This is an excerpt from Jeff Vanderstelt’s newest book One-Eighty: A Return to Disciple-Making © Exponential. Download the free e-book here or order a physical copy from Amazon.

What is a disciple? How do we know whether we are being faithful in making disciples? We need to be sure we have a clear definition of what a disciple is if we are going to determine whether or not we are effectively making them.

Defining the Target

My brother Marty works for Proctor and Gamble, and over the years he has overseen several products from feminine care to laundry detergents to baby care products (what he presently oversees for North America). During each campaign, he knew what each product was supposed to do, how it worked, how it was made from start to finish, and how to uniquely communicate and market that product to different cultural contexts. Presently, one of his key products is Pampers diapers. Everyone under his authority knows what they are and how they are made.

Good diapers are important, as every parent with little ones knows. And making a quality product is important. However, the eternal value of a diaper and a human soul have no comparison. Each time I listen to my brother describe all that goes into a product he has ever overseen, I ponder to myself, Does the Church think this thoroughly about making disciples?

Every Christian is called to the work of making disciples. But do we know what a disciple is? Do we know how a disciple is made?

Think about the ministry or church you lead or participate in. Do you have a clear, shared definition of a disciple? Do you have a definite process for how disciples are made in your context, and does everyone know how to personally engage in it?

Why is a definition important? Because we cannot make what we cannot state.

The Definition According to Jesus

When Jesus launched his public ministry, he called his first disciples beside the Sea of Galilee. He saw Simon (also known as Peter) and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea because they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come, follow me … and I will send you out to fish for people” (Matthew 4:19).

I’ve discovered in talking to my brother that every product P&G makes is uniquely designed for the cultural context in which it is sold. Tide detergent made and sold in the USA is different from Tide made and sold in Japan. The product does the same thing overall, but it works differently because the chemical makeup of the water in each country is very different. The company must also communicate and market differently in each context, based on the diversity of each culture. Jesus called Simon and Andrew, two fishermen, to become his disciples who make disciples in a way that made sense in their context: “I will send you out to fish for people.” You will need to do the same in your context.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t some kind of template or consistent standard for how we define a disciple. As each of us thinks about clearly defining what a disciple is and how one is made in our context, we want Jesus’ words to guide how we develop our definition and process.

Let’s consider the bookends of Jesus’ calling in Matthew 4:19 and Jesus’ final moments with his disciples in Matthew 28:17-20. The call to “Come, follow me … and I will send you out to fish for people” after following Jesus for more than three years is concluded with these words: “And when they [the 11 disciples] saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (NIV).

We can discern from these verses (and many other verses as well) three key parts to the definition of a disciple. The definition must be: 1) relational, 2) transformational, and 3) commissional.


Disciple-making is a relational activity. When a rabbi called disciples to himself, he was calling them to follow his way of living closely. The ancient Jewish blessing captures this concept well: May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi. To be a disciple of a rabbi required that you follow him closely—so closely that you would get covered by the dust of his sandals. Jesus called the disciples to follow him, to do life together with him, and in the end, they worshiped him. Later, after Jesus ascended to heaven, Peter and John were brought before the religious leaders and teachers for trial. When the leaders saw the courage of Peter and John, realizing they were unschooled, ordinary men, the leaders were astonished and recognized that Peter and John had been with Jesus.

To be a disciple of Jesus is to be with Jesus. Jesus makes this so clear in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus calls us to relationship that is constant and dependent. He calls us to a relational intimacy and to a dependency that looks to him for the ability to live an abundant, fruitful life. Matthew records Jesus telling his disciples that he has all authority in heaven and on earth and that he will be with them always. So being a disciple of Jesus is about submission to Jesus as lord and attaching to Jesus as our empowering companion.

Dallas Willard has written and spoken extensively on the nature of spiritual formation, and his work is a huge gift to the Church. However, in all his years, he witnessed many devout Christians read his books, follow his counsel, and faithfully engage in spiritual practices and exercises yet not experience much transformation into Christlike maturity. In his book Renovated, Jim Wilder shares conversations he had with Dallas Willard about what might be missing in our attempts to help people become more like Jesus.

In one conversation, with only weeks to live and with tears in his eyes, Dallas said to Jim, “What I have learned in this last year is more important than what I learned in the rest of my life. But I have no time to write about it. You need to write about this.” And with mounting passion Dallas stated, “I know of no soteriology (doctrine of salvation) based on forming a new attachment with God.”1 Knowledge about God and right beliefs about God—if they are divorced from true attachment love from and with God—will not bring lasting transformation. Renovated explores how attachment love from and with God is what brings true transformation.

