A disciple is following Jesus, is being changed by Jesus, and is being committed to the mission of Jesus.
At Real Life Ministries, where I pastor, we define “disciple” in three parts that all come from Jesus’ invitation to his disciples: “Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Let’s talk about each part.
Defining ‘Disciple’ in Three Parts
1. A disciple follows Jesus.
Disciples recognize Jesus is the Messiah. The original disciples didn’t understand the extent to which Jesus would suffer; they didn’t understand the saving part at this point, but they understood the Messiah part.
So when Jesus said, “Come and follow me,” they understood who he was and that he offered them a new identity. They were going to go from being fishermen and tax collectors to being his disciples. They were going to learn Jesus’ commands because he was the Messiah.
2. A disciple is being changed by Jesus.
But he also said, in not so many words: I will make you into something. He was going to transform the men into something else.
Back in those days, if you became a disciple of a rabbi, you became like that rabbi; you learned from him. Thus, they would have understood the invitation in that context.
Jesus said all the law and the prophets hang on these two commands: love God and love others. As the Twelve spent time with Jesus, he changed them to possessing a true love for God and others. In like manner, he’s going change disciples today from being about the world, and with his help we’re going to become like him.
If you’re not becoming conformed into the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29), then you’re not a disciple of Jesus. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a bad day, and it doesn’t mean that you’re always who you want to be, but you’re being changed from the inside out.
3. A disciple is committed to the mission of Jesus.
The third part says, “I will make you into fishers of men.” That speaks of Jesus’ mission.
Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. He came to deliver the message that sin could be paid for. God saves us and then invites us into his mission.
If you’re committed to the mission of Christ, you’re a disciple of Jesus. If you’re committed to the mission of Jesus, the fruit of the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and goodness in your life.
The fruit of the spirit is all relational fruit.
But if you have no concern for the mission of Jesus, you’re not a disciple of Jesus. Being changed by Jesus demands that you’re committed to the mission of Jesus.
Read Jim Putman’s book The Revolutionary Disciple to learn about how pride and humility affect these three aspects of discipleship.
Defining ‘Disciple’ for Modern-Day Christians
Much of Jesus’ teaching gets lost in translation for modern-day Christians. If I’m going to disciple somebody, they might say, “I hear that, but you’re not Jesus.”
And the more you are in relationship with somebody, the more you realize they don’t always do the right thing. They’re not Jesus. But we’re not making disciples of ourselves—we’re making disciples of Jesus.
We can do this because we have the Holy Spirit, and we have God’s Word, and we start teaching them who Jesus is and what it looks like to follow him.
He sent us to make disciples, which means we play a part in all that. We lead the way in helping them become like Jesus, and when we fail, and every disciple maker does fail, we trust that Jesus forgives us, which he does.
We rely on God’s grace when we’re wrong.
So as Christians, we not only teach others about who Jesus is but also what Jesus does. He forgives, and he loves, and we become more and more like that.
We teach those whom we disciple, “Hey, I’m gonna do my best to make a disciple here. I’m going to teach you what Jesus is like, but understand this, I’m not Jesus. I make mistakes, so I will need your forgiveness. And as you make mistakes, I’m going to forgive as Jesus forgives me.”
An ongoing process begins of clearly understanding that we don’t want others to make the same mistakes, to have the same brokenness we have. We want to make disciples who are like Jesus.
We become more loving, more holy, but Jesus is always perfect when we aren’t. He continues to forgive and love us, so in that sense, we want to become more like Jesus in the righteousness part, but we also want to become more like Jesus in the forgiving others part.
Discipling Your Kids
Here’s a practical example. Christians are supposed to disciple their kids to know the Lord, so obviously as a parent, I took the lead role in that. In the process, God taught me two important principles.
1. I came to understand the heart of God.
In my role as a parent, I can tell you this: I learned more about myself and who God. It taught me so much about God and myself and my motives.
