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The word disciple in our New Testaments comes from a Greek word that means “learner” or “follower.” So, when we ask what Christian discipleship is, we are asking what it means to learn from and follow Jesus. Accordingly, I want to briefly outline some key features of Christian discipleship.

At the outset, we should recognize that the common rigid distinction between evangelism and discipleship will not stand up to biblical scrutiny. Both in our lives and in the Bible, there is seldom a neat chronology of evangelism followed by discipleship. Often, the lines between the two are blurred.

For example, we can (mis)read the Great Commission from Jesus in Matthew 28:18–20 as a summons simply to evangelize. But what did Jesus say? “Go therefore and make disciples.” The Lord did not send us just to issue a summons to believe and leave it at that. Certainly, we must preach the gospel. But the Great Commission calls us to make disciples, not just converts.

With that misunderstanding out of the way, we can begin to understand Christian discipleship. Let’s define it in simple terms: Christian discipleship means living life in union with Jesus, who is the life(John 14:6). Three essential characteristics stand out from this definition.

1. Christian discipleship is a way of life, not a one-time decision or a half-hearted commitment.

In a time where so-called “lifestyle brands” dominate our marketplaces, Jesus would have us understand the lifestyle brand of Christian discipleship. In a word, it is cross-bearing. Therefore, discipleship is not easy. When Jesus calls us to follow Him, He beckons us to lay down our old way of thinking, living, and believing. By God’s grace alone, we crucify our former life and obey the divine summons of cross-bearing: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

The “lifestyle” element in Jesus’ words is apparent. Dying to our old ways and following Jesus is a daily commitment—it is a way of life. Christian discipleship begins with Jesus calling us to follow Him. From there, we enjoy new life, coupled with daily death to everything that came before.

2. Christian discipleship means walking by faith.

That’s what it means to live in union with Jesus—to live by faith in the resurrected Son of God. Echoing the cross-bearing call of Jesus, Paul describes our union with Christ this way: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).

Faith is a divine gift (Eph. 2:8–10), therefore discipleship to Jesus begins and continues only by God’s grace, through faith. The disciple’s very lifeblood is faith: “Without faith it is impossible to please him” (Heb. 11:6).

3. Christian discipleship results in eternal life, both in the present and in the world to come.

Jesus’ gospel invitation to us is abundant life (John 10:10). The disciple experiences eternal life in the here and now (John 5:24), even as he awaits eternal life in the future (Matt. 19:29). The present enjoyment and future prospect of eternal life are made possible because we are united by faith to Him who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, emphasis added).

How does God help us in our discipleship?

An answer lies in terms drawn from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question and answer 88, which tells us about the “means of grace”: the Word of God, sacraments, and prayer. These are called means of grace because they are means God uses for an end—to conform us to the image of Jesus as we follow Him (Rom. 8:29).

Practically speaking, each of these means is vital to Christian discipleship. First, a disciple of Jesus will love the Word of God. He will love to read it, study it, and hear it preached. The Bible will be his highest authority and his whole life will be submitted to its teaching.

Second, a disciple of Jesus will partake of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Christ has given these to His church for her spiritual nourishment. Baptism marks our initiation as disciples, while the Lord’s Supper provides us heavenly sustenance on the way. The disciple places no confidence in the sacraments by themselves, but by faith, he receives God’s grace in Christ by the Spirit as he uses them properly in fellowship with other Christians.

Third, a disciple of Jesus will pray. As it was said of the newly converted Apostle Paul, so it will be said of all true disciples, “Behold, he is praying” (Acts 9:11). In prayer, the disciple enjoys intimate fellowship with his heavenly Father, through the mediation of the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Christian discipleship begins with God’s gracious choice and is sustained by the Trinity from start to finish. Therefore, the life of a disciple is thrilling. Could there be any better Master than Jesus? Could there be any greater gift than eternal life? Could we imagine any better provision than the means of grace God gives us? Christian discipleship is life as it was meant to be lived in a world ravaged by sin. So, as we follow Jesus, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23).

This article is part of the The Basics of Christian Discipleship collection.