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December 9, 2021

What is the True Meaning of Christian Discipleship?

Written By Grace Theological Seminary

Christian discipleship is a term that many of us never hear outside of our Christian experience, so it might be helpful to understand it from a biblical perspective.1 So what is discipleship according to the Bible? The word for “disciple” is a learner who follows a master teacher.  In contrast to our current Western era, learning in Jesus’ time was very relational and holistic. “Discipleship meant much more than just the transfer of information . . . it referred to imitating the teacher’s life, inculcating his values, and reproducing his teachings.”2  Therefore, Christian discipleship connotes a relationship with a master teacher, following them, and adhering to their way of life because their teaching shapes your own worldview. 

Jesus’ expectation for his followers was clear: to become more and more like Himself (Luke 6:40). “In the heart of a disciple there is a desire, and there is a decision or settled intent. The disciple of Christ desires above all else to be like him . . .”3  He then told them how this would happen:  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23, ESV). The painful reality of crucifixion was being applied to how one should treat the false self, the flesh, or the former manner of life, which was powered by self-reliance. These extreme terms of the master/disciple relationship must have sent chills up their spine. There is no middle ground. Wilkins says: “In order to claim the salvation He offered, each person was faced with the choice to exchange the god of his or her life with Jesus as the true God of life.”4  Becoming a disciple of Jesus required a calculated choice to follow Him in the midst of hard teachings (John 6:60-66). Thus we understand the costly nature of Christian discipleship and the need to calculate whether we are willing to invest fully in this all-encompassing endeavor (Luke 14:28).

Unfortunately, in our day we wrongly separate the idea of discipleship from becoming a believer in Christ. The New Testament, in contrast to our current practice, equates being a Christian with being a disciple. In fact, the term “disciple” is used 269 times as opposed to the term “Christian” which is used only 3 times.5  “Disciple is the primary term used in the Gospels to refer to Jesus’ followers and is a common referent for those known in the early church as believers, Christians, brothers/sisters, those of the Way, or saints . . .”6  In the time when Christianity became a force that turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6), the terms “disciple” and “Christian” were used interchangeably. 

While Jesus told us to count the cost of following Him, there’s also a cost to not following Him. It can be a helpful exercise to count the cost of non-discipleship.

In the short term, the cost of a non-discipleship mentality short-changes us from the fullness of Christ and the meaning that He gives for this life. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”7 Jesus is the source of life that is truly life—all other versions are counterfeit, sub-par, and not worthy of our original intent as being created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). While sin has marred our original purpose, Jesus’ invitation to Christian discipleship is His restorative project for our humanity. The only sacrifices He asks us to make are for our ultimate good — to be whole and holy, to be freed from the destructive nature of sin in our lives and to walk in step with the Spirit who gives life and freedom (2 Cor. 3:17). Failing to embrace this discipleship program to the Master leaves us exposed to the deceptive power of the enemy, who is the accuser (Rev. 12:10) and our adversary, prowling “like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, ESV).

If we do not have God’s Larger Redemptive Story out of which to live, we will tend to be deceived by a smaller, twisted version of the Story of Life. The frustrations and regrets that await us in this smaller story are vast and varied. If we think that this world is our home and that this life is all there is, we often become demanding, desperate, and despairing when we do not get what we think brings fulfillment.8  

For example, we see the author of Hebrews spelling out the dangers of non-discipleship. These weak Christians were “dull of hearing,” “unskilled in the word of righteousness,” unable to digest solid spiritual food, and they lacked discernment (Hebrews 5:11-14). Having a lack of discernment by not being able to distinguish between good and evil has caused many griefs in the soul and interpersonally. Regret, shame, and guilt over wrongs done to us or by us are heavy burdens to bear. Following Jesus as his disciple invites us to shed these weights and run a new course that He has set out for us (Hebrews 12:1-2). This course is the narrow road, but in the end it leads to life (Matt. 7:14).

The church today is in need of leaders and shepherds who understand the true call of Christian discipleship and have the ability to teach and instruct God’s people. The Master of Divinity in Pastoral Studies at Grace Theological Seminary ensures that ministry leaders are equipped to “correctly handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). 

Learn more about our accelerated programs, where you can earn your undergraduate degree and an M.Div. in just five years


  1. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1991).
  2. Greg Herrick, Go and Make Disciples of all nations (2009). Accessed April 20, 2020 https://bible.org/series/go-and-make-disciples-all-nations
  3. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1991), 271.
  4. Michael Wilkins, In His Image (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1997), 69.
  5. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1991).
  6. Michael Wilkins, Following the Master: A biblical theology of discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 40. 
  7. John 10:10b NKJV
  8. Brent Curtis and John Eldredge, The Sacred Romance (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997).


Christy Hill

Christy Hill

Christy Hill, Professor of Spiritual Formation and Women’s Ministries, has a passion for facilitating the holistic development of men and women into mature disciples of Jesus Christ, who are transformed by the experience of God’s love and truth. Saddened by the discrepancy between accurate theology and a living faith, she seeks to help her learners acknowledge that their operant belief system (behaviors, values, attitudes, motives) reveals their true beliefs. She then seeks to aid spiritual formation by resolving the gap between one’s professed belief system (correct theology) and actual beliefs.

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