I disciplined my sons because I wanted to protect them, but I also wanted to protect others from them as they got older. I knew they would be married someday, and if I didn’t shape them, they would end up terrible husbands.
In the same way, God disciplines us because he loves us and wants to protect us from harming ourselves and others.
2. God spoke to me through my kids.
As I discipled my kids, they said things that were so profound. God used them to speak into my life as children.
Then as adults they became co-laborers. Now I get the privilege of sitting with my sons and hearing what God’s teaching them.
Because they’re not going to be my disciples forever, I’m going to send them out to make disciples. They’re going to be co-laborers with me in ministry.
Being a disciple maker grows us sometimes even more than it grows others.
If you’re imperfect, you actually are qualified to do this.
When I got frustrated or was impatient, I had to go to my children and say, “I’m sorry. As your dad, I didn’t have the right attitude right there. I was selfish and didn’t speak to your mom in the right way. I disciplined you out of anger.”
As a parent, you walk with Jesus, you confess that you’re imperfect, and then your children see, Oh, a Christian is imperfect, and they say they’re sorry when they make a mistake.
Modeling this behavior will pay dividends in raising your children as disciples of Jesus.
Jesus didn’t just pour grace into us on the cross as a one-time deposit; he continues to pour grace into us. When we make a mistake, we go to the Lord and ask for forgiveness and we go to others and ask for forgiveness, and that shows maturity in Christ.
We’re not talking about creating perfect disciples; we’re talking about making mature disciples who are humble and service-oriented, who ask for forgiveness when they make mistakes.
That’s what a mature believer looks like. They make less mistakes as they grow in holiness.
Modeling How to Be a Disciple
People often ask me about how to model discipleship for others. Many say they never really saw discipleship modeled properly, so they have a lack of knowledge. They don’t believe they know enough to model discipleship correctly.
I see things as a coach, so let me address it from that perspective. For example, you don’t learn to play football by sitting on a bench. Coaches show you something and give you a place to practice, and that’s how you get better.
So when you say, “I don’t know enough,” nobody knows enough at the beginning. And if you mean knowing enough to model discipleship perfectly, that’s nobody.
We’re all on this growth curve, so if I must know everything before I get in the game, when is that ever going to happen? It’ll never happen because no one will have all the answers.
The only way to get good at the game is by being in the game and having somebody show you, and then letting you try—and failure is a part of all of this.
That’s why I’m so against believing in excellence as a value. I believe in being excellent. But how do you become excellent if you have no place to play and you can’t fail?
Failure is a part of being good at anything.
Here’s an example of a blessing in my life.
When I was young, I was asked to be a volunteer youth leader with four kids in a church. My immediate answer was, “No way. These kids know more than I do about the Bible.”
Shortly thereafter, I went to my dad for advice. He said, “Jim, your mom and I have been praying that God would use you. Why would you say no? Let’s pray about it.”
“I don’t know anything about this stuff.”
Dad said, “Here’s what you do. We’ll work on a lesson together. You read a Bible story, share a couple of things about it, and then ask some questions.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. They’re gonna ask me something that I don’t know.”
Just say, “I don’t know. That’s a great question. I’ll find out and have an answer for you next week.” Remember, they’re also going to get asked questions they don’t know the answers to. Do they need a Bible degree before they can be used by God? Or can God use them right where they’re at? So just be humble and say you don’t know.
“What happens if I say something that’s wrong?”
Dad responded, “We’ll talk about it, and then you go back and say you were wrong.”
Well, I started to get to know the kids and grew to love them.
Also, I learned so much because of how much I studied to prepare for teaching. I called Dad with questions, and he’d give me some passages to study.
I’d read these passages, and pretty soon the stuff started sticking in my brain, and I began learning how to study the Word.
And I learned to say, “I’m sorry. I got that wrong. But here’s the answer for that.”
