G.R.E.A.T. Christian Discipleship
by Greg Williamson (c) revised 2020

Conversion is a decision to become a learner, a disciple, who attends to the teaching ministry of Jesus as revealed or communicated by the Spirit through the Scriptures and the faith tradition of the Christian community. - Gordon T. Smith [ref]

disciple: one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another [ref]
In simplest terms, a Christian disciple is a committed follower of Jesus Christ. In the Bible, "disciple" is synonymous with "Christian." As one source explains:

The characteristic name for those who gathered around Jesus during his ministry was "disciple." He was the teacher or master; they were his disciples (mathētai), a term involving too much personal attachment to be adequately rendered by "pupil." The name carried over into Acts, where it frequently has the general sense of "Christian" (cf. Acts 14:21). The term's use in Acts for those who had no acquaintance with Jesus during the days of his flesh underscores that subsequent Christians' relationship to the exalted Christ is not essentially different from that enjoyed by those who walked with him on earth. The Lord's solemn sayings regarding the cost of discipleship must have full weight in the Christian life (cf. Luke 6:40; 14:25–33).

However common the term may be in Acts, it disappears completely from the rest of the NT. Apparently, "disciple" was no more adequate as a permanent title for Christians than "teacher" or "rabbi" was for Jesus, whose lordship was now fully revealed. It had the further disadvantage of being common in Greek and Jewish circles (cf. in the Gospels disciples of John the Baptist, of the Pharisees, of Moses), thus requiring elaboration to be distinctively Christian (e.g., "disciples of the Lord" [Acts 9:1]).

The term was revived as a title for Christians in the second century, primarily with reference to martyrdom. It thus became honorific (cf. Ign. Eph. 1). [ref]

While the word "disciple" does not appear in the Bible after the book of Acts, what it means to be a disciple (= discipleship) "is filled out and enriched":

[It] would be a mistake to think that the idea of discipleship is either absent or less dominant in the remainder of the NT [= after the Gospels and Acts]. Rather it is filled out and enriched, the emphasis falling not on following Jesus but on being united to him, though the idea of following Jesus is by no means absent (1 Pt 2:21-23). As Christ called both for self-denial (Mk 8:34) and for following his example (Jn 12:26), so Paul wrote of the need for those who are in Christ to mortify their old nature and to yield themselves to God in consecrated obedience (Rom 8:13). As Christ spoke of the need for his disciples to be separate from the world, to be light and salt (Mt 5:13, 14), so Paul spoke of Christians as lights in a dark world (Eph 5:8), as awake and sober (1 Thes 5:6). As Christ taught his disciples to pray (Lk 11:2), so Paul and the other disciples insisted on the need for prayer (1 Thes 5:17). As Christ laid down the pattern of righteous obedience through the true understanding of the Law of God (Mt 5), so Paul frames the rule of Christian obedience in terms of the Law (Rom 13:9). Yet while the Gospels refer to "disciples," the apostles refer to those who are "saints" (1 Cor 1:2), "the called" (Eph 4:4), "in Christ" (2 Cor 5:17), "pilgrims" (1 Pt 2:11 KJV), and "servants" (1 Pt 2:16). This variety of expression is evidence of the richness of the idea of discipleship in the full NT conception. [ref]

Today we speak of disciples and discipleship: 1) as a means of identifying true, committed Christians, and 2) as shorthand for the process of growing and maturing in our Christian walk and witness. True, saving faith in Jesus Christ involves much more than mere mental assent to certain facts. It involves placing our complete trust in Christ, and then living for God rather than self. Faith and faithfulness are inseparable: salvation joins us both to Christ and to fellow Christians, and the Holy Spirit "nurtures the initial response of faith to the gospel message into a continuing life of joyful praise and obedience to God (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), and loving service to the neighbour (Gal. 5:6, 13–14; 6:1–2)." [ref]

G.R.E.A.T. is an acronym to describe true Christian discipleship: G = Genuine, R = Relational, E = Enthusiastic, A = Active, and T = Thankful. Here we will look at each component separately.

G = Genuine
genuine: actually having the reputed or apparent qualities or character; actually produced by or proceeding from the alleged source or author; sincerely and honestly felt or experienced [ref]
A Christian disciple is, by definition, a Christian. And a Christian is, by definition, someone who has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. While many people will say they believe in Jesus, what they really mean is that they believe he was an actual historical figure -- sort of like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. However, simply believing that Jesus lived, and even agreeing with some of his teachings, does not make a person a Christian.

