MANY PEOPLE THINK all Christians are disciples of Christ. But while all Christ’s disciples are Christians, not all Christians are disciples. To clarify, let’s define these terms.

Typically, we think of Christians as church-attending believers in Christ saved from hell and bound for heaven. While this is true, Christianity’s founder and foremost authority, Jesus of Nazareth, defined a Christian as one who is spiritually reborn by faith in Him.Lecturing the respected rabbi Nicodemus one evening, our Authority said, “Except a man be born again, he cannot [even] see . . . [much less] enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, 5). He added emphatically, “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again” (v. 7). Thus, Jesus settled this matter forever for intellectually honest readers by using imperative language, “Ye must!” Spiritual rebirth is a necessity!

Later in His ministry Jesus described new birth, or salvation, as a conversion experience, or a distinct spiritual and personal about-face: “Except ye be converted [lit. turned around] . . . ye shall not [even] enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). In new birth, or conversion, therefore, one is “turned around” from unbelief to faith in Christ, from sin to righteousness, by an unmerited spiritual regeneration of eternal efficacy. After this distinct new beginning, the Christian has a crucial decision.

How will he (or she) respond to God’s gracious salvation? Will he fully commit to discipleship or be content to be saved? This choice marks whether he’ll ultimately delight or disappoint God and be written as a mere Christian or a disciple. To facilitate this decision, we must ponder the terms of New Testament discipleship. Let’s describe a disciple of Jesus.

A disciple is a self-disciplined one. The English words disciple and discipline are derived from very similar Latin words. Similarly, every disciple is a person of or under discipline. He enters into a regimen of life whereby all his spiritual, mental, and physical powers are focused on a new, ordered, biblical way of living. Why? He wants to please and serve his gracious Savior. Lazy, self-indulgent Christians, though saved, can’t be disciples.

A disciple is a student of Christ. In almost every instance where the word disciple is used in the New Testament, it is so translated from the Greek word mathetes, which means “learner, pupil,”or student. Christians who refuse to study the Bible in general and the sayings of Jesus in particular cannot be disciples.

A disciple is an obedient follower of Christ. In the first century, disciples were young men totally committed to learning the teachings of a particular Jewish rabbi (or Greek philosopher) and living by them. Why? They aspired to be, live, and teach like him so they could spread his words, ways, and honor worldwide. Christians who learn but refuse to live Jesus’ teachings can’t be disciples.

A disciple is one who continues in God’s Word. Jesus said, “If ye continue in [studying, practicing] my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (John 8:31). True disciples persevere in the Word. They are deeply serious, irrevocably committed, student-followers of the Son of God, ever seeking more of Him—more study, more obedience, more conformity to His image. Christians who start studying and obeying, but due to offenses, adversities, prosperity, or other interests stop, forfeit discipleship.

A disciple is a person of truth. Jesus added, “Ye [disciples] shall know the truth” (v. 32). Disciples love truth in all forms. They love the Bible, the sole standard of spiritual truth. They love honesty, or truthfulness of heart and speech. They love fidelity, or faithfulness in all dealings. And they love reality, preferring facing actual conditions to trusting in illusions. Christians who prefer dishonesty, unfaithfulness, unreality, or un- or extrabiblical teachings can’t be disciples.

A disciple is an extraordinarily free Christian. Jesus concluded, “The truth shall make you free . . . free indeed” (vv. 32, 36). The further a disciple goes in loving and living truth, the more he’s liberated by it. Increasingly, truth frees him from the bonds of ignorance, error, bad attitudes, fear, anger, besetting sins, deception, hypocrites, and the tyranny of selfishness. Christians who prefer living in these chains can’t be free— or disciples.

Finally, a disciple is a cross-bearer. For perseverance in God’s Word, ministry, call, or righteousness, every disciple must accept at least one cross of rejection, loss, humiliation, or grief daily. Christians unwilling to do so are unworthy to be disciples: “Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). So says our Authority.

The lost world and sleeping church still mistake Christians for disciples. You know the difference. Go show them discipleship—defined and demonstrated!

Greg Hinnant, Not by Bread Alone: Daily Devotions for Disciples (Lake Mary, FL: Creation House, 2012).