The Explicit “Why” and “How” of Being a Disciple of Jesus

The Apostle John (Jesus’ earthly best friend) 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, NIV).
Why was John so adamant that if we do not obey Jesus’ commands and follow His example, then we are not really saved?
To answer that question, let me give you my background.
My first exposure to Relational Discipleship was when I took an elective class while I was finishing up my M.A. in theology. In that class I read Putman and Harrington’s Discipleshift, Earley and Dempsey’s Discipleship Is…, Hull’s Complete Book of Discipleship, and Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship (I read the newer translation simply titled Discipleship).
As I read Putman and Harrington’s Discipleshift, I sat in my living room and alternated between crying from broken-heartedness over the condition of the church, and laughing for joy over having finally found the answer for the condition of our churches. I read the rest of Putman’s books and then attended a Discipleshift conference to see if what they were proposing was possible. I was convinced that it was.
I was also convinced that even though I was a pastor, I didn’t know how to make disciples of Jesus. So, I resigned my position as a youth pastor, moved back to my hometown, got a secular job, and began working toward an MDiv. in Discipleship Ministries.
But I wanted to do more than just study discipleship. So, my wife and I began a small group; and I began to have conversations with everyone I knew about what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. I assumed that because I lived in a Jesus-saturated culture, everyone would be as excited as I was to learn what was wrong with our churches. I was greatly mistaken.
I discovered several harsh truths. One was that Relational Discipleship could be used to make disciples of something or someone other than Jesus. In the first century, the Pharisees made disciples of themselves and their theology in relational environments using Scripture just as Jesus did; Matthew 23:15, Mark 2:18, Luke 5:33, Acts 22:3.
What particularly occurs in my culture and context is that we employ the logical fallacy of semantics/equivocation to make the term “disciples of Jesus” mean disciples of whatever we have been making disciples of (whether it be theology, tradition, philosophy of ministry, worship style, person, et cetera) and then use pet scriptures, often taken out of context, to justify doing so.
And Jesus specifically forbade us from using the logical fallacy of semantics/equivocation in Matthew 5:33-37. Furthermore, all logical fallacies are lies and therefore of Satan; John 8:44.
As such, if I were to ask a member of a church (in my culture and context) if they are a disciple of Jesus and if their church is making disciples of Jesus in relational environments, they would answer “Yes!”; even though the lives of those “disciples” would prove otherwise.
Eventually, we decided to plant a church, but we realized that we had to be extremely specific in everything we said and did because of our culture and context, which has been inoculated against Jesus.
We attempted to concisely state not only the “what,” but also the “why” and the “how” of being a disciple of Jesus. We narrowed all the information about being a disciple of Jesus down into 4 principles that we feel best clarifies these concepts:
  1. The Image of God as the Basis of Discipleship
  2. The Purpose of Imitating Jesus as His Disciple
  3. The First Century, Biblical Understanding of Discipleship.
  4. Biblical Discipleship in a Relational Environment
When these principles are put into a logical progression, they produce this statement:
Men bring glory to God, by..
…being re-conformed to the image of God that they were originally created to be, by…
…being conformed to the image of Jesus (who is the perfect image of God), by…
…imitating Jesus as His disciple, by…
…knowing and then keeping the words, teachings, commands, and example given by Jesus…
…through the supernatural empowerment and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, …
…within Relational Discipleship.
Paul laid out the basics of this progression (in reverse order) in Ephesians 4:
You heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:20-24).
Therefore, the first principle is the ultimate “why” of discipleship:
  1. The Image of God as the Basis of Discipleship. The ultimate goal of the Gospel is that men bring glory to God by being re-conformed to the image of God that they were originally created to be (Genesis 1:27, 1 Corinthians 11:7, Matthew 5:48, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Ephesians 4:22-24, 5:1, Colossians 3:9-10, 2 Peter 1:4).
A.W. Tozer wrote in The Crucified Life:
What a bunch of unworthy people we evangelicals have become, daring to stand up on our feet and preach to an intelligent audience that the essence, the final purpose and the cause of Christ is to save us from hell. How stupid can we get and still claim to be followers of Christ.
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.
What a cheap, across-the-counter commercial kind of Christianity that says, ‘I was in debt, and Christ came and paid that debt.’ Sure, He did, but why emphasize that? ‘I was on my way to hell and Jesus stopped me and saved me.’ Sure, He did, but that is not the thing to emphasize. What we need to emphasize is that God has saved us to make us like His Son. His purpose is to catch us on our wild race to hell, turn us around because He knows us, bring judgement on the old self and then create a new self within us, which is Jesus Christ.[1]
Tozer also wrote in The Purpose of Man:
Man’s supreme function through all eternity is to reflect God’s highest glory, and that God might look into the mirror called man and see His own glory shining there. Through man, God could reflect His glory to all creation.

