Jesus gave this commission to the apostles and, through them, to the church:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go make all peoples my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teach them to adhere to everything I have commanded you. I am surely with you, always, to the end of the age. (Matt 28:18-20)
This is a commission given to disciples of Jesus to “make disciples” of Jesus, people who care deeply about and shape our lives around what Jesus taught.
It is a lasting commission. Nothing has happened to interupt or redirect it, just as nothing has reduced or changed the authority of Jesus “in heaven and on earth” on which it is based. But throughout history Christians have made corrections toward and away from the mandate to “make disciples” rather than just to cause people to become social or philosophical adherents to a set of Christian beliefs, practices, and social groups. The difficulty has come because we, in our limitations and sinful inclinations, find it hard to balance God’s free offer of salvation through faith with the imperative to live as disciples of Jesus. The tension between the two is not inherent. The tension comes from us. Christians have repeatedly set up polarities that violate the seamless unity of the way of life that God has given us through Jesus.
The leaders of the mainstream sixeenth-century Protestant Reformation brought a necessary course-correction. Their Augustinian emphasis on the free grace of God in saving believers was needed in their setting.
But other corrections have been needed to reattach discipleship to the justification by faith emphasis of the Reformers. Already, during the period of the Reformation, other kinds of reform with more emphasis on the way of life of the Christian community were offered by Anabaptist preachers and teachers. The Puritan, Pietist, and Wesleyan movements were later corrections within the Protestant Churches toward deeper, more personal, more community-oriented, and more activist understandings of Christian faith and life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s exposition of discipleship in the Gospels, set over against the “cheap grace” of cultural Protestantism, was another such correction. Others could be named.
Particularly important in the last couple generations have been calls to bring discipleship into connection with the evangelical tradition’s Protestant emphasis on God’s free grace. Several writers could be cited in this regard. Among them, John Howard Yoder addressed broad evangelical and ecumenical audiences from within an Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition that had to a large extent come come under the influence of evangelicalism. His The Politics of Jesus sought, among other goals to show that God’s forgiveness is best regarded not as the goal sought in salvation but as the beginning of salvation, the initiation into a way of life centered around the teachings of Jesus. He later carried this emphasis forward in a number of ways, among them a distinction between two different ecclesiologies, that is, two ways of understanding what the church is.
From within the Reformed tradition Darrell L. Guder spoke of the need to understand divine election as God’s call to service and not to break the “essential link between benefit and mission,” that is between the salvation of those whom God has called and the mission to which God has called them.
Other examples come from the so-called “lordship salvation” argument among conservative evangelicals of mostly Reformed inclination, which began with reactions to John MacArthur’s teaching. The “lordship salvation” terminology originated with opponents of MacArthur, those who, speaking in the simplest terms, distinguished between Jesus as Savior and Jesus as Lord. But MacArthur accepted this terminology. He and his supporters in this dispute rightly pleaded for an understanding of a salvation linked to a full christology. For example, “The gospel that Jesus proclaimed was a call to discipleship, a call to follow him in submissive obedience, not just a plea to make a decision or pray a prayer.” And, more recently but out of the same background,
Many people like the idea of being saved from sin. However, they fail to realize that believing in Jesus means acknowledging who He is in His entirety. Yes, He is Savior, but He must also be Lord. He cannot be one without the other. He is who He is, and we must accept Him as He is and follow Him if we want to be His disciples.
I mentioned earlier “polarities that violate the seamless unity of the way of life that God has given us through Jesus.” Among those would be grace and works, grace and law, Jesus as Savior and as Lord, and believing and doing. These are all meaningless distinctions in view of the wholeness of the life we have been given. It is through God’s grace that we have the way of life of disciples of Jesus.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001). Earlier English editions were titled The Cost of Discipleship.
- John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972; second edition 1994).
- John Howard Yoder, Theology of Mission: A Believers Church Perspective, ed. Gayle Gerber Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2014).
- Darrell L. Guder, Be My Witnesses: The Church’s Mission, Message, and Messengers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985) 8-12.
- “A Grace Community Church Distinctive: Lordship Salvation” (pdf, 2001), “Adapted from John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994); … The Gospel According to the Apostles (Dallas: Word Publishing, 2000); … ‘Getting the Gospel Right,’ Masterpiece, Fall 1988, 6-10.”
- Jim Putman, Real-Life Discipleship: Building Churches That Make Disciples (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2010), quoting Kindle locations 309-11.