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Can You Be a Disciple Without Making Disciples?

As pastors, we often (and with good biblical reason) view discipleship through the lens of personal sanctification; it’s about helping Jim become a better father, Jane a better wife, Bob a better employee—all for the glory of God. It’s about helping Betty overcome her sin issues, and encouraging Sam to get more disciplined regarding his devotional life—again, all for the glory of God. In other words, discipleship is about helping others bring every aspect of their lives under the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit. Well and good. But the question of “how?” needs to be asked. How do we go about helping people move toward sanctification?

Over the last year and a half I’ve spent quite a bit of time reflecting on my calling as a disciple maker. And one thing that has emerged with fresh awareness is the realization that the only way to help someone become a disciple of Christ is to help them become a disciple-maker. Or to state it another way, the only way to help people become sanctified is by helping them become agents of sanctification in the lives of others. We will never help Jim and Jane and Bob and Betty and Sam realize the fullness of the Spirit-filled life until we’ve helped them become channels through which the Spirit of God flows into the lives of others.

The expression “filled with the Spirit” (and its approximates) is used roughly sixteen times in the New Testament. And what’s fascinating about the expression is that twelve of those times it’s used in connection with Great Commission activity. We don’t read “And Paul, filled with the Spirit, overcame his anger problem.” Or, “Peter, filled with the Spirit, became a more sensitive husband.” Instead, we read things like, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Act 4:31). In other words, the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church is meant to flow into us and then through us. Like electric current, the Holy Spirit can’t flow into a person unless he’s flowing through a person into the lives of others.

This, I believe, explains why many of our people (indeed, even we ourselves) struggle so much with living the Spirit-filled life. We’re trying to tap into the Spirit’s sanctifying power without simultaneously engaging in Great Commission activity. We want to have our lives cleaned up (it’s no fun being a sin addict), but we don’t want to have to re-arrange our lives toward the priority of the Great Commission. But I can’t stiff-arm the empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit and still hope to tap into the sanctifying ministry of the Holy Spirit. We meet him in the midst of his work. If I would know Christ, I must be about making him known.

So if you want your people to realize everything God has for them, then you need to give them a vision of discipleship that extends beyond a sanctified version of the American dream. We must help our people engage earnestly in the Great Commission as their primary calling in life. The Holy Spirit will only flow into them as much as they are willing to let it flow out of them into the lives of others. Those of us in a pastoral role haven’t completed the hard work of making disciples until the people we’re discipling are both equipped and motivated to engage in the disciple-making process themselves. In other words, a disciple isn’t a true disciple until they’ve become a disciple-maker.

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gerald@saet.com'
Gerald has been in pastoral ministry for eight years, and serves currently as the Senior Associate Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, IL.