As a result, I grew spiritually, and the kids grew in their faith and began inviting others, and soon the class of four grew to 50 kids. At that point, people started saying I should go into youth ministry. At first, I resisted, but after several years of doing ministry, I went to Bible college.
When I arrived, the college tested my Bible knowledge to see where they ought to place me in their program.
They said, “Jim, you already know most of what we would teach these kids in Bible college. How did that happen?”
I said, “I was in the game. I had to have answers for questions, and I had to study the Word.”
Most of the kids who came from secular colleges or high schools hadn’t done ministry. They’d never thought through those problems. They hadn’t studied the Word and hadn’t been in the game.
God started to do something in my heart as I studied the Word. And I grew to the point where they said, “Now we’re just going to make you take these classes for accreditation because you already have all these answers. If you want a degree, you must take the classes.”
At that point I asked, “Well, do I really need a degree?”
I eventually got one. But how did I get that information? By getting in the game.
I have seen the same with my son Christian. He didn’t even graduate from high school. But he’s being ordained at our church. And if you get into a discussion with him, you’d better know the Word and what in the world you’re doing.
You’re not going to play games with him. Why? Because he has disciples, and he’s been in the game.
He’s teaching pastors around the country, and he doesn’t have a Bible degree.
And here’s why I say all this: Jesus chose fishermen, tax collectors, everyday people, unschooled men.
They eventually changed the whole world because they were willing to get into the game with coaching. They raised up reliable men to teach others; as a result, regular, unschooled men changed the whole world.
I’m not anti-education. There’s nothing wrong with going to Bible college. But the education has to apply in everyday life, and that happens as you disciple, as you get courageous enough to step out.
God will use you in amazing ways.
So if you’re a disciple, you have enough experience and knowledge to start doing it right now. Furthermore, whomever you’re in discipleship with, you’re going to learn more together than you ever would apart, and you can hold each other accountable and keep each other going.
Being a Disciple Requires Humility
Here’s the important thing: A mature disciple loves God and loves others, and a root issue for love is humility, which plays out by loving others and forgiving others and serving others. Without humility, there’s no love, which is why 1 Corinthians 13 says love is not proud.
Humility is such a vital part of discipleship that I coauthored a book on it last year: The Revolutionary Disciple. This is a topic that is very important to me.
In discipleship, a leader cannot be proud. He can’t say, “Look at me because I’m perfect and I know all the answers.”
You have to be humble, or as Jesus said, you will make someone “twice as much a son of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15). As a disciple maker, you have to be humble enough to say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
You must be humble enough to come underneath the authority of the church and let someone teach you.
There’s too much of the mentality “I’m mature because I know the Word, and I know all the answers, and I don’t have to be under anybody’s authority.” That shows a lack of humility.
When you make a disciple, you look for a humble disciple who’s willing to let you teach them all that Christ has commanded, who’s willing to be coached as they grow.
I never got to point where I said, “I don’t need advice from anybody because I’m mature.” To this day, I do things with groups. I want people to speak into my life, whether it’s about a sermon or about my life.
You never graduate from relationships, and you never graduate from humility.
Equipping Everyone to Be a Disciple
So what is a disciple? It comes back to:
- Applying the three parts of Jesus’ commands.
- Recognizing how to be a disciple in our modern context.
- Discipling your kids.
- Modeling how to be a disciple to others.
- Being humble while being a disciple.
A disciple is following Jesus, is being changed by Jesus, and being committed to the mission of Jesus.
It’s amazing how our flesh makes it look like we should just leave everything in neutral because being a disciple is too hard, we don’t know enough, or we think we know everything.
But I want to encourage everybody, not just church leaders, that discipleship is something they can do, they’re already equipped, and God will work with them to disciple others for the kingdom.
Jim Putman is the senior pastor of Real Life Ministries church in Post Falls, Idaho. Check out The Revolutionary Disciple to learn more about the need for humility in discipleship.
This post was adapted from the Real Life Ministries podcast episode here. Used with permission.