All the holy prophets and apostles teach that man fell from his first estate and destroyed the glory of God, and the mirror was broken. God could no longer look at sinful man and see His glory reflected. Man failed to fulfill the created purpose of worship to his Creator in the beauty of holiness.

For worship to be acceptable to God, you must be renewed after the image of Him that created you. That ‘image’ must be restored. Only the renewed man can worship God in a way worthy of and acceptable to Him.

In the temptation in the Garden, man fell apart and lost the artistry, beauty, the holiness of God. But he did not lose the potential to become godlike again if he got into the hands of the Divine Artist.

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.[2]

A.W. Tozer wasn’t the only one to argue this point about the restoration of the image of God. The church father Athanasius of Alexandria wrote in On The Incarnation:
For as, when the likeness painted on a panel has been effaced by stains from without, he whose likeness it is must needs come once more to enable the portrait to be renewed on the same wood, for the sake of his picture, even the mere wood on which it is painted is not thrown away, but the outline renewed upon it; in the same way also the most holy Son of the Father, being the image of the Father, came to our region to renew man once made in his likeness, and find him, as one lost, by the remission of sins.[3]
John Wesley (founder of the Methodist church) preached:

Man knows not that he is a fallen spirit, whose only business in the present world, is to recover from his fall, to regain that image of God wherein he was created.[4]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer devoted the entire last chapter of Discipleship to the restoration of the image of God within believers:

The image of God should be restored in us once again. This task encompasses our whole existence. The aim and objective is not to renew human thoughts about God so that they are correct, or that we would subject our individual deeds to the word of God again, but that we, with our whole existence and as living creatures, are the image of God. Body, soul, and spirit, that is, the form of being human in its totality, is to bear the image of God on earth. God is well pleased with nothing less than God’s own perfect image.[5]

