Following Christ means making disciples. His words echo in the back of our minds, “Go therefore and make disciples . . . ” (Matthew 28:19). Not first and foremost “have daily devotions” or “give to the poor,” but make disciples. We don’t become a Christian by making disciples, but once we are in Christ, few things come closer to capturing the heart of our calling while we’re still here on earth.
The reality, though, is that we have always been involved in disciple-making, even from birth — just not always disciple-making for Jesus. You are a disciple. The question is: Who are you following? You have disciples. The question is: How are you influencing the people watching you?
Every one of us — young or old, American, African, or Asian, believer or unbeliever — is engaged in some form of discipleship. Every one of us follows someone, and every one of us carries significant influence over someone else. As Mark Dever writes in his book on disciple-making, “To be human is to be a disciple. God didn’t present Adam and Eve with a choice between discipleship and independence, but between following him and following Satan. We are all disciples; the only question is, of whom?” (44).
Christian disciple-making — or “discipling,” as Dever refers to it — wields the universal human patterns of influence, modeling, and formation for the fame of Jesus.
Not All Teachers, But All Teach
What is discipling? Dever says, “At its core, discipling is teaching.” He goes on, “Your discipling should help people understand more. . . . Through discipling, you want people to know why Christians pray, why we share the gospel, why we join the church, why knowledge of God’s sovereignty impacts how we live, and more” (83).
Discipling is a ministry of how, but it should be even more so a ministry of why. Discipling others absolutely involves modeling faith and godliness with our lives (Philippians 3:17), but effective discipling also imparts the reasons for believing in and living for Jesus (2 Timothy 2:2).
Anyone can imitate Christianity for a while without any real conviction, but that kind of “faith” won’t last, and won’t save. The younger men and women looking up to us need the truths we believe — the truths behind how we live — far more than they need a good example to follow. You can never teach anyone all the how’s, but when you teach them the why’s, you prepare them to exercise wisdom and generate their own how’s long into the future.
To be clear, it matters how our disciples live (Hebrews 12:14), and we should be training them to live rightly before God (Matthew 28:20), but it will not matter how they live if their lives are not shaped and motivated by the word of God and his gospel. All discipling should involve teaching — stopping to tell those over whom we have influence why we believe what we believe and why we live like we live. Discipling doesn’t just walk them around the car; it pops the hood and shows them the engine.
Five Things Love Does
In discipling, we model and teach toward a deeper love for and obedience to Christ. The engine of our discipling, though, runs on love. Without love, all our effort, intentionality, and strategies are as nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1–3). Attempting to disciple others apart from growing and overflowing love may look virtuous, even heroic, but it will eventually wear thin and run out. If we try to disciple without love, we may help others look like Christians, but we’ll lack what they need most: a new heart filled with real affection and devotion.
I’m not mainly thinking of our love for the various people in our lives. Dever warns, “Ultimately, our toil and labor cannot root in our love for them or their love for us. It must root in our love for Christ, his love for us, and his love for them” (33). We won’t find the well we need in discipling somewhere deep inside ourselves. We must draw from a deeper, fuller, living well of grace, truth, and love.
Are your discipling relationships — with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and so on — marked by real, genuine love? Dever offers five characteristics of true love in these relationships. I’ve added questions to help them serve as ways to test our own hearts in our efforts to disciple others.
1. “Love initiates a discipling relationship.”
- Am I willing to initiate intentional time together with this person?
- Beyond starting the relationship, will I bring up the hard conversation we need to have?
- Am I bold enough to consistently move our conversation to spiritual things?
2. “Love perseveres in a discipling relationship.”
- Am I ready to keep calling after months of seeing little fruit or progress?
- Will I give up if this person falls back into an old pattern of sin?
- How will I respond to the inconveniences in this relationship?
3. “Love humbly receives criticism that often comes in a discipling relationship.”
- How do I respond to criticism or opposition in general — with humility or pride?
- Specifically, what will I feel or say when this person pushes back on what I’m teaching them?
- What healthy ways am I encouraging give-and-take in this relationship?
4. “Love humbly gives of itself in a discipling relationship.”
- What sacrifices am I making to spend time discipling this person?
- Do I tend to feel bitter or prideful about the sacrifices I make for others?
- Jesus says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Can I say the same?
5. “Love allows us to end discipling relationships.”
Dever helpfully unpacks this last statement about love, “We need a love that humbles us enough to recognize that what they need is not us, but God, and that God can use us for a while, and then use someone else” (91).
- Do I think of myself as savior or as one instrument among many in the Savior’s hands?
- How do I think about my role in this particular person’s life — as essential and irreplaceable, or as complementary and temporary?
- Am I willing to help move this person on to other disciplers when their needs or circumstances suggest it’s time? To that end, it may be wise to establish a clear time frame up front (e.g. a month, a year, two years), so that neither person assumes the disciplining relationship is indefinite.
What Will We Leave Behind?
You will follow, and you will lead and teach. What will be the legacy of your life and example among the people in your life who outlive you? Again, Dever writes, “The people around you will influence you, for better or worse. And for better or worse you in turn will affect the people around you. . . . None of us is an island.”
A sea of seven billion people, and no islands. We may feel like we live on an island most days, like our decisions mainly affect us and only us. But the reality is that others will notice what we do and how we do it, what we say and how say it. What they notice will either inspire them to follow Jesus, or comfort their animosity or disinterest. We disciple in everything we do, so we should be intentional in everything we do to model joy in Jesus — and as often as we can, to teach them how to find that joy for themselves.
Dever asks, “When you step out of the hallway of this life into the room of eternity, what will you have left behind in the lives of others?” (26). Will we leave behind a bright, but fading image of ourselves — our gifts, our interests, our successes — or a bold and lasting image of Christ leading to eternal life?
(This blog originally appeared on Desiring God)