DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN SALVATION AND DISCIPLESHIP
“As He spake these words, many believed on Him. Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on Him, If ye continue in My Word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:30–32
It is very important to understand the difference between believing on Christ for salvation and following Him in discipleship. These concepts are certainly connected, but the book of John makes it clear that they are not the same. Believers will fail to live a holy life unless they understand discipleship, and they will lack assurance of their salvation if they confuse salvation with discipleship.
The Bible makes a distinction between believers and disciples. In John 2:11 we are told that Jesus did His first miracle “in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory, and his disciples believed on him.” In chapter one, we are told about the men who decided to follow the Lord Jesus, and in chapter two, verse two, they are called “his disciples.” Having seen His miraculous power, these disciples “believed on him.” They became believers.
In John 6 we read about a time when many of His disciples quit following Jesus. It happened after they heard Him make some bold statements about Himself and about receiving eternal life through Him. They had promised to follow Him as their Master and Teacher, but now they realized that He wanted them to depend on Him for their very salvation, and they just were not ready for this. When they complained, Jesus told them, “There are some of you that believe not.” They were disciples of Jesus, but not believers. The prime example of an unbelieving disciple was Judas the traitor.
THERE ARE SIGNIFICANT DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN SALVATION AND DISCIPLESHIP
- Christ’s invitation to salvation is, “Come unto me” (Matthew 11:28); His call to discipleship is, “Come after Me” (Matthew 16:24).
- Salvation is about the Cross of Christ (Matthew 16:21); discipleship is about your own cross (Matthew 16:22-24).
- At salvation, you receive a gift, eternal life (John 4:10 and Romans 6:23); in discipleship, you give a gift, your body (Romans 12:1).
- The salvation decision (putting faith in Christ for eternal life) must be made only once (John 5:24, 6:37-40, 10:27-28); the discipleship decision (commitment to obey Christ) must be made again and again (Luke 9:23).
- Salvation is a sure thing (Romans 8:1, 8-11, 28-30, 33-39); discipleship is always in danger of failing (Luke 14:25-35).
- Salvation is about grace (Ephesians 2:5-9); discipleship is about works (Revelation 22:12).
- Eternal life is the result of salvation in Christ (John 3:16); eternal rewards are the result of successful discipleship (Matthew 16:27).
Salvation (eternal life in Christ) and discipleship (dedication to Christ) are simply not the same. When Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God, He called people to follow Him as disciples (see Matthew 4:17-5:1). The term disciple means “a learner.” A disciple commits himself to his teacher, as an apprentice does, in order to learn how to do what the teacher does. As the term student is used of a learner in relation to his subject (as a “student of history”), the term disciple is used of a learner in relation to his teacher (as a “disciple of Socrates,” or of John the Baptist).
Many answered the call of Jesus to discipleship, and some continued to be faithful to that commitment, although the majority failed to keep it.
Successful disciples somewhere along the trail came to understand who Jesus really was, and trusted Him for their salvation. Peter is an example of a disciple who, although he often failed in his discipleship commitment, believed on Christ and was eternally saved. Judas Iscariot was a disciple who not only failed at discipleship (he “fell” from apostleship according to Acts 1:25) but also failed to believe on Christ and was eternally lost. The end of the chapter that records the desertion of so many of the Lord’s disciples brings relation between discipleship and believing very powerfully before us.
“From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus answered them, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil? He spake of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve.” John 6:66–71
THE NECESSITY OF DISCIPLESHIP
As we have seen in the book of John (see part 1), disciples of Jesus are not necessarily believers in Him. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be committed to follow Him. To believe in Him is to trust Him for one’s eternal salvation. There is clearly a difference between the two, but it is also clear in the Bible that discipleship and salvation are not disconnected. Those who follow Jesus as Master and Teacher ought at some point to believe on Him as their Saviour. If one is truly committed to follow the teaching and the will of Jesus Christ, he will be brought to the place where he sees his need to believe on Him.
Today there are many who seek to follow Jesus but have not yet trusted Him completely for their own salvation. We should not think that there are no real disciples of Christ among those who have joined sacramental churches, affiliated with monastic orders, or entered the Christian ministry. While not understanding the glorious truth of justification by faith in Christ alone, many sincere religionists are disciples but not believers. However, Christian discipleship should lead to a saving faith.
