“We know that we have come to know [Jesus] if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:3-6). – John the Apostle
Why was John (who knew Jesus better than anyone) so adamant that if a supposed disciple of Jesus did not imitate and obey Him, then they were a false disciple?
In the last article, I laid out the first biblical principle discipleship:
- The Image of God as the basis of discipleship. The ultimate goal of the Gospel of Jesus is that men bring glory to God by being re-conformed to the image of God that they were originally created to be.
The second biblical principle of discipleship then answers the questions of “How is the first principle accomplished?” and “Why was John so adamant that disciples imitate and obey Jesus?”
- The Purpose of Imitating and Obeying Jesus as His Disciple. The goal of men being re-conformed to the image of God is accomplished by men imitating and obeying Jesus (who is the perfect image of God) as His disciple; through the supernatural empowerment and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.
Not only does Scripture state that we are to be re-conformed into the image of God we were originally created to be, but that we are also to be conformed to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29). However, this is only logical given that Jesus is the perfect image of God (Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3) and therefore, if fallen humans imitate Jesus as His disciple (through the supernatural empowerment and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit), then they will be imitating God as well (Ephesians 5:1) and will thus be re-conformed into the image of God that they were originally created to be.
In the book of Genesis, mankind is introduced with this passage:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ’Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it’” (Genesis 1:26-28).
Scripture states that mankind is created in the image of God in order to subdue the earth and to multiple and fill it with God’s image and glory.
Then, in Genesis chapter 3, it is mankind’s dominion over the earth and their ability to multiply that is cursed as a result of the fall, signifying that the image of God within them has been cursed and marred as well:
“To the woman he said, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. . . .” To Adam he said, “. . . . Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:16-19).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship:
“Humans have lost their own God-like essence, which they had from God. They live now without their purpose, that of being the image of God. Human beings live without being truly human. They must live without being able to live. . . . But God keeps on looking at God’s lost creature. For the second time, God wants to create the divine image in us. God wants to be pleased with the creature once again. God seeks the divine image in us in order to love it. But God cannot find it except by assuming, out of sheer mercy, the image and form of the lost human being. God must conform to the human image, since we are no longer able to conform to the image of God. The image of God should be restored in us once again. This task encompasses our whole existence. The aim and objective is not to renew human thoughts about God as that they are correct, or that we would subject our individual deeds to the word of God again, but that we, with our whole existence and as living creatures, are the image of God. Body, soul, and spirit, that is, the form of being human in its totality, is to bear the image of God on earth. God is well pleased with nothing less that God’s own perfect image. . . . God’s own image becomes revealed in Jesus’ teaching and in his deeds, in his life and in his death. . . . No one is able to recover the lost image of God unless they come to participate in the image of the incarnate and crucified Jesus Christ. It is with this image alone that God is well-pleased. . . . Our goal is to be shaped into the entire form of the incarnate, the crucified, and the risen one.”
If Jesus’ only purpose in the incarnation was to die for our sins, He could have done that when He was 12 years old at the temple. He could have claimed to be God, been charged with blasphemy by the Sanhedrin, turned over to the Romans as a threat, died for our sins on a cross, and then resurrected on the third day, triumphing over sin and death.
However, Jesus only spent 3 days dying for our sins and conquering death, while He spent 3 to 4 years making disciples and instituting His brand of relational discipleship. If you count the years He spent with His brothers growing up, He spent over 20 years making disciples.
The majority of Jesus’ time on the earth was spent making disciples who He expected to imitate and obey Him; including by making more disciples. Because, even though He came to die for the sins of the world; He died for the sins of the world so that He could rescue and redeem the elect out of the world; so that He might re-conform them into His image, which is the image of God. In order to accomplish this purpose, He demonstrated and taught what it looks like for a human being to be the perfect image of God. Moreover, He promised the presence of the Holy Spirit in order to supernaturally empower and enlighten His disciples to be able to imitate and obey Him. The words and ways of Jesus are the words and ways of God. Disciples need the power of God Himself in order to keep them and imitate Jesus.
Jesus taught that; “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).
The purpose of being a disciple of Jesus is to train to be like Jesus, and thus be re-conformed into the image of God. Paul wrote this explicitly in Ephesians:
“You heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
While we do tend to teach that Christians should be conformed into the image of Jesus in modern, American Evangelical Christianity, we do not tend to teach why. We tend to teach that conformity to Jesus is an end unto itself. However, Scripture clearly teaches why we are to be conformed into the image of Jesus; so that we might be re-conformed into the image of God. But because we do not teach this explicit reason why Christians should be conformed into the image of Jesus; conformity to Jesus is often treated as optional, or too mysterious to understand.
