How are you doing at making disciples? It was a question I had never been asked. In 35 years of church life, I had never been asked about my basic obedience to Jesus’ final and most straightforward command: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you,” (Matt. 28:19-20a).
We were at a conference in Thailand and our trainer was a long-time missionary working in Southeast Asia. His work with a previously unreached tribe in a neighboring country was built on one basic strategy—obey Jesus and make disciples who in turn make disciples.
My paradigm of discipleship was largely based on an idea that more information would form me into Christ-likeness. The method was to read more books, attend more seminars and, if I wanted, to have a mentor. Discipleship then was much more about spiritual formation than about actually learning how to obey Jesus and make disciples.
Spiritual formation is of immense importance and I’ve benefited from good books, great seminars and some terrific mentors. But the discipleship of my youth largely ignored the idea that I should obey Jesus and make disciples who also obey Jesus and make disciples. It was there in Thailand that I began a journey toward understanding obedience-based discipleship as opposed to knowledge-based discipleship.
The importance of obedience
The story of the wise and foolish builders in Matthew 7 highlights the importance of obedience. Both men in Jesus’ story have heard and know the right information. The difference between the two is that the wise man heard the words of Jesus and put them into practice. He simply obeyed.
If Jesus’ first invitation to the disciples was, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” and his final command was to go and make disciples, then making disciples is inextricably linked to our own discipleship. You cannot have one without the other. We must learn to obey Jesus. After all, the biblical example of discipleship is not simply obedience, it’s risk-taking obedience to Jesus.
Somehow in Western church culture, obedience has taken on a negative connotation. Perhaps it’s born of our insistence on personal rights and freedom at all costs. It could be a response to fundamentalist tendencies in our past that lead to soul-destroying legalism.
Obedience is the life-giving, faith-stretching default of the true disciple of Jesus. And so, if we are to become the type of disciples who are making disciples, we need to reclaim a biblical understanding of obedience.
Regardless, if we are to move toward forms of discipleship that lead to the making of disciples who make disciples and greater spiritual maturity, then we need to reclaim a biblical understanding of obedience. It is Jesus’ idea after all.
In John 14 and 15 Jesus says, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching” (14:23), and “You are my friends if you do what I command” (15:14). The apostle John in 1 John 5:2-4 puts it this way, “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome,….”
Obedience is not blind duty. It’s not soul stifling legalism. Biblical examples and understandings of obedience are life-giving and faith-stretching. Obedience is the outpouring of our love in response to God’s love. If it is anything other than that, we need to re-evaluate our own spiritual journeys to discover where we’ve left biblical teaching behind.
All of Scripture presents a clear pattern: God delights to multiply the kind of disciple who is dedicated to pursuing immediate, radical, risk-taking obedience to Jesus. The picture Scripture paints of those who live this way is a picture of a people who are filled with joy and purpose and the abundant life that Jesus promises.
Think of Abraham, Moses and David. Think of Peter, John and Paul.Read through the book of Acts. Obedience is the life-giving, faith-stretching default of the true disciple of Jesus. And so, if we are to become the type of disciples who are making disciples, we need to reclaim a biblical understanding of obedience.
Jesus’ spiritual economy
But how do we do that? A mentor of mine, Curtis Sergeant, teaches a concept he calls spiritual economy. Our earthly economies are built on the idea of the transaction. I have something that you want, and so I protect it and only give it to you for a cost.
But the spiritual economy of Jesus is different. Jesus tells us, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8). Paul exhorts Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2).
Curtis suggests that the spiritual economy consists of three parts: knowledge, obedience and sharing. When we are faithful to obey the daily promptings of Scripture and the Holy Spirit and regularly share with others the truths that God is revealing to us, then God will respond by revealing more truth to us. This is how Jesus frames it in John 14:21, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”
We will see more of Jesus in our lives as we obey and share the things we know to be true. It is when we step out in faith to obey Jesus and share the good news of the gospel that our faith can truly grow and mature. And because we are obeying Jesus, we also become the type of disciples who are making disciples.
Along these lines, Nathan Shank, a disciple-making movement catalyst serving with the International Mission Board in South Asia makes this observation: “We have learned, information does not create movement; thus, our goal is not effective content. Rather it is application of biblical truth that characterizes a movement of the spirit of God. Our goal has always been a 1:1 ratio among what is understood and what is applied.”
Our training in Thailand set me on a new journey of discovering what it means to live a life of discipleship based on obedience to Jesus. Truth be told—it’s been hard. A lifetime of low expectations toward obeying Jesus has created patterns of behavior that are difficult to break. Obedience has not been my default. I’ve lived most of my life as a fan of Jesus rather than a committed disciple of Jesus. And I’m a long way from a 1:1 ratio among what I understand and what I’m applying.
If you’re like me and you want to grow as a disciple of Jesus, then commit to pursuing radical obedience to Jesus. Start today! Here are a few steps you can take to begin moving toward greater expressions of joyful obedience as disciples of Jesus.
Begin to pray strategically for opportunities to share with those in your life who don’t yet follow Jesus. Create an intentional habit of daily prayer by first writing down a list of family, friends and acquaintances who are far from God and then by setting a daily alarm on your smartphone or posting a reminder on your bathroom mirror. Pray for them every day.
Get training on how to share your faith in a simple reproducible way. A tool we train everyone to use at our E2E training weekends is the three circles. A quick YouTube search for “Three Circles Gospel” will lead you to demonstrations of this gospel tool. Commit to practicing it daily until you’ve mastered how to use it.
Gather a few friends together to read and discuss this article. What would it look like if together you pursued lives of obedience to Jesus in everything? Pray together and identify one thing that Jesus is inviting you to obey today. And then do it!
Jesus is inviting us back to a biblical understanding of discipleship built on lives of radical obedience to our Lord. It won’t always be easy and new habits will have to be formed, but it will result in greater spiritual maturity, increased kingdom impact and the joy filled abundant life that Jesus promises.