The Gospel Coalition

Sermons, talks, and books on discipleship usually give a basic definition of disciple as "learner." But the New Testament gives us a more thrilling and dynamic definition of a disciple and the cost that follows. Take for example the parable of the soils in Matthew 13. How do we know a disciple from merely a "learner"? Matthew 13:23 says, "He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty." A disciple is, by nature---by definition!---a multiplier.

Disciples are not merely learners but fruit-bearing disciple-makers; they multiply themselves.

Dynamic Definition

As you read the New Testament, you see that discipleship is complex and thrilling. Hans Kvalbein wrote in 1988 a Themelios article on the concept of discipleship in the New Testament (see the entire archive of Themelios articles) that gives strength and depth to how local churches should think, talk, and teach about discipleship. He gives 13 theses on discipleship. Here are several of them in summary form:

  1. The first word for Christians was not "Christians" but "disciples." Newcomers to the faith saw themselves in relationship to the risen Lord Jesus in some way similar to the relationship of the first disciples to the earthly rabbi Jesus.

  2. A disciple learns by hearing his Master and doing like his Master. This is explicitly commanded by Jesus in John 13: "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you."

  3. The disciples are chosen by Jesus. He says, "You did not choose me, But I chose you to go and bear fruit" (John 15:16).

  4. Life as a disciple is "death and resurrection" with Christ, inaugurated in Christian baptism. Baptism is initiation into discipleship, giving admittance to the "school" of Jesus and starting a new life in obedience to him and his commands.

  5. To be a disciple is to be called to make new disciples. Throughout the New Testament, the term "disciple" is a dynamic concept. It implies multiplication. All nations have been invited to this mission. "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2).

You can read the rest of Kvalbein's helpful article for the entire list and helpful summaries.

The Cost

As we should expect, whenever the New Testament explains discipleship, it immediately warns us of the cost. Being a follower of Jesus splits up your family, threatens your life, and calls you to radical sacrifice of your job, finances, desires, hopes, and reputation.

However, the cost comes after a promise. When Jesus tells his disciples to "sell your possessions, and give to the needy" (Luke 12:32), he does so after a very important assurance: "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." In Jesus' day, they didn't have banks, savings, or CDs. Their net-worth was found in their possessions. Jesus is saying, if you are my disciple, you should be able to radically give, even if it means dipping into your savings (see Joel Green's The Gospel of Luke).

But notice the order. Jesus doesn't say, "Sell everything, give to the poor, and God will give you his kingdom." It's the exact opposite. Disciples can be radical in their giving because they've already been given the kingdom. Christ became poor, so his disciples might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9), and out of infinite riches, disciples become generous.

Another example is when Jesus instructs his disciples that he will be sending them out as "sheep in the midst of wolves," and the wolves will "deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues" (Matthew 10:16-17). That's not a very encouraging rallying cry for church growth and evangelism! Notice that Jesus isn't saying that they will be suddenly attacked by wolves; he's sending them out into them. This is deliberate. They will be mocked, shamed, and possibly even killed. He knows this will happen to them, because that's what the wolves will do to him. No servant is greater than his Master. Only when disciples are filled with God's grace can they go into the wolves hoping to see some turn into lambs.

Discipleship is as dynamic and costly as the gospel. Disciples can give up anything, go anywhere, and risk everything because the gospel has filled us with good things that can never be taken away.


[...] “Give Up Your Weak Definition of ‘Disciple’” [...]

jeff weddle

October 26, 2012 at 07:41 AM

my comment was not said to justify lack of fruit, although I will confess I am not as fruitful as I desire, but to get the author's thinking on the term "disciple." I appreciate the post and his followup comment.

John Long

October 26, 2012 at 07:36 AM

It amazes me what people will pull up and quote to justify the lack of fruit in their own lives... (and I am referring to some of the responses, NOT the article)

Thank you for posting this blog

Jason B. Hood

October 25, 2012 at 10:07 AM

Great stuff here, John. Thanks for this contribution.

Another Aspect of Being a Disciple | SCBC BLOG

October 25, 2012 at 09:32 PM

[...] and Acts 1:6-11. Saints, let’s be mature and balanced disciples. You can read Starke’s blog here, but I have also inserted his entire post down [...]

John Starke

October 25, 2012 at 07:11 PM

There are variances concerning the word "belief" in the gospel of John, as well; true belief and superficial belief. This article merely looked at the expectations of a disciple, a definition of what one ought to be; not between who were true disciples and false ones.


October 25, 2012 at 06:36 PM

Yes, would be be helpful to distinguish between pre- and post-pentecost disciples?

jeff weddle

October 25, 2012 at 02:43 PM

The Matthew passage referring to Judas Iscariot, a disciple, who ultimately betrays and commits suicide.

jeff weddle

October 25, 2012 at 02:42 PM

What about John 6:66 and Matthew 10:1-4 that talk about disciples who leave? Doesn't this show that the term "disciple" might mean something pretty generic too?

[…] Disciples come from the word discipline – which also means a learner. But it goes even further than that. For a good article on what a disciple really is – you may like to look up this link as found on “The Gospel Coalition.” […]

Latest Links | blog of dan

November 2, 2012 at 05:34 AM

[...] Give Up Your Weak Definition of ‘Disciple’ [...]


March 26, 2014 at 11:51 PM

I did a concordance search for the words "my disciple" on and found 4 verses that I think shows us four marks of a disciple. Do you think the following is a good summary of those four verses I found?

4 marks of a disciple of Jesus Christ:
1. Gives up(Surrenders) everything to God (Lk 14:32-34)
2. Holds on to Jesus' teaching (Jn 8:30-32)
3. Loves other disciples (Jn 13:34-36)
4. Bears fruit by remaining in Jesus and having Jesus' words remain in him/her. (Jn 15:7-9)

[...] John Starke: [...]

[...] Gospel Coalition - How do you define ‘Disciple’? [...]