Disciple Is A Noun!

discipleshiptitleWhen discipleship focuses more on what we do and what we know than on who we are it has lost its sure footing. There are far too many pockets of Christianity where being a disciple of Jesus refers to your behavior, your actions and abilities. Being a disciple is about your ministry in these places, and making disciples is about  teaching others – imparting your knowledge to them. We think of discipleship this way in our churches too, constructing programs that give people information. We need to recover an understanding of disciple as a noun, not as a verb.

Jonathan Dodson talks insightfully about this shift in focus when he write about disciple-making in his helpful book Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He writes about his own views of disciple-making early on in his ministry, stating that he saw himself as a professional and those under his care as novice Christians needing his wisdom. He says:

The professional/novice relationship created a comfortable distance from admitting my failures in genuine community. I stood at the top of the stairs of discipleship, peering down at those who sat at my feet instead of sitting in the living room with my fellow disciples, where I belonged. I put the best foot forward and hid the ugly ones. As a result, disciple became more of a verb than a noun, less of an identity and more of an activity. The center of discipleship subtly shifted from relationships centered on Christ to an activity centered on what I knew. (16)

Dodson’s experience is not uncommon. It’s the way many of us are trained to think about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Of course what we do is not irrelevant, but it’s not the heart of what it means to be a disciple. Thinking of discipleship simply in terms of activity will fundamentally discourage Christians.

If disciple is simply a verb then we will readily conclude that our lack of obedience means we are not a follower of Jesus. The Bible is laced, of course, with calls to evaluate our obedience, to investigate whether or not we are truly followers of Christ. We should do that because we cannot completely separate identity and action. Yet, if we understand disciple primarily as behavioral, or knowledge, we will lose the solid foundation we need to pursue spiritual growth.

Paul helps us see the distinction more clearly. In Romans chapter 6 he gives Christians a strong command:

12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.

Don’t surrender to sin, he say! It’s an important word. How does he ground that command? How does he motivate believers to fight sin? With a reminder of identity. He spells it out in the preceding verses. He writes:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free  from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

For Paul, change and growth come as we understand more clearly our firm foundation in Christ. We are dead to sin, we are live to God. We have newness of life. We are new creations. We have died with Christ and we live with Him. Identity fuels discipleship activity. Disciple is first and foremost a noun.

Paul says it differently to the Galatians, but with the same overall thrust. Here he argues that we are not disciples, based on our works of the law but based on Christ’s finished and atoning work on the cross for us. He writes:

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal. 2:15-16)

He adds that in dealing with sin we are not to return to a justification by works mentality, rather we are still bound to God through Christ. Disciple is about identity. He writes:

17 But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.

Over and over again we see the Bible make this point. Being a disciple is about who we are in Christ, and out of that identity flows a changed and changing behavior.

Friends, think about your life as a disciple of Jesus. Do you rest confidently in who you are in Christ, or do you struggle to ground your discipleship in what you do? The one gives us hope of change, the other frustrates and discourages us. We will never perfectly obey God. If I, then, try to ground my discipleship in what I do I will be discouraged and will often doubt who I am. “I can’t be a disciple, look at how much I struggle with sin,” we say. But identity gives us the hope. John writes to the church saying that only those who keep God’s commandments are his followers (1 John 2:4), but he begins with a helpful reminder:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)

He wants us not to sin, but our hope is not in our ability to live as disciples. Rather we can live as disciples because we have an advocate with the Father who makes propitiation for our sins. We are disciples. Disciple is a noun!

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