“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations.” The command is as clear as day. Yet our understanding of how to live out the command is often foggy.
Since becoming a Christian, I have lived in four different cities, and I have been involved in numerous discipleship movements. Each of these sought to live out Jesus’s words above, but each of them modeled discipleship in a different way. I have learned that there is not a cookie-cutter approach to discipleship laid out for us in Scripture. The process should look unique to each of us, depending on our strengths, our context, and our training. However, as we determine how to make disciples in our unique situations, there are principles and examples throughout Scripture that we must be careful to adhere to.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes two brief sentences from which I have drawn five fundamental principles of discipleship. No matter how narrow or broad our definition of discipleship, we musn’t swerve from these principles.
In Colossians 1:28-29, Paul writes, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all His energy that He powerfully works within me.”
1. The Heart of Discipleship: Proclaiming Jesus.
“Him we proclaim.” First and foremost, discipleship is about proclaiming Jesus and making much of His name. A couple major themes of Colossians are that Christ is Lord over all creation, and that Christ is our redeemer. It is within this context that Paul writes these powerful words. Just before these words, in verse 27, Paul reminds the Colossians that God has revealed the mystery of Christ to them and that Christ is personally present with them. This is wonderful news. We proclaim this wonderful news—both to the lost and to the saved.
Discipleship should be outward focused. We don’t invest in someone only for the sake of that individual, but we do so with the others they will impact in mind. We proclaim Jesus to men and women who will go on to proclaim Jesus to the world.
Temptation to fight: Proclaiming ourselves. Even if outwardly we are “proclaiming Jesus” in how we do discipleship, we must make sure that inwardly, our motive is to make much of Him, rather than to make much of ourselves.
The concepts in the remainder of this article should fall under the umbrella of this first principle. The reason we devote ourselves to all of the following principles is to bring fame and praise to the name of Jesus.
2. The Means of Discipleship: Teaching and Warning With Wisdom.
Scripture has a lot more to say regarding how to make disciples, but Paul gives us some basics in this passage: “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom.” Teaching, or instruction, might seem like an obvious component of discipleship. We must train those we lead in the Word of God and show them how to live lives that glorify Him. But this passage reveals that our responsibility is not only to teach those we disciple the right way, but also to warn them when they are going the wrong way. Out of love for those we disciple, we must not be silent when they are living in opposition to the Scriptures.
Paul says that we teach and train everyone “with all wisdom”. James 1:5 says to ask God for wisdom, and this is so important. As we disciple others, we must continually seek the Lord’s wisdom and guidance. We must be spending regular time in the Word and in prayer. Any time we teach or warn, we must make sure we are doing so in submission to Him.
Temptations to fight: People-pleasing and harshness. Depending on your personality, you might be someone who tends to dodge conflict. For you, the temptation will be to avoid having hard conversations with those you lead out of a desire to please them. However, if you tend to like power and control, you might be more prone to be too harsh in your correction. Don’t forget that Scripture also says that this must be done in a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1) and out of love.
3. The Goal of Discipleship: To Present Everyone Mature in Christ.
Not only does the book of Colossians emphasize that Christ’s redeeming work saves His people, but it also teaches that through Christ’s redeeming work, believers grow in maturity. The goal of discipleship, therefore, is not only to make converts that make converts, but for all believers to become increasingly like Jesus. True discipleship involves investing in younger believers, walking through life with them, and shepherding them to Christian maturity.
Throughout Scripture, discipleship is compared to parenting. The two have amazing parallels. It is appropriate to view yourself as a sort of spiritual parent to those you disciple. Like a good mother, seek to nurture and love those you lead, and like a good father, seek to meet their needs and encourage them to live lives worthy of their calling (See 1 Thessalonians 2). However, don’t coddle them. Good parents don’t hand feed their children forever, but train them to feed and take care of themselves. They have an ultimate goal of launching their children out. In spiritual parenting, we must think through the same lens.
Temptation to fight: Seeking fulfillment in being needed. Don’t allow those you disciple to be too dependent on you. Don’t be Jesus to them, point them to Jesus. I struggle with this one, because I like to feel needed. But it isn’t me that girls need, it’s Jesus. Like a young child, those we have the privilege to disciple will need more from us in the early stages of their faith, but as they grow and mature, they should become less and less dependent on us, especially for the fundamentals. Don’t let your own desire to be the hero keep you from challenging those you lead in the ways they truly need.
4. The Cost of Discipleship: Toil and Struggle.
Discipleship is purposeful, fun, and rewarding. It is one of the greatest joys of my life. However, like most valuable things, discipleship also requires energy, time, and hard work. It is costly.
In this description of his ministry, Paul uses the words “toil” and “struggle”. The Greek word which is translated as “toil” in this passage means “to grow weary, tired, exhausted”, or “to labor with wearisome effort”. And the word for “struggle” is often used to describe the strenuous exertion that goes into an athletic competition or a fight. Paul fought and labored to the point of exhaustion to present believers mature in Christ. Discipleship cost him greatly, and it should cost us as well.
Temptation to fight: Idolizing ease of life. Our culture loves comfort and ease of life. It teaches us to believe that if we are uncomfortable and strained, then something is wrong. If we function under this lie, it will lead to half-hearted discipleship. If our discipleship isn’t involving struggle and sacrifice, we should evaluate whether we have become too comfortable.
5. The Power of Discipleship: His Energy.
Paul says that he toils and struggles, but he follows those words with a very important clause. He writes, “I toil, struggling with all His energy that He powerfully works within me.”
While discipleship takes a lot of energy, the good news is that the Lord gives us His. We toil and struggle, yet we have Him to depend on. No matter how experienced you are in discipleship, it is crucial that you are constantly coming to the Lord to ask for His energy and power. While we do exert our energy, it is not ultimately our energy that will do the work of transforming hearts and lives, but the power of God. We are simply instruments in His hands.
Temptation to fight: Dependence on self. As we grow in our discipleship and in our knowledge of God’s Word, we might become less aware of our need for the Lord in our spiritual leadership. But, the truth is that we never start needing Him less. It is not our knowledge or skill that will develop disciples, but the power of God working within us. We must constantly acknowledge that before Him, prayerfully depend on Him, and never fall prey to trusting in our own abilities.