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.