During my college years I was involved in a coffee house ministry that reached out to street people in Worcester, Massachusetts. Many who dropped in were under the influence of drugs and alcohol. One of the evangelists said to me that if he could just get someone to say the sinner’s prayer (even if they were drunk), there was one more on the way to heaven. This was certainly an extreme separation of evangelism and discipleship, certainly also a distortion of evangelism. In the 1970’s I often observed and participated in evangelism that had little emphasis on discipleship. Now some talk about discipleship before conversion. So the pendulum swings.
I have heard presentations on discipleship that did not even mention the cross and the resurrection. Perhaps that was assumed. But the cross and resurrection are matters of “first importance” that Paul reminds the Corinthians of in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, … For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for your sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. (ESV)
These matters of first importance are as central to discipleship as they are to evangelism. The cross and the resurrection are truths of the gospel “in which we stand and by which we are being saved.” Discipleship entails living in step with the gospel. The gospel motivates and sustains our discipleship. Only the gospel can fill the sails of discipleship (see Michael Horton, The Gospel-Driven Life, p.143f). Paul writes in Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (ESV)
The life that Paul lived in the flesh was fueled by the gospel. Discipleship is first and foremost a life of faith in Christ “who loved us and gave himself for us.” Discipleship rightly emphasizes obedience and certainly faith is displayed in obedience. But faith as trust in the finished work of Christ is the foundation for obedience. That trust enables us to grow and obey. We need to explicitly remind ourselves, as Paul did the Corinthians, of Christ’s death for our sins and resurrection. Only that will put wind in our sails.
Evangelism and discipleship must not be separated. Paul writes that the proclamation of Christ as the hope of glory has the goal of presenting “everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). The New Testament knows nothing of “mere converts.” Yet there is no discipleship that does not involve a turning “to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
In the past we seemed to think that evangelism could be accomplished in a short encounter announcing the facts of the gospel and calling for a response. Discipleship, on the other hand, was seen as a long-term relationship of teaching and mentoring. Yet both evangelism and discipleship require relationship and teaching. The gospel does not make sense apart from the biblical storyline and worldview. Before conversion can take place, considerable teaching of the biblical storyline and worldview must take place in the disciple-making process. This is probably what people mean when they speak of discipleship before conversion. But the disciple-making process must center on the gospel. Before conversion the disciple-making process aims to establish the biblical worldview and storyline on which a call to faith in Christ is based. After conversion the disciple-making process focuses on cultivating the mind, heart, and lifestyle to be transformed by the gospel.
The book of Acts appears to use the term “disciple” to refer to people who have trusted Christ (Paul never uses the term “disciple” in his letters). So, we might say that, in the New Testament, there are no disciples who are not converts, as we have said there are no converts who are not disciples. “Being a disciple” requires conversion. The process of “becoming a disciple” involves relationship building, developing an understanding the biblical storyline and worldview, proclamation of the gospel, and a response of faith and trust.
“Disciple-making” has become a comprehensive term that includes what was traditionally called evangelism and discipleship. There is a danger that evangelism will get lost with this terminology. We must be careful that the call to trust in Christ’s death and resurrection remains central to disciple-making. A work-righteousness may result without that.
Disciple-making (evangelism and discipleship together) forms the foundation for establishing a reproducing church. The gospel is central to this process. Disciple-making is the process by which the church is called out of darkness into the marvelous light of the gospel (1 Peter 2:9).