Discipleship and the spiritual disciplines

Mar 2017    

The practice of discipleship is well-known among Christians. There are books describing it and materials to help us. But a key question is this: Is our practice of discipleship just technique or does it really help us become disciples?

The Greek for “disciple” means “learner”, persons who discipline their life to learn from a master or teacher. Learners follow the teacher’s teaching and pattern of life so that these become their own. Jesus gives this call in Matthew 16:24 (NIV): “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer boldly echoes this: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”1 Those who want to be Jesus’ disciples not only assent to His teaching — they are willing to die to follow Him!

Serious learners know that they must work hard in order to learn from their teacher. But it is not a matter of reading the book or going through the materials. Nor is it a mindless imitation — the learning must be intentional and heartfelt.

Disciples of Christ understand why He carries out certain practices, so that they can be clear why they follow Him. They practise the disciplines so that they can become like Him. Or using Jesus’ words in John 15:4, so that they will “remain in me, as I also remain in you” (NIV). Remaining in Christ speaks of a deep, intimate relationship with Him. And it is an intimacy that He also desires with us. This is the very heart of the Christian disciplines.

Before He began His ministry, Jesus fasted 40 days and nights in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-2). He was accustomed to worshipping in the synagogue and Temple (Mark 1:21; Mark 11-13).

Early in His ministry, we read that Jesus got up very early in the morning to pray (Mark 1:35). This seems to be the pattern of His life, leading His disciples to ask Him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1). It was also His practice to pray in times of decision (choosing of the Twelve, Luke 6:12-13), on important occasions (Transfiguration, Luke 9:28-29), and when facing crises (before His arrest, Luke 22:39-44; on the cross, Luke 23:34, 46).

Clearly Jesus adopted a pattern of life so as to maintain intimacy with his Father (John 15:10), and calls His disciples to do likewise with Him. A pattern or rule of life is “a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness”.2 They are disciplines we adopt and practice, and require effort and hard work. But we have His assurance that the Spirit who lives with us and is in us will teach us all things and remind us of everything Jesus has said to us (John 14:15-27). The disciplines help us draw close to Him, so that we may grow in His love and His friendship (John 15:9-17).

Discipleship involves a disciplined life. Will you die to self to follow Christ? Will you adopt a rule of life that invites the Spirit to help you be His disciples and friends? May the Lord draw you into intimacy with Him and the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit!


The Rev Ivan Tan, OSL

is Pastor-in-Charge of Living Hope Methodist Church and Director, Young Adult Ministry of Trinity Annual Conference.


Picture by Rawpixel.com/Bigstock.com


1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. RH Fuller (New York, NY: MacMillan, 1955), 80.

2 Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, revised edition 2014), 150.


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