness with fear and trembling, you will be required to sweat and groan and endure some level of pain over a relatively long period of time. Your amount of progress is directly related to the degree of EFFORT. Just so discipleship requires conscious effort over a long period of time.

So, again, the main point I am trying to make here is that, if discipleship is going to be the grand adventure it is intended to be, the disciple must envision a grand end and must strive to reach that grand end via intentional, conscious, purposeful efforts. To be meaningful, your discipleship must be capable of bringing you to your desired destination.

SDG                 rmb                 11/20/2022                 #589

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