The Definition of ‘Disciple’


As we prepare for our National Disciple Making Forum in a few days, I thought it might be helpful to go back to basics.

The football coach, Vince Lombardi (whose trophy is awarded each year to the winning team of the Super Bowl), used to start the year, as he held up the pigskin, with a simple statement: “this is a football.” He knew that successful teams excelled in the basics.

So, in the spirit of Vince Lombardi, I want to bring us back to a simple statement: “this is a disciple.” We use Matthew 4:19 as texts that can serve as a summary statement:

And He said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (ESV).

Disciple – someone who is following Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and is committed to the mission of Jesus (Matt. 4:19).

We find it helpful to divide Matthew 4:19 into three parts and use it as a scriptural framework on which we place the teachings from the rest of the New Testament on what it means to be a disciple. These three parts include:

  1. “following” Jesus (head)
  2. “being changed” by Jesus through the Holy Spirit (heart)
  3. “being committed” to the mission of Jesus, which is to be “fishers of men”(hands)

If our goal is to make disciples, it is vitally important to define success and what it looks like when our mission is accomplished.

We have practically found that this definition is very useful and memorable in a local church context. It captures the following nuances effectively.

  1. Following Jesus – This takes a decision. The decision is to place your faith in Jesus, which means we make a commitment to give him your allegiance, devotion and faithfulness. It is to trust and follow him in all that he teaches. It is to receive and surrender; a) we receive his forgiveness, kingdom promises, and Holy Spirit; and, b) we surrender our sins and the commitment of our lives. The decision, in scripture, was made in baptism – we turn from sin, take on Christ, and commit ourselves to the path of discipleship (Acts 2:38; Matthew 28:19-20). In this way, baptism is the starting line, not the finishing line.
  2. Being changed by Jesus – When you look at Jesus and see the kind of person He is, the quality of life He lives, and the depth of character He has, do you ever wish that you could be more like Him? I certainly do! If you would like to imitate Jesus more closely, are you willing to commit to doing what it takes to look and live like Him more consistently?

To be a disciple of Jesus simply means that you are modeling your life — your thoughts, your words, your actions, your everything — after the example that Jesus gives to us. A friend put it like this:

A disciple is the kind of person who becomes the kind of person Jesus would be.

Is there a better picture than being the kind of person who shows others what Jesus is like?

Becoming like Jesus in this way is a process, inspired and guided by the indwelling Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

  1. Committed to the Mission of Jesus – Being a disciple is all about becoming like Jesus, and then helping others join his kingdom in salvation and transformation. True disciples want to help others become like Jesus, because that is the way to fullness of life. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is John 10:10, where Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Becoming like Jesus is the greatest thing we could ever wish for someone!

More and more I am reading and learning from people who equate being a disciple and disciple making with spiritual formation. But too often they are missing this last point.

Spiritual formation is good, but you cannot truly become a Christ-like person without reaching lost people and making disciples. I say this because Jesus said he came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) and Jesus focused the largest part of his ministry time making disciples out of the twelve. Then, his last words stated the importance of this part of following him clearly: “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19-20).

So do not miss this last part of the definition – a person is not a mature disciple unless they are actively engaged in the mission of making disciples too (it can take various forms).

I think it is enormously helpful to have a simple phrase that summarizes what being a disciple means in the context of your local church. This gives clarity to the church, it provides something at which to aim, and it neatly provides a snapshot of what church, as a Jesus-centered community, is all about. At a personal level, you are then better able to make intentional choices in your everyday life that draw you closer to Christ-likeness.

Of course, there is also value in a far more detailed unpacking of what it means to be a disciple. Throughout the 2,000-year history of the church, this journey of discipleship has been front and center in the thoughts and hearts of so many of the great men and women of God who have gone before us. There are limitless areas that could be touched upon, and there are fabulous resources out there to help in areas where you are being challenged by Jesus to go deeper.

The definition of a disciple also fits in nicely with two other definitions that we use at and commend for your use in the local church.

Disciple making – is entering into relationships to intentionally help people follow Jesus, be changed by Jesus, and join the mission of Jesus (Matt. 28:18-20).

Disciple maker – a disciple of Jesus who enters into relationships with people to intentionally help them follow Jesus, be changed by Jesus, and join the mission of Jesus.

I champion these definitions because they give us clarity on the most important mission on planet earth.

May God bless us all as we seek to be disciples and make disciples.




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