This is what Jesus is saying in John 15 when he tells his disciples they must abide in him and he in them if they are to be fruitful. He prays to God the Father with this same thought in John 17:3 when he says, “This is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” This word know is not merely pertaining to having ideas about God and Jesus Christ. It means to be intimately and relationally connected to them. In fact, Jesus further clarifies this later in his prayer in John 17:20-21 as he prays for all of us who will believe in him: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Paul writes a similar message to the church in Colossae when he says, “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:27-28). The maturity Paul describes requires an intimate relationship with Jesus.

Jesus, Paul, Dallas, and Jim are all saying the same thing. You will never grow up into Christlike maturity unless you are lovingly attached in an intimate relationship with God the Father and Jesus the Son through the powerful presence and work of the Spirit.

Our definition of a disciple of Jesus must include this relationship. And so must our practices, as we will see. If the beliefs, teaching, and practices that we engage in (and call others to engage in) do not bring about attachment love from and with God, we are nothing. For God is love, and without love, as Paul instructs the Corinthian church, we have nothing and we are nothing.2


Relational attachment from and with Jesus will bring about transformation that looks like Jesus. When he calls his first disciples, Jesus promises that if they follow him and be with him, he will make them into something new. Then, in his final words, he commands his disciples—relying on his power and presence—to go and make disciples. He continues by instructing them to baptize new disciples in (or into) the name of the Father, the name of the Son, and the name of the Holy Spirit. To baptize means to immerse into, so as to take on the nature or identity of the immersion.3

For example, in those days you would baptize a piece of fabric in red dye, and the fabric would become red. One would then say that the fabric had been baptized in red and therefore into red. It had taken on the very substance of what it was baptized into. This concept of baptism was representative of a new identity. To be baptized in (and into) the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a visible picture of a new reality. Your new baptismal identity is a child of God the Father, born again by the Spirit; a servant of King Jesus and an extension of his servant-like rule and reign on the earth; and a sent one, empowered by the Holy Spirit to be a witness to the world of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. A disciple of Jesus is a changed person with an entirely new nature and identity, which leads to an entirely new way of living. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!”

One of the most profound truths of the Christian faith is that we are free from the world’s system that has trained us to believe that what we do is who we are—that our activity leads to our identity. This is the empty and powerless religion of our world. The heart of the Christian faith is that we are who we are, not because of what we have done, but because of what God in Christ Jesus has done for us and is doing in us and through us. If our faith is in Jesus and all that he accomplished for us through his life, death, and resurrection, then our lives are in him as well. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God,4 and we become co-heirs of Christ.5 All that he is and all that he has done and is doing define all that we are.

Paul continues this thought of being a new creation in Christ in 2 Corinthians 5:21, saying, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We went from an identity of being sinners to being righteous. We went from dead to alive,6 from enemy of God7 to child of God.8

As a new creation, a disciple is called to not only know their new identity but to actively put off the old and put on the new, which is another way of saying to live out who you really are now. Paul instructs the church in Ephesus with these words: “I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles [not yet disciples of Jesus] do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God [notice the detachment here] because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves up to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:17-24).

Disciples of Jesus are new people, but they can still live like they are not.9 Our old selves were alienated from the life of God—but now we are new, and we have access to the very life of God in Jesus Christ. That is what eternal life is. Eternal life is not just life after death. Eternal life is a whole new kind of living made possible now by the very life of God in you. And this new life lines up with a new self that is created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. We are new, but we also need to learn to live in this new way.

A key part of being a disciple of Jesus is putting off the old and walking in the new, becoming more and more like Jesus in our feelings, thoughts, words, and actions. This was the desire of disciples in Jesus’ day. They wanted to be with their rabbi so they could become like the rabbi. Being with Jesus leads to becoming like Jesus. Then we are able to do the things Jesus did and is still doing.


Jesus told his disciples he would show them how to fish for people. Then later he commanded them to make disciples, baptizing them into their new identity, teaching them to obey all that he commanded them, promising that he would be with them the entire time. Dallas Willard encouraged readers to ask their pastors, “What is your plan for teaching our people to do everything Christ commanded?” Our definition of a disciple must include the aspect of doing what Jesus commanded—and, I would add, doing it through Jesus’ powerful presence at work in us and through us.

When my wife and I called a small group of disciples to join us in starting a new church in Tacoma, Washington, we wanted the goal to be that every disciple of Jesus could make disciples of Jesus who obey all that Jesus commanded. Sadly, in far too many cases, Christians believe that disciple- making disciples are the ninjas of Christianity, not the norm.10 This was never Jesus’ plan.

With this goal in mind, we recognized that we would need to take a close look at all that Jesus commanded his disciples to do. As we considered everything Jesus commanded, we made a list. Then we set out to train the new disciples to obey every command of Jesus. We knew it was not sufficient just to tell them what to do. Our most effective disciple-making over the years always included show and tell. We needed to both teach and demonstrate to help people learn in real time how to obey Jesus’ commands. So, with each of Jesus’ commands, we either tried to create real-life learning scenarios or prayed that Jesus would provide them.

