How we think of ourselves matters for how we live our lives. For many of us, if asked our religion, we’d readily identify ourselves as Christians. But we live in a world where that answer can sometimes mean nothing more than I was baptized in a church and I used to go to church at Christmas and Easter. Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean you have a true faith in Jesus Christ and walk in his ways.
Interestingly, the word “Christian” is only used three times in the New Testament. However, there’s another term used to describe a believer in Jesus Christ. This term is used nearly three hundred times in Scripture: “disciple.” A disciple of Jesus Christ is a student, but far more than just in the intellectual sense. A disciple in the biblical sense not only imbibes information from his teacher, but aims to follow his life. Our Lord said it in Luke 6:40, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” A disciple is like an apprentice. Believers are disciples.
Yet it seems like Reformed people seldom if ever think of themselves as disciples. They rarely refer to themselves as disciples. Why is that?
Why Not “Disciples”?
The notion of Christians as disciples of Christ isn’t prominent in our Reformed confessions. In its discussion of providence in article 13, the Belgic Confession refers to us as “pupils of Christ, who have only to learn those things which he teaches us in his Word, without transgressing these limits.” The original 1561 French had “disciples de Christ.” However, here discipleship is used mainly in the sense of taking data into our mind. Something similar can be said for Lord’s Day 12 of the Heidelberg Catechism where Christ is described as “our chief Prophet and Teacher.” He is our Teacher in the sense that he has “fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption.”
It might seem as if Reformed theology is allergic to this biblical idea. Yet if you go to the Reformers, they don’t have a problem with it. For example, in his commentaries on the gospels, John Calvin acknowledges that Christians are disciples of Christ. He works with the idea – if you take the New Testament seriously, it’s impossible not to. So, it’s not as if there is an objection in principle in historic Reformed theology. It’s simply the case that, more often than not, they used the word “believer” or “Christian” instead.
It could be that the term “disciple” has received more attention because of the modern mission movement. I’m thinking here especially of the importance of the Great Commission of Matt. 28:18-20 and its key imperative to “make disciples of all nations.” In Reformation times, the Great Commission was recognized by some (like Martin Bucer) as being an abiding call for the church to do mission. However, it wasn’t until the late 1700s that it rose to prominence. In more recent times, it’s become common to hear missionaries speak of discipleship as a focal aspect of their work. Missionaries taught many new Christians to think of themselves as disciples – not just at the beginning of their Christian walk, but throughout.
The Benefits of “Disciples”
Regardless of the history, the Bible describes true Christians as disciples of Jesus Christ. It’d be beneficial for us to think of ourselves as such and to identify ourselves as such. I’ll explain why.
Thinking of yourself as a disciple is beneficial because it reminds you that there’s a goal in your sanctification: to be Christ-like. No, you can’t be him like in every respect, yet there are certainly ways you can and should (cf. 1 Cor. 11:11). For example, you want to be humble and follow his model of servanthood (John 13:15).
It’s beneficial to identify ourselves to others as disciples of Christ because the word “Christian” is increasingly losing its true significance. People often claim to be Christians while disregarding huge swathes of what Christ teaches in the Bible. Identifying yourself as a “disciple of Christ” indicates that you aim to follow him and what he teaches – you want to be like him. You aim to abide in his Word (John 8:31).
Let me end with a couple of clarifications.
First, it’s important to distinguish between the practice of discipleship (while not necessarily using the term) and consciously self-identifying as a disciple of Christ. Reformed churches, if they’re faithful, are actually good at discipleship. For example, catechism instruction for the youth of the church is a fantastic discipleship program, even if it’s not spoken of in those terms. My focus above is on how we identify ourselves and how we regard ourselves. Do we ever consciously think in terms of being disciples of our Lord Jesus?
Second, the idea of being a disciple of Christ doesn’t exhaust the Bible’s teaching on who we are as redeemed people. The Bible’s teaching on our identity is multi-faceted. For example, another important aspect of our identity, often overlooked and underemphasized, is our union with Christ. This certainly isn’t to say that we should abandon the word “Christian” either. If we understand it properly for ourselves and clarify it for others, there’s no reason to abandon it. What I’m simply suggesting is that we give more prominence to discipleship than we have in the past – just remember that if you’ve got true faith in Jesus Christ, you are his disciple!