The Requirements and Characteristics of Discipleship

Written by Prof Johan Malan.

The Lord Jesus came into the world to pay the ransom for the sins of lost humanity, but also to train disciples to proclaim the message of salvation to the ends of the earth. He gave His Word to us, and also sent the Holy Spirit, to equip all believers who present themselves to be used as disciples in His service. We should not be content with salvation alone and then sit back, but strive to be active followers of Christ who comply with all the biblical requirements and characteristics of discipleship. Only then will the Lord be able to use us in His service.

The Bible clearly states the conditions for discipleship, of which the following ten are key aspects: testify of rebirth, overcome the flesh, be filled with the Spirit, be available for service, win souls, train disciples, walk with God, resist the devil, watch always, warn the deceived, and wait on the Lord.

1. Testify of rebirth

Our life as disciples only begins when we comply with the basic condition of rebirth. We should confess our sin and lost state to the Lord and be prepared to part with our old life so that, as the redeemed of the Lord, we can begin with a completely new life (Rom. 6:11-13; 1 John 1:9).  There is no other way of becoming a follower of the Lord Jesus than to be spiritually recreated by Him. He must, through the Holy Spirit, cleanse you from your sin and instil His holy nature in your heart so that Jesus Christ can live in you. On the day when that happens your name is entered into the book of life which is in heaven (Luke 10:20). For the rest of your life you should testify to the amazing grace which the Lord Jesus has shown to you by saving your soul. That is also our most important message to a lost world, since all must know that there is only one Saviour for sinners (Acts 4:12).

Many people shun the significance of rebirth by maintaining that they were raised as Christians and have always served the Lord. But the fact remains that all of us were born as sinners, and unless we are born again we will not see the kingdom of God (Tit. 3:5). That was the message of the Lord Jesus to an unsaved preacher in Israel who could not even understand what rebirth was, and yet he was the one who was supposed to proclaim this message to others (John 3:3-10)! Disciples of Jesus Christ must have a clear testimony on rebirth, so all people can see that the old things have passed away and that all things have become new (2 Cor. 5:17). Without this testimony they would only have a form of godliness and be no more than self-appointed servants of Christ who will not achieve anything in His kingdom. Nominal believers may think that they are rich, successful and prosperous, but in terms of biblical standards they are spiritually poor, blind and dead (Rev. 3:1, 15-17).

2. Overcome the flesh

After rebirth as an initial work of grace all believers are called by the Lord to become disciples. Counting the cost is an important part of considering this calling as it requires the willingness to daily crucify and mortify the old, sinful nature, thereby enabling the new life to freely grow and gain full control over us. The old life is described as the “flesh” or “old man” (Gal. 5:16-17; Eph. 4:22), and only in principle is put down at rebirth. Subsequent to our physical birth the fallen nature becomes firmly established in us through the force of habit, and blocks the control which the Holy Spirit wishes to achieve in us after rebirth. This stumbling-block must first be removed before we will be able to become effective disciples.

The Lord Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Without distinct self-denial and self-mortification Christians would disqualify themselves from being disciples: “And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27). The uncrucified flesh is an ally of the world and sin, and counters the work of the Holy Spirit in our life: “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish” (Gal. 5:17).

Some disciples of the Lord Jesus later become spiritually slack, neglect their duty to resist the flesh and keep it in a crucified position, and then backslide into a carnal lifestyle. Consequently, they lose the anointing of a Spirit-controlled life, become selfish, worldly-minded and materialistic, and start acting unreasonably and uncharitably towards others. The Lord will stop using such people in His service, and it will be evident to all that they accomplish nothing and in fact will do nothing that demand any sacrifice or self-denial.

It should become a way of life to us to take up our cross and live faithfully according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit: “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). It should be your highest goal and joy to identify with the crucified Lord Jesus. Paul says, “God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).

Have you already made a full surrender to unconditionally put down the old nature with its sinful inclinations in order to be filled by the Holy Spirit? If not, you are still one of the “carnal brethren” of 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, who are completely dominated by envy, strife, and a lack of spiritual discernment. They could not be used as disciples because they had not yet experienced sanctification as a deeper work of grace.

