“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
The resurrected-ascended Christ is the King of His Church. The Father has entrusted all of His authority to His Beloved Son (Matt. 28:18; cf. John 5:22). The Lord Jesus Christ is pleased to make disciples of His people primarily in and through His church as we have been learning in our series on the Book of Acts. In that discipleship, making disciples includes the oversight of pastors and elders and the means of grace (Eph. 4:11-16; Acts 20:27-32). We see this particularly in Jesus giving instructions to His apostle-elders as the foundation of the church here in Matthew’s Gospel (Eph. 2:20), and giving them two specific commands of making disciples by having them baptized and teaching them everything that He has commanded.
What is a disciple? Very simply, a disciple is a learner of Jesus and His kingdom. A disciple is a follower of Jesus Christ who professes Jesus Christ as a member of His kingdom (Matt. 10:24; Luke 6:40; Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14; 11:24; 9:19, 26; 11:26; 13:52; 14:21-22; 20:30; 21:4). A disciple is one who has been converted by Christ’s Spirit and desires to mature in Christ. A disciple is one who is seeking to deny himself, picking up his cross, and following Jesus each day. A disciple of Jesus is one who listens, learns, and follows the Lord Jesus through the Spirit and the Word. A disciple is one who professes and confesses Christ publicly as a member of Christ’s Church.
Primary discipleship occurs through membership in the local church through the means of grace which are the proclamation of the Word of God, administration of the Sacraments, gathering for corporate prayer and formal discipline in submission to ordained elders of the congregation. This is why Jesus links the making disciples of all nations with His authority, baptism, and the teaching ministry of the church (Matt. 28:18-20). Discipleship takes place through preaching, teaching, catechism, confessing and professing the faith publicly, sacraments, prayer, and fellowship in the local church. The primary place where the making of disciples happens is in the local church. In other words, you cannot have a true disciple of Christ who is not also a member of Christ’s visible church (cf. Acts 9:26; Heb. 13:7, 17; 1 John 2:19).
Other opportunities of making disciples can and should take place in families through the heads of households and in times of family worship, as well as in groups within the church gathering for study and edification, like in Bible studies, prayer meetings, and small groups. Making disciples can and should take place one on one in other communities, but involvement in the local church should be the primary goal of being a disciple and of making disciples. We desire to learn and grow as individual Christians, but we learn to be nurtured primarily in the local church.
Our forefather John Calvin in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” (Book IV) explained biblically concerning discipleship in the visible church. In this excellent discipleship manual (which is why the “Institutes” were written), Calvin refers to the visible Church as the “mother of believers” who “conceives” believers by the Spirit and the Word, “nourishes” believers through preaching and sacraments and corporate prayer, and “cares and guides” believers with formal accountability as in a school:
“Let us learn even from the simple title ‘mother’ how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Matt. 22:30). Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives [my emphasis].” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.4).
Are you a member in good standing in the local church? Do you have the privilege of being discipled by pastors and elders as Christ’s means of maturing you in Christ? (Eph. 4:11-16; Acts 20:28-32). If you are being discipled in this way, do you also seek discipleship in fellowship with other Christians as you should? If you are being discipled, have you sought to more formally disciple others in your local congregation, or in another community of which you are a part? You ought to prayerfully ask yourself where you might better and more faithfully serve the Lord Jesus Christ in this way.
Let us seek to make disciples faithfully as our Lord Jesus taught us. Let us seek to make disciples in the way that our Lord Jesus has taught us. An important aspect of making disciples is “…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” (Matt. 28:20a) and surely this includes formal membership and accountability in Christ’s church in both making and being true disciples of Jesus?! Some discipleship programs today, while aiming to faithfully help mature believers in Christ, and to make other disciples, can (and often do!) overlook the important and primary context of discipleship in the local church. One wonders if this is true discipleship. Will this make mature Christians? I do not think so. In a day of intense individualism, making more individualistic Christians through this faulty way of discipleship can hinder the work of God through His Church. Perhaps it already has to some degree?
All Christians are disciples of Jesus. All Christians should seek to be discipled; all Christians should seek to disciple others. One can become a disciple of Christ’s church by being born into the church as a child of a believing parent, baptized in infancy. One can also become a disciple later in life when one becomes a Christian, is baptized in the Name of the Triune God, and formally becomes a confessing member of Christ’s Church. Are you a disciple? Are you seeking to make disciples? Let us pray to the Lord Jesus, the Lord of the Harvest, that we might be more faithful to His call and command.
“And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (ESV Acts 2:46-47).
In Christ’s love,
 The idea of the visible Church being the primary context of discipleship, and the place out of which no salvation (or growth in Christ!) ordinarily takes place is an accepted teaching that goes back at least to the great Augustine (d. 430 AD). Our subordinate standards to the Word of God, the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches this, WCOF, chap. 25.2: “The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” [my emphasis].