How is Discipleship Not Salvation by Works?

One of the great debates surrounding discipleship is if it equates to salvation by works. For being a disciple of someone intrinsically requires the disciple to “do something.”
Because, a disciple is someone who attempts to obey and imitate their master by knowing and keeping their master’s words, teachings, commands, and example. And it is clear from the 250+ references in the New Testament that we are to be disciples of Jesus. So how then does that not equate to salvation by works?
One point of clarification is that good works are at the very least associated with salvation. Scripture is clear that one cannot simply “get saved” and then not be conformed to the image of Jesus by imitating Him as His disciple.
Paul wrote:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
While Paul makes it clear that while we are not saved by doing the works that we would be tempted to believe might save us; we are saved in order to perform the GOOD works that God has foreordained for us to do as we are being re-created into the image of Jesus/God that we were originally created to be.
John the Apostle likewise wrote:
“We know that we have come to know [Jesus] if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:3-6).
Again, John makes it clear that salvation must produce obedience to and imitation of Jesus as His disciple; or we were never “saved.”
James the brother of Jesus wrote:
“Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead (James 2:19-26).
James also wrote that if our faith does not produce the good works of God, then it is not true faith at all.
The author of Hebrews wrote:
“Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:8-9).
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so famously wrote in The Cost of Discipleship:
“The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus… Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.”
Even after Paul chided the Galatians for trying to return to salvation through the Jewish Law by keeping circumcision and feast days, he then gives them a list of what they should not be doing and what they should be doing in their freedom in Christ:
“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (Galatians 5:19-26).
Just as Jesus Himself preached in the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount:
“Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:17-27).
Jesus makes it clear that only His disciples who obey Him will enter into the kingdom of heaven and only their lives will stand on judgement day. All others will fall with a great crash.
Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gave this command to His disciples:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Paul gave us the best explanation of how we are to keep this seemingly impossible command:
“Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect (same Greek word as in Matthew 5:48), but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).
Paul realizes that while he will not be completely perfected into the image of Jesus until he steps into Paradise (Philippians 3:20-21), he still “presses on” toward conformity to the image of Jesus/God by imitating and obeying Him as His disciple; which is “that for which I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.”
As Paul instructed the Corinthians:
“Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
And as he also wrote to the Ephesians:
“So I tell you and encourage you in the Lord’s name not to live any longer like other people in the world. Their minds are set on worthless things. They can’t understand because they are in the dark. They are excluded from the life that God approves of because of their ignorance and stubbornness. Since they no longer have any sense of shame, they have become promiscuous. They practice every kind of sexual perversion with a constant desire for more. But that is not what you learned from Christ’s teachings. You have certainly heard his message and have been taught his ways. The truth is in Jesus. You were taught to change the way you were living. The person you used to be will ruin you through desires that deceive you. However, you were taught to have a new attitude. You were also taught to become a new person created to be like God, with a life that truely has God’s approval and is holy” (Ephesians 4:17-24).
“Imitate God, since you are the children he loves” (Ephesians 5:1).
Scripture clearly teaches that there will be a change in those who have placed their faith in Christ. As Paul wrote:
“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
Thus, while we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus; faith in Jesus must include repentance, which is an agreement to change what we are doing. Of course, this is only accomplished by the power of the Spirit; and not by our own will power. This is why discipleship can never be salvation by works.
For as A.W. Tozer preached:
“The purpose of God is not to save us from hell; the purpose of God is to save us and make us like Christ and to make us like God. God will never be done with us until the day we see His face, when His name is on our foreheads; and we shall be like Him because we shall see Him as He is.”
“This is the purpose of redemption: taking on the material of fallen man and by the mystery of regeneration and sanctification, restoring it again so that he is like God and like Christ. This is why we preach redemption. That is what redemption is; it is not saving us from hell, although it does save us from hell; but more importantly, it is making it so that we can be like God again.”
The purpose of salvation through faith in Christ is that we might bring glory to God through the Holy Spirit re-creating us into the image of Jesus/God that we were originally created to be. And that process begins now, but is only completed when we step into Paradise. As such, there must be a consistent change in actions that is constantly working toward the perfection of Jesus in this life.
Thus, imitating Jesus as His disciple is not the means of our salvation, but rather the means by which the Holy Spirit accomplishes the goal of our salvation; bringing glory to God as we are re-conformed to the image of God that we were originally created to be (as we are conformed to the image of Jesus who is the perfect image of God).
As Paul also wrote:
“When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator (Colossians 3:4-10).
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
Therefore, until that final day when we are perfected in glory, let us through the power of the Holy Spirit press on toward that for which for which we were laid hold of by Jesus. Maranatha.
For more information as to why it is so important that we be re-conformed to the image of God by imitating and obeying Jesus as His disciple, start on this page and follow the links:



Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash