By Jonathan Dodson
A disciple isn’t a mere learner or student of Christ. A disciple is someone who follows, not just the theological trajectory of Christianity, but also the person and mission of Christ. All too often, definitions for discipleship are restricted to knowledge and learning. This is just one aspect of discipleship.
So what is a disciple? Here are a three descriptors:
A disciple is…
• rational (learner)
• relational (family)
• missional (missionary)
A disciple of Jesus learns the gospel, relates in the gospel, and communicates the gospel. Disciples of Jesus are gospel-centered, not knowledge-centered. In order to learn, relate, and communicate the gospel, a disciple is in desperate need of the empowering and ongoing filling of the Holy Spirit. Apart from the Spirit, disciples won’t be motivated by grace to learn, relate, and communicate the grace of our Lord Jesus but will only retain gospel information. Taking all of this into account, we can concisely describe a disciple as “a Spirit-filled follower of Jesus.”
In some sectors of the modern-day church, discipleship is moving away from a one-dimensional, knowledge-centered approach. In its place, the multiplying disciple has appeared.
In pragmatic church culture, the modern discipleship mantra is: Make disciples who make disciples. This mantra focuses on the practice of multiplying disciples. It marshals action and more action, provoking the question: “How can I not only make a disciple but also make one who makes another?”
While multiplying a disciple of Jesus is certainly a worthy goal, we must ask: “Is reproduction Jesus’ chief concern in making disciples?” Certainly, Jesus did model, instruct, and send disciples (Luke 9-10), though His criticism when they returned wasn’t that they didn’t multiply. In Luke 9, the narrative of the sending of the twelve ends oddly, not on their triumphant return, but on their faithfulness to the gospel:
“and they went through the villages preaching the gospel and healing everywhere” (9:6).
In Luke 10, however, the 72 sent disciples did return triumphantly. Oddly, Jesus didn’t ask if anyone repented. In fact, he warned them of rejoicing in the power of disciple-making and demon-slaying (seeing people delivered from the dominion of the evil one into the kingdom of God). He essentially said, “Don’t rejoice in your power to make disciples and topple demons, but rejoice that you’re God’s children. Rejoice in your identity, not in your activity.”
Jesus put the power of heart motivation over the power to make disciples who make disciples. He instructed them to proclaim the kingdom, not their methods. While the kingdom of God is embedded with reproductive DNA (reflected in some of Jesus’ agricultural parables), the kingdom of God is also slow and deep. It stretches across arduous lifespans, thousands of cultures, hundreds of centuries, right into the depths of the human heart.
Redemptive history is slow so that the gospel can “reach the nations.” Before we switch out the multiplying disciple for the knowing disciple, perhaps we, too, should slow down and consider where we are getting our power for making disciples.
Jonathan Dodson is the pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas, and the author of The Unbelievable Gospel and Gospel Centered Discipleship. Learn more about Jonathan at JonathanDodson.org.