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Throughout the book of Acts, disciples is a title for those who have placed their faith in Jesus and are now followers of Jesus, converts. That the term disciple was still used makes it clear that continuity is maintained between those who followed Jesus during his earthly ministry and those of the post-resurrection church.19
This direct connection with Jesus and His first disciples helps define our identity and illuminates the meaning and path of discipleship for those in every generation who seek to follow Jesus.20
In light of this study of the words Christian and disciple what conclusions can we draw? Does Christian designate a different category of believer from disciple? Is it a term for the great mass of believers, for whom a lower standard of commitment to Jesus is acceptable, in contrast to disciples, from whom an optional, higher standard is required? The definitions of each word and their use in the New Testament do not give us that option. It is clear that these words are synonyms. Wilkins sums up:
Disciple is the primary term used in the gospels to refer to Jesus’ followers and is a common referent for those known in the early church as believers, Christians, brother/sisters, those of the way, or saints, although each term focuses upon different aspects of the individual’s relationship with Jesus and others of the faith. The term was used most frequently in this specific sense; at least 230 times in the gospels ... and 28 times in Acts.21
Space limitations have confined our study to the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, however, John’s Gospel also has much to teach on discipleship. And so do the Epistles, where the word disciple is not used but the concept is present and addressed in different language. For more, see Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, edited by Richard Longenecker (Eerdmans).
I would like to conclude with two implications of what I have been saying. The first is that we need to recover our true identity as disciples of Jesus Christ. This requires careful and prayerful study of what the Gospels and Acts reveal about disciples and discipleship and discovering for ourselves that Christian, believer, and disciple are synonymous—and that a Christian is called to live a life of wholehearted discipleship to Jesus. Tragically many people in churches today believe themselves to be Christians but are not living as disciples of Jesus. In some cases, this is because they are Christians in name only and have not yet come to saving faith. In other cases, they are true Christians but do not understand what the Bible teaches about their identity as disciples. In either case, the answer is for a person to examine his or her heart and life in light of the gospel message and the call to discipleship and respond accordingly. Paul encouraged the Corinthians to do this when he said, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Cor. 13:5).
What does this self-examination involve? Briefly, if Jesus Christ is in you (by the Spirit), there will be signs of new life, for “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). This new life is the fruit of faith in God and trust in Jesus, who has paid the penalty for your sins. And it has ongoing effects. A growing love for God and other people should be present, along with power to live in newness of life. You should also experience the Holy Spirit convicting you when you sin, urging you to live out grateful and joyful obedience to Christ and prompting you to reach out to the lost.
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