Just over a decade ago, Dallas Willard lamented about what American evangelicalism is lacking: a theology of discipleship. He wrote:
Post-WWII evangelicalism does not naturally conduct its converts and adherents into a life of discipleship, nor into pervasive Christlikeness of character—with the routine, easy obedience that it entails. What this most recent version of evangelicalism lacks is a theology of discipleship. Specifically, it lacks a clear teaching on how what happens at conversion continues on without break into an ever-fuller life in the Kingdom of God.
“Disciple,” “disciple making,” and “discipleship” have now become buzzwords in modern American evangelicalism. For this we are grateful—in a sense.
This rediscovery of disciple making is not new, examples of discipleship can be found throughout the 2000-year history of the church. We are now in a stage of attempting to correct an emphasis on evangelism as a separate focus from spiritual growth in Christ.
We have been hurt by this disjoining of two things that both fell under the umbrella of disciple making in Jesus’ life (he was making disciples of the disciples in John 1 before they made the decision to repent and believe in Matthew 4:17–19).
One can easily argue that true discipleship and disciple making never really vanished. Even in the Middle Ages, there were those that argued for the inner spiritual life and the death of the fallen self. Instead, it is the language of discipleship and disciple making that is in the process of being rediscovered in modern American evangelicalism.
Return to the Early Church
Here is where the theology undergirding discipleship becomes important. The desire is often expressed in American evangelicalism to return to the simplicity of the first-century church. However, what is misunderstood is how radically different the first-century church is from modern American evangelicalism. It is not only a return to first century simplicity that is needed, but a return to the theology and culture that defined the first-century church.
Stated simply, the early church understood that believing in Jesus meant not only to believe that he died for their sins, but to believe in imitating and obeying him as his disciple. As Matthew Bates has recently demonstrated, the Greek word pistis which we translate “belief “or “faith” entails more than mental assent to an idea; it denotes allegiance, faithfulness, and loyalty, as to a king). Moreover, the early church understood why it was so important to imitate and obey Jesus as his disciple.
For example, when we say, “We are changed by Jesus,” exactly how much of a change are we talking about? Within modern American evangelicalism, only those who are living a “sinful life” before their conversion would undergo a radical change. Those who were already “good people” would not necessarily need to change, they just need to accept Jesus’ payment for their sins and go on with their relatively good lives. This is where modern American evangelical theology is frankly, wrong. Everyone is to be radically changed by Jesus. This was understood in the theology of the early church.
The Early Church Fathers
One of the most significant theological differences between the ancient church and the modern church is the concept of theosis, or being re-conformed into the image of God that man was originally created to be. The language of the church fathers concerning theosis would most likely seem strange to modern Evangelicals. Confounding the problem is the Mormon concept of exaltation which is a form of literal divinization whereby they ultimately become actual gods, not just the image of God. Mormon exaltation is a twisting of theosis, and unfortunately causes Evangelicals to be uncomfortable with the idea of re-conformity into the image of God.
However, the early believers and church fathers were not the only ones who taught the concept of re-conformity into the image of God. Among the reformers, Calvin and then later Wesley, both taught the concept. In the modern era, Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, and A.W. Tozer (among others) all explicitly taught re-conformity into the image of God.
Rather than re-conformity into the image of God, what modern Protestants, and therefore Evangelicals, have been more likely to teach as the end goal of discipleship and sanctification is conformity to the image of Jesus. But when carried to its logical conclusion, this is the same concept. If Jesus is the perfect image of God, and if believers are conformed into His image; then believers are being re-conformed into the image of God as well. Re-conformity into the image of God is simply a concept that has not been taught widely in modern Evangelicalism, and therefore sounds strange to us.
Therefore, this is where the theological problem begins. Unfortunately, in our arrogance, modern American Evangelicals think we have the greatest theology in the world, and that we could teach everybody else what is wrong with their theology. When in fact, we have a large gaping hole in our theology. And this large gaping hole has everything to do with disciple making; or rather, our lack of disciple making. Moreover, filling in this theological hole explains why disciple making is to be the core mission of the church.
What Is the End Goal of the Gospel?
The hole in modern American evangelicalism is this: The end goal of the gospel of Jesus (and thus discipleship) is that believers bring glory to God by being re-conformed into the image of God that they were originally created to be. Furthermore, believers are thus re-conformed into the image of God by being conformed into the image of Jesus through imitating and obeying Him as His disciple. This is why disciple making is the core mission of the church; it is specifically how we render unto God the glory that He is due.
Therefore, if we are not teaching re-conformity into the image of God, then we are not teaching the primary theological basis of discipleship. This is perhaps the reason that we struggle to convince pastors, churches, and church members to fully commit to Jesus-style disciple making; because we haven’t taught them the complete theological foundation of why disciple making is to be the core mission of the church. We are telling them they should be making disciples of Jesus who are conformed into His image without teaching them that doing so is the only way to render unto God the glory that He is due. Thus, they erroneous believe that they can render glory unto God without having to make disciples of Jesus who imitate and obey Him. As a result, they struggle to understand why disciple making is to be the core mission of the church.
In contrast to modern American evangelicals, the church fathers, early believers, reformers, and great theologians of church history had a good reason for believing in and teaching re-conformity into the image of God through Jesus style disciple making; because it is explicitly stated in Scripture…
. . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23, NIV).
Jesus is the perfect image of God and the radiance of His glory:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation (Colossians 1:15, NIV).
. . . Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God. . . (Philippians 2:5-6, NIV).
. . . the world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they will not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4, NIV).
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:3, NIV).