3. Be filled with the Spirit

When we have committed ourselves to put down the old nature by surrendering it to be crucified, the Lord will do His part by filling us with His Holy Spirit. The follower of Jesus is then endued with divine power, without which he cannot fulfil his calling as disciple: “... tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Shortly before His ascension the Lord Jesus repeated this promise: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me ... to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This promise applies to all converts of all time. Without a complete surrender of this nature the uncrucified old nature will paralyse us spiritually and deprive us of all boldness to work for the Lord (Gal. 5:17).

After this experience the disciples determinedly and purposefully continued with the execution of the Great Commission, even under the most difficult circumstances. The power of the Holy Spirit did not only give them boldness to proclaim the gospel in a very convincing way to hostile and agnostic audiences (Acts 4:33), but it also enabled them to grow up spiritually and be filled with the knowledge of the Lord’s will (Col. 1:9). During crisis situations they were touched anew with power from on high, thereby emphasising the need among disciples of Christ to be frequently anointed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:31; 13:52). Filling with the Holy Spirit does have a starting point but it is also an ongoing process that often needs to be renewed.

Sanctification is not only necessary to empower us towards fulfilling our ministry as disciples, but also commits us on the personal level to become more holy in all our conduct (1 Pet. 1:15-16). True holiness leads to humility, charitableness, and the willingness to help others, as it reveals the nature of Christ through us. We should lead pure lives, free from the pollution of worldly lusts, and also entertain pure thoughts which will glorify Christ. Opportunity should continuously be sought to maintain close contact with the Lord Jesus through prayer.

4. Be available for service

We should realise that we only have limited opportunities to work for the Lord since our earthly life will soon be done. David prayed: “Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am. Indeed, You have made my days as handbreadths” (Ps. 39:4-5). Our life is like yesterday when it is past. We should not allow for wasted days, weeks, months, and years in which we could have worked for the Lord but did not do so. Every situation in which we find ourselves may only be encountered once and should be used with eternity in view. How do you know if you will ever again have contact with a particular person or persons whom you have met? Every opportunity which passes by unused is like water under the bridge – it is gone for ever.

The Lord Jesus said: “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:4-5). Before His crucifixion, Jesus only had limited time to train His disciples and complete His earthly ministry, which was soon followed by the night of His crucifixion. After that, He charged His disciples with the responsibility to be the light of the world and to spread the gospel message in a dark world. To many of them, the night of the end of their earthly ministry fell earlier than they had expected. Of the early disciples, only John became a very old man. We   must also work because the night is approaching – perhaps earlier than we thought.

In a wider context, we should always remember that the day of God’s dispensation of grace will also come to an end. This dispensation will end, followed by the night of judgement when God’s wrath will be poured out upon a sinful world during the coming tribulation period. Millions of people will be judged because of having rejected the gospel of Christ. Each one of them had the right to hear the gospel of Christ’s saving grace at least once in their lifetime. Did we offer the right of choosing to them or have we, through our negligence, deprived many lost sinners of this divine right? (Cf. Mark. 16:15). Within the confines of their limited earthly lives, every new generation of Christians still has the same commission to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth while it is still day.

As disciples of Christ we should always be available for service. At his very first encounter with Christ, Paul already reported for service: “Lord, what do You want me to do?” (Acts 9:6). But he first had to humble and search himself, and also be filled with the Holy Spirit, before he would be fit to be a disciple of Christ. Ananias addressed the newly converted Paul as “brother” and also prayed for him to be filled with the Holy Spirit: “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. ... Immediately he preached Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God” (Acts 9:17, 20). There was only a very short time between Paul’s salvation and filling with the Holy Spirit, after which he immediately started observing his calling.

5. Win souls

A disciple is a person who has been sent out to work for the Lord (John 20:21). The Great Commission of Jesus Christ to His disciples was to be His witnesses with a view to the salvation of souls everywhere: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). During Old Testament times the Lord had already said: “... he who wins souls is wise” (Prov. 11:30). Referring to the eternal glory which awaits all the Lord’s children in heaven, Daniel said: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever” (Dan. 12:3).

