Baptism ≠ Discipleship
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
(Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)
Without a doubt, baptism is part of making disciples, but just baptizing alone does not ensure faithfulness to the Great Commission. The measurement of faithfulness to the Great Commission to baptismal numbers has always been misleading. At best, it represents the beginning of the disciple’s journey, but even then the veracity of being a disciple is seen in perseverance. We need to examine if our discipleship processes actually help the believer persevere.
As we baptize new believers into the life of the local church, we are to teach them to observe all that Christ commanded. Only when we are teaching baptized believers to live out the commands of Christ are we actually making disciples.
This would mean that evangelism is not merely a precursor to discipleship, rather the beginning phase of discipleship. Let me unpack that statement for a moment. When Christ calls sinners to repentance, 100% of the time it is an imperative, a command. The initial evidence of one becoming a follower of Christ, a disciple, is obedience to His command to repent and have faith. Of course it is the Holy Spirit who enables our obedience, but it is nonetheless obedience. The disciple is taught to obey Christ’s commands.
Next, Christ commands believers everywhere to be baptized. This, again, is an imperative, not a suggestion, and certainly not a religious rite to attain conversion (not even in part). The true believer is to publicly acknowledge the sovereign, gracious, saving work of the Savior through baptism before the community of saints, the church. The (true) disciple obeys Christ’s command and is baptized.
As this new believer is brought into the communal life of the local church, the church should be geared to make sure this new brother or sister in Christ is walked alongside indefinitely, life-on-life, helping give instruction (with accountability) what the Scriptures say about the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is where another disciple does what a disciple does, make disciples.
Too often we chop up discipleship into phases cheapening the meaning of “disciple” and, therefore, taking a risk that we are not wholly fulfilling the Great Commission. We speak of evangelism, discipleship, and missions (or being “missional”) as if these are separate from one another. I would contend that what we are trying to communicate is the fact we have lost the weightiness of what it means to simply be a disciple, a follower of Christ, and feel the need to promote an aspect of discipleship in an attempt to recapture the biblical nature of being a follower.
If we are to simply follow Christ, we will command men and women everywhere to repent and be baptized; we will serve the poor, seek justice, show deference to loving our church brethren, get on planes to do the same in lesser reached places. We will realize that making disciples “as we are going” (Matt.28:19) is more about the disciple on the go than it is about where the disciple goes. We will have to realize that we are actually always on the go and always making disciples. We just have to make sure it is Christ (of the Scriptures) we following and lead others to follow.