What Does It Mean to Make Disciples?
by John MacArthur
In describing the purpose statement of the church, many people point to Christ’s instruction in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19).
But depending on whom you ask, you might find a wide variety of interpretations regarding what it actually means to “make disciples.” Most churches today understand it as a command to evangelize the world—to lead people to faith and repentance in every corner of the world and spread the gospel as far as possible.
And while there is certainly an evangelistic aspect to Christ’s command, His instructions go beyond just spreading the gospel. The verb translated as “make disciples”—mathēteuō—is beautifully complex, carrying more meaning than simply accumulating converts. It communicates the idea of a learning believer—someone who is growing in his faith and his love for the Lord.
Jesus’ words emphasize not the moment of salvation but the lifetime of sanctification that follows. He made the same point in John 8:31 when He said, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine.” It’s the difference between a one-time profession of faith and a lifetime of spiritual growth and increasing godliness—between counterfeit and genuine conversion.
But if the mission of the church is to make growing, learning believers in all nations, why do many congregations limit their efforts to filling seats—often by meeting felt needs with worldly gimmicks? That strategy might attract non-believers, but how does it promote the spiritual growth of the believers already in their midst? How can you stress the vital importance of sanctification when you’re aggressively chasing the trends and interests of a spiritually bankrupt world?
Too many popular preachers and churches today claim they’re not interested in reaching believers—that their sermons and services are intended solely for unsaved seekers. They even actively discourage believers who want to dig deeper into the riches of Scripture—who hunger for more than just the most basic elements of the gospel, if they’re even getting that much.
But those churches have little hope of ever prompting people past the moment of salvation into a life of sanctification. In fact, they’re far more likely to lead men and women to shallow faith, stunted spiritual growth, and, sadly, false conversion.
As defined by Christ’s command to His disciples, the purpose of the church is to make learning believers—men and women whose lives reflect a deep commitment to and love for the Lord, His Word, and His people. Are you actively helping your congregation grow in this clear and critical purpose for the church?
#1 Posted by
Jennifer Phillips | Thursday, February 07, 2013at
I grew up in the church and can’t remember a time when I didn’t believe in God. I thought I was saved because I believed Jesus died for my sins and did “church things”. I only gave sin an occasional thought. When I did pray, my prayers were mostly about how God could help me with whatever was an issue in my life. My relationship with Christ was on an “as needed” basis.
I don’t recall an instant moment I believed. It was over twenty years ago, while commuting back and forth to work, that I started listening to Grace to You on the radio. I had never been exposed to that level of Bible teaching. God’s Word gave me sorrow and hatred of my sin as I became aware of my hopelessness to save myself. I depended on the Grace to You radio program, along with books and tapes from John MacArthur to supplement what was missing at my local church. Eventually, we relocated for my husband’s job and found a wonderful church. One of the pastors had graduated from the Master’s Seminary and had the same commitment to truth that I had become accustomed to from Grace to You. I love the ability to download messages to my MP3 from the Grace to You website. I have found between church, Grace to You, and reading my Bible, I cannot get enough of God’s Word. It has been such a blessing and a source of incredible joy.
My faith has deepened and grown over these years as I love Christ more and more. I have seen His providence unfold while He has guided, protected, and changed me. He has given me peace and joy, even during trials and struggles. I have learned daily dependence on His mercy and grace while I give him all the cares that come my way and seek His forgiveness. I know that I do not need to try to have things work out how I think they should, or according to my timetable. What God has planned will come to pass and His timing is perfect. There is no need to worry or be anxious because He has everything under his sovereign control, and He can do anything. He has displayed His power in ways that I could never have thought of or imagined. I am glad He chose His plans over mine, and I know I can trust Him. He has proved His ongoing faithfulness to direct me and He gives me the joy of knowing my sins are forgiven and I have been set free from the world and the penalty of sin because He paid that penalty for me. This life offers many distractions. When I stay in God’s Word, it is easier to overlook the trivia. It gives you peace, makes it easy to forgive, helps you be patient, compassionate, and non-judgmental of others. I cannot do this on my own. I need to lean on him daily in repentance and prayer and stay in his Word.
I am in awe that God would chose to place His love on me through no merit of my own. I am continually amazed at the beauty of His creation, His power, and all of the blessings he bestows upon us. I am so grateful for His mercy, kindness, and ongoing forgiveness.
Thank you for your dedication to being a part of making disciples!
#2 Posted by
Mae Ella Jones | Thursday, February 07, 2013at
Thank you Jennifer for your comments.
They were uplifting and said many things that I have experienced.
I am learning too, and thankful to Grace To You for their faithfulness.
