I became a Christian at the age of eight, at Round Pond Presbyterian Church in Franklin, KY, where my uncle was the pastor. While witnessing communion during a Sunday service I began to understand the gospel in a new way: that I was a sinner and that Christ had rescued me. I was baptized two weeks later in Sulphur Fork Creek on the county line. In the years that followed, my life as a disciple was characterized by varying degrees of knowing and doing. In my youth I was passionate about what I knew of Scripture and what I was learning. I would gather my friends together in the school cafeteria to read and discuss the Bible. God used my seemingly insatiable desire to learn the Bible. Years later my walk of faith was characterized by action as I was seeking to do the things I was learning from Scripture. I was passionate about evangelism and overseas missions, tirelessly pursuing active ministry and calling others to follow.
Throughout the years I pursued discipleship through various means: different books, methods, churches, para-church ministries, and mentoring relationships. These experiences were life-changing for me yet I was still seeking the best way to be both a disciple and a disciple maker, trying to balance the knowing and doing of the Bible. I discovered that discipleship was not only knowing and doing, but also being and becoming. This process of transformation involves Scripture and others in Christian community. My love for Scripture grew. This eventually led me to seminary at which time the vision for a new church in my hometown began to take shape.
My experiences have led me to the conviction that discipleship is a life-long pursuit and an ongoing process of transformation by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who worked in and through Scripture is also at work in and through God’s people. I am increasingly convinced that discipleship methods based on biblical ideas and principles alone, though good and helpful, can remain short-sighted of the gospel.
Theology in Practice
Theology must be practiced. The doctrine of Scripture is of utmost importance for Christian discipleship. Scripture is God’s written record of the gospel story in which we find our own story. The Holy Spirit uses Scripture as a means of grace – the Spirit and Word go together.1 Scripture must play a prominent role in discipleship as the Holy Spirit works through the Word to grow us into the image of Christ personally, as well as grow us in community – faithful to the Great Commission. Christian discipleship, therefore, must be saturated in Scripture.
A disciple’s greatest need is to be constantly reminded of the gospel, as well as his or her new identity, community, and mission. The Bible explicitly reminds us of all this. Therefore, no matter our stage of faith or role in discipleship, we ought to evaluate our view and use of Scripture personally and in our community of faith. My prayer is that we have biblical expectations in discipleship. My hope is not only that you fall more in love with God’s Word, but that you fall even more in love with the God whose Word it is.
Throughout high school and college I played in various bands. A friend and fellow musician discovered the band Phish and quickly labeled himself a “phish head.” He wore tie dyed clothing branded by the band, made mix tapes to give his friends, and toured with the band. Phish greatly influenced my friend’s musical style in songwriting and performance. Phish was an identity he owned while connecting with a community of other fans on mission to spread the music. This is a great portrait of discipleship.
A disciple is a student who becomes more like his teacher. As a follower, a disciple takes on the characteristics of the one he follows. The characteristics bring about transformation and prompt action. By nature a disciple reproduces his discipleship, calling others to study and follow the one he follows. Discipleship is an identity that shapes community and fuels a mission.
For Christians, our identity, community, and mission are defined by the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is good news that evokes faith – ongoing relational trust in the person and work of Christ. The gospel, therefore, is good news that we learn. This good news shapes not only our beliefs, but also our motivations, actions, and relationships. We learn the gospel, relate in light of the gospel, and communicate the gospel on mission together.2 Gospel learning takes place primarily through Scripture. Gospel relating is done in the context of community. Gospel communication, by proclamation and demonstration, is the nature of mission by which others learn the gospel and become disciples. Christian disciples, therefore, are both relational learners and relational teachers.
In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus announces, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”3 In the Great Commission, the disciples see their identity as disciples in the context of a community on mission with the good news to make disciples. Sent by Christ himself, the disciples represent the redemptive authority of Christ. Jesus does not provide an explicit methodology, but informs the mission to “make disciples” which includes “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” To this we must ask three questions: What has Christ commanded? How are we to teach? What are disciples to observe?