Early in New Testament times, Peter reminded disciples of the Lord Jesus that they have been called to “proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). Paul said: “I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise. So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also” (Rom. 1:14-15). The Lord has saved his soul and he had an obligation towards the ignorant heathen world to also proclaim Christ’s great gift of grace to them – even inside Rome, which was the capital of the pagan world empire of that time.

We, too, owe the gospel to all people, regardless of whether they are educated or illiterate, civilised or uncivilised. The Lord loves the whole world and since He shows no partiality, He wants to save all people (2 Pet. 3:9). It is the duty of His disciples to proclaim this message to all the world – we owe it to them.

6. Train disciples

But the duty of a disciple goes far beyond the winning of souls, which underscores the fact that basic evangelisation is only the first phase of the Great Commission to make disciples in the entire world: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). We are committed to executing this commission, which includes the following obligations:

Phase 1: The saving of souls, with a view to their incorporation into assemblies where they can be further trained to make other disciples.

Phase 2: The baptising of new converts, thereby giving them the opportunity of publicly confessing that they are born again and have been spiritually baptised into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Baptism cannot save anybody as it is only a testimony of salvation. Apostles such as Paul very seldom baptised converts (1 Cor. 1:14-17) in order to prevent believers from concluding that water baptism was part of their salvation. He left it to the elders to baptise the converts, confirm them as members of assemblies, and to take responsibility for their further spiritual growth.

Phase 3: Through continued teaching the new members are to be further established in the Word of the Lord in order to grow to spiritual maturity with a view to start winning and training other disciples: “... teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” Assemblies should grow and new ones be established.

In modern, mass-evangelisation campaigns the emphasis is only on phase 1 of the Great Commission, and that is the reason why they mostly do not yield enduring results. Converts are not referred to evangelical assemblies, and therefore do not receive sustained instruction which is aimed at growing up to spiritual maturity. Consequently, they themselves do not really become disciples, and neither are they able to make other disciples.

The Lord Jesus does not only want to make us evangelists, but disciples who can expand and establish His church everywhere on earth. Through the calling and equipping of disciples He replaced the entire priestly order of the Old Testament. He Himself is the High priest and Mediator, and therefore the Head of His church on earth (Eph. 1:22; Heb. 4:15-16), and His disciples are His servants through whom He works. His disciples should enter in to the throne of grace on the new and living way (Heb. 10:19-22), and not allow other mediators to stand between them and Christ.

We should not join churches which have exalted office-bearers and humanly-conceived doctrines, as that would suppress the calling and functioning of disciples who have been commissioned by Christ to do evangelistic work, to establish congregations, and to teach young believers to also become disciples. There must not be a self-exalting order among the disciples of Christ (Mark 10:42-45), as that always has a negative effect on the purity of the doctrine which is proclaimed. Furthermore, such a hierarchy is not inclined towards the training of disciples – only towards the training of “anointed” office-bearers who will, in the interest of their own positions and financial security, keep congregations in a subjected, dependent and spiritually immature state.

7. Resist the devil

A Christian’s life is led in the midst of two great realities, i.e. the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. All people are born as sinners and are therefore subjects of the devil’s kingdom. Through regeneration the Father “has delivered us from the power of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14).

However, we are still in the depraved world which lies in the sway of the Evil One, although we are not of the world. Because of our contact with the world we are exposed to the devil’s temptations, so we have to put on the full armour of God to remain standing against the wiles of Satan. To this end we must “be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (Eph. 6:10-12). That means that we must be filled with the Holy Spirit if we wish to overcome in the name of Christ in this fierce battle.

There are particularly two areas in which Satan must be actively resisted, i.e. the moral and religious spheres. In the moral sphere his objective is to make all people slaves of sin through, among others, using drugs, stealing, lying, cursing, living violently, committing adultery, being arrogant, proud, and covetous, as well as many other things which are typical of an impure life.

In the religious sphere the devil comes as “an angel of light” to deceive people into believing in false doctrines, thereby departing from the truth of God’s Word (2 Cor. 11:13-15). People are deceived through nice-sounding words to reject the gospel message and in its stead believe in fables (2 Tim. 4:2-4). A fable is a myth or human theory which has no power to save your soul and to permanently change your life. There are many churches in which unbiblical fables are proclaimed to turn unsaved people’s ears away from the truth by, among others, declaring them to be saved without the demand of rebirth.