One of the opportunities Jesus gave us centered on his command to heal the sick.11 A brother of one of our core group members was dying of cancer. He had a brain tumor and was given very little time to live. His sister called and asked if we could pray for his healing. I said yes, we could, but I wanted him to come to our weekly meal and training time a little later so that I could take the time to teach our group about healing before he arrived. His dad, who was not yet a Christian, decided to show up early. He listened in as I walked through the biblical passages that teach us about healing. The brother, who had walked away from Jesus, arrived after the teaching time, and we started by asking what he wanted. He said he wanted to be healed. We then asked if he had any sin he wanted to confess. He got on his knees, without us directing him, and began to confess his sin and profess his faith in Jesus. We proceeded to pray for his healing.

A few weeks later, we were informed that he had been healed! However, he was still pretty weak and needed help around the house. So we went and practiced another of Jesus’ commands—serving those in need. I ended up power washing his driveway and sidewalk with his father. His father was curious as to why we were doing all of this for his son, so I shared about God’s love for us in Jesus and how we serve others because Jesus has served us.

In that scenario, we were able to show and tell three of Jesus’ commands to the small group of Jesus-followers we were responsible for: heal the sick, serve those in need, proclaim the gospel. That is what teaching disciples to obey Jesus’ commands looks like. This can’t happen in a classroom. It happens in real life.

And, to be clear, Jesus doesn’t command us to do this on our own, but with him. Jesus calls his disciples to be on his mission, doing what he is doing with him as he is doing it in us and through us. The Great Commission is not a mission we are sent on by Jesus to do for Jesus. The “Great Co-Mission” is about joining Jesus on his mission in the world.

A disciple is one who is with Jesus, being transformed by Jesus, and doing what Jesus is doing in the world.

Putting It Together

As you think about how you define a disciple, make sure your definition is relational, transformational, and commissional. Some examples of how a disciple could be defined are:

  • A disciple of Jesus is committed to be with Jesus, become like Jesus, and do what Jesus did and is doing.
  • A disciple of Jesus worships Jesus, is being changed by Jesus, and obeys everything Jesus commands.
  • A disciple of Jesus follows Jesus, is transformed by Jesus, and joins Jesus on mission in the world.

Some choose to capture this in identity language. For instance:

  • A disciple is a child of God who loves others like family, a servant of Jesus who serves others like Jesus served them, and a missionary sent and empowered by the Spirit to show and share Jesus.

How about you? How do you define who a disciple is, and how do you sense Jesus is inviting you to join him in making disciples who make disciples?

This is an excerpt from Jeff Vanderstelt’s newest book One-Eighty: A Return to Disciple-Making © Exponential. Download the free e-book here or order a physical copy from Amazon.

  1. Quoted from page 1 of Jim Wilder’s book Renovated: God, Dallas Willard and the Church That Transforms. Jim includes several of Dallas Willard’s lectures given at the Heart and Soul Conference. In these lectures, Dallas addresses the relationship of spiritual maturity to emotional maturity. ↩︎
  2. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 ↩︎
  3. For more on baptismal identity, consider this animated description. You might also be interested in reading Saturate: Making Disciples in the Everyday Stuff of Life, by Jeff Vanderstelt, which goes into much greater detail about how we form familial communities on mission in light of our baptismal identity. ↩︎
  4. Colossians 3:3 ↩︎
  5. Romans 8:17 ↩︎
  6. Ephesians 2:4 ↩︎
  7. Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:3 ↩︎
  8. Romans 8:14-17 ↩︎
  9. This is what Paul describes more extensively in Romans 7-8. I find that this is a very confusing reality for many Christians. Some regularly question their salvation because they believe that if they struggle in the way Paul describes in Romans 7, they either are not Christians or they have lost their salvation. I often encourage people in this struggle that the fact that they are struggling is a good sign. They want to do what is good and right even though they struggle to always do it. In most cases, this is both evidence that they are saved (they have a new heart that wants to do what God wants) and that they are aware they need to experience the ongoing salva- tion of Jesus (being saved like Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15:1-2). ↩︎
  10. I was once sharing at a conference with a very well-known and influential pastor during a Q&A session about disciple-making. This particular pastor shared that I primarily worked with ninja Christians, the few who actually were committed to making disciples. He continued saying that he doesn’t believe most Christians will ever commit to and be able to make disciples, so his primary job was to teach them and to help them connect in community. Sadly, though most pastors will never say it this clearly, far too many believe the same thing. Because of this, so few Christians believe Jesus actually intended the Great Commission to be carried out by all Christians. ↩︎
  11. Dandelion Resourcing is a wonderfully helpful training ministry that equips the Church to walk in naturally supernatural ways. Training disciples to pray for healing is one of the things they are very effective at training Christians in. ↩︎

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