5 definitions of a disciple

There seems to be confusion (even among Christians) about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. I’ve decided to start a series of blogs to address this topic and would love some feedback. I don’t have all the answers, but I think it’s a conversation worth having.

Author Michael Wilkins gives 5 possible answers to the question, “What is a disciple?”

1. Disciples are Learners

  • disciples are simply those who follow a great teacher
  • to put oneself under the teaching authority of someone else.
  • both unsaved and saved were learning from Jesus

We would all probably agree that a disciple is a student, pupil, follower of a master, but I think we would all say there is more to be a follower of Jesus than just a “learner.”

2. Disciples are Committed Believers

these people would say that believing in Jesus is entirely different than following Jesus. They argue for a 2 class system of believers. (1) those who believe for eternal life and (2) those who believe AND decide to follow Jesus’ radical claims of discipleship. Dwight Pentecost has said “there is a vast difference between being saved and being a disciple.”

My question with this view.

1. Are there 2 levels of committment to Christ? Can you be an ordinary believer and not a committed disciple?

3. Disciples Are Ministers

This view says that disciples are those who have been “called out” from among the body to minister. Basically those of us who are ministers or pastors are disciples. Everyone else can be considered as ordinary believers. The term is designated for those who are called to do the work of Jesus. This view would say, “Everyone is called to participate in the reign of God, but only some are called to be followers of Jesus.”

My questions:

  1. What is my role as a pastor with this view? Am I to make disciples of certain people only? Only those who enter “full time” ministry?? Really? I guess everyone else can take it easy.

4. Disciples Are Converts; Discipleship Comes Later

This is probably the most widespread understanding of a disciple in our American context. This view says that after one is converted they can enter a life of discipleship (following the commands of Jesus) later. You can be a believer but can choose to enter the discipleship process later. This view is similar to #2. The only difference I can see is that this view would consider every believer a disciple, but they may not be on the road of”discipleship.”

A quick theological note: This view aligns well with those who hold to the theological position that separates “justification” and “sanctification” into two different occasions. You are “justified” immediately upon salvation, but “sanctification” occurs later.

My questions:

  1. Can you be a disciple without being on the road of discipleship?
  2. Did Jesus have this in mind when he called his disciples?

5. Disciples Are Converts Who Are in the Process of Discipleship

This view is very similar to the view above, but I do think it is saying something different. Conversion is the beginning of point of a disciple, but discipleship is the natural result that occurs simultaneously. Discipleship is not a second step but rather is synonymous with the Christian life. Essentially, discipleship is not an optional second step in the Christian life.

My questions:

  1. Are the difficult discipleship demands of Jesus directed to me(hate my family, sell everything, etc.) ? Or were they directed to those individuals only?
  2. Is conversion and commitment the same thing?

I’d welcome your feedback on this!


  1. says

    Slight nuance on your theological note about justification and sanctification:

    I think you’re misstating the way they are separate and different. They are two different “occasions,” as in “means of grace.” But not separate as in they occur at different times (although they are *completed* at separate times).

    Justification is instantaneous, a real and immediate “not guilty” judgment from God based on Jesus’ righteousness becoming our own (through imputation the same way Adam’s sin is imputed to every person). Then sanctification *begins* at that same instantaneous moment, and lasts a lifetime. So they both occur at the same moment, but justification is full and complete while sanctification simply begins at the moment one is justified.

    • says

      I agree with your 2nd paragraph. However, I don’t think I would say they are two separate occasions or two occasions of grace. I think we use these two words (justification/sanctification) to describe one occasion; not two words to describe two occasions…..

      As you noted these are but small nuances.. ;)

      Which definition would you mostly closely align with??

      • says

        Small nuances indeed :) Maybe “occasions” is the wrong word. If by “occasion,” we mean “event,” then these two words are not describing the same thing. I think the two words are necessary, as they do describe two different events in the life of a believer – two events that are inseparable and dependent on each other, but two different events nonetheless.

        To further elaborate on how they differ and cannot be the same event (occasion), justification is a penal act. (I’m borrowing from the best of NT Wright’s New Perspective, mixed with traditional Old Perspective imputation here.) It happens in God’s court as it were, and happens at the moment when a believer goes from “guilty” to “not guilty” because of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us.

        Sanctification then, is the ongoing result of, and begins at the point of, justification. It’s a process, not a transaction (for lack of a better word) like justification. So we can most often tell if someone has been justified by looking at whether they are being sanctified. In other words, how can you tell if someone has crossed from death to life? Have they been set free from their bondage to sin? Are they ever-increasingly producing fruits of the Spirit? Do they love the truth and have a relationship with the Father through the Son by the power of the Spirit? These things we can look at and make an assessment (not always the right one, but we can get an idea).

        The definitions I espouse are numbers 1 and 5 – for different reasons. Further complicating the discussion I am, but you alluded to it in your first definition and you’re right – you have to be more specific when you try to define “disciple.” Historically and culturally (within Second-Temple Judaism) a disciple was the student of a teacher (or a talmid of a rabbi). It required more than our Western teacher/student understanding allows for, but there were lots of rabbis and lots of disciples. So in the broadest definition, number 1 is absolutely correct.

        But where it concerns salvation and defining “disciples of Christ,” number 5 is absolutely correct (I believe) as well. When converted, one becomes a disciple. That person may be a very poor (uncommitted, immature) disciple for a long time, but he/she is still a “disciple” nonetheless. If that person never takes up the hard road of serious discipleship (striving to be like his/her Master), then we can conclude that person was never really converted.

  2. says

    …so sanctification does “occur later,” like you said. But it’s not possible to be justified and not have begun the process of being sanctified. It’s a slightly different way to word things, but no one should understand the two as being completely separate and not dependent on each other. No one (no matter how long it takes to see fruit) can be justified (= saved) and begin at a later time to be sanctified (= being made holy).

    • says

      ^^^^totally agree.
      I guess the question from this discussion would be, is the following true?


      Can we use these words interchangeably? Or are they different?

      • says

        Yes, it’s true if kept in that order. If one is justified, then he is definitely converted and a believer. And if one is sanctified, then he is definitely a disciple and on the road of discipleship.

        BUT it only works if you start with the internal (and eternal) act of salvation, which these two flow out of instantaneously. If you start from outside (with man) and work in (to God), it breaks down. One can be a disciple in the broadest sense and the narrowest (a disciple of Christ), and still not be justified and in the sanctifying process – like Judas. He was a learner and a student of Jesus’s, but was not saved.

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