Strictly speaking, a disciple is someone who follows another, learns from them, emulates their behaviour while adopting their values and trusting their leadership. The goal of discipleship is to become just like the one whom they follow. The world is filled with leaders and their disciples. Some are social reformers, others are political leaders while still others disciple for religious purposes.
The New Testament introduces us both to the disciples of John the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus. Those who followed Jesus were students whose goal was to truly become like him. Jesus taught them how they should live, He shaped their attitudes and filled their minds with his values. He expected them to conform their lives in such a way that they mirrored his own. Jesus taught and proved to them that he truly is the Son of God and urged them to place their trust in Him. Thus, in the New Testament, the process of discipleship sometimes preceded conversion and in all cases became a lifetime pursuit following it.
There were those who obeyed the gospel upon first hearing about Jesus and the salvation which he offers. There was no period of discipleship leading up to conversion. It was sudden – a decision made upon first learning of the sacrifice of Jesus and the atoning value of his death upon the cross. Those gathered on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), included many who had demanded that Pilate ‘crucify Jesus’. Peter opened their eyes, declaring “that God has made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” ‘Cut to the heart’, they wanted to know if there was anything that they could do? To which the apostle Peter responded
“Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (vs 38)
In their case, the discipleship process did not begin until after conversion. With the exception of what Peter taught them in that one sermon, the process of becoming a disciple followed the point at which their sins were forgiven and the Holy Spirit came to live within them. Conversion, or if you will, salvation, preceded discipleship. Jesus anticipated that, when he commanded his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Mat 28:19-20).
Conversion followed by discipleship is repeated throughout the book of Acts as many who heard the gospel for the first time responded in faith, repented of their sins, confessed faith in Jesus and were baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.
In due time however, children growing up in Christian homes would become disciples of Jesus before they were saved. Historically, we have not confused discipleship with salvation, recognizing that those who have come to believe in Jesus and who have adopted many of his values and ways, must nevertheless come in contact with His saving blood. So we have encouraged those who have grown up – having been raised ‘in the nurture and admonition of the Lord’ (Eph 6:4) to ‘put on Christ in baptism’ (Gal 3:26-27). We understood that those who have become the sons of God through faith are those who have clothed themselves with Christ by being baptized into Christ. We have also recognized that those who are not the sons of God by faith are those who have not clothed themselves with Christ and have not been baptized into Christ”. We understand that the opposite of any true statement, when stated negatively is also true.
The scriptures make it very clear that obedience must accompany faith in order for us to be saved. Faith and obedience are so inseparable that the apostle Paul bookends his letter to the church at Rome with them. Jesus made him an apostle to bring about the kind of faith that expressed itself in obedience and it was for this purpose that Paul wrote to the church in Rome (Rom 1:5, 16:26). This ‘obedience of faith’- our obedience to the gospel, brings us to the waters of baptism.
In Romans 6 Paul explained that it is those who have been baptized into Christ who have died to sin. That those who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death. They have come into contact there with the atoning blood of Jesus and left their sins behind. And as they come up from the waters of baptism, they rise as Christ did from the dead, never to die again. They rise to walk ‘in newness of life’, free from sin and looking forward to the resurrection from the dead. Those not baptized into Christ have no Biblical reason to believe that any of these things have taken place on their behalf.
Now some of those who have been discipled before being saved…those whose attitudes, beliefs and behaviours have already been shaped by Jesus – may not feel a sharp need to reform their way of life. They may think that little of importance has happened when they were baptized into Christ. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is so very important that we not confuse discipleship with salvation. Jesus could no more save us by setting a good example than we can be saved from our sins by following his. Jesus could not remove our sins simply by living a perfect life. Atonement had to be made. His perfect life qualified him to be God’s sacrifice for our sins, but that sacrifice was still needed. And until we are united with his death – the value of that sacrifice has not been applied to us.
When we grow up in a Christian home and begin to ‘walk with Jesus’ and become his follower, we begin the process of becoming like him in values and behaviour. But we are not saved until we are baptized into his death and raised to walk in newness of life. Sins are forgiven when we are baptized in his name and by his authority. This is not merely a milestone in a saved relationship. It is the point at which we are saved and without which we remain lost. It is not enough for us to admire Jesus, to adopt his ways and embrace his values. It is also not enough to engage in acts of worship.
After making 3 mission journeys and after authoring many of the letters that underscore the necessity of faith for salvation, the apostle Paul made it clear just when it was and how it was that he was saved. It turns out that He was saved the same way that every other person was in the New Testament following the Day of Pentecost. He was saved when his sins were ‘washed away’ (Acts 22:16) in the waters of baptism and not before. It is no wonder that the apostle Peter who preached that sermon on the day of Pentecost, would toward the end of his life reemphasize the necessity of baptism by stating clearly that ‘baptism now saves us’ (1 Pet. 3:21).
Baptism in the name of Jesus (also the Father and Holy Spirit Mt 28:19-20) is accompanied by the promise that those who have been immersed into Christ will also be indwelt by his Spirit. The apostle Paul further explained in Romans 8:9-11 that only those indwelt by the Spirit of Christ:
- Are those who now belong to Jesus
- Are the ones who have come alive to Christ and are no longer dead in sin.
- Are the ones who will be raised to eternal life as Jesus was.
It makes perfect sense, that the Holy Spirit cannot and will not indwell a person who remains in sin. He cannot take ownership for Jesus of those who have not been ‘clothed with Christ’ by being baptized into him. And without the presence of the Spirit of Christ within us, there is no promise of a life with Jesus now, or of his inner strengthening nor of the resurrection to come. Without his presence, we remain dead in our trespasses and sins.
It is God’s intention that when discipleship begins before we are saved, that it lead us to be saved. Discipleship alone cannot save us. We must be saved by the blood of Jesus and not merely enamoured by his life and teachings. Discipleship is required of all who are saved, and is one of the purposes for which Christ has saved us. “For we are His workmanship, in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10)
Jesus warned that on the Day of Judgment …“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Entering the ‘kingdom of heaven’ requires us to obey what the Father has commanded. And his command for us to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of our sins is necessary for our salvation. It is the time when we are saved and manner in which our salvation takes place.
Paul warned Timothy to “pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” ( I Tim. 4:16) Those of us who teach and preach need to exercise the greatest possible care when we ‘handle’ the word of God and act as His spokespersons. Dismissing the importance of baptism as a mere ‘tradition’ of the church or as a milestone of our ‘walk with Jesus’ but which is nevertheless not necessary for salvation…discourages the obedience upon which salvation depends and ensures that those who hear us will remain lost.
We are not saved until we are baptized into Christ. Nor can we be identified as the ‘disciples of Jesus’ in the full Biblical sense that applied to those who were called Christians first at Antioch, so very long ago.