Is a disciple merely another name for a Christian who is born into God's family through faith in Jesus Christ, or is a disciple a Christian who meets specific conditions about following Jesus? Knowing the answer to this question is crucial to understanding the gospel of grace and the Christian life.
The word disciple comes from the Greek verb matheteuo, which means to be or become a pupil or learner. So the essential meaning of disciple is a learner, which could also be called a follower or an apprentice. In ancient culture, a person would follow a "master" teacher or craftsman in order to become like him (Matt. 10:25; Luke 6:40). This took a certain commitment from the follower.
Though the prevalent use in the New Testament is in reference to followers of Jesus Christ, disciple was not just a Christian term. The Bible mentions disciples of Moses, the Pharisees, and John the Baptist. In fact, it seems that John 6:66 uses the word disciples to refer to non-Christians who were following Jesus just out of self-interest or curiosity. In this general way, Judas Iscariot was called a disciple because he followed Jesus to some extent.
The book of Acts uses the term disciple(s) to refer to Christians as a group without distinction about their commitment (6:1-2, 7; 11:26; 14:20, 22, 28; 15:10; 19:10). This is because Luke, the author, understood discipleship as Jesus explained it, and indeed the Christians in Acts were actively and obediently following Jesus Christ with few exceptions. In light of the great commission to "make disciples" which ends the Gospel era (Matt. 28:19-20), it would be natural to call believers in Acts disciples to show that the commission was being fulfilled. The few exceptions of disobedient believers were singled out for special treatment (cf. Acts 51-11; 8:13?.; 19:10-19).
The Epistles never use the word disciple(s). However, the idea is communicated in the commands to imitate mature believers who themselves imitate Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:7, 9).
When looking at discipleship passages in the Gospels, we see that conditions for Christian discipleship are given consistently to believers. In order for one to be a true follower of Jesus Christ, Christians have to meet certain conditions given by the Lord. These include obeying His Word (John 8:31) and denying one's own desires, being willing to suffer for identifying with Him, and actively pursuing His will (Luke 9:23). There are other conditions as well. All of these conditions involve a commitment, obedience, or some kind of sacrifice from the Christian. If that is true, then discipleship costs the believer something.
It should be apparent that discipleship is distinct from one's initial salvation, that disciples are not born but made. If salvation is free (by grace through faith), but discipleship is costly, then salvation must be distinct from discipleship. This chart should help show the distinctions between salvation and discipleship:
|Received through faith||Earned by commitment and obedience|
|Not by Works||By works|
|Instant Justification||Life-long sanctification|
|Jesus paid the price||The Christian pays the price|
|Coming to Jesus as Savior||Following Jesus as Lord|
|Believe the gospel||Obey the commands|
To ask whether disciples are born or made is to ask whether justifcation is different from sanctifcation or whether Christian birth is different from Christian growth. To keep the gospel clear, we must not confuse the one condition of eternal salvation (faith) with the many conditions of discipleship.