Keeping the Horse and the Cart in the Right Place
How would you define it?
Do you think most Church folks would know how to define it?
What about this question: “How should someone go about becoming a disciple?”
What process would they follow?
Where would they start?
The first thing is to define the object of discipleship, because to be a “disciple” really just means to be a “learner” a “student” of something or someone. Learn the facts, and then shape your life around the facts.
Thinking specifically about Christian discipleship, I think the two most straightforward definitions and explanations of discipleship given in Scripture are:
Matthew 9:9 - “As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.”
The phrase “the Way” which shows up all throughout the book of Acts (9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).
These statements serve to highlight two main truths about Christian discipleship: First, The focus is on Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. He is the Object of Christian discipleship. And second, Christian discipleship is “a Way” of living. In other words, Christian discipleship is a lifestyle following Jesus, the Son of God.
There’s an object: Jesus Christ.
There’s a method: “The Way.”
And they go in that order. Know Jesus, learn Jesus, and then follow Jesus.
Doctrine and Discipleship
Two things we see in Scripture that go hand in hand: Doctrine and discipleship. They are meant for each other. They serve each other, complete each other, and build each other up.
The Apostle Paul had a discipleship pattern: Indicative first, and then imperative. Always in that order.
Indicative: “Serving to indicate — state as an objective fact.”
Imperative: “Expressing the will to influence the behavior of another — an express command.”
In other words, Paul always indicates the facts/ the truth BEFORE giving instructions and commands. He desired that Christians know and understand the facts about God before we even think about taking a step of obedience in our own lives. For example…
Before telling us to “present our bodies [imperative] as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God…” (Rm. 12:1), Paul first explains that Jesus Christ has offered Himself [indicative], body and soul, to God in our place for our salvation (Rm. 3:21-26).
Before ever telling [imperative] the Corinthians believers that they must work out legal disputes within the Church, and not to go before secular courts of law (1 Cor. 6:1-11) —which to some might seem silly— Paul has already explained [indicative] that the wisdom of God seems foolish to the world but is present in spiritual people (1 Cor. 1:20-25).
Before ever instructing [imperative] the Ephesian believers to put on the full armor of God (Eph. 6:10-20), and to stand strong against the attacks of the evil one, Paul has already explained [indicative] that God Himself is the sovereign King over all, including Satan the creature, and that God has assured victory for His church.
See the pattern? The truth/facts before the instruction.
And Truth/Fact in Christian teaching is called Doctrine.
What Does this Tell Us about Discipleship?
Very simply, it tells us there is a pattern to discipleship; there are needed ingredients for effective, lasting discipleship.
Before the Roman Christians were ready to offer themselves to God, they needed to know that Christ had already done so for them.
Before the Corinthians were ready to work out legal disputes within the body of Christ, they needed to understand the higher wisdom of God at work in them already.
Before the Ephesians were ready to don the armor of God, they needed a clear view of God Himself.
That’s how it works. Truth first, then obedience in light of that truth.
But today, we seem to be short-circuiting the process. We’re trying to jump right to the instructions without spending the necessary time with the doctrine; the truth and the facts. In many ways, we’re putting the cart before the horse…
In some ways, we’ve reversed the Scriptural pattern: Imperative, then indicative.
And in some ways, we’ve just entirely left off the first part…we only want the instructions. “Just tell me what I’m supposed to do?”
Both of these approaches get the Scriptural pattern wrong. Both of these lead to pitfalls…
Doctrine Makes Disciples Slowly
In his book: Hearers & Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer makes some really helpful observations about the relationship between Doctrine and Discipleship.
Here are a few helpful things he notes,
“The goal of making disciples is forming a people who are fit for participation [in God’s story] — living as children of the light and walking in the truth of the gospel.”
Doctrine provides … direction for discipleship, direction for embodying and enacting the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Jesus Christ faithfully in new situations. The ‘fit’ disciple [having been fitted/trained by doctrine] will do the ‘fitting’ thing.”
“Doctrine makes disciples when it yields not merely [head] knowledge (though this is part of it) but practical reason: The knowledge of what to say and do in particular situations.”
“The doctrines of creation, incarnation, Trinity, and atonement are not theoretical abstractions—things primarily to be taught— but meaningful patterns that provide [direction] for everyday existence.”
If we’re going to sum up Vanhoozer’s point, we could say this: Christian disciples are meant to live Christian lives in the world; and living a Christian life in the world comes only as we know and understand the truths of God through His Word, and regularly apply them to our lives.
No one discipleship class can teach all that is needed for the Christian to be a successful disciple.
In fact, Christians need a MULTITUDE of things in order to experience change:
Right teaching and preaching from qualified Elders/Pastors.
A healthy local church where membership is practiced and valued.
The oversight of faithful shepherds in that Church.
The oversight of faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.
Regular study of the Bible and biblical topics.
A place to talk about struggles, challenges, and personal issues in honesty.
A place to hear real, biblical wisdom applied to life in specific ways.
Real life experience in the world where the truths of God are regularly called upon.
And, perhaps, what is often missing from many people’s lists: Time and repetition.
Christian discipleship takes time and it takes practice. For more on the slowness of Christian discipleship, read here…
So, How are Disciples Shaped and Changed?
Whats the right order? David Powlison helpfully notes 5 things that change a person. He doesn’t mention a Bible study, or a discipleship study, although those can and should be a part of the process. Those factors of change are…
God changes you.
Truth changes you.
Wise people change you.
Challenging situations change you.
"And it will not be all at once."
Christian disciples try and fail as a way of life. It takes time to learn doctrine; and then to learn how to apply it; and then to apply it; and then to keep applying it. Just think of the original 12 disciples themselves. How many times over those 3 years with Jesus did they fail and flop. But, how much did they change over their lifetimes of learning Who Jesus is and learning to faithfully apply Truth to their lives?
As Vanhoozer notes, “Doctrine provides … direction for discipleship, direction for embodying and enacting the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Jesus Christ faithfully in new situations. The ‘fit’ disciple [having been fitted/trained by doctrine] will do the ‘fitting’ thing.”
I wear a bracelet on my right arm with a motto that applies both to my personal fitness and discipleship. It simply says, “Trust the process.”
Let’s get the process right. And then, let’s trust the process.