Why We Need A Theology of Discipleship

In the coming months I'll be posting content about the connection between conversion and discipleship. As I describe in my book by that name, you really can’t have one without the other.

I propose that all who are called to salvation are also called to discipleship, and that there are no exceptions to this. Many Christians today, especially in the West, think they have salvation figured out. But if you were to ask them about discipleship, they might hesitate or look at you with confusion. 

Discipleship? Isn’t that what you do after you become a believer? What does discipleship have to do with becoming a Christian? What does discipleship have to do with conversion?

In the posts that follows, I want to show you that conversion and discipleship, while distinct, are really two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. But don’t just take my word for it. In this post and others, I will show you that this is what the Bible teaches and is what Jesus intended for his followers.

Let’s begin with some definitions:

Conversion: For our purposes, conversion is “theological slang” for when a person decides to become a Christian.

Discipleship: Discipleship occurs when someone answers the call to learn from Jesus and others how to live his or her life as though Jesus were living it. As a result, the disciple becomes the kind of person who naturally does what Jesus did.

A word from Willard

A few years ago philosopher, writer, and Christian minister Dallas Willard was reflecting on the evangelical understanding of salvation and discipleship. Willard wrote in The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, “There has simply been no consistent general teaching or practice under the heading of discipleship among evangelicals of this period: none that would be recognizable as discipleship in terms of biblical teaching or of the Christian past . . . this most recent version of evangelicalism lacks a theology of discipleship. Specifically, it lacks a clear teaching on how what happens at conversion continues on without break into an ever fuller life in the Kingdom of God.”

Dallas-Christianity-Today.jpg

Image Credit: Christianity Today

Reflection on Willard’s words

When I first read these words by Willard, they went through me like a knife. At the time, I had written three books that laid out a new template for discipleship, so I had some skin in this game. I wondered what Willard would make of my modest contribution, so one day over lunch I registered my complaint with him. “What about my books, Dallas? You know, Jesus Christ, Disciplemaker, The Disciple-Making Pastor, and The Disciple-Making Church?” I remember Dallas pausing and then laying his big hand on mine. 

He said to me, “Bill, I haven’t read all your work, but I don’t see it there.” Strangely enough, this didn’t discourage me. If anything, it made me even more passionate to address the problem. Dallas and I went on to discuss exactly what he meant by a “theology of discipleship,” what it is and why it is needed.

Dallas has gone to be with God, and I no longer have the comfort of asking him questions at our leisurely lunches. But I have often thought of what he said that day. Now we see encouraging signs that the church is taking discipleship more seriously, especially among younger pastors and leaders. Victor Hugo reportedly wrote, “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” It seems that moment has come for discipleship. I think the time has come to craft a common language for the growing interest in discipleship. 

At present we are using the same words, but we are speaking a different language. If we are not clear about why discipleship matters, what disciples actually are, the key role they play in God’s redemptive drama and how it is all tied together in the end, what the Holy Spirit has begun, will disappear into the theological mist of confusion. This is why we need a theology of discipleship.

This is an excerpt that has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

Written by Bill Hull, whom you can follow on Twitter here and Facebook here.