(Since publishing this article, we have found even more historical examples; click here.)
Most importantly, this first principle is taught in Scripture; most explicitly in Ephesians 4:22-24 & 5:1 (this is important given that Ephesians is most likely a circular letter and would have been widely disseminated in the early church).
Moreover, anything taught in Scripture should be taught in the modern church. However, I personally have never heard this principle taught in a church in my 45 years of church attendance.
And if (as Tozer and the others argued) the ultimate purpose of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection is to restore men to the image of God they were originally created to be; should we not be teaching this as a matter of first importance in the church?
The second principle then begins to explain the “how” we are re-conformed to the image of God we were created to be, and the “why” we are specifically commanded to be disciples of Jesus:
  1. The Purpose of Imitating Jesus as His Disciple. The goal of men being re-conformed to the image of God is accomplished by men imitating Jesus (who is the perfect image of God) as His disciple; through the empowerment and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 11:1, 15:49, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Galatians 2:20, Philippians 2:1-5, 3:7-11, Colossians 1:15, 1:28-29, 2:2-3, 2:9-10, 1 Thessalonians 1:6, 2 Timothy 3:12,Titus 3:4-6, Hebrews 1:3, 6:1, 12:1-3, James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:1-4, 2-21, 2 Peter 3:18, 1 John 2:6, 3:3, 4:17).
If any principle in this list is unique (and thus neglected), it is this one. This cannot be overstated because this principle is also the lynchpin between the explicit “why” and the explicit “how” of being a disciple of Jesus.
This principle demonstrates why, at its core, being a disciple of Jesus requires study and imitation of the Master. Re-conformity to the image of God is only practically accomplished by imitating the perfect image of God as His disciple. This leads to the third principle:
  1. The First Century, Biblical Understanding of Discipleship. Imitating Jesus as His disciple begins (but does not end) with specifically learning and then keeping the words, teachings, commands, and example that He gave during His earthly ministry. It is simply impossible to imitate someone without knowing what they said and did (Matthew 7:24-29, 10:24-25, 11:25-30, 12:41-42, 13:16-17, 13:34-35, 17:5, 24:35; Mark 4:24-25, 4:33-34, 6:34, 8:38, 9:7, 13:31; Luke 6:46-49, 9:35, 10:24, 10:38-42, 11:31-32, 17:10, 19:47-48,  John 3:31-36, 4:25-26, 4:40-42, 5:24, 5:38-39, 5:46-47, 6:28-29, 6:63, 6:66-69, 8:31-32, 8:51, 9:26, 10:27, 12:48, 13:34-35, 14:12, 14:15, 14:23-26, 15:7-17, 15:20-24, 16:6-8
This principle continues the explicit “how” of discipleship. However, it should be clear that it is a progression of the first two points. This is why it is important to start with the explicit “why.” The “how” only makes sense in light of the “why.” This principle is also perhaps the most contentious.
The Bible is a big book and therefore, as  previously argued, it can be used to make disciples of something other than Jesus (just as the Pharisees did) by cherry-picking and teaching pet verses (often taken out of context) and then employing the logical fallacy of semantics/equivocation to call them “disciples of Jesus.”
By specifically beginning with Jesus and then moving out to the rest of Scripture, it limits the opportunity to make disciples of something or someone else. Moreover, the Greek word translated “disciple” had a very specific meaning. That meaning hasn’t changed; we don’t get to redefine “disciple.” A disciple most simply stated was a student who knew everything their master said and did, and then used that information to imitate their master in every way possible.
This point has been argued by Dallas Willard:

I say this over and over to people, to pastors, ‘Just start with Matthew and just preach what Jesus preached’. Now that’s going to really jerk you around. You have to avoid things like going to your church and saying, ‘We’re going to keep doing things the same but now we’re going to really mean it’. That’s really what they think, but as long as they do that they’re really going to get nowhere. Spiritual formation, as a hope, will flame out within just a few years unless people understand that they really are doing something different than they’ve done before. So, I say to anyone who asks, ‘What do we do?’ I just suggest that you just start and teach what Jesus taught and begin to put your own life into it and progressively you will see people respond. It will take a little while to realize that you really are saying and doing something different. Then when they do that you’ll see various reactions, just like the Parable of the Sower.[6]

[A pastor] should focus his preaching on the Gospels. One should begin preaching what Jesus preached. I would plan to spend two years just preaching from the Gospels. Remember, the gospel as Jesus brought it to earth is the most powerful thing that has ever hit the world. If you preach what he preached, you will see it beginning to pop around you. And you’ll find your people asking the right questions: How about this blessing those who curse you? How about loving your enemies? Can we really do that.[7]

Dave Earley also argued this point in Discipleship Is…:

When Jesus commanded His eleven men to make disciples by teaching them to observe everything He had commanded them, He was making a rather large and important assumption. In demanding them to make disciples, He was assuming they were already living as disciples. In commanding them to obey everything He demanded, He was assuming they were already obeying everything He had commanded. Therefore, before you can make a disciple, you need to be a disciple.