Specifically, there are five steps necessary for having a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ:

  1. ADMIT your sinful condition (often felt as personal shame and guilt). "All of us have sinned and fallen short of God's glory" (Romans 3:23, CEV).
  2. ACCEPT the fact that Jesus Christ died in your place so that you can be forgiven for your sins and receive eternal life. "Sin pays off with death. But God's gift is eternal life given by Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:23, CEV). "God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die" (John 3:16, CEV). "God has also said that he gave us eternal life and that this life comes to us from his Son. And so, if we have God's Son, we have this life. But if we don't have the Son, we don't have this life" (1 John 5:11-12, CEV).
  3. ASK God to forgive your sins based on the sacrifice Jesus Christ made on your behalf. "So you will be saved, if you honestly say, 'Jesus is Lord,' and if you believe with all your heart that God raised him from death" (Romans 10:9, CEV).
  4. OBEY Jesus. "And Christ did die for all of us. He died so we would no longer live for ourselves, but for the one who died and was raised to life for us" (2 Corinthians 5:15, CEV).
  5. GROW in your Christian walk and witness. "Let the wonderful kindness and the understanding that come from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ help you to keep on growing" (2 Peter 3:18, CEV). This is best accomplished through the basic Christian disciplines of prayer, Bible study, and fellowship.

A genuine disciple is also a committed disciple. Complete commitment to Jesus involves nothing less than a radical rethinking of what life is all about. As Jesus put it: "'If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple'" (Luke 14:26-27, NASB).

To emphasize that discipleship is difficult, Jesus said that one must hate his own family and even his own life in order to be His disciple. Literally hating one’s family would have been a violation of the Law. Since Jesus on several occasions admonished others to fulfill the Law, He must not have meant here that one should literally hate his family. The stress here is on the priority of love (cf. Mat 10:37). One’s loyalty to Jesus must come before his loyalty to his family or even to life itself. Indeed, those who did follow Jesus against their families’ desires were probably thought of as hating their families. [ref]

To take up the cross meant to carry one's own cross to the place of crucifixion. Many Galileans had been killed that way by the Romans -- and Jesus would face it as well. With this word picture, Christ presented a clear and challenging description of the Christian life. Being his disciple means putting aside selfish desires, shouldering one's "cross" every day, and following him. It is simple and yet so demanding. For the original Twelve, this meant literal suffering and death. For believers today, it means understanding that we belong to him and that we live to serve his purposes. Consider this: Do you think of your relationship with God primarily in terms of what's in it for you (which is considerable) or in terms of what you can do for him? Are you willing to deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow him? Anything less is not discipleship; it is merely superficial lip service. [ref]

In his book on the Apostles' Creed, Ben Myers makes some poignant observations regarding trust. Like the Apostles' Creed, the Christian life itself begins with the notion of trust.

The gospel holds out to us the promise of a totally trustworthy God. Can we verify that promise? Augustine's answer, surprisingly, is yes. Over time we learn that God's promise is worthy of our trust. God's trustworthiness is verified by experience. But we don't start with verification. We start with trust: this leads to experience: and experience leads to knowledge of God's trustworthiness. Augustine says, "If you can't understand, believe, and then you'll understand."

That doesn't mean that Christian belief is an irrational leap into the dark. It is more like tasting a dish that you have never tried. You have seen other people enjoying it; you have read the reviews; the chef swears you'll like it. There are good grounds for trusting, but you will never know for sure until you try it. "Taste and see that the LORD is good," sings the psalmist (Ps 34:8). The first act is an act of trust that gives rise to ever-increasing certainty, which in turn nourishes a deeper and a more knowledgeable trust. [ref]

R = Relational
relational: of or relating to kinship; characterized or constituted by relations [ref]
The gospel Jesus proclaimed is all about relationship -- with Jesus, with other believers, and with the world at large. "As Christians, we need to understand that implicit in Jesus' announcement of the good news is the invitation to become his disciple, where he -- through the Holy Spirit -- will teach and guide us. In this relationship, we can find meaning in the ordinary and mundane activities of life. We will find joy through daily trials and tribulations (James 1:2–4). We can find comfort through the fellowship of others who are also being transformed into his likeness. And we become driven by his agenda to redeem the world." [ref]

One definition of "relational" is "of or relating to kinship." [ref] When a person becomes a Christain, he/she is immediately adopted into God's forever family (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5). Since, like every family, this one is comprised of people still struggling with sinful thoughts and habits, we must work hard to be patient and supportive of one another as we seek to live out the Gospel while promoting God's kingdom (1 Corinthians 13:4-7; Galatians 5:22-23; 6:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:14). This can be accomplished as we heed the apostle Paul's counsel: "Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:31-32, NLT).

E = Enthusiastic
enthusiasm: strong excitement of feeling; something inspiring zeal or fervor [ref]
People are passionate about all sorts of things: schools, sports teams, television programs, clothing styles, etc. The Christian disciple's number one passion should be God. Which means making the study and application of God's Word, the Bible, our utmost priority (Psalm 119:9, 11. 50, 101, 105, 133, 172). Sadly, statistics repeatedly tell us that such is seldom the case among professing Christians.

Without a doubt, serious study of the Scriptures demands time, energy, and money (some recommended titles). But besides the fact that it is a matter of obeying God, there are any number of benefits associated with it. That is because as we consistently seek to study and apply God's inspired, authoritative Word, the Bible, we will see our lives changing for the better as God both calls us to and blesses us with specific personal qualities [ref], including (but by no means limited to):

A = Active
active: characterized by action rather than by contemplation or speculation; marked by vigorous activity [ref]
This means deliberately staying engaged. And the best way to stay active is through the exercise of our spiritual giftedness among like-minded believers within a local church.

Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ's body. We are all parts of his one body, and each of us has different work to do. And since we are all one body in Christ, we belong to each other, and each of us needs all the others. (see Romans 12:1-8)

God gives us spiritual gifts so we can work together to serve him and each other. Paul uses the concept of the human body to teach how Christians should live and work together. Just as the parts of the body function under the direction of the brain, so Christians are to work together under the command and authority of Jesus Christ (see 1 Cor. 12:12-31; Ephes. 4:1-16).

God gives us gifts so we can build up his church. To use them effectively, we must (1) realize that all gifts and abilities come from God; (2) understand that not everyone has the same gifts; (3) know who we are and what we do best; (4) dedicate our gifts to God's service and not to our personal success; and (5) be willing to utilize our gifts wholeheartedly, not holding back anything from God's service. [ref]

Resources: Spiritual Gifts Test - Adult ... Spiritual Gifts Test - Youth ... The Spiritual Gifts Handbook (pdf)

T = Thankful
thankful: conscious of benefit received; expressive of thanks; well pleased [ref]
To be thankful is, literally, to be full of thanks. Healthy human skin oozes oil from its pores -- and thus we leave our fingerprints on virtually any object we touch. In the same way, the Christian disciple should ooze gratitude -- and thus leave a positive impression on anyone/everyone we come in contact with. As seen in the Psalms in general and Psalm 92:1-15 in particular, there are "[f]our elements of true thanksgiving ... (1) remembering what God has done, (2) telling others about it, (3) showing God's glory to others, and (4) offering gifts of self, time, and resources. If you are truly thankful, your life will show it." [ref]

Discipleship is no easy road. Nor is it meant to be. But, in simplest terms, it continually comes down to whether we choose the cross or the throne.

"In every Christian's heart there is a cross and a throne, and the Christian is on the throne till he puts himself on the cross; if he refuses the cross, he remains on the throne. Perhaps this is at the bottom of the backsliding and worldliness among gospel believers today. We want to be saved, but we insist that Christ do all the dying. No cross for us, no dethronement, no dying. We remain king within the little kingdom of Mansoul and wear our tinsel crown with all the pride of a Caesar; but we doom ourselves to shadows and weakness and spiritual sterility." - A. W. Tozer [ref]

As paradoxical as it may seem, if we really want sunshine and strength and spiritual vitality, we need to choose the cross rather than the throne. We need to choose G.R.E.A.T. Christian discipleship.

(Related: Discipleship: Then & Now | Foundational Discipleship)

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Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible
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Draper's Book of Quotations for the Christian World
Evangelical Dictionary of Theology
The Handbook of Bible Application
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Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary
New Dictionary of Biblical Theology
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