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What is a disciple?

Quote about the union of the soul with God - life of the disciple.
Quote from The Life of God in the Soul of Man

A friend asked this question on Facebook recently:

Is it possible to be a Christian while not truly being a disciple?
(Looking for thoughtful answers)

Friend on Facebook

The responses were interesting — several wanted a definition of Christian, of a disciple. Some suggested it might simply be semantics, that there is no difference. At least one agreed that there was a difference between a believer and a follower.

What do you think? How would you answer that question?

Definitions of Christian and Disciple —

Christian means belonging to Christ or follower of Christ. It may have been a derogatory term at first. It is used in the Bible only a few times. Acts 11:26 says that believers were called Christians first in Antioch.

The title seems a political nickname (resembling Pompeiians — members of Pompey’s party — and other titles of political parties). Those who believed that Christ was king could be accused of treason, and the title “Christians” became a legal charge, though it was soon embraced by Jesus’ followers as a welcome title. Here it was probably merely ridicule; Antiochans developed a reputation for mocking people.

Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Acts 11:26

Disciple, according to Merriam-Webster, is one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another or a convinced adherent of a school or individual. The term, disciple, is not particularly a Christian word, like salvation, but it definitely applies to Christianity. In fact, the word disciple is used in scripture more than 230 times (depending on what version you check).

According to these definitions, Christian is a title, and disciple is a descriptor of the title.

Christians are disciples who accept and assist
in spreading the doctrines of Christ,
convinced adherents and advocates of and for Jesus.

How to become a Christian?

Jesus told Nicodemus we have to be born again to enter the Kingdom of God; everyone who believes in Him has eternal life (John 3:3, 16). The Apostle Paul said it this way, “If [we] declare with our mouths, ‘Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved” (Romans 10:9). The Apostle also points out that we are in Adam or Christ (1 Corinthians 15:22). And to be in Christ, we are “new creation,” the old is gone, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).

You also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
Ephesians 1:14-15

What does Jesus say about being a disciple?

To be a disciple, we must deny ourselves

“If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it.”

Matthew 16:24-25 NET

Jesus says if anyone wants to be his follower, disciple, a learner, he must deny himself. To follow Jesus according to Strong’s concordance is “to cleave steadfastly to one, conform wholly to his example, in living and if need be in dying also.” In following Jesus, we bend our will to His, allowing Him to be the central force for our life.

As a disciple, we are sent out to make disciples

And Jesus came and said to them, “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.”

Matthew 28:18-20 ESV

In what we call the great commission, Jesus sends out His people. We are sent to make disciples. When we make those disciples, baptizing, teaching them all that He has commanded us, we present the gospel message so that in hearing and believing, people are added to the Kingdom of God. The cycle of new life continues; a disciple begets a disciple who begets a disciple.

“Christianity without discipleship is
always Christianity without Christ.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

So can we be Christian and not a disciple?

From my reading of scripture, I don’t think God ever intended there to be a difference between Christian and disciple — anyone who names the name of Jesus is a follower, learner, disciple, denying herself (or himself) to grow up mature in Christ.


A key element in this discussion though might possibly be maturity. Paul writes to the Corinthians, Corinthian Christians, the church, followers, disciples of Christ. He rebukes them for their lack of maturity, their worldliness.

Dear brothers and sisters, when I was with you I couldn’t talk to you as I would to spiritual people. I had to talk as though you belonged to this world or as though you were infants in Christ. I had to feed you with milk, not with solid food, because you weren’t ready for anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready, for you are still controlled by your sinful nature. You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your sinful nature? Aren’t you living like people of the world?

1 Corinthians 3:1-3 NLT

Interestingly, if we think ourselves mature, boasting about our spiritual prowess, our Bible knowledge, and our grip on grace, we are in danger because God opposes the proud, giving grace to the humble.

First pride, then the crash— the bigger the ego, the harder the fall.

Proverbs 16:18 MSG

What does maturity look like?

As Christians, we are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18). The scripture teaches us that those He has chosen, he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. Our salvation is a progression; we were saved in a moment of mercy and grace. We are being saved daily, being conformed to the image of Jesus through the work of the Spirit in our lives, and one day we will experience our completed redemption! If we boast, we boast only in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31).

But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in
every way into him who is the head—Christ.
(Ephesians 4:15)


I love the springtime when new life pushes its way out of the earth, trees bud, flowers bloom. In the natural world, there is a cycle of fruit growing, and healthy plants are green and growing.

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.

John 15:16 NIV

As Christians, we are to bear fruit also. We are to be “green and growing,” not in our own effort, although we put off our sinful habits. But through the power of the Spirit of God, the good fruit of righteousness is produced — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

 I am the vine; you are the branches.
The one who remains in me and I in him
produces much fruit,
because you can do nothing without me.
(John 15:5)

Lack of maturity, lack of fruit

If we call ourselves Christians but have no desire to know, love, and serve God more, we may need to examine ourselves.

If we call ourselves Christians but our lives lack the fruit of righteousness, we may need to examine ourselves.

If we call ourselves Christians but do not love our neighbors as Christ has loved us, graciously, with mercy and kindness, we may need to examine ourselves.

The New Testament provides some stern warnings for us to consider if as Christians we are not also disciples, learning from our Master, denying ourselves, and desiring to follow Him completely.


The most obvious warning comes from Jesus Himself. Imagine those who are speaking in His name, performing miracles, even driving out demons in His name standing before Him in this moment:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Matthew 7:21-23 NIV

The Apostle Paul

Paul admonished the church at Corinth to examine themselves to see if they were truly in the faith, persevering in their faith.

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!

2 Corinthians 13:5 ESV


The Apostle Peter offers an awesome summary to this discussion about a Christian being a disciple in his little letter to the churches in Asia Minor, persecuted Christians. He points out that we should be growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. That we should confirm our calling so that we will not trip up in our faith.

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. The person who lacks these things is blind and shortsighted and has forgotten the cleansing from his past sins. Therefore, brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election, because if you do these things you will never stumble. For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you.

2 Peter 1:5-11 CSB

“Christian discipleship is a decision to walk in his ways, steadily and firmly, and then finding that the way integrates all our interests, passions, and gifts, our human needs and eternal aspirations. It is the way of life we were created for.”

― Eugene H. Peterson


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