Can You Be a Disciple of Jesus and Not Be a Christian?

It’s a strange question. But it’s an important one to answer. Think about the first disciples. Jesus called them to follow him and they did. We look to Jesus’ relationship with them as a model for discipleship in general. However, as we read the gospels, we learn that they did not yet even know who Jesus really was. When Peter finally confesses that Jesus is the Christ, for example, it becomes obviously clear that he had no idea that this entailed a mission to die and rise again. Once Jesus starts talking about suffering Peter has a conniption fit. It seems that these first disciples did not yet understand the cross and resurrection, which would later become the focal point of the gospel proclamation. What does it mean to be a Christian if it doesn’t mean your only hope is in the Jesus who died and rose again for you? Yet these disciples “follow” Jesus without this knowledge and it’s transformative effects.

This is on my mind because I’ve recently heard some say that Christians aren’t doing discipleship like Jesus. Jesus’ method of discipleship, they say, involves having people following Jesus who don’t yet believe in him. They are “disciples” of Jesus without yet believing. Just like the first disciples, right? These statements are made by some gospel-centered, missional folks that I continue to learn gobs from. But this doesn’t sit right.

I think this misses something. In his short book on the Gospel of Matthew, Don Carson proves helpful here:

We sometimes forget that the way the first disciples came to faith is not exactly the way people come to faith today. A person who comes to genuine faith in the Lord Jesus Christ today has already come to terms with Christ’s resurrection and the Holy Spirit’s descent – two momentous events in the history of redemption. In taking the first steps to repentance and faith such a person must have struggled with questions about his or her own sinfulness, wrestled with whether Jesus really did rise from the dead, hesitated before the wonderful doctrine of grace so fully set forth in the cross. Yet all such steps are necessarily different from the steps taken by would-be disciples before the cross, before the Resurrection, before Pentecost.

Therefore when we talk about the fledgling faith of the first disciples, we must remember that their baby faith was not exactly like the baby faith of new Christians today…

That is why the stories about faith and unbelief in the Gospels can never rightly be applied to us today in a careless, thoughtless, or superficial fashion… Their first concern is to focus attention on Jesus, not to establish a psychological profile of people who come to faith in any age (Carson, God With Us, 91-92).

So, care is needed. After the cross and the resurrection discipleship doesn’t look exactly the same as it did before these events. And that’s how it should be. Before the cross and resurrection discipleship was a call to follow Jesus’ person while being fairly in the dark about who he was and what he came to do. Afterwards, however, a disciple isn’t a disciple without dealing with the cross and all that it entails for understanding our sinfulness and the grace of God. We don’t call people to “follow” a vague notion of Jesus for a few years and call that discipleship now. This doesn’t mean we don’t engage with those who don’t yet believe, invite them into our lives and homes, and spend all sorts of time with them. We do. And we have to, for how else do we end up making disciples? But we do it all the while knowing that this is not yet following Jesus, the crucified and risen Savior and King. They may be disciples in the making, but they are not yet made disciples.

The local church in the American context needs to do more opening of their meetings, small groups, and lives to unbelievers. How else will the world see the radical, supernatural one-anothering love that we have for each other (John 13:34-35; 17:21, 23)? But just having people hang around true disciples doesn’t make them disciples. Just because they commit to loving a neighborhood together with other Christians doesn’t mean they’re doing kingdom-work or disciplemaking. Keeping the distinction clear, it seems to me, is an act of love, for it allows everyone to know where they are and what it actually means to follow Jesus and be found in him.

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