#3 Posted by
Naomi Durocher | Thursday, February 07, 2013at
I couldn't agree more with today's blog! I travel a lot and as a result I visit many churches. It grieves me when the sermon is catered to pleasing man and not God, or having a laugh and getting another "number" in the door. I long for solid biblical teaching of the word and am so blessed when I hear it boldly proclaimed! Gty has been such a blessing to me. I read this blog and my family would say I'm addicted to the gty app :) it's so good to have solid preaching. I have told some people about the app and the easy to access messages, and am always surprised to hear people say, "Oh he's too serious for me." or "The messages are too long!" It grieves me to see not only preachers that are milk sops compromising truth to please men, but believers demanding milk when they NEED meat! I guess you could say we have an anorexia problem in the church! Get into the Word folks! Read your bible, memorize it, do it!
Ps -119:2 Blessed are those who keep His Testimonies, who seek Him with the whole heart! I praise and thank God for this ministry! Keep on serving the meat!!
#4 Posted by
Rose Michels | Thursday, February 07, 2013at
A hearty AMEN to today's blog. I would like to add that too many churches also concentrate on making 'male' disciples (so to speak) and not any (or enough) emphasis on disciplining women properly. I've been pressing this point for a long time now yet no one seems to be able to address it. It's almost as if it's not important, or any kind of priority, to teach women sound biblical doctrines. Sad. But, thank you for today's blog. :)
#5 Posted by
Adam D | Thursday, February 07, 2013at
Well said Pastor John.
The reason it is so important to have "learning believers" is due to the FACT that you can lose your salvation, if you decide to walk away from the faith.
Rom 11:19-21, Col 1:23, Matt 10:22, Heb 3:12-19
We see this woven into the NT with all of the clear exhortations to avoid and rebuke false doctrine. If we are eternally saved or uncondtionally elected, why would it then matter what doctrine the "elect" hear? The "elect" will be saved no matter what and the lost will be lost no matter what.
The reason is our part, which is the response to the true gospel message, faith. This is why we are told that we are saved by God's grace (unmerited favor) through faith and that we persevere by "fighting the good fight of faith."
The way you get saved, have faith that Christ died for your sins and accept Him as your Lord and Savior. (Jn 3:16)
The way you are sanctified, keep your faith (Col 2:6) and the Holy Spirit will progressively sanctify you (Gal 5:16).
The way you lose your salvation, deny or walk away from the faith that you once had. (Rom 11:19-21, Col 1:23, Matt 10:22, Heb 3:12-19)
#6 Posted by
Fred Butler | Thursday, February 07, 2013at
We can't really get into a discussion about eternal security with this post, but I wrote up a series of four posts on the subject of the assurance of salvation a couple of years ago that may be worth your time reading. I hit on pretty much all of your points you raise with your comment. Comments that are with each post are worth reading as well, because they offered some good exchange between disagreeing points.
#7 Posted by
Adam D | Thursday, February 07, 2013at
I thank you for those resources, I have read them and I appreciate the work that you put into them.
I also apologize if I was seeming to veer off topic, yet I do however feel that the necessity of being surrounded with sound teaching and growing as believers is directly linked to the abilty to "fall away".
I do not believe that we should "fret" about our security, I certainly don't. I am aware however that false doctrine can degrade our faith to a point where we no longer believe. Hence, the reason to beware of it.
The argument that you present of believers having to "maintain their salvation by works" is certainly not where I stand. I believe we need to mantain our salvation by faith, and the separation between faith and works are evident in the NT. Rom 4:4-5, Gal 2:16.
As with most doctrinal differences between true believers this disagreement lies in the fact that we each read the SAME text with DIFFERENT pre-concieved notions. I don't doubt for a second that you, Pastor John or any of the other godly brothers and sister in this ministry are saved and living for God. However, I do still disagree sharply with you on this matter.
#8 Posted by
Tommy Harmon | Friday, February 08, 2013at
When Jesus walked up to Peter, He did not just say to him, your sins are forgiven now go and live your life and figure out what to do with it. Jesus took the role of rabbi, Peter the role of disciple.
I agree from what I too have seen that todays churches focus on new converts. Yet once they have you they send you out and say now go figure out what to do with it. Very little meat of the word, just milk with a little cream mixed in to give it a little more substance.
Unlike Muhammad who told his people to make converts, Jesus told
His people to make disciples. In other words do more than just witness and lead people into the sinners prayer, teach them of a life full of grace and faith. A life in the Kingdom of Heaven both present and future. Equip them to go out and do the same, just as Jesus did Peter.
#9 Posted by
Fred Butler | Friday, February 08, 2013at
I’ll let this be my only response, because again, I don’t want to rabbit trail off the main topic.
