Why We Can't Opt Out of Discipleship


Our self-perception has a profound impact on how we live our lives. If you see yourself as a disciple of Jesus, you’ll try to live like one. Conversely, if you don’t self-identify as a disciple, you probably won’t feel compelled to act like one. Why would you? Why would anyone expect you to behave like something you’re not?

But what if you actually are that something? You just don’t know it. What if you thought you were just coming to Jesus for forgiveness, when in fact you were also signing up to be his lifelong disciple? And what if Jesus has enrolled you in his school of discipleship but your seat has been empty ever since?  

That’s awkward.

But it happens. A lot. According to Dallas Willard, “The governing assumption today, among professing Christians, is that we can be ‘Christians’ forever and never become disciples.”[1] Willard referred to this phenomenon as “the Great Omission from the ‘Great Commission.’”[2] He wrote a whole book about it.

So why do so many professing Christians resist the disciple label? Many believe it to be presumptuous to declare themselves disciples of Jesus when they fall so far short of his standard of discipleship. (Don’t we all?) It’s ironic, though, that this sense of unworthiness that keeps Christians from self-identifying as a disciple of Jesus also tends to keep them from even trying to live like a disciple. Why should I act like a disciple if I’m not even sure I am one?

No doubt, this mental merry-go-round has waylaid many Christians. But identifying Jesus’ disciples is actually quite straightforward.

If you’ve truly come to Jesus for salvation, then you’re his disciple.

Willard was right: “There is absolutely nothing in what Jesus himself or his early followers taught that suggests you can decide just to enjoy forgiveness at Jesus’s expense and have nothing more to do with him.”[3]

Nothing undercuts biblical discipleship as subtly and effectively as the notion that discipleship, while a noble and worthwhile pursuit for those who aspire to spiritual greatness, is not essential to what it means to be a Christian. The problem with this view and the two-class system it creates is that neither Jesus nor the early church would have recognized it.[4]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer denounced this idea of Christianity without discipleship as “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer explained, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”[5]  

Trying to opt out of discipleship amounts to trying to deny something that’s fundamentally true about us as believers in Jesus.

When we received Christ as our Savior we became his disciples. We know the answer to the question “Am I a disciple of Jesus?” The real question for those of us who know him is, “How faithful am I as his disciple?”

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[1]Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (New York, NY: Harper One, 2006), xi.

[2]Willard, The Great Omission, xii.

[3]Willard, The Great Omission, 13.

[4]I make a biblical case for this in Chapter 2 of my eBook, Seven Questions for Diagnosing Your Church’s Great Commission Health, available at Amazon.com.

[5]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, rev. ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963), 47.