Information, Application, Transformation
The gospel commission to make disciples involves information, application, and transformation. “Teaching” is the information of the gospel. Jesus states that all Scripture bears witness about him (John 5:39) and that Scripture written about him in the law of Moses, Psalms, and Prophets would be fulfilled in him (Luke 24:44). Since all Scripture is about Christ, this is what we are to teach. This is the information of the gospel.
Secondly, we see the application of the gospel in “to observe all that I have commanded you.” Teaching is not a one-time passing of information, but the ongoing action of kneading the gospel into the hearts and minds of disciples through observing what has been taught. When questioned by the religious elite of the day, Jesus replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” In quoting Scripture from Deuteronomy 6, Jesus displays his authority over the Old Testament as well as the continuity of God’s redemptive plan in gospel discipleship.
Thirdly, we see transformation in Christian discipleship. Discipleship begins with Christ (“all that I have commanded you”), involves a teaching disciple (“teaching”) and a learning disciple (“to observe”). Yet teaching information alone is not sufficient in becoming a disciple. Likewise, merely adhering to what is taught or commanded does not truly encompass discipleship. True discipleship in light of the gospel gives disciples of Christ a new identity that results in new action. This transformation is a work of the Holy Spirit that includes both instant and ongoing action.
During our first year of marriage, my wife and I took a trip to the Grand Canyon. We rented a car and took our time enjoying the scenery of the Arizona desert. Following the signs to the canyon, we made our way into the national park, parked the car, and walked to the rim to enjoy a beautiful sunset. The purpose of the signs was to lead us to the canyon rim. Once on the rim, we no longer looked at the signs that led us there, but rather we focused on what the signs led us to: the painted pastels of the Grand Canyon.
In Christian discipleship, methods and traditions are like signs that point us to Christ. They can be helpful and beautiful. These signs are meant to be imprinted with Scripture. By Scripture we see who Christ is and what he’s done, and thus who we are and how we are to live. Scripture points us to the kind of disciples we are and are becoming, and what kind of disciples we are making. Often our discipleship methods become short-sighted, like signs that lead us to the very rim of the canyon only to be missing the clear text. In return, we focus on the sign itself, tragically missing the beauty of the canyon.
In 1 Timothy 6:3-4a, Paul offers instruction on discipleship, “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.” Paul highlights two features of Christian doctrine: “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “teaching that accords with godliness.” These two go together and cannot be separated. These “sound words” refer to the Lord’s message of the gospel.4 These words come from the Lord directly and through His apostles and teachers.5 Paul warns against doctrine contrary to Christ and teaching that does not line up with godliness. In other words, Paul is providing warning against discipleship that loses sight of Christ and the gospel.
How do we know our doctrine lines up with “the sound words” and “teaching that accords with godliness?” Without the Apostles present with us, how do we determine what is Christ-focused and gospel-centered? The answer: Scripture.
Scripture is of both Divine and Human origin. The Holy Spirit uses Scripture as a means of grace for the identifying and shaping of disciples. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” The Holy Spirit works in and through Scripture through inspiration. Likewise, the Holy Spirit identifies us as disciples (Ephesians 1:13), dwells in our community of disciples (1 Cor. 3:17, 6:19), and by illumination gives us understanding so that we may obey Jesus by making disciples (Titus 3:5, 2 Thess. 2:13, Acts 1:8). How we view the Holy Spirit and Scripture will influence how we grow as disciples and how we make disciples.
Here we stand, on the rim of the canyon, reflecting on the signposts that have led us here. Over the coming chapters may we evaluate our view and use of Scripture in discipleship. May our life, doctrine, and practice agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jeremy Carr (ThM, MDiv) is lead teaching pastor and co-founding elder of Redemption Church in Augusta, GA. He has been a member of the Acts 29 Network since 2007 and has written for the Resurgence. Jeremy is husband to Melody and father to Emaline, Jude, Sadie, and Nora. He is the Author of Sound Words: Listening to the Scriptures published by GCD Books. Twitter: @pastorjcarr.