8. Watch always

Disciples of Jesus Christ have to work for Him in a hostile world, and should therefore expect opposition and be vigilant at all times. Paul says that he experienced opposition and persecution from all sides – so severe that he sometimes feared for his life. He says: “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life” (2 Cor. 1:8).

As an evangelist, Paul had to face many different forms of danger – from nature, while sailing on the sea or travelling on lonely roads; from his own people because of opposing his former spiritual leaders; from the pagan world because of denouncing their idolatry; and even from certain of the congregations which he had established as, at that early stage, there were already unsaved, nominal believers who disapproved of his high standards. He described his sufferings as follows:

“From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness; besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:24-28).

We are involved in a fierce struggle and should fully realise that serious opposition and problems will come our way. Among true disciples of Jesus Christ there is no place for complacent and self-indulgent followers who are only there for their own esteem and financial gain. Some of Paul’s problems even came from the inner circles of the early churches, where there were “false brethren” who questioned or rejected his message, thereby overthrowing the faith of some (cf. 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 2 Tim. 2:17-18). Depending on the nature of the case, Paul sometimes sympathetically exhorted those who were in error (2 Thess. 3:14-15), while in other cases strong discipline was instituted, even expulsion from the congregation (1 Cor. 5:5, 11-12).

How much more should we watch to ensure that we walk worthy in our own personal life, while also guarding against the many dangers from within churches and also from a hostile world. It is not without good reasons that we are commanded to watch and pray until the Chief Shepherd takes us away to our heavenly home (Luke 21:36; 1 Pet. 5:4).

9. Warn the deceived

Apart from the positive message of the gospel, a disciple of the Lord Jesus also has the command to warn against spiritual deception. However, the defence of the truth should never become our major objective but always remain secondary to the proclaiming of biblical doctrines. We have not been called upon to only warn against deception at every possible occasion as that, on its own, will not change people’s minds. It is only when warnings against deception are proclaimed together with the truth of salvation that people will be delivered: “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. ... Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:32, 36).

A healthy balance should be struck between the gospel and warnings against deception, as knowledge of sin and deception is an important element of the gospel of salvation. The Holy Spirit first convicts us of our sins, deception and lost state before convicting us of the righteousness of Christ (John 16:8). There should always be a word of warning in proclaiming the gospel, because the wages of sin and deception is death.

Some preachers fail to warn against the consequences of sin, get caught up in positive thinking and proclaim a God who loves all people so much that He will not send anyone to hell. Why is repentance necessary if there is no punishment? And if sin and deception are not mentioned, how will people know from which situation they have to repent? Lost people should always be warned and called to repentance.

10. Wait on the Lord

Disciples of the Lord Jesus should realise that they are always deeply dependent upon Him. He said: “... without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We must never proceed in our own strength and take decisions according to our own wisdom. Lead a dedicated life of prayer, wait on the Lord to get answers, and wait specifically on Him to continuously endue you with power from on high.

David said: “Wait on the Lord; be of good courage and he shall strengthen your heart; wait, I say, on the Lord!” (Ps. 27:14). He will definitely give deliverance if we wait on Him and trust Him: “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His mercy” (Ps. 33:18). That is the only way to become spiritually strong: “But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:31).

Apart from strength and guidance for every day, there is also another dimension of waiting on the Lord, and that is to wait for the revelation of Jesus Christ at His second coming: “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning” (Ps. 130:6). Every morning the bright and morning star announces the coming of a new day. We should also have an expectation on the coming of the Lord Jesus, and do all our work in His kingdom with a view to this event. That will help us to maintain the correct perspective, and not deviate from the way by pursuing our own interests at the cost of our spiritual obligations. We must always realise that Christ will test and evaluate our lives and works.

Are you a good disciple of Jesus Christ? If so, you will have boldness to give account of your life before His judgement seat. If there are aspects of your life or ministry which do not comply with biblical standards, you must search yourself and make a fresh surrender to the Lord. Be still before the Lord and trust the Holy Spirit to guide you into all truth. He is the One who helps us in our weaknesses and strengthens us to proceed unwaveringly with the great calling of discipleship.