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October-November 2013


November 2013

Journey of a Lifetime


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Discussing Discipleship

Discussing Discipleship

by Robert E. Picirilli, with Michelle Orr


"What shall I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What must I do to be saved?"


Both questions seek the same conclusion, but the answers appear to be vastly different. Jesus told the young ruler to give away everything and follow Him (Luke 18:18). Paul told the Philippian jailer to believe in Jesus (Acts 16:30). Does Jesus have a higher standard than Paul? Or is there more to believing in Jesus than what many people think?

Dr. Robert Picirilli grapples with these questions and many others in his recent book, Discipleship: the Expression of Saving Faith. Discipleship is the result of the author’s exhaustive study of the New Testament regarding the topic of salvation and what it means to follow Jesus. This brief interview shares insights about the author’s purpose and process in writing this significant work.


What caused you to write this book?

I am concerned about the problem of sin in the lives of professing believers. We have a problem in our churches and communities. Almost everybody we know claims to be a Christian, and at every funeral the deceased is said to be in a better place. But far too many of these are not living in accord with the revealed will of God. Are they really Christians? Do we use the word Christian too loosely? I decided to study the New Testament again and make notes on every passage that bears light on what one must do to be saved. Perhaps we have made faith something less than it really is.

There seem to be two different “models” in the New Testament for how one is “saved.” The first is traditional, the one taught by Paul: salvation by faith alone. I call this the “transaction model.” But for Jesus, as He is revealed to us in the Synoptic Gospels, there is a “discipleship model.” Salvation rests in answering His call to radical discipleship. The book follows these two models through the New Testament, seeking to understand what saving faith really is.


How do you hope Discipleship will impact readers?

First, I hope it will make us more careful how we use the word Christian, making sure that it represents those who really have committed their lives to Jesus, in faith, as His followers. We must not reduce Christianity to so little that people can “qualify” without living in a godly manner. Mark Dever has said that if we allow people to presume their own conversion without showing evidence of it, we contribute to their “blissful damnation.” I fear that we who preach the gospel are complicit in the ungrounded assurance of salvation that many have.

Second, I hope it will lead each of us to re-examine ourselves in the spirit of 2 Corinthians 13:5. I have looked back on my own commitment to Christ, when I was sure that money and status meant nothing, and I would go wherever He led without hesitation. And I have asked myself if I have gradually taken back some of the control I handed over to Him. We need to evaluate our Christianity in terms of present discipleship.


What discussions do you want this work to spark?

I long to see us discussing at least three things: how we present the gospel, how we administer assurance of salvation, and how we do church.

  • First, we need a revival of evangelism, and it needs to include facing up to the call of Jesus to be a disciple. I am satisfied that a disciple, in the New Testament, is nothing more than a Christian. Then, if we have not brought persons to discipleship, we have not brought them to salvation.

  • Second, we must recognize that we really do administer the assurance of salvation in many ways, including how we receive individuals into our churches, and how we present the demands of the gospel. Assurance needs to be based on the evidence of obedience to God.

  • Third, we need to figure out how to handle church membership in this light and how to practice effective church discipline. Membership in a church ought to signal that we believe the person to be a genuine Christian. A covenant relationship should define expectations. And, when members fail to keep covenant, a previously well-defined form of discipline should kick in, beginning with loving efforts toward restoration and leading to expulsion only after all else has failed.


Why examine the entire New Testament when writing this work?

I did that because the voices that have sounded a note similar to mine have based their conclusions almost entirely on the stance of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. (This includes MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus.) That approach can create tension between Jesus and Paul, for example.

For a complete understanding, we have to examine the whole New Testament—the Synoptic Gospels, John’s Gospel, Paul, James, First John, Hebrews—until we find a synthesis. I found, among other things, that Paul also knows the “discipleship model.” In James and Hebrews, a synthesis appears: obedience to God is the way saving faith expresses itself, not as mere evidence but as something essential to the very nature of faith.


You give a definition of what it means to be a disciple. Explain how “being” a disciple involves leaving, following, and learning.

All of Jesus’ calls to discipleship—and so to salvation—share three basic elements.

  • We have to leave—renounce—anything else that offers a competing claim to set the course of our lives, whether family, mammon, or self.

  • We have to follow Jesus as a new Master, putting the reins in His hands. This includes (as He said on many occasions) taking the cross of our own execution and accompanying Him to death.

  • We have to learn from Him; this verb has the same root as the noun disciple and implies we have enrolled in His school to hear His teachings and to order our lives by them. That’s exactly what the Great Commission said: make disciples by teaching them to observe all the things Jesus commanded.


How does the definition of sin fit into the conversation on discipleship?

To begin with, there is a danger that we may think of discipleship as perfection, and that can lead to either of two kinds of errors. On one hand, it may lead some to claim perfection in order to reassure themselves that they are really Christians. On the other hand, it may lead some, who recognize the basic depravity within them, to doubt their salvation.

What’s important is to have a biblical concept of sin and of the nature of the Christian life. I have included a thorough study of the words for sin and the biblical definitions of sin. This leads us away from glib assertions about how sinless we are, because there are sins of omission and sins of the spirit. At the same time, a study of the little letter called First John enforces the truth that those who are born of God practice righteousness and do not practice disobedience. Bringing these two strands together guides us to realize that true disciples, while not perfect, can be recognized in this way.

This keeps us from giving assurance of salvation to those who are characterized by sinful lifestyles—regardless what name they wear or claim they make.


About the Writer: Dr. Robert E. Picirilli spent his career teaching and in academic administration at Welch College, specializing in the Greek New Testament. He has authored or co-authored books from Moody Press, Thomas Nelson, and Randall House. He also served as president of the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges and moderator of the National Association of Free Will Baptists. Visit to order Discipleship.


©2013 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists