Dear Discipleship-first Friends.


I turn 50 this year, which means that I have been in a conservative evangelical church for 50 years now. Around 10 years ago, I was first introduced to the idea of being a disciple of Jesus rather than simply being a cultural Christian. Over these last 10 years, I have been sorting out what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in light of what I was taught during my first 40 years in the church. I have come to a lot of hard conclusions over the last decade, but for our purpose in this reading, I would like to focus on 3 big conclusions:


  1. Scripture, specifically the New Testament, is written about being a disciple of Jesus, not a cultural Christian.


  1. Jesus, the Apostles, and the other authors of the New Testament made being a disciple of Jesus mandatory as an expression of following Him.


  1. King Jesus theology is the best explanation for why being a disciple is mandatory.


The New Testament Is About Being a Disciple of Jesus

If you have read a few discipleship books, you probably know by now that Christian only appears in the Bible 3 times, but Disciple appears 267 times. Also, if you look at the first instance of the use of Christian, there is a little more to it than that. In Acts 11:26, Luke wrote, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Who were called Christians? The disciples. Just a few verses later, Luke goes back to using the term disciple and doesn’t use Christian again until he quotes an unbeliever using the term in Acts 26.


In fact, in first-century Greek, Christian literally meant “a disciple of Jesus Christ.” Think about the modern term Swiftie. Here’s what you get if you look up the word on the internet:


The term Swiftie refers to a fan of musician Taylor Swift. It is commonly used as a self-identifying term by Swift fans and by others to refer to Swift fans. Calling someone a Swiftie often implies that they are a very passionate and loyal fan—as opposed to just a casual listener.


If someone calls themselves a Swiftie, or if you call someone a Swiftie, it implies that they are a devoted follower of Taylor Swift, they know the lyrics of her songs, and most likely live by the philosophy found in her songs. If someone called themselves a Swiftie but didn’t know her songs, we might not believe they were telling the truth.


In the first century, Greeks and Romans often mistook Jesus’ title of Christ as His name. Just as we add an ending to Taylor Swift’s last name to denote her loyal followers, Greek speakers added an ending to Christ to get Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ. So even when Scripture uses the term Christian, it still means a disciple of Jesus. There is no difference between the two terms.


Some might counter that Paul doesn’t use disciple in his letters, and this is true. However, it is only because Paul uses familiar terms such as brothers and sisters for other believers because he holds them to literally be his family members. More importantly, the Gospel of John uses the term disciple more than any other book of the Bible and it was one of the last books written near the end of the first century. Therefore, the term disciple was still in use at least 60 years after the life of Jesus.  


Being a Disciple of Jesus is Mandatory, Not Optional

Jesus only ever invited people to Himself in terms that could be understood as becoming His disciple. Whenever He invited people to “follow” Him or “believe” in Him, He was inviting them to leave behind their previous way of life and become His disciples.


When Jesus Himself preached the gospel, He gave two conditions for salvation: “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). Repent, or turn from our former way of life (whether religious or irreligious), and place our faith/belief/trust/allegiance in the “good news of God [that] the kingdom has come near!” (Mark 1:14-15).


When you dig a little deeper into what it means to “Repent and believe the good news,” it can be summed up as being a disciple of Jesus. To repent means to turn from how we were living our lives before Jesus, whether we were “good” people or “bad” people. As we turn from how we were living our lives previously, we must turn instead toward the gospel of the kingdom of God as found in the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. To be “saved” is to become a disciple of Jesus--which leads us to the next point…


King Jesus Theology

This is where I got stumped for a long time. If Scripture is written only about being a disciple of Jesus, and Jesus and the Apostles taught that being a disciple was mandatory, how did being a disciple of Jesus connect to being “saved”? To my American Protestant ears, it sounded like salvation by works instead of by faith.


However, through my limited Greek studies, I knew that the Greek word pistus, which we translate into “faith,” meant more than giving mental assent or believing that something was true. It even means more than trust. Depending on context, pistus is sometimes translated as “faithfulness” in the New Testament.


It is only in modern Christianity that we try to separate the concept of faith from faithfulness. In no other context can you be considered to have faith in something or someone if you are unfaithful to them. Unfaithfulness proves a lack of faith. With that in mind, another way pistus can be translated is “fidelity” or “allegiance.”


Another important point to know is that the term Christ in the New Testament is a reference to Jesus' kingship. Jesus Christ would have been understood by His followers in the first century to mean “Jesus the Anointed King.” This is why Jesus preached the gospel as “The kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15).


Faith in Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament as more than just a belief that His death covers our sins. Faith in the New Testament is presented as faithful allegiance to the enthroned King of the Universe who died for our sins, conquered sin and death through His resurrection, has been enthroned at the right hand of the Father, and will ultimately return to completely restore all of creation (including his loyal subjects) back to perfection. To believe the gospel is to place our allegiance in King Jesus. We place our allegiance in King Jesus not only by accepting that He died for our sins but by also committing to imitating and obeying Him as His disciple through the power of the Holy Spirit within the community of the local church.


How Is Discipleship Not Salvation by Works?

If you disagree with what you just read, let me first invite you to do what I found I had to do over and over again, and that is to reread the New Testament and pay close attention to what is being communicated. Then, let me invite you to look into a book by Matthew Bates. Bates grew up in a similar theological setting as myself (and probably similar to yours). His books helped me to finally put all the pieces together in a way that made sense in light of what Scripture clearly teaches. I would recommend the following:


Why the Gospel?


A book that will help is The Discipleship Gospel by Bill Hull and Ben Sobels. I actually read this one before I read Bate’s books. There is even a Discipleship Gospel Workbook to go through as a group study. All of these books complement each other and help explain the connection between the gospel and being a disciple of Jesus. Another good book is King Jesus and the Beauty of Obedience-Based Discipleship by David Young.


One last book I will recommend is not a shameless plug I promise. I wrote Recreated To Be Like God with in order to fill in a gap that I felt was not being covered well enough elsewhere. It explains why being a disciple of Jesus is primarily imitating and obeying Him in order to be conformed into His image, and why that it is not optional.


With that said, if you are not interested in reading the books noted, I’d like to give the short answer to how discipleship is not salvation by works. All forms of Christianity require a response on the part of the believer. Even if you believe God initiates the response in the believer, there still has to be some sort of response. The question then is what response constitutes true faith? I see three primary possible responses:


  1. Mental Acceptance

  2. Good Works

  3. Allegiance


Which of these three is the fullest expression of faith? Mental acceptance isn’t true faith because it doesn’t necessarily require repentance. Likewise, good works alone aren’t true faith because they can be disingenuous. Only faithful allegiance is true faith because it requires the beliefs we hold be proven out by fruit in our lives. Faithful allegiance to King Jesus by believing in His death and resurrection for our sins, and committing to imitating and obeying Him as His disciple is the proper response to the gospel of the kingdom of God that Scripture demands. This is the King Jesus gospel.


For King Jesus,


Curtis Erskine for

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