The men whom Jesus chose to be His apostles found that if they would follow the teaching of their Master, they must recognize that His central teaching had to do with Who He is. “I am,” He said again and again, “the Bread of Life” (John 6), “the Light of the World” (John 8), “the Good Shepherd” (John 10), and “the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11). He did not say that He gave them the bread of life; He said He was that Bread which satisfies fully and forever. He did not say that He was a light in the world; rather He claimed to be the Light of the World. He said He was the Shepherd of the psalm, Whom David had identified as Jehovah Himself. He taught that He Himself is Eternal Life. Those who are really following Him must accept these claims and trust Him for their own salvation. They will either do this or forsake their discipleship.
BELIEVERS OUGHT TO LIVE AS DISCIPLES OF JESUS
People who have salvation in Christ have a moral obligation to follow Christ in discipleship. One of the most important calls to discipleship in the Bible is Romans 12:1, which shows us this truth very clearly: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”
Notice that the call is addressed to believers (brethren). Saved people are called to discipleship in this verse. Notice further that the discipleship decision of dedication is voluntary even for believers (I beseech you). It is not automatic that a believer will follow discipleship. But every saved person is morally obligated to give the Lord his total dedication (by the mercies of God). The entire book of Romans before chapter 12 is about the mercies of God by which we are saved. Now, because of them, we who have been saved are urged to live entirely for the One Who died for us. It is our “reasonable service.”
Salvation is the most important issue of life, but it is not the only issue. If it were, why would we need the epistles? Without questioning the genuineness of their salvation, Paul in his inspired epistles admonished believers to flee “fornication” (1 Corinthians 6:18), “idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14), “the love of money” (1 Timothy 6:7-11), and “youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 2:22).
The New Testament constantly calls on believers to repent of their sins, to be good Christians, and to behave as disciples. Failure to live the Christian life does not prove that a person is not a Christian. Salvation does not settle all the issues of the Christian life, and wrong choices concerning other issues do not prove that the right choice has not been made about salvation. Surrender to God, love for others, honesty, purity, self-denial, submission to authority, and prayer are all issues true believers are to handle as disciples.
FAITH IS THE KEY BOTH TO ASSURANCE OF SALVATION AND TO SUCCESSFUL DISCIPLESHIP
The Bible teaches that we are saved by faith in Christ, and also that we are to live by faith in Christ. Faith makes all the difference both in having assurance that you are saved and in living the Christian life after you are saved. We see this clearly in the book of Galatians. Chapter 2, verse 16, says that, “A man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.” We are justified (made right in the sight of God) by faith in Christ (as opposed to earning God’s favor through our supposed obedience to God’s law). Then verse 19 begins a discussion about how to, “Live unto God,” and verse 20 says that this is done also, “By the faith of the Son of God.”
Many come short of victory in their Christian life because they are seeking it through the efforts of their flesh. As we have seen, discipleship is about works, and it will be our works that will be rewarded if we succeed at discipleship, but nobody ever succeeds at Christian discipleship until they learn to live by faith.
LET’S GET IT STRAIGHT
Confusion over the distinctions between salvation and discipleship is doing serious harm in many lives today. People who have a hard time being sure of their salvation usually are having trouble because of preaching they have heard. Some otherwise sound preachers mix up the requirements of discipleship with the requirement for salvation, and are in this way preaching false doctrine.
The requirement for salvation is simple faith. The requirements for discipleship include self-denial, absolute surrender to Christ, and the forsaking of all. Preachers must preach discipleship, but not discipleship for salvation. Failure at discipleship does not prove that one is not saved.
Salvation is about, “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17). Discipleship is about, “If any man serve me, let him follow me” (John 12:26). They go together, but they are not the same. To make them the same is to ruin the plan of salvation by inserting the requirement of works. Let us rightly divide the truth of God, and thereby enjoy all the blessings of the grace of God.
Article from Ministry 127
2020 | Distinction between Discipleship and Salvation | Ministry 123 | Dr. Rick Flanders | March 03, 2011 |