The goal of being a disciple of Jesus is to imitate and become like the Master:
“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40, CSB).
Therefore, by imitating Jesus as His disciple, men are conformed into His image, and thus the image of God that they were originally created to be; and thereby render unto God the glory that He is due. The vast majority of the New Testament epistles have either an allusion or a direct reference to being conformed to the image of God/Jesus.
This is a central theme in the New Testament. The end goal of the gospel of Jesus is that men bring glory to God by being reconformed into the image of God. However, this requires that the old, fallen self be abandoned and crucified. Moreover, this is only accomplished through the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8:29, NIV).
. . . 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, NIV).
. . . you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator (Colossians 3:9-10, NIV).
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV).
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires (1 Peter 1:3-4, NIV).
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20, NIV).
Therefore, be imitators of God, as dearly loved children (Ephesians 5:1, CSB).
Imitate me, as I also imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1, CSB).
Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly (1 Corinthians 15:49, NIV).
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV).
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness (Colossians 2:9-10, NIV).
You became imitators of us and of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 1:6, NIV).
He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior (Titus 3:4-6, NIV).
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:1-2, NIV).
Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:4, NIV).
But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure (1 John 3:2-3, NIV).
In this world we are like Jesus (1 John 4:17, NIV).
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48, NIV).
With those verses in mind, consider the following quotes by great leaders, preachers, and theologians throughout the history of the church:
Irenaeus: “For in times long past, it was said that man was created after the image of God. . . Wherefore also he did easily lose the similitude. When, however, the Word of God became flesh. . . He re-established the similitude after a sure manner, by assimilating man to the invisible Father through means of the visible Word.”
Clement: “He Himself formed man of the dust and regenerated him by water; and made him grow by his Spirit; and trained him by His word to adoption and salvation, directing him by sacred precepts; in order that, transforming earth-born man into a holy and heavenly being by His advent, He might fulfil to the utmost that divine utterance, ‘Let Us make man in Our own image and likeness.’ And, in truth, Christ became the perfect realization of what God spoke; and the rest of humanity is conceived as being created merely in His image.”
Athanasius of Alexandria: “For as, when the likeness painted on a panel has been effaced by stains from without, he whose likeness it is must needs come once more to enable the portrait to be renewed on the same wood, for the sake of his picture, even the mere wood on which it is painted is not thrown away, but the outline renewed upon it; in the same way also the most holy Son of the Father, being the image of the Father, came to our region to renew man once made in his likeness, and find him, as one lost, by the remission of sins.”
Gregory of Nyssa: “The sky was not made in God’s image, not the moon, not the sun, not the beauty of the stars, no other things which appear in creation. Only you were made to be the image of nature that surpasses every intellect, likeness of incorruptible beauty, mark of true divinity, vessel of blessed life, image of true light, that when you look upon it you become what He is, because through the reflected ray coming from our purity you imitate He Who shines within you. . . , He dwells in you and moves within you without constraint, saying that ‘I shall live and walk for them’ (Lev. 26.2).”
Augustine of Hippo: “We carry mortality about with us, we endure inﬁrmity, we look forward to divinity. For God wishes not only to vivify, but also to deify us. When would human inﬁrmity ever have dared to hope for this, unless divine truth had promised it?”
Basil of Caesarea: “. . . for what is set before us is, so far as is possible with human nature, to be made like God.”
John Calvin: “Since the image of God had been destroyed in us by the fall, we may judge from its restoration what it originally had been. Paul says that we are transformed into the image of God by the gospel. And, according to him, spiritual regeneration is nothing else than the restoration of the same image.”
. . . “Hence, too, we learn, on the one hand, what is the end of our regeneration, that is, that we may be made like God, and that his glory may shine forth in us; . . . Paul, at the same time, teaches, that there is nothing more excellent at which the Colossians can aspire, inasmuch as this is our highest perfection and blessedness to bear the image of God.”
John Wesley: “Man knows not that he is a fallen spirit, whose only business in the present world, is to recover from his fall, to regain that image of God wherein he was created.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “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 so 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 than God’s own perfect image.”
A.W. Tozer: “This is the purpose of redemption: taking on the material of fallen man and by the mystery of regeneration and sanctification, restoring it again so that he is like God and like Christ. This is why we preach redemption. That is what redemption is; it is not saving us from hell, although it does save us from hell; but more importantly, it is making it so that we can be like God again.”
Therefore, when we say, “We are being changed by Jesus,” we mean that the old fallen self (that we were never meant to be) is being destroyed (crucified with Christ), and the new self is being resurrected with Jesus into the image of Jesus/God that we were created to be. We could say that our lives are “our words and our ways”, what we say and do.
Being a disciple of Jesus is imitating and obeying Him by replacing our words and our ways with His words and His ways. And given that the words and ways of Jesus are the words and ways of God Himself, this is only possible through the power of God Himself in the form of the Holy Spirit which empowers and enlightens us.
 For more on this idea see Matthew Bates, The Gospel Precisely (Renew.org, 2021) and Matthew Bates, Gospel Allegiance (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2019).
 Dallas Willard, “Discipleship.” Article for the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, edited by Gerald McDermott, 2010. http://old.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=134
 St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies (Book V, Chapter 16).
 Clement of Alexandria, The Paedagogus (Book I).
 Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation of the Word.
 St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection.
 Augustine of Hippo, The City of God (Book I).
 Basil of Caesarea, De Spiritu Sancto.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion.
 John Wesley, The Works, (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1830).
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).
 A. W. Tozer, The Purpose of Man, ed. James L. Snyder, (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2013).