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In my particular context (and largely in the rest of America), part of the problem with attempting to implement true discipleship of Jesus is that it is easy to be a Christian (even if it is not as easy as it used to be). The unfortunate side effect of it being easy to be a Christian is that it makes it difficult to be a disciple of Jesus. One reason for this is because fully committed disciples will often be viewed as an extremist who is going overboard and alienating those who believe that Jesus died for their sins; but are not willing to fully commit to imitating and obeying Him as His disciple. Moreover, the fully committed disciple will always be tempted to return to the apathetic, cultural Christianity which surrounds them and asks very little of them.
But, if you take nothing else away from this article, take this away: there is no Christianity outside of discipleship. There is no Christianity where Jesus came to die for your sins without also conforming you into His image and into the image of God that you were originally created to be. There is no being a Christian without being a disciple of Jesus who imitates and obeys Him. That is explicitly what John wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; and therefore, it is explicitly what God has decreed. Please read it again:
“We know that we have come to know [Jesus] if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:3-6).
Even though John does not use the word “disciple” in this passage, he used it in the Gospel of John more times than any other New Testament author. Overall, μαθητής (the Greek term translated as “disciple”) is used in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts over 260 times; with 99% of those instances referring to disciples of Jesus. “Disciple” is by far and away the most common term used to refer to someone who believes in Jesus in the New Testament.
In contrast, Χριστιανός (the Greek term translated “Christian”) is only used 3 times in Scripture. Luke wrote that; “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26).
Notice first that “Christian” was simply another name for a disciple of Jesus. You had to be a disciple of Jesus first to be called a Christian. The concept of being a Christian and then becoming a disciple is completely foreign to the New Testament. There is no Christianity without discipleship in the Bible.
Next, notice that the context indicates that it was the unbelievers in Antioch who were referring to the disciples as Christians. Only three verses later, Luke returned to referring to believers as disciples. Luke doesn’t use the term “Christian” again until he quotes King Agrippa saying to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28).
Again, this is an unbeliever who is using the term Christian (possibly in a derogatory manner). Luke (or any of the other Gospel writers) never quote a disciple of Jesus referring to themselves as a Christian. Peter came the closest when he wrote, “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16).
Notice that Peter refers to “Christian” as “that name” as if it were a derogatory name used by unbelievers when they persecuted believers. Given the context of 1 Peter, that would be completely logical. Therefore, only Luke and Peter ever use the term “Christian,” and only in quoting unbelievers. No New Testament writer ever used the term “Christian” to refer to themselves or to address other believers.
The New Testament is comprehensively about being and making disciples of Jesus, not about being a Christian. Again, there is no Christianity without discipleship. According to Scripture, one cannot be a Christian without being a disciple of Jesus first; and one cannot be a disciple without committing to imitating and obeying Jesus.
This is why it is important to teach these first two principles of discipleship. By clearly teaching that the end goal of the gospel is that men bring glory to God by being re-conformed into the image of God that they were originally created to be; and that being re-conformed into the image of God is only accomplished by imitating and obeying Jesus as His disciple through the supernatural empowerment and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit; it removes any question of there being a Christianity without discipleship.
Will there be those who disagree and believe that they are saved even if they are unwilling to commit to imitating and obeying Jesus as His disciple?
Yes. However, John the Apostle, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote that they are liars and do not know Jesus.
Will they get mad and leave our churches?
I hope so. If they refuse to imitate and obey Jesus as His disciple, then they are what is destroying our churches from the inside.
We should not be surprised that there are false believers in our churches. Jesus and the Apostles clearly stated that there would be false believers (and teachers) in the church. What we have a hard time accepting is that they exist in our particular churches.
But please don’t get me wrong, I do believe that there are true believers who reject discipleship because they don’t fully understand why they should be disciples of Jesus; because they have never had the complete reasoning set before them as to why they should imitate and obey Jesus as His disciple. This is why I teach these principles of discipleship. This is why I am writing this article. This is why I am admonishing you to teach what Scripture clearly teaches and teach these principles explicitly and often in your church.
These are not vague, obscure, debated teachings in Scripture; they are clearly stated. Almost every book of the New Testament has either a direct statement or an allusion to being conformed into either the image of Jesus or God (which are the same thing), or both. Moreover, these principles have been clearly taught throughout the 2000-year history of the church by great men of God. If we wish to see the type of great movements of God in our day that these men saw, perhaps we might begin by teaching what they and Scripture clearly taught.
By Curtis Erskine