Before you can be a disciple, you need to begin obeying everything Jesus commanded. For the last three years, I have been reading the words of Jesus every day. Frankly, it is messing up my life. It is turning much of what I thought, believed in, valued, and dreamed inside out. During this time, I have been asking myself some tough questions. I challenge you to ask yourself the same questions:
“Do you even know everything Jesus commanded? If someone held a gun to your head and handed you a sheet of paper and a pencil, could you write down everything Jesus commanded?”
“Are you really obeying everything Jesus commanded? Are there some commands you avoid because they are too difficult? Have you made excuses for why you are not doing everything Jesus commanded?”
“Have you taught your ‘disciples’ to obey everything Jesus commanded? Do they know what He commanded, and are they living it out?”
Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. […] The decision to follow a rabbi meant total commitment. They would have to memorize His words and replicate His lifestyle. […] When the twelve disciples submitted to Jesus’ tutelage as their rabbi, they were committing themselves to memorize and live not only the Words of the Old Testament, but also His teachings. […] Jesus, in the role of authoritative teacher or rabbi, trained His disciples to believe in, and remember, His teachings. […] For the Twelve, the call to discipleship was a call to immerse their lives in the words of Jesus.
Could it be that a forgotten element of discipleship is that, while not ignoring the rest of Scripture, the fruit-bearing disciple focuses especially on the words of Christ? […] As we read, study, memorize, and meditate on the words of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will use them to cut us with conviction.
This third principle answers the initial question of why John so adamant that we know and keep the words, teachings, commands, and example of our Master. Doing so is the boots on the ground, practical way to accomplish the first principle of giving to God the glory He is due.
The fourth principle then is the environment in which being and making disciples of Jesus is to occur:
  1. Biblical Discipleship in a Relational Environment (Relational Discipleship). Being conformed to the image of Jesus by imitating Him as His disciple is not a passive process, but an active/interactive process that occurs within a relational environment; which was established and demonstrated by Jesus during His earthly ministry (Acts 2:42-47, 1 Corinthians 14:40, 2 Timothy 2:2).
This point is of course the most familiar. Unfortunately, it is also where we tend to begin with discipleship, without laying the groundwork of the first three points. This is also how churches are able to use Relational Discipleship to make disciples of something other than Jesus (and still call them “disciples of Jesus”). This is what happened to me growing up, and what I encountered when I first attempted to introduce others to Relational Discipleship 5 years ago.  I discovered that I had to go back and explain the explicit “why” and “how” of discipleship first.
Obviously, each of these principles can be expanded and expounded upon. We simply attempted to keep them as concise as possible for when we initially introduce and teach them. So far, we have not found any facet of being a disciple of Jesus that cannot be explained within these four principles.
Moreover, establishing these principles gives disciples a base of understanding as they study Scripture, learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and discover how to practically live out the life of Christ in their daily lives. I have even led unbelievers to make a decision to follow Jesus as His disciple using these 4 principles and their supporting scriptures.
Follow up questions:
  1. Given the large amount of supporting scripture we provided, it is evident that these principles were taught in the early church. Why do you believe that they have not been taught in the modern church?
  1. Do you feel that these principles would work in your culture and context? Why, why not?
Having received feedback on this article, here are articles that answer questions, comments, and concerns and expound upon each of the 4 principles, beginning with the first principle:
[1]   A. W. Tozer, The Crucified Life, ed. James L. Snyder, (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2013), pp. 130-210.
[2] A. W. Tozer, The Purpose of Man, ed. James L. Snyder, (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2013), pp. 21-175.
[3]   St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, (London: David Nutt, 1891), p. 24.  
[4] John Wesley, The Works, (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1830), p. 24.
[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), pp. 281-288.
[6]  Dallas Willard, “The Gospel of the Kingdom, An interview by Keith Giles,”, accessed June 6, 2019;
[7] Dallas Willard, “The Apprentices,”, accessed June 6, 2019;
[8]   Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey, Disciple Making is… How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2013), 49, 67, 68, 72, 73, 110.