I’ll leave you with this: As I argued in those articles, the idea of a person being able to lose his or her salvation leads us to bring a terrible smear against God’s character. Such a view is saying that God fails in accomplishing what He promised He would do, that being, saving a people for Himself. By saying Christians can lose their salvation is essentially saying a) God’s work of salvation wasn’t sufficient to save and lack some meriting ability, and b) that His repeated promises to save could possibly fail, which makes God a liar.
My challenge for you, Adam, is to really consider the theological ramifications of the doctrines you are advocating. What we believe as Christians ultimately comes back to our understanding of who God is and to get that wrong places us in a precarious position.
#11 Posted by
Greg Begemann | Friday, February 08, 2013at
Our Lord could not have made the Great Commission clearer. The making of a disciple begins with the salvation of a soul. Gathering diverse crowds of people and preaching the Gospel to them is wonderful. But it’s only a preparatory step in the task of coming alongside those that God saves, of teaching them The Word, the ways and will of God, of leading believers in the path of righteousness so they mature into the worshipping, witnessing, effective image of Christ that God wants all of us to be. Yet many churches today seems to think that bringing in crowds is all there is to it. They boast of big numbers in attendance as if they are accomplishing the Great Commission. We’re doing “big things for God”, they echo. No more silly is the idea that one could gather together all the necessary ingredients for baking, carefully organize them on the kitchen counter, and then walk away claiming to have made cookies!
#12 Posted by
Barbara McColley | Friday, February 08, 2013at
Great Blog, I agree totally with Jennifer P. she took all the words I wanted to say and said them very well. Late 2008 or early 2009, found this ministry and several others. I'm still in a 2year,10month legal battle I trusted a family member and may end up homeless before the month is out. This monday 11th is court and the Judge will decide if I stay or go. I'm concerned but during all of this the peace and protection and help from people I'd nevered believed would've helped has been very humbling. My greatest prayer for all of this is not for God to take this away, but I pray for this person who is doing all of this to me.
#13 Posted by
Ramon Jones | Saturday, February 09, 2013at
The few members were asked a question by my pastor after I got into a very intense conversation with my pastor. The conversation was about our church changing our attitude about how we respond to sin, specifically, how we respond to leaders in our church who are clearly living sexual immoral lives. We eventually lead to a question from my pastor. He asked the small group of leaders in his living room, What do you see that we need in our church?" My pastor's wife looked at me displeased when I said, "We need to have discipleship." I have been advocating for discipleship in my church for years. I explained the needs and the current negative effects our church is now experiencing because not having anyone being discipled.
#14 Posted by
Natalie Zertuche | Saturday, February 09, 2013at
Hi. I just wanted to say thanks to Jennifer (#1) for posting a comment that so keenly reflects my own journey so far. I seem rarely to have the words to communicate clearly how much my life and my heart has changed since the Lord blessed me with the teachings from GTY. No words can capture how much Christ has changed me and matured me over the years as I have devoured every part of the GTY online resources. I just want to say thanks for explaining what Scripture truly says about so many topics that for years I have heard taught in error. Thank you for explaining about discipleship today because it was something I needed to learn. May the Lord bless and keep you all. =D
#15 Posted by
Ben Enders | Monday, February 11, 2013at
I have never been to a chuch (as far as I know) that doesn't have a womens bible study. I came to the blog today to see if I could get some clarification on women in church leadership. It seems that most popular churches not only allow women elders and pastors, but they encourage it. I think scripture is clear on this, so what do we do with the churches who support unscriptural teaching? Do we still use their books in our teachings? Do we just ignore it and focus on what they teach that is doctrinally sound?
#16 Posted by
Rose Michels | Monday, February 11, 2013at
You bring up the very points I have been trying to bring up within the body of believers I am a part of. I, too, feel that the Biblical teaching is clear on women in places of authority in the church. Fortunately, our church board/elders, etc. concur with proper teaching and women do not hold these roles in our church. My point [above] was that women still need to be discipled, as do men ... just in different roles but all of us have the purpose of spreading the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While my church body is accurate in it's teaching on women in ministry (so I can't reply to your question on this with other churches), it is not actively doing a very good job on discipling women. The women's ministry uses resources from those very sources I'm sure you're referring to. Because of that, I do not participate. As I said above, "Sad!"
#17 Posted by
Mary Gerhart | Tuesday, February 12, 2013at
Jennifer's (#1) post could have been written by me! God bless her for sharing my own thoughts.
#18 Posted by
Mae Ella Jones | Wednesday, February 13, 2013at
We are surrounded in our Christian community with Women Pastors and Elders. For that reason and other unscriptual teachings, we have not found a sound Bible teaching church. But we are still praying for one.
We cannot just ignore their disobedience to God's truth and clear teaching about this. Nor can we except their teaching, even if it mixed with some truth. God gives us discernment and the truth.
I had been concerned about this also, but I kept coming back to the word of God, and it did not change.