September 2012 - Vol.  62

Discipleship: For Super-Christians Only?
by Dallas Willard

The word 'disciple' occurs 269 times in the New Testament. 'Christian' is found only 3 times and was first introduced to refer precisely to the disciples. The New Testament is a book about disciples, by disciples, and for disciples of Jesus Christ.

Undisciplined Disciples

For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship. So far as the visible Christian institutions of our day are concerned, discipleship clearly is optional...Churches are filled with 'undisciplined disciples' as Jess Moody has called them. Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have not yet decided to follow Christ.

Great Omission for the Great Commission

The first goal Jesus set forth for the early church was to use his all encompassing power and authority to make disciples....Having made disciples, these alone were to be baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. With this twofold preparation they were to be taught to treasure and keep 'all things whatsoever I have commanded you.' The Christian church of the first century resulted from following this plan for church growth - a result hard to improve upon.

But instead of Christ's plan, historically the church has substituted 'Make converts (to a particular faith and practice) and baptize them into church membership.' This causes two great omissions from the Great Commission to stand out. First: We omit the making of disciples or enrolling people as Christ's students, when we should let all else wait for that. Second: We omit the step of taking our converts through training that will bring them ever increasingly to do what Jesus directed.

The two great omissions are connected. Not having made converts disciples, it is impossible for us to teach them how to live as Christ lived and taught.

Discipleship Now

We cannot literally be with Jesus the way his first disciples could. But the priorities and intentions, the heart or inner attitudes, of disciples are forever the same. In the heart of a disciple there is a desire, and there is a decision or settled intent. The disciple of Christ desires above all else to be like him...Given this desire, usually produced by the lives and words of those already in The Way, there is yet a decision to be made: the decision to devote oneself to becoming like Christ. The disciple is one who, intent upon becoming Christ-like, and so dwelling in his 'faith and practice' systematically and progressively rearranges his affairs to that end.

The Cost of Non-discipleship

Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God's overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life that Jesus said he came to bring.

[Excerpts from Devotional Classics, edited by Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith, 1990, Hodder & Stoughton, London. Original source of quotes from the book, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, by (c) Dallas Willard, published in 1988, by Harper and Row, San Francisco.]

Dr. Dallas Willard is a distinguished philosopher with over thirty publications. He is a man of deep faith and Christian conviction. He is known for his spiritual writings on discipleship and Christian formation. His book The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God was Christianity Today’s Book of the Year for 1999. Another of his books, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, won Christianity Today’s 2003 Book Award for books on Spirituality, and The Association of Logos Bookstores' 2003 Book Award for books on Christian Living.

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